Anthropologist discusses the role of the paranormal – Harvard Gazette
How can anthropologists take the paranormal seriously? It’s a question Jack Hunter has explored for years and addressed in a virtual lecture at Harvard on Tuesday.
The Welsh author and anthropologist, who studies consciousness, religion, ecology and the paranormal, discussed his academic work and his own supernatural experiences with Giovanna Parmigiani, lecturer in religion and cultural anthropology at the Divinity School and specialist in contemporary paganisms. The conversation was sponsored by the Transcendence and Transformation initiative of the Center for the Study of World Religions.
Researchers who study the paranormal have long been keen to take their work out of the realm of mysticism and religion and into the realm of the natural, Hunter said. By using the term “supernormal,” he said, early investigators were acknowledging that while the subject might not be typical, “it’s a normal part of the processes going on in the world.”
Hunter’s interest in the supernatural developed early on. Although he was raised to be a religious skeptic, he was always interested in miracles, saints and relics, he said, and later had “some amazing experiences from me”.
As a student, he was intrigued by what happens when you “treat these experiences seriously”. He found his answer while researching the Bristol Spirit Lodge, a center in Bristol, England, for the development of mediumship. During his first session, he saw “this green mask appear on the medium’s face, slide down and kind of dissipate”. Convinced he was hallucinating, Hunter said nothing. Later, he was shocked when someone else mentioned the same green mask.
In another session, he felt his hand “pushed by an air balloon”.
“My left hand literally started moving; it was almost as if he was waving. And I was in a weird state of mind, where I realized that, you know, I’m not consciously willing for this to move – I don’t know what that means. It really freaked me out.
What Hunter calls his “hand possession experience”, convinced him that there is, at the very least, “an experiential origin to the belief in mediumship”.
“If you take this experience seriously in itself,” he added, “then you also have to consider the other implications that come with it, which may be that our standard models are limited, or that they don’t cover not everything that happens in the world.”
Hunter addressed the issue of forgery among mediums, acknowledging the performative element of the practice. But being able to detect trickery in a shoot, he said, “doesn’t mean everything else is wrong.”
On the question of how to study the paranormal anthropologically, Hunter said his field has an edge over others thanks to its emphasis on context.
“That’s what we need to understand these kinds of complex experiences,” he said. “The moment we start trying to break them down and put them in a laboratory state, take them out of the emotional and lived experience that they naturally take place in, we kind of get away from understanding them.”
Anthropologists, he added, approach phenomena in ways that sociologists or psychologists might avoid. “We are encouraged to actually participate in the rituals,” he said, “in order to understand them.”