Ask the Experts: Rich Robbins on ghosts, hauntings
October 28, 2010
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Rich Robbins, a certified parapsychologist and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, talks about the paranormal and failed ghost hunts. || Robbins will give a related talk on Oct. 28.
Q: You're a certified parapsychologist. What does that mean and how did you become interested in studying ghosts and the paranormal?
A: I grew up in Bloomsburg in an old house where strange things happened. The house was across the street from the cemetery where, according to folklore, way back before my parents had the house there was a grave robber stealing jewelry from corpses. Somebody saw him and called the police and the guy ran into our house. Instead of giving himself up to the police, he hanged himself in the basement.
We named the ghost George. We would talk to George, and when something happened, we'd say "George, stop that." We found out later that one of the worst things we could do (if there are such things as ghosts) is to name them and to make them feel welcome, because then they don't want to leave.
There were other things: We'd be in the living room and hear the kitchen cupboard doors open and close, then we'd go out and there'd be nobody there. Our family would leave the house and come home to find our dining table chairs, which were pushed under the table, out as if somebody had pulled them away from the table. But the doors were locked and nothing was missing.
My brother claimed to hear a voice one night that responded to what he was saying. My mother claimed to see a ghostly figure in one of our bedrooms. We kind of made a joke about it; our friends would want to come and spend the night and see the haunted house. So, that's what got me interested in it.
Q: And how did that lead to your becoming a parapsychologist?
A: As I was looking into going to college, I wanted to be a parapsychologist, which is not just the study of ghosts but ESP and the whole paranormal area of research and interest. I was a psychology major at Bloomsburg University thinking I could go into parapsychology. As I was getting up to my junior-senior year, I started writing the big names in the field, and, to a person, they told me, "It's not an accepted science, and there are no graduate programs in this country in it." They advised me to get a "legitimate" degree, build a strong reputation and be successful in whatever I do, and then continue my interests in parapsychology.
I have an undergrad degree in psychology, a master's in experimental psychology and a Ph.D. in social psychology. While I was doing all that I kept up on the parapsychology journals and research. A couple of places back in the mid-'80s were offering certifications, including the American Parapsychological Research Society, in what we would now call a distance program. They sent me all the relevant and required correspondence and materials for certification, so I did the readings, wrote the essays, took the tests and mailed them back.
I had to do field research as the culminating experience. While getting my doctorate at the University of Nevada at Reno, somebody who had strange things going on in their house called the psychology department. The faculty and students in the department knew of my interests in parapsychology, and I was told about the call and did my field study at this house. I didn't see anything. I went two nights in a row, staked the place out, had video cameras and tape recorders going-but got nothing. I wrote it all up, sent it out and got my certification.
Q: Why do you think so many people are interested in the paranormal and why do they believe in ghosts?
A: There are a lot of reasons. One is — this is also where my social psychology background comes in — because there are a lot of social psychological concepts of phenomena like, for example, expectancy theory. If you expect something to happen, or you're biased that something is a certain way, then you're going to notice things in the environment that support your belief.
Humans tend to have a high need for control and, because we really don't know what happens after we die, a lot of people turn to religion or a belief in ghosts or a belief in some afterlife as a way to feel more in control of their own lives.
If it's a family member who had died, there's sometimes a need to feel close to that person. You may be having an experience that reinforces your belief that they are there with you, that they never left you, that they're looking over you.
We have this need to explain why things are happening. People in the 1600s used to think that if your cattle died, a witch put a spell on you. Now we know that there were infestations and microbes.
There's also the role of media where they romanticize the supernatural like with the "Twilight" movies and, when I was growing up, shows like "Dark Shadows" on TV. In the '90s there was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
Interestingly, there is a high correlation between education level and belief in the supernatural. Ironically, the more educated you are in general, the more likely you are to believe that there is something out there.
Q: How does your background in experimental and social psychology relate to your interests in the paranormal?
A: I think it helps because I'm trained in research methodology and I understand research methodology and statistical analysis. If I do experiments or read articles, I know if they're legitimate or not, if they used controls and true experimental methodology or if it was just anecdotal information. It helps me be more discriminatory about what's possible, what's real and most likely what's not real. I am also educated in the social and psychological phenomena that may account for such experiences.
My dissertation area was in stress and health and the link between the mind and the body, things like our autoimmune system and T cells. If our mind can control our body, maybe our mind can do things that we're not even aware of. Maybe when people see these manifestations, it's actually part of their physiology or their psychology.
In my presentations, when I ask how many people have had an experience or know somebody who's had an experience, everybody raises their hand. Then I ask, "How do you know this is legitimate?" I always say, "Make sure you eliminate all the possibilities because there's usually something going on that can be explained."
I talk about maybe a dozen different theories of what ghosts and hauntings are, including brain physiology and how electrical fields or electromagnetic fields can affect our temporal lobe and cause illusions and hallucinations, or how the cones and rods in our eyes working at different times of the day might cause us to see shadows, which is an effect of your retina as opposed to something being there. I also discuss the more "traditional" theories and present some ideas and theories that many people have never heard of or considered.
Q: You mentioned participating in ghost hunts. Can you tell me about your experiences?
A: I've been on four ghost hunts since the late '90s and never saw a thing. One was in Nevada, where people claimed to have heard voices in their brand-new house. They said that they got up one morning and found their fireplace matchsticks arranged in the fireplace to say the word 'Hi." They left for two nights, and I spent two days and two nights there and didn't see anything, didn't experience anything, didn't hear anything.
Another involved the tale of a white lady who haunts a graveyard in Topeka, Kansas, who walks around in the full moon. While I lived there I and another person went out two nights in a row during a full moon, didn't see anything. We had a video camera and 35mm cameras. We took random pictures and audio recording and nothing showed up.
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