sealPurdue News

June 1995

Seeing ghosts and goblins on TV doesn't mean they're real

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Some people believe that man walking on the moon was nothing more than an elaborate hoax on a Hollywood sound stage.

More common, a Purdue University researcher says, are people who believe in ghosts, haunted houses, reincarnation, UFOs and astral projection because they've seen it on television.

It may be, says Glenn Sparks, associate professor of communication, that even though people are watching fictitious shows on television, they still end up believing what they see.

"Our research shows that media depictions of a paranormal event may have an impact on viewers' paranormal beliefs," Sparks says. "Skeptics and scholars have always said this is so, but until now there has been little scientific evidence to prove it."

Sparks studies various effects of television programs on viewers. His study, "Do Televised Depictions of Paranormal Events Influence Viewers' Beliefs?," was published in the summer 1994 edition of Skeptical Inquirer. He previously has studied the effects of violent programming on viewers, both young and old.

The study, performed on a class of 187 college students in a communication class, found that viewers of a television show depicting paranormal events were more likely to be influenced to believe such events if no disclaimer message appeared before the show telling viewers that the show's events never happened.

A 1991 Gallup poll found that nearly 50 percent of the respondents reported believing in ESP (extrasensory perception) and almost 30 percent believed in haunted houses. Students involved in Sparks' study reflected the same beliefs in a pre-study questionnaire, he says.

In the study, groups of students watched an episode of the television program "Beyond Reality" and were asked questions about their paranormal beliefs before viewing and at different times after viewing the program.

The episode of "Beyond Reality" was about a husband who used astral projection to make "visits" to his estranged wife.

Three groups saw a message that had been edited in at the beginning of the program. A fourth group saw the program without any message. A fifth group, the control group, saw a situation comedy that had no reference to paranormal activity.

The first message told the viewers that the program was based on events actually reported by the people involved. The second message told viewers that the scenes were purely fictional. The third message told viewers that the depiction of paranormal activity was never reported and that events in the scenes were impossible from a scientific standpoint.

Questions asked by researchers ranged from those having nothing to do with paranormal activity to ones that directly related to events in the episode of "Beyond Reality." Other questions were related to very specific phenomena that were not depicted in the episode and, therefore, viewers were less likely to be influenced by seeing the program. The questions were varied so as not to give away the intent of the study to the participants, most of whom thought the study was related to commercials and advertising.

Sparks assessed the beliefs of the participants by looking at their answers from before and after watching the program and found, as expected, that those who viewed the show with no message were significantly more likely to report increased paranormal beliefs than those who watched the program with the "impossible" message. Those who watched the programs with the "impossible" and "fiction" messages reported a decrease in beliefs. When asked the same questions again three weeks after the program, the results were nearly the same.

"Interestingly," Sparks says, "the viewers who saw the show with the 'truth' claim did not have an increase in belief in paranormal activity."

That indicates, he says, that perhaps the appearance of any message before a depiction of paranormal activity grabs viewers' attention and makes them doubt or question the event.

Sparks says this and future studies he has planned along the same line will aid understanding of how televised depictions of paranormal events function to influence our judgments about reality.

"It seems important," he says, "to be able to discern whether a phenomenon really exists. We should not just accept the reality of something just because we have seen it on television."

Source: Glenn G. Sparks, (765) 494-3316; Internet,
Writer: Julie Rosa, (765) 494-2079; Internet,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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