Skeptic » eSkeptic » December 30, 2009

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Do depictions of the supernatural on television and in movies lead to belief in pseudoscience and the paranormal? Or, is there something more subtle happening within these shows that we should pay attention to? In this week’s eSkeptic, Jason Colavito tells us why skeptics should embrace the supernatural on television.

Jason Colavito is a freelance writer based in Albany, NY. His most recent book is Knowing Fear: Science, Knowledge, and the Development of the Horror Genre.

Oh, the Horror!
Why Skeptics Should Embrace
the Supernatural on Television

by Jason Colavito

For as long as there have been stories of the supernatural, some who heard them believed that the menacing creatures depicted in them really existed. There have also always been skeptics who doubted the reality of the supernatural monsters. Mythological creatures like satyrs and centaurs were once thought to live in the uncharted forests beyond civilization’s reach. Ghosts have been a continuous presence in humanity’s imaginary lives, and even today fictional creatures like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and space aliens in flying saucers have their die-hard adherents.

These stories were told and retold as non-fiction, but at the end of the Enlightenment a new type of fiction emerged: the tale of supernatural terror. Unlike the purveyors of myths and legends, the authors of these stories knew they were writing fiction. Critics, though, claimed such stories were dangerous, especially for women and children, who may come to believe in superstitious claims. In 1833 one writer claimed:

Those fictious [sic] narratives so commonly told in nurseries, called ghost stories, or other horrible recitals of the same kind, are decidedly injurious under all circumstances. I know that children in the habit of hearing these follies, grow up fearful, and in some measure in want of moral courage; they become more or less superstitious, and lack resolution; a person, however strong in mind naturally, cannot wholly divest himself of the paralyzing effect of these injurious influences inculcated in his youthful days, even when he attains mature age.1

This righteous indignation continues today, with skeptics and scientists arguing that depictions of the supernatural on television and in movies lead to belief in pseudoscience and the paranormal. For example, Skeptic Dictionary editor Robert Todd Carroll attributes the prevalence of the belief that ghosts communicate through tape recorders, radios, and televisions to the 2005 movie White Noise. Science writer Chris Mooney complained that television programs with supernatural themes “shill for religion and the paranormal,” while science journalist Matt Nisbet argued that science fiction and fantasy films “attack reason, sell transcendental fantasies, and undermine appreciation for science and progress.” There is frequent concern for the welfare of children, as when the science communication expert Glenn Sparks reported that supernatural-themed television was especially dangerous for teenagers.2

The horror genre, however, is more than a vehicle for reproducing superstition. A brief examination of the origins and development of the horror genre before World War II demonstrates that supernatural horror transcends simple-minded repudiations of science and is, in fact, a subtle and important critique of science and rationalism, one that skeptics can benefit from by approaching it with an open mind.


Gothic horror is the name usually given to a group of novels and stories composed between 1764 and 1820 that used supernatural elements and spooky settings to generate an atmosphere of terror. The first Gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s 1764 The Castle of Otranto, the story of a usurper whose control of his domain is undone by the appearance of a powerful ghost. Other well-known works of Gothic horror include Ann Radcliffe’s 1794 The Mysteries of Udolpho, Matthew Lewis’s 1796 The Monk, and of course the 1818 classic by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

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These novels, and countless others like them, were products of the Romantic Movement, the great backlash against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Gothic writers turned to the supernatural as a critique of rationalism and an expression of the emotional truths the Romantics sought to explore. However, Gothic horror had a suitably rational basis, provided by the statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke. In his widely read and influential 1756 work A Philosophic Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke had laid down the aesthetic basis for the horror genre, arguing that fear was the quickest and most direct way of experiencing the sublime:

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. … Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terrour be endued with greatness of dimensions or not. … Indeed, terrour is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.3

For writers like Walpole or Lewis, the supernatural was a way of reaching the sublime by purposely employing concepts that could serve no other useful purpose. When critics attacked Lewis’s ghostly 1797 play The Castle Spectre for depicting a ghost where the common folk could see it, Lewis responded with an angry afterward to the published text of the play:

Against my Spectre many objections have been urged: one of them I think rather curious. She ought not to appear, because the belief in Ghosts no longer exists! In my opinion, that is the very reason why she may be produced without danger; for there is now no fear of increasing the influence of superstition, or strengthening the prejudices of the weak-minded.4

In other words, educated audiences knew ghosts are not real, so their use was to represent the irrational and the emotional — to be symbols, and to be fun. Ann Radcliffe took a different path and ended her works with a revelation that the alleged “ghost” in the story was the product of human or natural agency. However, as belief in ghosts and the supernatural became more widespread among the middle and upper classes during the 19th century, horror fiction responded in ways interesting and relevant to skeptics and historians of science.

Skeptics & Believers in Fact & Fiction

During the 19th century, many scholars and critics agreed that belief in ghosts was widespread and something needed to be done about it. In 1823 the publisher Rudolph Ackermann produced a series of didactic short stories under the title Ghost Stories: Collected with Particular View to Counteract the Vulgar Belief in Ghosts and Apparitions, and to Promote a Rational Estimate of the Nature of Phenomena Commonly Considered as Supernatural. These stories revealed natural or human explanations for the ghosts, as Ackermann explained:

The best way to dissipate the inbred horror of supernatural phantoms, which almost all persons derive from nursery tales or other sources of causeless terror in early life, is to show by example how possible it is to impress upon ignorant or credulous persons the firm belief that they behold a ghost, when in point of fact no ghost is there.5

Two decades later, Catherine Crowe’s 1848 The Night-Side of Nature did just the reverse, presenting ghost stories of dubious quality as true-life accounts of the supernatural. The book is frequently credited with helping spark the rage for Spiritualism, the belief that the shades of the dead can be contacted by mediums who communicate with the spirit realm. Scientists and believers clashed over the reality of the supernatural, and the debate extended into horror fiction.

One of the earliest examples of this was Sir Walter Scott’s 1828 “The Tapestried Chamber,” which became the template for the Victorian ghost story. In it, a “complete sceptic” puts up a soldier in a haunted room, where the soldier experiences an apparition of the ghost, converting the skeptic to belief in the supernatural when faced with this evidence.

From this story forward, few ghost stories, or horror stories of any kind, would be complete without the requisite skeptic who stood by, ready for conversion, or what the satirical magazine Punch once called the “the Inquiring, Sceptical, Incredulous Noodle” who “must never be absent from the dramatis personæ” of the horror story.6 Such Noodles could be found everywhere: in Fitz-James O’Brien’s 1859 “What Was It?,” Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, in Robert Hichens’s 1900 “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” and in the scientist-scholar heroes of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and H. P. Lovecraft.

Though it goes without saying that in these tales of horror the skeptic is confronted with supernatural or other entities that extend beyond the limits of known science, it is not a foregone conclusion that these stories promote belief in the supernatural, as a cursory reading might suggest. Instead, there is something more subtle happening here, as a few examples will show.

In many stories, the character of the skeptic represents close-minded dogmatism rather than true scientific inquiry, the truth of which is taken for granted. In Dracula, Dr. John Seward is a man of science, but he is powerless before the forces of the title vampire because his materialist philosophy has blinded him to the evidence of the reality of the supernatural. By contrast, his mentor, Prof. Abraham Van Helsing, pursues the evidence where it leads, even into the darkened corners of the apparent supernatural. Far from repudiating science, Dracula supports the workings of science as Van Helsing struggles to understand the new phenomenon (the vampire), test theories, and reach conclusions. Only this non-dogmatic, open science can stop the vampire menace via free inquiry and experimentation.

Similarly, in “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” the skeptical scientist Guildea comes to embrace the supernatural — but not because he has been indoctrinated by Spiritualist true-believers. The story tells of a man of science besieged by an unseen entity that drives him to madness and death. His belief in the ghost, though, stems from scientific observation of one living in his own house, the reality of which he proves by ruling out all possible naturalistic explanations. Here, though, the story’s author, Robert Hichens, offers a special critique of science. While Guildea is a rational, emotionless scientist, the ghost is that of a mentally-impaired individual, devoid of reason and possessed only of emotion. In other words, symbolically Victorian science was being haunted by the Romantic irrational.

The scientist-scholars found in H. P. Lovecraft’s body of short stories and novellas (the so-called “Cthulhu Mythos”) represent the apex of the horror story’s battle between skeptic and believer. In Lovecraft, skeptics doubt the existence of the “Old Ones,” titanic, monstrous gods from prehistory which devoted cults still worship in secret. The heroes dismiss the old legends as ignorant hearsay and myth, but they discover the ultimate reality of these beings, which are in fact extraterrestrials who came to earth billions of years ago, part and parcel of a materialist, mindless cosmos both grander and more indifferent to humanity than anyone could imagine. Once again, the implicit critique of science is not opposition to its methods but to the perception of science as dogmatism and doctrine.


Of course, a great deal of supernatural fiction is and has always been hackwork, but as I have tried to show, a significant portion of it offers a critique (not a repudiation) of science. Once seen in this light, horror literature takes on new meanings for skeptics and scientists. The message is not always what we skeptics want to hear, but we would do well to actively engage in a deeper reading of the themes and symbols present in supernatural fiction before attacking it for “injurious influences” on its audience.

  1. Rendle, W. 1833. “On the Moral Education of Youth.” The Imperial Magazine, May, 219.
  2. Carroll, Robert Todd. 2007. “Electronic Voice Phenomenon.” Skeptic’s Dictionary. Online article:;

    Mooney, Chris 2005. “Less Than Miraculous,” CSICOP Online, May 25. Online article:;

    Nisbet, Matt. 1999. “The Phantom Menace of Superstition in Film and Television,” SI Digest, May 27. Online article:;

    “Professor: TV Shows May Tune Our Belief in the Supernatural.” 2005. AScribe Newswire, September 6. Online article:

  3. Burke, Edmund. 1834. The Works of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke. vol. 1. London: Holdsworth and Ball, 38.
  4. Lewis, Matthew Gregory. 2000. “Postscript to The Castle Spectre.” In Clery, E. J. and Miles, Robert (eds.), Gothic Documents: A Sourcebook 1700–1820. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 198.
  5. Ackermann, Rudolph. 1846. Ghost Stories: Collected with Particular View to Counteract the Vulgar Belief in Ghosts and Apparitions. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 6.
  6. B. W., Baron de. 1897. “Our Booking Office.” Punch, June 26, 327.


  1. John M. Dlugosz says:

    The article confuses me. It starts out by implying and then discussing woo-woo TV, like the junk I see on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, etc. But then it sort of slides into saying that Horror (supernatural) FICTION is just fine.

    Well, my problem isn’t with fiction. It’s with nonsense presented as fact. I think the article pulls a bait&switch, making you think it is going to be about the latter being something to embrace.


    • Christine Brean says:

      As an Atheist and Skeptic, I felt very guilty liking 3 TV programs (“Dexter” and “Six Feet Under” with their ghostly Dads giving them advise) and “Medium” with her dreams that come true and an occasional ghost to talk to. Just hearing the words “It’s okay” in this edition of Sketpic makes me feel much less guilty. I don’t have to believe them to enjoy them.

  2. Ann Worth says:

    In addition to John’s perceptive comments, I would like to add that the author is pleased to see science chastised for a fault (dogmatism) that it does not have.

    While any individual scientist might be a hide-bound stubborn old reactionary holding fast to a defunct cause, science itself is designed to streamline the investigation of mew phenomena with the utmost vigor. If the old guy won’t budge from his position, there are thousands of others who are thrilled to find something new to investigate.

    It isn’t science that needs to have its dogmatism rebuked — it is the unsupported belief in the irrational and supernatural that is dogmatic.

  3. John B Hodges says:

    I think the author is taking too broad a brush, making a sweeping conclusion that should be made more narrowly. Certainly there are ways that the supernatural can appear in stories without thereby encouraging belief in the supernatural. There are also ways it can appear that patently DO encourage such belief. You have to look at each story and ask what it is saying.

    For example, a recent movie was KNOWING starring Nicholas Cage. The movie ends with a naturalistic version of armageddon, with benevolent aliens saving a number of children, taking them to another planet when the Earth is destroyed. But really, the central topic of the film is “how do you know what’s really going on, what to believe?” The film’s answer is, DON’T listen to those ‘scientists’, they don’t know. Listen to the voices in your head. If you don’t hear any voices in your head, find someone who does and listen to them. The film portrayed an entirely naturalistic, even strictly deterministic, universe, that happened to be accurately described by Biblical prophecy; the voices in your head, if you hear them, really come from telepathic aliens who KNOW. Despite portraying an all-natural universe, this was definitely an anti-science movie.

  4. Youssef51 says:

    Science is not dogmatic. Scientists can centainly be dogmatic.

    Anyone who has never met a single dogmatic scientist hasn’t met a lot of scientists.

    Good essay.

  5. Loughlin Tatem says:

    There is a place for dogmatism in science.Science must certainly be dogmatic about lacking evidence supporting existing gods,ghosts,angels,witches or human souls.When there is no evidence that such beings exist it is irrational to conclude dogmatically that they do.Until there is an unscientific method, in a scientifically functioning world, to arrive at evidence that such beings exist, scientific dogmatism has its place.

  6. Loughlin Tatem says:

    When we are able to use Biblical teachings to find cures for cancer,develop medicine for fighting AIDS,putting man into space or curing debilitating diseases that affect little children; all things that Science has proven capable of doing,then I will believe in god and the Bible over science and skepticism.

  7. Dionigi says:

    The problem is that psuedoscience and the paranormal gives answers that are probable to most people from their impression of the worls around them. People do not see any reason to research what they are told, whether it is scientifically based or not, they accept the information given. Sceptics are people who have learned not to accept anything at face value but even sceptics can be led astray if they do not do sufficient resarch. The people who popularise science and try to educate people do a brilliant job but their work is mainly read by interested paties not the common herd. The problem with tv programmes is that they are treated as experts on everything they say. I know lots of people who believe everything they see on tv, whether it is the news, history channel or someone telling them they can talk to ghosts or been rectally probed by aliens or had lunch with the abominable snowman.
    This is the great problem with tv and the number of stories told where real experts are misquoted or the video is altered to slant or spin the information is very disturbing.

  8. Juju says:

    Colavito makes some excellent points about the uses of supernatural fiction. But much of the supernatural-based drivel on TV these days presents itself as truth, not fiction. And that IS a problem in that it does encourage belief in the supernatural among the credulous.

    We must also acknowledge that supernatural fiction in general, including fictional TV and movies, is a response to other things going on in their culture. So, for example, TV and movie producers create programs that they know will sell, because in the general populace there’s a fascination with the supernatural and a corresponding unwillingness to doubt or ask questions–or maybe just laziness. In the 19th century, the reading public clamored for supernatural tales just as the popular movement of spiritualism gained momentum, at least partially in response to that century’s scientific discoveries that shook people’s traditional religious beliefs.

    As SKEPTIC advocates, education is key. I teach classes in rhetoric and literature, and as my students tell me, I’m always harping on the important notion that supernatural fiction (poetry, drama, film) is not created in a vacuum, but is a response to something else going on in the culture. That’s what we need to pay attention to–not trying to rid the world of supernatural texts, but to understand where the fascination with them comes from and deal with that source.

    Another issue that I see when I encourage skeptical habits in the students I teach is that some students reason that supernatural fictions must be based on some kind of truth because otherwise, how would the authors come up with these stories. That is, some students see human imagination as limited to what is really seen and experienced, and have no sense of people’s ability to make up things that never happened. This is another misunderstanding that I deal with in my classes.

    Anyway, that’s just my two cents. This is a fascinating and important issue, and Colavito–and we–have only scratched the surface.

  9. martineden says:

    Excellent piece harkening back to studies such as Bruno Bettleheim’s, “Uses of Enchantment,” which points out how fairy tales aid in the development of a child’s psyche by mirroring symbolically what is actually going on in the child’s mind.

    Horror and fantasy are respected literary genres, and almost always used symbolically to criticize or satirize various aspect of society, politics, whatever.

    Judging by the comments, Colavito should have taken greater care delineating the difference between literary horror, the nonsense that tries to pass as fact on television and movies, and hack horror writers. His discussion does, however, deal only with legitimate writers such as Lovecraft and Shelley, and therefore readers familiar with literature should have understood what he was talking about.

  10. E Rowan says:

    Jason, this is a thoughtful and entertaining read — thanks!

    The ghost genre will not disappear because it is too beloved… as it was by me growing up. I’d forgotten some of the titles you mentioned which I read as a child, e.g. “Castle of Otranto,” and they brought a thrill of pleasure. I adored cowering under the covers reading of the unspeakable Cthulhu! The film The Sixth Sense was thrillingly haunting.

    This began for me as a child with a deep fascination with fairy tales and myths… which led to mysteries, fantasy and science fiction… which led to science. There’s a connection of the imagination there for many budding scientists that we don’t want to sever.

    Yet I’ve grown into a bit of a Scrooge about such things, as if wanting to deprive future generations of such delicious pleasures. Thanks for the nudge.

    And such an interesting point, that the true skeptic, such as van Helsing in Dracula, and the true dogmatist, may be less obvious than we think. Our culture critiques should be on the lookout for this, and look for creative ways to use this genre to teach “following the evidence.”

    @Youssef51: Yep.

    (Jason, do try to get the essay title fixed — it’s causing problems out here. It erroneously refers to TV, when the essay is on literature and film. TV is more dangerous in pushing ghost woo with its greater blurring of fact and fiction).

  11. Don Baer says:

    What to (or not to) believe?

    By nature I am cynical and skeptical; I hover between agnostisim and atheism; BUT I am also openly minded curious (which gets me into a lot of trouble). And I am a retired college instructor.

    As an Air Force officer in 1968, I was assigned as a casualty officer in Myrtle Beach, SC. Casualty officers notify next of kin when an Air Force member dies or is killed (remember Vietnam?). The Air Force had and still has a very strict rule for notifying survivors – ALWAYS DO SO IN PERSON.

    Late one afternoon, we recieved a message from Vietnam that a pilot had been shot down over North Vietnam, and I, along with the Base Chaplain, was tasked to inform his wife and other next of kin who lived some 40 miles south of Myrtle Beach. Upon arriving at the home (a remote farm house) early the following morning, we saw a young lady sitting on the porch. As we walked to the house (we were in uniform, of course), the lady met us, and after identifying herself as his wife, stated “He’s dead isn’t he?”. That took both the Chaplain and I off guard, because we feared that she had been informed of the death by someone else. Shortly after confirming her fears, her minister and other family members arrived. She had already told them that her husband was dead.

    After some discussion I quietly asked her who had informed her of her husband’s death. Her response was “He did” I was really confused at this point and asked her how that had happened. “He visited me last night” she said, “and stood at the foot of my bed. When I awoke, he looked at me, smiled, and said ‘Goodby’. He disappeared, and I’ve been up ever since.” I asked what time this had happened. She told me, and after completing our official business, the Chaplain and I returned to Myrtle Beach. I took a closer look at the message we had recieved from Vietnam, and the time of the pilot’s death, after adjusting for the difference in time, was within a few minutes from the time that his widow had told me that she saw him.

    Coincidence, or something more? I don’t know, but I certainly wish that I did.

    Don Baer

  12. E Rowan says:

    Off topic, but…

    Don, allow me to respectfully suggest the following. Military spouses are frequently, perhaps constantly, dreaming of their spouses’ deaths, often disturbing sleep.

    After the fact, a previous mention of these fears to family members can easily be re-read as “informing” family members.

    And it would be more surprising if two military staff walking up to a military household DIDN’T trigger some variation of the sentence, “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

    Such a convergence of events as you describe is almost inevitable among the thousands of deaths, and requires no supernatural explanation. As for your question, what to believe? Your question doesn’t need to be entirely rhetorical, because we do know some things. We know that the simplest solution is usually the correct solution. Making your task, and your memory of it, no less poignant, I hope.

  13. Paula S says:

    I agree with E Rowan that tales of the supernatural can be a thrilling pastime and a spur to the imagination. No doubt Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has sparked an interest in science in the minds of countless junior skeptics.
    The problem is that most people do not think skeptically, or even critically, and I doubt if very many at all read as deeply as the author of this essay expects them to in order to uncover the nearly hidden symbolic meanings in books. Most people believe everything they read, the more supernatural the better, which is why the Bible, the Koran, and The Amityville Horror are such popular books. And if they see it on TV, then seeing is believing.
    Don’t get me wrong; I love a good scary story . . . but then I can take it with a grain of salt and still live a rational life because I am a skeptic. I don’t “embrace” the supernatural on television because most of it is crap, and it encourages the general public to believe in supernatural claptrap rather than to think skeptically, to think critically, or to think at all. I’d rather that the believers of ghost stories and religious fairy tales didn’t outnumber the rational thinkers among us because soon they’ll think it’s okay to inflict their ridiculous beliefs on EVERYONE.
    Oops! They already do.

  14. Noland Carter says:

    I am just a simple guy anf do not claim to have all the answers, but what this article on Colavio’s book represents to me is intellectual claptrap. For someone to possibly think that one will do away with ignorance and superstition by eradicating ghost stories, and from TV yet, is stretching it to the max. Let’s get rid of Casper the friendly ghost, or hot stuff the little devil in comic books. Lets get rid of all fairy tales and myths so we can have an enlightened populace. That is pretty much of what Colavito is trying to convey. I would have been impressed with his references if they included some kind of scientific abstract or academic journals containing studies or experiments to back up his claim. Dionigi brings up the very fact that people believe anything that they see on TV. Don Baer brings up that there are things and events out there in the world that happen that are beyond scientific explanations. E Rowan reminds us of the magical wonder that overwhelms our imagination when told of these fables, such as Alladin and his magic lamp. What I am showing here is that the majority of people who responded to this article disagree with Colavito one way or another. What I cannot believe is that Colavito’s book got published and paid for with his useless recommendations on eradicating superstitous fear.

    • martineden says:

      Apparently you read a different article as Colavito is arguing against people who want to eradicate spooky tales.

  15. E Rowan says:

    Noland, umm… Jason advocates embracing, not eradicating, ghost stories, within reason. And my comment agreed with his essay, not disagreed.

  16. kurt says:

    Nolan @ 15:

    Did you READ the article?

    And what is “Colavio’s book” anyway? I didn’t see any reference to a book by him anywhere.


  17. kurt says:

    Oh, I see the plug for his book in the header.

    Still, “his book” bears no resemblance to what you are ranting about.

  18. jefndenver says:

    So I guess I don’t have to feel guilty about watching the TV show “Medium.” I don’t believe a bit of it, but it sure is interesting.

    • Scott says:

      I personally would still feel guilty about watching the show “Medium” mainly because of the fact that it is supposedly based off of a real “psychic” who goes around trying to tell police departments that she can help solve their cases. This show helps to promote her books and lectures, which she makes big money off of.

  19. KenC says:

    The article seems to imply that such stories are good in that they desensitize the reader/viewer against those who claim their stories are real? Well, it isn’t working very well when only 1/3 of college students don’t believe in haunted houses.

  20. John Renish says:

    “For example, Skeptic Dictionary editor Robert Todd Carroll attributes the prevalence of the belief that ghosts communicate through tape recorders, radios, and televisions to the 2005 movie White Noise.”

    Bob Carroll is the _author_ of The Skeptic’s Dictionary; I am the editor and agree strongly with him on this matter. We must discriminate between harmless entertainments like _Frankenstein_ and cruel exploitations like _Psychic Kids_ or free advertising for delusional psychics/frauds like Alison DuBois and John Edward. KenC at 20 provides data that should give us all pause.

  21. artzau says:

    Curious set of responses here from skeptics and self-confessed wannabe skeptics.

    Colavito has made some good points here and some of the readers, alas, have not seen fit to appreciate them. While I might quibble with Jason’s historical perspective about the Romantics rebelling against the emergence of naturalistic thinking during the early enlightenment, it’s true that many saw the early empiricists as attacking aesthetics but recall, Shelley who was an archduke of the Romantic period wrote extensively on being an atheist.

    The other point Sr. Colavito makes is that the horror genre is part of our mythic tradition, a point I would have liked to have seen him develop further. As an anthropologist and linguist interested in the relationship between linguistic, mythic and brain structure, the gothic tradition plays an important role in our literature, music and visual art. Colavito’s appeal for looking at this genre with the same reasoning we use to we assess other issues makes sense to me. Nowhere did I see him declare that there is not a lot of crap out there and not everything produced commercially is good.

    Look gang. We skeptics have a hard row to hoe. Kids of mystics, religionists and true believers are going to be raised with that tripe. Some will find out for themselves that it’s all so much fiction. Most won’t. The children of skeptics have a better chance to develop critical thinking skills and most will. But, the bitter fact is that the True Believers are out producing us skeptics and that leaves us with a decided Darwinian disadvantage. Sr. Jason Colavito is advocating looking at a genre that has been marginalized with an open mind. What’s wrong with that?

  22. Bob Carroll says:

    Colavito says that I “attributes the prevalence of the belief that ghosts communicate through tape recorders, radios, and televisions to the 2005 movie White Noise.” That’s ridiculous. Follow the link to the article he cites ( and see what I actually say. It bears little resemblance to what Colovatio writes.

    • martineden says:

      Got to admit it is not what you said.

      Apropos of nothing, when I was a kid I used to turn my transistor radio to the end of the dial at night and listen to a train rolling through the night. It was great for producing cool images, but I never actually believed I was listening to a train.

  23. Bob cotton says:

    Very interesting piece, worth taking seriously.

    If only Skeptic Magazine would be as broad-minded in its choice of subject matter. I would like to see more skepticism regarding mainstream science. In particular, modern medicine, in my experience, covers the whole spectrum from the sublime to the ridiculous. It has been my good fortune not to require the sublime parts as yet, but I have experienced a few of the ridiculous ones. Skepticism has helped me to avoid counter-productive treatment.

    • martineden says:

      True. They are always wailing on alternative medicine but never on all the unneeded expensive tests,and the dangerous addictive, and often useless drugs that are the bread and butter of mainstream medicine.

      One might infer from this imbalance, some alleged skeptics are on the payroll of the pharmaceutical industry and the AMA.

  24. AUJT says:

    A&E’s Paranormal State and Psychic Kids are billed as “real-life-drama”. They are nothing more than advertisements for psychics and religion as Paranormal State has aired at least two “real-life” exorcisms. They regularly feature demons and one (Belial) even stalks the lead “investigator”, Ryan Buell (Buell is the “director” of the Paranormal Research Society and had originally implied that they were backed by Penn State when in fact they were simply a club there). Their website is full of people reinforcing and perpetuating the delusion.

    They are selling snake oil and I take extreme exception to that. Every reasonable critical thinking person should be deeply offended by what they are doing IMHO. They are ripping people off on a number of levels.

  25. Mervyn says:

    In my three-quarters of a century of observing the church, I early agreed, and have never reconsidered, that it was the ideal place for a second son of the upper classes to live in relative comfort, with little work to do and as a bonus they would not be expected to take up a sword and actually fight as would their elder brother. Neat. As Pope Leo X is reported to have said: “It has served us well, this myth of Christ.”

    On the flip side of this, I’m not truly an unbeliever. I call myself a spiritual agnostic. I believe there is something beyond this plane that we do not yet understand, but I’m not arrogant enough to say I know what it is. As a widowed self-described sexy senior citizen, I keep praying for an alluring succubus to visit me on occasion, but to date my prayers have not been answered, so perhaps I am wrong after all. A good friend died just before Christmas. He was declared terminal the day he was admitted to hospital and died eight days later. On about the fourth day, he told me religious people had been in to see him to “sign me up at the last minute. I pretended to be asleep.” Right on, buddy.

  26. Rob Jase says:

    Agreed. Let’s remember that Lovecraft’s protagonist in ‘The Mountains of Madness’ refers to the alien Elder Things as scientists.

  27. Mat says:

    It would be interesting to know if there was any study evidence. Christians (I am one) believe we all worship something (consciously or not) and that Christianity is a good antidote to superstition. I know that is ironic considering we are Christians but laugh away :)

    I believe that atheists are prone to superstition over long durations. It is so hard to not believe in something that they end up falling for anything and many other things besides.

  28. David says:


    As an athiest I have to ask, Do you have any examples to support your claim:

    “I believe that atheists are prone to superstition over long durations. It is so hard to not believe in something that they end up falling for anything and many other things besides.”

  29. Jonathan says:

    I finished reading Dracula just recently, and a few things

    John Seward wasn’t hampered by his disbelief, nor was he dogmatic. He returned with Van Helsing on multiple excursions into the graveyard to let Van Helsing prove his ideas, even though he was unconvinced the first time around. Is that the behavior of a dogmatist?

    Also the book doesn’t really go into Van Helsing’s path of believing based on evidence; he at one point mentions in passing that he doubted at first and was convinced by evidence but no detail or attention is giving. He also mentions a couple times that the superstitions about vampire weaknesses may not be true, but superstition is all they have to go on, but I don’t think it had the vibe of “inquiry and testing theories” as “relying on any ideas they could and hoping they worked”. And all of them did work. It would’ve been better for this article’s case if some of the superstitions proved false and others true. But with every superstition proving valid and their potential faultiness just mentioned in passing once or twice, a better case could be made that it sends the message superstitions can be faithfully relied upon than what the author’s trying to get it.

    Not to mention, Van Helsing himself describes “science” as “it wants to explain all, and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain”, which is silly, as we can all think of mysteries, not even related to the paranormal or religious, that science freely admits ignorance to, such as the exact navigation method of pigeons.

    That said, I’m not faulting Stoker for his portrayal of superstitions as valid, since it is fiction and that’s what fiction is supposed to do. It was a novel worth a read, and I enjoyed it. I just don’t think what the author of this article saw in it is really there.

    Though I do agree that supernatural fiction can promote skepticism. In fact I credit my own skepticism in part to TV shows in the style of the Twilight Zone. The style I am speaking of is one that gnaws at one of the fundamental biases in pseudoscience; the attribution of strange events to sentient minds. In the Twilight Zone, bizarre things often occur not because they were planned by special supernatural creature. They happen “naturally”. In the episode “Mind over the Matter” psychic powers are gained and lost by sheer probability and natural forces in the universe, just as a coin lands on its edge. Often things happen and the show doesn’t succumb to the need to have them be perfectly explained or caused by some being. Some episodes are blatantly pro-reason such as the classic “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” as well as one of my favorites; “The Nick of Time”, in which a man is roped into depending on a fortune telling machine until his wife finally persuades him that only he is in charge of his destiny.

    As for some skeptics feeling guilty about enjoying supernatural fiction, I think the most hardcore skeptics and atheists should feel free to enjoy and even be scared by The Exorcist. If supernatural fiction encourages supernatural belief, that’s more the fault of the viewers than the writers. People need to understand; we put things in fiction because said things are the we like to view the world; they are portrayals of our fantasies, our hopes and our fears. When something appears in fiction; it’s put there exactly because it can’t be found in reality. So sit back all, suspend disbelief and enjoy.

    As for pseudo-documentaries that try to pass off the supernatural as objective recordings of factual events, they are a different story altogether.

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