This article is taken from Les Indispensables de Sciences et Avenir #210 July/September 2022.
Could the paranormal be a means of re-glamorizing an existence no longer fueled by religious sentiment? When you shudder at a poltergeist, indulge in divination, or watch a UFO, the spiritual life is freed from the ordered framework of rationality that does not satisfy anxiety.
The unbeliever looks at these manifestations with disappointment: a courageous description of being does without supernatural entities! But according to psychiatrist Patrick Clairvoye, the paranormal isn’t marginal: “They’re part of how we think about everyday life.” In fact, a 2019 Yougov study shows that a third of French people believe in spirits and that a quarter have experienced the paranormal. No need to deny these phenomena, says Patrick Clairvois: “All cultures and civilizations have tried to understand them. We perceive the presence of our dead, as old as the world!” The path to this understanding is to determine what these phenomena mobilize both at the level of the psyche and at the level of the body and group life.
Human silhouette or shadow play
Human societies have always maintained contact with the dead. We refuse to see in the lying body the end of all existence. The memory of our dead supports the form of afterlife and can trigger disturbing resurrections triggered by a moment of intense emotion or suffering. Our personality in its affective and intellectual dimension is sometimes so imbued with the attitude towards the deceased that hallucinatory flashes occur during which we lose contact with reality: we perceive the deceased. Thus, Freud understood the ghost as a hallucinatory psychosis of desire, a denial of loss. In the words of Patrick Clairvoye, “These events are sometimes beneficial” because they provide comfort to the mourners.
But signals from the dead can also be depressing: this is the phenomenon of an obsessive thought. How to explain it? At the cognitive level, the brain is constantly creating meaning by assimilating perception into familiar forms. This process, called pareidolia, will cause you to perceive a voice or human silhouette from noise or simple shadow play. The states of consciousness that occur during sleep (so-called hypnagogic) and upon awakening (hypnopompic) also contribute to strange manifestations.
According to a 2003 British study, differences in magnetic field and light levels in a given location can also create a sense of presence. Infrasound, inaudible to the human ear, can cause a feeling of fear, even horror or panic. Similarly, if visitors are invited to enter a haunted place, more of them will report paranormal activity.
These incidents of persecution are also rooted in obscure personal and family histories driven by strict secrecy, incest, or crime. Then the house can become haunted: the sound of footsteps in the corridor, the opening of the door, the turning on of the TV, the passing shadow… The haunted person projects a painful past into these manifestations. “In my therapeutic work, I invite the patient to talk to his ghost, imagining him sitting in a nearby chair,” says Patrick Clervoy. During some of these ghostly conversations, the doctor senses that something is happening in the room!
A star is approaching Earth, causing fear
Paranormal manifestations can also be collective, and all the more disturbing because the supporting evidence lends credibility to them. In the Portuguese village of Fatima in July 1917, Our Lady promised three young shepherds to perform a miracle on October 13th. That day, tens of thousands of people were waiting, when suddenly a cry went through the crowd: The sun is moving! The star sent out colored beams, then approached Earth, causing fear, before returning to its place in the sky.
This dance of the Sun could be explained by an afterimage of a star, or a combination of meteorological phenomena: a lens-shaped mass of air swirling and charged with ice crystals that refract sunlight. But this collective manifestation can also be explained by a powerful empathic phenomenon within the crowd, emotions and ideas transmitted between people. Spontaneous conformism will operate here. Patrick Clairvoy explains: “When the group I’m immersed in perceives something, I get this emotional dictation.” A person can be won over by fervor, by a strong sense of community. According to the psychiatrist, “Being together stimulates the ardor and activates our spiritual inclinations.” Including in atheistic meetings, such as Masonic ones.
Significant increase in exorcism requests
More generally, the paranormal responds to general spiritual expectations. Look at this epidemic of flying saucers in the United States in the 1950s, which the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung explained as the need to capture events in a sky devoid of divine manifestations.
As far as demonic possession is concerned, it is not an obsolete belief. The church notes the rise in requests for exorcisms, which is 1500 per year for the Paris region alone! For the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Alberto Velasco, who collaborated for thirteen years with the exorcist priest Maurice Bello, the devil is the embodiment of abstract desire: “He challenges the subject, saying to him: your desire, about which you do not want to know anything, I reveal it to you.”
In fact, the demon stands at the crossroads of behavior and thoughts that are considered deviant, especially sexual. The body of the possessed, animated by convulsions, expresses pleasure. In Loudun, where in September 1632 the fourteen sisters of the Ursuline convent were infused, running half-naked on the rooftops, the abbess Jeanne de Ange described her convulsions as follows: other unusual things he did in my body.
The possessed body would also have Herculean powers. Nothing supernatural, the psychiatrist explains: under the action of an impulse, the body deploys a huge force. As for instances of levitation, a sign of possession, such as speaking an unknown language or knowing things from a distance, Father Maurice Bello never saw one! For Alberto Velasco, “the devil exists, he speaks the truth: the truth of the unconscious”, the truth that holds the soul and animates the body.