sealPurdue News

May 2001

Media messages may encourage paranormal belief

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The prevalence of television shows like "The X Files" and "Unsolved Mysteries" may impact the beliefs people hold about phenomena such as extrasensory perception, alien abductions and the ability to communicate with the dead, according to a recent Purdue study.

Purdue communication Professor Glenn Sparks and cultural analyst Will Miller of West Lafayette surveyed 200 randomly selected respondents on their TV viewing habits and the extent to which they endorsed various beliefs. The results, which appeared in the March issue of "Communications Monographs," is part of a long-term research program on the impact of media messages on paranormal beliefs.

"Despite regular news reports of new medical breakthroughs and other triumphs of science, there is still widespread belief in the paranormal," says Sparks, who is internationally recognized for his research on the effects of mass media. "More than 40 percent of the people we surveyed expressed belief in haunted houses, psychic mediums, ghosts and prophetic dreaming."

Among their key findings were that people with lower levels of education were more likely to express belief in the paranormal and that such belief was not related to the tendency to express strong religious convictions. But even after taking into account demographic variables like gender, income and education, the strongest predictor of belief in the paranormal was whether people watched TV programs that regularly featured paranormal themes.

"We can't make a definitive conclusion that paranormal shows actually cause an increase in belief because it could be that those who believe in the paranormal are more likely to watch those kinds of programs," Sparks says. "But in laboratory experiments conducted on this topic, exposure to paranormal depictions does increase paranormal belief. Our findings are certainly consistent with other experimental research that indicates media messages about the paranormal do influence beliefs."

Sparks notes that paranormal themes have been particularly popular in movies and TV shows over the past few years.

"The box office success of films like 'The Sixth Sense' and 'The Blair Witch Project,' along with the large viewership for TV shows like 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and 'Charmed,' make it clear that there's a great deal of fascination with paranormal media themes."

CONTACT: Glenn Sparks, (765), 494-3316,; Will Miller, (765) 497-3725,

Compiled by Sharon A. Bowker, (765) 494-9723,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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