People know how to be skeptical when they want to be. Few would accept a claim at face value if they had some prior commitment to a competing claim. Fortunately for the man with a ghost story, supernatural claims (though improbable, bizarre, or extraordinary) don’t tend to meet much resistance, and in fact require bare-minimal support. Still, he must not get lazy, for skeptics can lurk unseen, even within the most welcoming, credulous audiences. Consider these tips to silence skeptics before they do what they do best, which is ruin the mood for everyone else.
1. Keep details ambiguous.
Keeping certain details vague can be the difference between inducing chills and ill-disguised laughter from your company. If you saw the ghost of Elvis, stick with “man in a white suit.” If the ghost was wearing Air Jordan’s and a hoodie, opt for the reliable “hooded figure.” Remember: ghosts, unlike legitimate threats, actually become less scary and less believable the more you know about them.
In the same vein, ghosts are ambiguous in conversation. If your late mother appears to you through a medium, it’s best she says nothing important. She loves you. She wants you to stay strong and eat your vegetables. If she starts doling out specifics about the other side or engaging in a cogent dialogue with you, let’s be honest: no one is going to buy that.
2. Reflect repeatedly on the unlikely nature of the story.
In order to establish yourself as a rational person, your story must be peppered with disclaimers like “It sounds completely crazy, but…” and “I know! If I were you, I’d be rolling my eyes, but…” It even helps to admit some level of embarrassment: “I never talk about this. I can’t believe I’m telling you all this right now!” This positions you outside of your own incredible story and in the realm of the credible and the legitimate where your audience believes they live.
3. Appear skeptical yourself.
This goes for your witnesses, too. If your cousin swears he saw the ghost too, great. That adds some small credibility to your story. However, if your skeptical cousin who never believed in ghosts and who earned his PhD in Rational Explanations swears he saw it too, even better. People will be more likely to believe you were fooled by a trick of the light or a neural misfire if they perceive you as predisposed to experience paranormal phenomena.
If you attest to visiting the psychic as an unbeliever in search of a good laugh, you’ll earn your audience’s trust. If you’re the sort who calls psychic hotlines to help you decide whether to apply for a certain job, they will distrust you.
4. Admit some ignorance and uncertainty.
You can – and indeed must – be dead certain about what you saw, heard, or experienced. You may not, however, divulge specific knowledge as to the nature of what it was. Don’t tell your audience it was a spectral being. Tell us you saw the girl, looked around the corner to find she’d vanished. Your audience is clever. They don’t need to be told the little girl had to be a ghost in order to vanish. Don’t tell them what to believe; instead, let them piece the paranormal explanation together themselves. Don’t worry, you can be as explicit and artless as you’d like. “I don’t know if it was a ghost or what, but I saw the man walk right through that wall,” and “I can’t say for sure whether she’s real or just lucky, but she told me things about myself there is no way she could have known” fall well within accepted standards in most circumstances.
5. Discredit alternative explanations in advance.
Anticipate skeptical objections, and shut them down. This serves the dual purpose of closing the door to further questions and establishing you as just the sort of rational person who would be on the lookout for alternative explanations. A ghost story might be ruined if you simply forgot to lock a door or put something back where you left it. Spare no expense and fear no redundancy in convincing your audience that you never forget to lock the door, that you always check and double check. You’re positively paranoid about making sure the door is securely locked. You’ve been prescribed medication to cure your obsession over door-locking, except you refused to take them for fear they could somehow cause you to forget to lock the door.
Similarly, this rule often combines with rule number one and three in the form of “I never take that route home but for some unknown reason ended up doing so,” to enhance the ambiguity, mystique, and remind your audience you’re not the sort to rush to conclusions.
In the case of a psychic, make it clear that you did not provide your personal information beforehand. You made the appointment using your first name only. You called from a payphone to make said appointment. You never mentioned you had a son or that he played basketball, etc. It is far better to cover your tracks and preempt alternative rational explanations than to fend them off later. Defensiveness detracts from credibility.
6. Remember that ghosts only do random spooky things.
You can credibly claim a ghost moved your car keys or a picture, but you can’t blame a ghost if you lose one…does that make sense? In other words, ghosts can move objects, but they only do so in arbitrary ways to creep you out. Similarly, a ghost didn’t wreck your favorite sweater. That’s just crazy. It may have moved the sweater – the sweater you always remember to put in a very specific place and found in some bizarre other place, like next to the picture of your late aunt. Your late aunt who gave you the sweater before she passed.
The task cannot be complex, either. A ghost can bang pots and pans together, move objects to different rooms, jiggle door knobs, run up and down stairs, grab limbs, but they can’t bake cookies or program computers.
There is a simple test to determine whether a task could be managed by a ghost, and this is it: 1. State the task. 2. Did that sound like a thing a ghost would do, or did it just sound silly? 3. If it sounded like something a ghost might do, then a ghost can do it. 4. A ghost did it.
7. Appeal to your intuitions.
The way you feel about something, if you follow the other rules, can be considered a reliable source of knowledge. Fill your story with enigmatic appeals to your gut-instincts like, “I could tell it wanted something” or “I knew I was being watched.” It doesn’t matter how you know these things to be true, and in fact we’re much better off not knowing (see rule #1!).
I recently heard a shining example of this rule. As people were sharing paranormal experiences in turn at a party (and quite a few drinks in) one man authoritatively stated, referring to the spirits of the deceased, “The recently deceased are the most persistent.” This is a perfect bit of knowledge – which he obtained God knows where – to help earn the admiration of a generally accepting audience. It may even send a chill up the skeptic’s spine in the right lighting.
The standard of evidence for accepting paranormal claims is so pitiful, these rules are mostly loose guidelines to keep in mind. People want to believe your story. The rules aren’t meant to make your audience believe you but simply to let them.
I would write a separate post on how to persuade yourself that your experience was authentic, but no such post is necessary. Your mind, capable of simulating virtually any sensory experience with ease, does that work for you. As you reconstruct your memory of the event(s) – all memories are reconstructions – your mind will fill in gaps, add and remove details, and otherwise do a stunningly impressive job supporting your preferred explanation.
The world is an unintuitive place, and our brains just don’t understand brains yet. It’s a world in which mistakes, massive and miniscule, are positively bound to happen. Humorously, it’s also a world in which none of us can ever imagine making one.