The Misunderstanding, Misuse and Misinterpretation of Ritual in Paranormal Investigation

The Misunderstanding, Misuse, and Misinterpretation of Ritual in Paranormal Investigation

 When did paranormal investigating begin to get mixed up with the occult and spiritual ritual?

When did paranormal teams stop trying to gather evidence of the paranormal, and debunk phenomena as having an ordinary, natural cause, and begin to perform rituals to rid homes of ghosts and demons?

The first point I want to make is that, when I started investigating the paranormal, I was a teenager. I did parapsychology experiments on a subject who was exhibiting clairvoyant abilities. I was committed to the science of the subject; to gathering evidence of the paranormal, to studying the truth of the matter. I wrote research papers for my psychology classes at the university. I gathered and analyzed data.

I took a long side road into a career in the visual arts for many decades. I finally found my way back to the science of the paranormal when the show, Ghost Hunters premiered. I was so excited about that show...the possibilities; the evidence that could be uncovered; he things that could be studied, proven.

 I got involved in the study of the paranormal again. I joined a local group, and we were, as a group, devoted and committed to the traditional methods and beliefs of Ghost Hunters: debunk, debunk, debunk. Try and find a natural explanation first. Do not come to any conclusions during the investigation. Wait for all of the evidence to be reviewed and analyzed before coming to any conclusions. Be scientific in your methods. Which, to us, meant no psychics, no dousing rods, no Ouija boards, no occult, pagan or Wiccan ritual. We had no problem with saying Christian prayers of protection before and after an investigation, however. Perhaps that was because that was our religion and we felt comfortable within our own belief system. And we just felt better and safer, more self confident, if we prayed.

Fast forward five years. I had to quit that group, and another, and another, went back and had to quit again. Wow. "She's certainly either picky, hard to get along with, or very judgmental." Well, maybe one, maybe all. I know my reasons for quitting, and they were a combination of a lack of proper scientific method, fakery, unethical behavior, and the beginnings of a loose attitude toward the use of occult ritual.
The first thing I began to notice in the field was the use of mediums and psychics. Suddenly, everyone was "sensitive". Every group seemed to use a psychic. Then came the use of traditional occult ritual. Smudging, candle burning, pendulums, dousing rods, crystals, and other occult rituals. Even the use of holy water.
What happened to the previous commitment to science? What happened to gathering data, evidence, proof of the paranormal? What happened to objectivity? Debunking? A healthy dose of skepticism? I was once kicked out of a group for calling myself a skeptic. I was so upset at the time. Now, I am proud of that. I held my ground, and I was right.
Apparently the field was rapidly changing and I was definitely not on board.

The state of paranormal investigating today is in a really serious mess, in my opinion. The mix of occult, spiritual belief systems, pseudo science, appropriation of other cultures, namely Native American, and old school mediums and astrologers, with some scientific method, technologies, gadgets, etc, has resulted in a big mess of mixed methods, lack of scientific knowledge and very sloppy technique. Debunking is now a dirty word. No! no no no. We don't want to offend our client by proving that the noises coming from the basement are really the bad water pipes or heating system. We don't want to suspect the 14 year old daughter of being in desperate need of attention, or the teenage son of faking a ghostly call or making up stories. That would be "not nice", judgmental, mean spirited. Plus, we want to be asked back, over and over again, so we can't tell them that they have no ghost.

So, many paranormal investigators have gone into the business of "cleansing" a home, or showing the spirits "to the light", or banishing the spirits, or flat out exorcising them. This is not what we used to do. Our job was to find answers, seek truth, gather data and evidence, be objective, rational, scientific. No more. Now we perform smudging rituals, bring in mediums to tell us who exactly is there and help the spirits move on.
What I find most offensive is the use of the Native American Indian ritual of smudging. This is a traditional cleansing ritual used by Indian tribes. Each tribe has their own particular ritual and very specific way of performing the ritual. Sage, tobacco or sweetgrass is burned in order to cleanse the body and mind. It is also burned in a house to cleanse the house, but must be done in a very specific way.

Most paranormal investigators have no concerns about appropriating another culture's ceremony or doing it properly. They probably saw the Long Island Medium do it so they do it too. Here are some facts about smudging.

A smudge stick is a bundle of dried herbs, most often used by members of New Age or Neo-pagan religious movements and practitioners of Neo-shamanism. The leaves are usually bound with string in a small bundle and dried. Plants that are often used include sage, cedar, lavender,  mugwart, and sweetgrass.
The English term "smudge stick" is usually found in use among non-Indigenous people who believe they are practicing appropriated North American Indian spiritual traditions. But the herbs used in commercial "smudge sticks", and the rituals performed with them by non-Natives, are rarely the actual materials or rituals used by traditional Native Americans. Using scent and scented smoke in religious rites is an element common to many religions and cultures, but the details and spiritual meanings vary with the specific cultures and ceremonies.

Smudge sticks are often sold commercially, despite traditional prohibitions against spiritual medicines like white sage being sold. They may be made of a single herb or combination of several different herbs, which are usually not found bundled together in traditional use, and the burning of which is prohibited in some traditional cultures. Common sage is frequently used by non-Natives.

"Smudging" has been misappropriated into a number of modern belief systems, including many forms of new age and eclectic neo pagan spirituality. This has been protested by people from some of the traditional cultures whose practices are being imitated.
Traditionally, when gathering herbs for ceremonial use, care is taken to determine the time of day, month, or year when the herbs should be collected; for example, at dawn or evening, at certain phases of the moon, or according to yearly cycles.
In some Native American ceremonies certain herbs are traditionally used to purify or bless people and places. The same herbs that are burned by one culture, may be taboo to burn in another, or used for a different purpose. When specific herbs are burned in ceremony, this may or may not be called "smudging," depending on the culture.

  One more note about smudging. It is very popular among many novices to use abalone shells in smudging. However, some are concerned that abalone shells are being used when burning the herbs. On the Pacific Northwest Coast, for example, some holy men have said that abalone shells represent Grandmother Ocean, and that they should be used in ceremonies with water, not burning.     Native elders in the Northwest, the Plains, and California don't use abalone shells - but instead clay or stone bowls.

(information about smudging is from Wikipedia sources.)

From another source I learned that in some Appalachian folk tradition there is a belief that the burning of sage and breathing the smoke in will summon a spirit, instead of banashing it. No wonder, as is often reported, paranormal activity gets worse after a smudging/ cleansing ritual. They could be conjuring instead of cleansing and not even be aware of it. 

I have also read that the mixture of herbs, the place the herb is grown, even the time of year it is picked, could mean it could backfire on you and result in bad instead of good. 

That all depends upon your belief system, of course.     


Exorcism (from Greek ἐξορκισμός, exorkismos - binding by oath) is the practice of evicting demons or other spiritual entities from a person or an area they are believed to have possessed. Depending on the spiritual beliefs of the exorcist, this may be done by causing the entity to swear an oath, performing an elaborate ritual, or simply by commanding it to depart in the name of a higher power. The practice is ancient and part of the belief system of many cultures and religions.
Requested and performed exorcisms had begun to decline in the Western world by the 18th century due to advancements in medical understanding, and occurred rarely until the latter half of the 20th century when the public saw a sharp rise due to the media attention exorcisms were getting. There was “a 50% increase in the number of exorcisms performed between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s”.

(Information on Exorcism from Wikipedia sources.)

What I find so disturbing is the use of the rite of exorcism being commonly done in tandem with a paranormal investigation. I believe this was first witnessed on the T.V. show Paranormal State. A Catholic priest would be present to perform the exorcism. Usually a  young person, a teenager, was the suspected victim of demonic possession. The exorcism would be performed in front of cameras, and would seem to take a short period of time, perhaps a few hours, sometimes less. After the exorcism, the victim would be fine, normal, and, usually, would remain so.

I have done a little bit of study on Christian exorcism, especially the Catholic rite. Like in the movie The Exorcist, the Catholic Church has specialists in this field. They also are very reluctant to declare anyone possessed without first doing a thorough psychological examination and study of the victim.

The rite is a very precise ritual that involves a sanctified priest, skilled in the rite, a lot of time and incredible patience. As in the movie, a true exorcism of a demon takes a lot of time. We are not talking about hours. We could be talking about days, weeks, months, sometimes years. And, even then, it is not always ultimately successful.

What I have witnessed in current paranormal investigations that perform exorcisms is a sort of condensed, shortened TV version of the rite. I have also seen it performed by non-sanctified,  not ordained "ministers" or practitioners, people who perform "deliverances".

All I have to say about this is do not try this at home folks. Do not attempt this with your group. I don't care if you have a client levitating over your head with steam coming out of his ears chanting in Arabic. Run. "Dude - run!"  Then refer the clients to a priest or their clergy. Do not play around with this. Please.

I find it highly disturbing that people who do not even believe in the Christian faith are messing with exorcism or deliverance of demons. But to make it part and parcel of your paranormal investigation team? Really? As in the disgusting disrespect exhibited by those who use the Indian rite of smudging, I find the misuse and exploitation of the Christian (or other sacred faith) rite of exorcism just as obnoxious and disquieting.
Can we all just take a giant step back; no, three giant steps back, and ask ourselves what in the world of the paranormal are we doing???


Unknown said…
I always felt that a paranormal investigation was to find answers. The usage of rituals and exorcism (really?) and so-called psychics just seems like it's inviting things to happen, which would produce false readings. Thus, they impede scientific progress. Investigators should be scientists, first.
Pam Wellington said…
As you know, I totally agree with you. Thank you for your comments. Are you an investigator?

Popular Posts