What Happened to Weird?

Ransom Riggs

Despite the number of paranormal investigation reality shows on the air these days -- which I'd wager have been multiplying recently more because they're inexpensive to produce than because paranormal activity is on the rise -- it seems like sightings are on the decline. The Guardian ran an article a few years ago to that effect, and cited some interesting facts:

Nessie sightings are down.

Since the first modern sighting in 1933, Nessie-watchers have been able to rely on about 15-20 reported sightings a year, with occasional paranormal peaks of up to 40. In 2004 the official Loch Ness Monster fan club admitted that in the preceding 18 months they had heard of a meagre three spottings. "There has been an unusually low number of sightings, all of which were made by local people," admits Gary Campbell, club president. "It appears that no tourists at all have seen anything unusual."

Hauntings are on the wane.

Tony Cornell is a vice-president of the Society for Psychical Research, the UK's most prestigious ghost-busting association. Cornell has been investigating ghosts for 50 years but hasn't been using his £8,000 of poltergeist-detecting equipment of late. "The society used to get maybe 60 to 80 reports of ghosts in a year," he says. "Now we get none. None at all. A remarkable decline. It is still very strange."

UFOs aren't stopping by as often.

Bufora, the top UK forum for skywatchers, ruefully admitted that UFO sightings have been in "steady decline" since the late 1990s. Most striking of all, the British Flying Saucer Bureau has suspended its activities, because the number of sightings has crashed from a peak of around 30 a week to almost zero. Denis Plunkett, the retired civil servant from Bristol who founded the bureau in 1953, says: "I am just as enthusiastic about flying saucers as I always was, but the problem is that we are in the middle of a long, long trough. There just aren't enough new sightings." In Indiana in the US an amateur association of scientific ufologists known as Madar (multiple autonomy detection and automatic recording) has seen a steady and accelerating fall-off in UFO activity since the peaks of the mid-70s. Likewise, New Jersey's skywatchers have openly wondered whether to call it a day. Even the cold skies of northern Norway are bereft: "It's unexplainable," says Leif-Norman Solhaug, leader of Scandinavian skywatching society UFO Nord-Norge. "Maybe people are just fed up with the UFO hysteria."

This all prompts the question: what the hell is -- or more to the point, isn't -- going on? A few theories have been put forth. Foremost among them is that the proliferation of technologically advanced detection equipment has made all the Loch Ness monsters, ghosts and aliens shy; now that the world is full of amateur ghostbusters and UFO-spotters, remote lakes in Scotland and deserts in New Mexico are no longer safe places to be. As for ghosts, one expert points to the ubiquity of cellphones as a problem: "Humans now occupy all of the electromagnetic spectrum. So maybe the ghosts, or whatever causes them, are suffering from interference." But he adds: "I personally believe the decline in hauntings may simply be because people haven't got time to see ghosts any more. These days people are always rushing around, playing computer games, surfing the net, and such activities aren't great for experiencing apparitions."

Perhaps he's right: it's more about humans' mental real estate than that of the electromagnetic spectrum. Especially these days: we just have too much else to worry about; ghosts aren't nearly as scary as our dwindling 401k accounts, and beings from other worlds aren't as alien-seeming as whatever yet-unknown crises the next few years might hold. At least, that's more or less the opinion of the Fortean Times, one of the world's foremost publications of the weird. Says a spokesman: "We think this may be because the ordinary world is so much more threatening, and interesting, than it was a few years ago. These days journalists have wars and atrocities to cover, so they aren't going to be chasing some old poltergeist down the road. This doesn't mean, of course, that there is less paranormality itself, just less coverage of it."

As someone who writes movies about ghosts, I hope this doesn't mean people are no longer interested; instead, I tend to think that going to see a scary movie about the paranormal would be a kind of escape -- for a few hours we get to shift our fears away from the real to something we know probably isn't real (but who knows?) -- and when the movie's over, we can breathe a little sigh of relief and think, hey, it was just a movie. If only that could be said of our everyday fears.