5 Things I Learned Infiltrating A Paranormal Convention
I generally avoid paranormal conventions. I have a long history as a skeptic, and also my human mask doesn't fit like it used to, so people keep trying to catch me as evidence to score that sweet $1 million off James Randi. Yet, some time ago I found one near me and decided to attend, largely out of morbid curiosity to see how people go about their day when their idea of contraception is wrapping their balls in tin foil.
For better or for worse, and at the risk of revealing compromising information before the statute of limitations expires, here's what I learned:
Your Own Reservations Play A Giant Part
I don't know if it's because I've spent the better part of the last five years researching and debunking paranormal bullshit for recreation, but actually entering a location where I'm outnumbered several hundreds to one by people who actively buy into the things I habitually sneer at gave me a surprising sense of anxiety. I was supposed to enter the convention with a friend, but I was my usual tardy self. So he got bored waiting and wandered off to see a panel discussion about star people or whatever. Meanwhile, I'm not afraid to say that I spent an uncomfortable amount of time at the entrance, pondering how many times I could use the "my aunt just died" excuse to avoid going in. Upon realizing that this would be my 57th dead aunt, however, I decided to man the fuck up and head in alone.
The ticket guy, realizing my inherent tourist vibe, tactfully but firmly pointed out that photographing is frowned upon. Or did he say that out loud? I don't remember, but that's definitely the vibe I got. Not willing to meet whatever Warcraft orc would act as a bouncer at this sort of event, I complied, so apologies in advance for the relatively few pictures from the actual venue. This, however, is a fairly close approximation of the terrors that awaited me within:
Tremble, puny mortals.
The general attire was slightly more hippie-like than in that photo, but you get the drill -- where I was expecting a sort of supernatural Comic-Con of Nessie cosplayers, absurd clothes, and people vomiting (hopefully) fake blue slime at you, there were just a bunch of regular stalls and regular people going about their con-day in a regular kind of way. I started to relax -- clearly, I had let my own prejudices get the best of me and forgotten that even the most rabid believer in the paranormal can otherwise be a perfectly ordinary person, just like you and I.
Which is when I got ambushed by a shifty-eyed dude in a sack cloth bathrobe, handing out grubby photocopy pamphlets in two-point all caps detailing the inner workings of whatever sun deity his last acid trip had showed him.
The Overall Vibe Is Surprisingly Sane
After finding a suitable hideout from the sun god guy, who, much like bears, probably feared me more than the other way around, I noticed how super calm and timid the general vibe of the convention floor was. Was ... was everyone but me stoned? If so, who's holding out, motherfuckers?
But they weren't (probably). Once again, I'd bought into the hype machine: Online, your average paranormal enthusiast, conspiracy theorist, etc. comes across as a manic drool machine clad entirely in printouts of David Icke interviews. In real life, they're that one uncle of yours who's completely normal right up until the sixth eggnog and the inevitable lecture about how the president is hiding microchips up his butt when he's asleep. That belief may very well be his only failing. At the paranormal convention, everyone is that uncle, only sober: for all intents and purposes a perfectly functional member of society, with one minor glitch. Sure, there was the occasional "ooh, look at me, I'm so freaky" dipshit, but no more than in any public gathering, and none of them took it to Lady Gaga proportions.
And a few clearly thought this was another kind of convention entirely.
By now, the place was getting pretty crowded. My friend had returned from whatever pixie lecture had caught his attention, and we started wandering from stall to stall. They were everything you could hope for: There was a guy who did Kirlian photography for a price. There was an aura reader. A couple of bald dudes who gave energy massages. Suspiciously Soylent Green-like "organic" snacks. Ghost photographers. Actual fucking Ghostbusters, with impressive-looking and totally effective gear they'd bought online. God, it was a schadenfreude-fest.
I've attended conventions where entire stalls were devoted to a specific kind of laundry detergent, and that's not even a fun euphemism. And every single pitch I've heard in those places was more interesting than the conversations I witnessed here. These weren't people who were out to impress. They were among peers, coolly and collectedly discussing their various beliefs and techniques in conquering them in technical, detached detail. The Ghostbusters, who were clearly less of a professional scientist team and more of a slightly aged Goonies-style club of awkward kids wanting to belong, nervously but professionally detailed their equipment and the services they offer (they'd actually go and spend nights in the place you'd point out as haunted, and holy shit I can't even imagine the amount of practical jokes they must be subjected to). It was the same with the massage folks, and the photo guys, and ... well, everyone. Probably even the sun god guy. In their own way, everyone out there was completely professional, and no one questioned their shit. Why would they? This was their turf. Brothers in arms, and all that.
In a small way, and despite being the jaded skeptic fuck that I am, I found this oddly endearing.
There's An Overwhelming Sense Of Desperation
Yeah, of course there's a flipside. Life is no Disney movie, son, unless they make one from Mufasa's viewpoint.
See, there's a very good reason why these people keep their Sunday behavior on: an inherent fear that someone will call them out. Everyone says that you need to be really fucking confident in your beliefs, but that all flies out the window when what you believe in is a complex hierarchy of alien light creatures that require you to periodically level up in order to keep in touch with them. Or ghosts. Or little green men. Or, shit, anything on offer in this particular buffet. Sure, there are some whose convictions and egos can handle this and become self-sufficient in their beliefs (more on them in a minute). But the vast majority of the people I saw had that faint whiff of not-quite-but-almost-desperation that's so prevalent in clubs at closing time. "What if they laugh at me?" "What if they judge me?" "What the fuck am I doing here?" These are normal, human thoughts and emotions, and an event where you're revealing your strangest beliefs to the people who are technically your people but also mostly total strangers is custom made to bring them to the surface.
"It's crazy, but I fear someone finds my fascination
with zombie ponies from outer space stupid."
This led to some fairly inspiring survival tactics and shows of camaraderie. Far from the only -- but perhaps the best -- example I saw was at the ghost photography booth, where a ghost hobbyist who was also clearly a professional photographer was showing his ghost shots (which I will refrain from overanalyzing out of common courtesy) and offering his opinion on the ones people brought him. While we were hovering nearby, one completely normal-looking person showed him a couple of frankly shitty photographs taken from the same-ish place, but at clearly different angles -- one showing a glimpse of a barn, the other not. The person was convinced that the fact that the barn was in only one of the shots proved that it was a ghost barn, and you could smell a mile away that they'd been working up the nerve to discuss this with someone for ages. The stall guy, who must have seen the 1,700 or so natural explanations for the pictures right away, didn't bat a fucking eyelid. In a truly impressive feat of diplomacy, he listened to the picture person's story and explain-speculated the pictures away in a calm, collected voice that seemed to not only assure them but also him about the case that maybe, in just the right circumstances, those pictures could be proof of the mighty Ghost Barn, but then again, you never know, because the pictures were kind of blurry. Everyone went away satisfied.
It's Shockingly Easy To Be Drawn In
There were hecklers.
Of course there were. How often do you get to go to a paranormal convention to see what those conspiracy bullshit folks are really like? Shit, technically, I was one.
That much I knew to expect. What came as a surprise was my reaction to them. Once again, I'm that fucker who, upon seeing a cool magic trick, immediately starts trying to figure out how it was done, like a way less effective version of Paul Giamatti's character in The Illusionist. Yet, when faced with sneering people with a sarcastic expression who were out to judge and laugh like, well, me, a strange sensation of hatred started filling me. What were these people doing, laughing at the folks doing their own thing and minding their own business? They weren't even full-on Biff Tannenin' anyone -- just failing to conceal their lopsided "oh, I'm so much better than you dipshits" grin every once in a while. Even so, I mentally started siding with the people I'd usually label as the crazies.
Then again, if it's this guy or fucking Chad, I know who I'm rooting for.
It didn't help that I found myself as an actual part of the proceedings every once in a while. Remember when I was hiding from the sun god guy? I spent much of that time leafing through the various magazines and books on display at some bookstore stall, the name of which I forget but was probably something New Age-related. Almost immediately, I bumped into myself -- namely, some old sci-fi short story I'd written that was now adorning the pages of a magazine on surprisingly (uncomfortably) prominent display. "Nice going, Pauli," I remember thinking. "You've been here for 10 fucking minutes and you're already sucked in."
(The story was about aliens and Nazis. Don't judge me. Everyone has a story about aliens and Nazis.)
A while later, I wandered off to the Kirlian photography stand, only to make the swiftest U-turn of my life when I heard someone referencing the very fucking Cracked article M. Asher Cantrell and myself wrote that debunked the Kirlian auras as plain old sweat. I don't know what the odds are of that shit. I just know that, after this, I made damn sure not to give anyone my name. I've been chased out of plenty of places with torches and pitchforks, but a paranormal convention just seems like overkill.
The Speakers Make It Clear Everyone's Crazy After All
Up to that point, I had somehow managed to avoid the guests of honor and their various speeches. But, as the day progressed and the bigger names started approaching the podium, I could no longer stay away. Still, maybe the strange camaraderie and odd dedication I'd witnessed would carry over to the grander stages. Maybe, just maybe, I'd gotten the whole "paranormal" thing wrong, and it was just another, slightly off-beat way to compare experiences and deal with the fucked-up hands the poker game of life keeps dealing us.
That impression lasted roughly two minutes into the first speaker's piece. Rauni Kilde, a respected doctor who at some point started buying into every fucking conspiracy theory ever and actively promoting them, was an elderly woman with vats of charisma and a gaze like a nail driven directly between your eyes. You could have told me she was a professor at Harvard and I wouldn't have batted an eyelid. And then, she dropped a page from her lecture notes without noticing it. Upon realizing that a page was missing, and without missing a beat, she declared that this happened to her quite often, and it was because the government was constantly stalking her and disintegrating her notes with their melt-rays when she wasn't looking.
She couldn't use the "dog ate my homework" one,
because everyone knows dogs aren't real.
The rest of her 45 minutes went exactly as you'd expect. Google "10 Most Popular Conspiracy Theories" -- chemtrails, vaccination bullshit, Illuminati, aliens, they're all there -- shit, considering her advanced age and activity in the field, they might be all her.
After that, out stepped Juhan af Grann, who I'm told is an award-winning ufologist, which gives rise to the infinitely more interesting fact that there's someone out there giving out awards to ufologists. As a true testament to the possibilities of downers and uppers, he started out as a borderline puddle, showed us a half-hour documentary about ethereal giants dropping boat keys on people's cars, because fuck you, and retook the podium as the most manic entity I've ever seen, swatting back hecklers and serious questions with the energy and wit of a coked-up Bill Hicks.
Aaaand that's when I realized me and my friend were in a fucking madhouse after all.
I did manage to take one picture. Feel free to imagine this is
an alien in a wig, because for all intents and purposes it was.
Convention: 4 (But guess who gets to use their points after exiting the premises, fuckers. You know what, we'll call this a tie. This time.)
All in all, this wasn't an entirely horrible experience. I learned a lot about people who believe in this stuff and about myself in relation to them. I'm not saying I'll stop making fun of them. Still, maybe I'll cut them a couple weeks' worth of slack, if only because one of them managed to tear our people masks away and we had to burn the whole place down in retaliation.