Sunday, November 20, 2016

Flash in the Pan

Written by George Stadalski on ‎Friday, ‎November ‎17, ‎2015

I wanted to talk a little about the rapid increase in the number of ghost hunting groups that came into existence in the early 2000s.  I am always researching different topics in the paranormal and I like to find the scientific background of the different ideas and concepts that we are using to further our research.  I am always looking for references to the concepts of tracking manifestation by identifying cold spots and fluctuations in the electro-magnetic field.  These ideas, we need to understand that they are not theories, had to come from somewhere and I am always searching the internet for their origins.  When researching these concepts I like to start at the process itself. To learn the history of a thing, we start at the current use of a thing.  Often I will remember something I read on a website that I looked at only a few months ago and when I go to look at it again, the website is gone. I will try to contact a person that I had spoken to months prior and they are no longer investigating with such and such group. They left that group and had moved on to another organization, which they also left and are with So and So Paranormal Research now.  I am amazed at the speed at which people change affiliations in this business.
So, I started preparing for this article as I like to do with a quick round of etymological research on the phrase "flash in the pan".  I had heard it was from the Gold Rush days when prospectors, excited about seeing something shiny in their pan would be disappointed upon discovering that it was not actually gold, but this material, also known as fool’s gold.  I had been led to believe that it was a term from 1930s Hollywood, referring to the flash bulbs that were used to photograph the movie stars.  Just years prior, they were still using a flash powder in a hand held tray.  Supposedly the photographers would refer to a star that they felt would be short lived as a "flash in the pan".  It sounded good, and it was from a trusted source, so I held that belief for years.
What I found out was even more interesting, the phrase was coined in 1706, according to  It referred to the flash pan of a flintlock musket. The flash pan was filled with finely ground gunpowder, ignited and then the hammer would fall, sending the resulting sparks through the touch hole at the main charge.  Sometimes the gun would fail to fire, and the sparks would simply "flash in the pan".  So the phrase became synonymous with "a sudden spasmodic effort that accomplishes nothing" or "one that appears promising but turns out to be disappointing or worthless"
Sudden spasmodic effort seems to be the exact term that describes the efforts most paranormal investigation teams.  There is a huge showing at first with a website awash in tomb stones and ravens, a mission statement longer than most feature length articles and all sorts of information about the scientific techniques that they will use to contact the spirits in your home.  Most have the ubiquitous page on demonology, a section dedicated to the terminology of the trade (which is different on almost every site) and a portion dedicated to the team’s medium or “sensitive” that explains why they are so valuable to the team.  Don’t forget the list of all the expensive and almost entirely useless gadgets that the team went out and bought the day before the website was published.
On a short rabbit trail, I think it also needs to be said that the people that are involved in this hobby did not all get together and vote the folks that have television shows to be the mouthpieces for the genre.  Two plumbers from Rhode Island were in the right place at the right time and the Ghost Adventures Crew were production students that happened to be the best of the imitators.  I wish them all nothing but the best in life, but not everyone involved in this field of study is comfortable with these people representing the group as a whole.
Around the turn of this century, the crossover from an average joe to a paranormal expert became incredibly easy.  All it took was to watch half a season of Ghost Hunters or Ghost Adventures and you have all the training that you needed and you have chosen your approach based on your show of choice.   You had semi-professional “scientifical” investigation or the younger high-energy, extreme, in-your-face approach.  But either way you were simply regurgitating what you had seen on the show.

“Across cultures, those whose natural voices have been suppressed have found speaking for the dead a powerful political tool because it derives authority ‘from direct individual spiritual contact or experience rather than from office, position, or training’ (Braude 1989:6; Emmons 2003:57).” - Nartonis,  David K., The Rise of 19th-Century American Spiritualism, 1854–1873, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2010) 49(2):361–373

The Spiritualist Movement was filled with mediums and mystics that put themselves into positions as spiritual leaders, not by training for years and studying sacred texts, but by tapping straight into the source of the spiritual world.  What makes it even better is that now, thanks to the advent of digital technology; we have the equipment and tools that supposedly allow everyday, average, normal people to communicate with spirits and ghosts too.  
You can go from an underappreciated cog in the machine to an expert on the evening news in a heartbeat.  And who doesn't like to be seen as an expert?  That means you know more about the topic at hand than everyone in the room.  And the room, being virtual, expands across your local region into the living rooms of all the folks watching the news that evening or clicking on the link you posted to Facebook and Twitter (C’mon, we all do it).
The best part is that since you did not invest any real effort into earning your title as a paranormal expert, it is very easy to walk away from your current affiliations when you no longer receive the payout you need from whichever step of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that you are currently on.  In the next few months I plan to look into the causes of this trend in the paranormal field. The consistency of the inconsistency in this field is worth a deeper look.
I find that the similarities between the current craze in the field of paranormal investigation and the American Spiritualist Movement that existed between the 1840s and the 1920s to be astounding.  While I encourage everyone with and interest in the field to get out there and investigate, I also caution those that have real interest in the study about who they choose as mentors.  I will end with a quote.

“Spiritualism lost its credibility as a source of consolation because of increasingly blatant performances by Spiritualists and discoveries of fraud discredited the idea of contact with the dead (Nelson 1969:82).”- Nartonis,  David K., The Rise of 19th-Century American Spiritualism, 1854–1873, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (2010) 49(2):361–373

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