A parapsychology expert takes a look at scary movies
He is skeptical about demonic possession, he says
Expert says there are elements in the films that don't line up with his study
The “Paranormal Activity” series is a testament to Paramount’s ability to predict the success of found-footage horror: Out with “Saw”-style torture porn and back to ghost stories that would make Vincent Price’s mustache pounce from his face.
Not that such cinema is a guaranteed blockbuster. “Paranormal Activity 4” managed to top the box office its opening weekend with $30.2 million, but that was almost $10 million less than its previous installment.
While the less-than-stellar reviews and lower box office suggest possible sequel fatigue, October also saw the release of “Sinister” and “V/H/S” – two found-footage films that also tap into otherworldly beings that go bump in the night. Likewise, “Paranormal Activity 5” will invade theaters next Halloween, in addition to a Latino-based spinoff of the franchise called “The Oxnard Tapes” currently in development.
But at least one expert sees lots of creative license in these films.
“I like a good horror film, but these movies do not approach the reality of what people experience,” said Loyd Auerbach, director and founder of the Office of Paranormal Investigations. That title means he’s the guy you’re actually going to call when you need a ghost buster.
Movies are, of course, entertainment, but parapsychology is a very real study that draws tons of criticism from both academia and real world skeptics. Auerbach is a professor at both Atlantic University and JFK University and is the creator and instructor of the Certificate Program in Parapsychological Studies at HCH Institute in Lafayette, California. In those positions he has come into contact with plenty of doubters of his work, but is very aware that horror films have a huge following.
Both “Paranormal Activity” and “Sinister” not only deal with the idea of evil beings, but also demonic possession. Believe it or not, Auerbach is skeptical about such things.
“I don’t buy that demons are taking people over like that,” Auerbach said. “Frankly, I don’t get calls like that.” In his position Auerbach looks at social science instead of religion, observing locations and people to confirm paranormal experiences.
Not that Auerbach’s talents would be called in immediately in the world of Hollywood. In cliche horror fashion, “Paranormal Activity’s” and “Sinister’s” characters wait to call experts – psychics and demonologists – until they’re too far into the villains’ ghostly grasp.
Auerbach meets with people from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds looking for information about the phenomena impacting their environment. Both the “Paranormal Activity” franchise and “Sinister” feature age-old staples of shadowy figures, unexplained noises, and objects moving for no reason whatsoever. “Most people are not crazy or mentally ill,” he said. “They are misperceiving or misinterpreting occurrences that are happening in their home.”
Auerbach vividly remembers a family of four who were all experiencing symptoms very similar to those found in those films. “They all felt dizzy in two spots in this house and very often would get headaches for no reason,” he recalled.
Not only that, they would see shadows in their peripheral vision, or smell noxious odors with no apparent source, while sometimes seeing flashes of light in their house, just like Ethan Hawke’s character in “Sinister” and Katie Featherston in the “Paranormal Activity” movies. There would also be bursts of fire that would singe things and audible noises coming from nowhere, Auerback said.
This led the family to contact him because they were literally out of explainable options.
“We want to look at what kind of TV shows they watch, what movies they watch, what books they read,” he said of some of the people he investigates. “I walked into some cases in the ‘80s and people would have stacks of Weekly World News or the National Enquirer, which is a really important trigger.”
However, this particular family had actual evidence to prove that something – paranormal or otherwise – was happening in their home, Auerbach said.
After interviewing the family and doing research, Auerbach discovered that an architecture professor from a local university designed the house to certain specifications.
“It included some unique kind of insulation of Styrofoam pumped into cinder blocks,” he said. “The house was directly under high tension wires, which were giving off audible hums, where low and high frequency sounds caused the headaches.”
According to him, this also caused the family to see the figures in the corner of their eyes. “The Styrofoam was interacting with the high electricity that caused a lot of static electricity, accounting for the flashes of light,” he explained.
And the unexplainable odors and singeing? Gases seeping up from the ground due to a nearby landfill, Auerbach concluded.
“They would catch fire due to the static electricity,” he said. “The house was haunted by the environment.”
While Auerbach can debunk quite a few horror-film standards – like characters breathing cold vapor despite that there’s really never any physical cold in paranormal places – he said he “absolutely” believes in apparitions, haunted places and poltergeists.
“The concept is that some part of human personality survived the death of the body and is capable of interacting with us after death,” he said. “Those are relatively rare except for the experiences that people have where they see a relative or loved one who has just died. That’s the more common ghost encounter people have.”
And despite the many critics of parapsychology, Auerbach thinks such tales and films are a part of our culture and here to stay.
“As human beings, we’ve established thousands of years of telling stories around the camp fire, whether they are ghostly or demonic,” he said. “Scary stories pump up the adrenaline and it’s in our DNA.”