But beyond the individual's psychotic symptoms is the wish within society for someone with magical powers to give the rest of us all the answers. After all, in a large group there will be someone who is better than everyone else at tracking game, and someone who is better at starting fires, and someone who always comes up with the solution to a logical problem, so why wouldn't there be someone who has access to another dimension the rest of us can't perceive?
Shermer has a long discussion of sensed presences, which coincidentally tend to happen under periods of great stress. Not just cramming for your algebra exam stress, but life-threatening stress like hypoxia on a mountaintop, Many religions incorporate rituals that create just enough stress to bring about other-worldly experiences, and then there's peyote... So for some reason not only do we experience these things, we seek it out and normalize the experiences.
When you grow up in a household where these experiences are normal, I guarantee you won't seek them out! The last thing I want to do is ingest peyote in order to experience a visit from my ancestors. And with a paranoid mother who went through my stuff looking for evidence of who-knows-what, I have a heightened sense of privacy and in no way would I welcome the "spirit" entering my body during a voudon ceremony, pentacostal hoe-down, or any other religious ceremony. I also know that people who believe they can hear actual voices in their heads don't really hear other people, because if they did my mom would have heard loud and clear, "STAY THE FUCK OUT OF MY ROOM!"
But despite these experiences and attitudes, I really did try to be "open" to spirituality for many years. It seemed to be the thing to do, a way to meet people, have community, dispel fears, and in general be a wholesome person. I really wanted to believe that Moses saw a burning bush and that Jesus appeared to his disciples, but I couldn't. It seemed so ridiculous, well no, it seemed CRAZY. Why didn't everyone else see it that way?
And why did I try so hard?
One part of the answer may be that I grew up in the 1960s, and I watched a lot of TV. My favorite genre was comedy, though I did watch some of the spooky anthlogy shows like One Step Beyond and The Outer Limits. Here are some of the comedies my family watched, including my now-psychotic brother:
- Mr. Ed, about a talking horse that only his owner can hear
- Betwitched, about a witch that only her husband knows about (aside from her witchy family)
- My Favorite Martian, about a martian whose origin is known only to his housemate
- I Dream of Jeannie, about a magic woman who seems normal to all but her boyfriend (and later, his friend)
- The Addams Family, about a spooky family in the neighborhood
- My Mother the Car, about a woman reincarnated as her son's car (No, I'm not making that up!)
Worse yet, these paranormal comedies were on prime time TV for adults (presumably) so this trope wasn't invented for the consumption of baby boomer children. There had been some famous movies with the theme of a person who has a paranormal experience (think, "Harvey" and "It's a Wonderful Life"), but not comedies like this. We certainly seemed to be set up for serious gullibility beyond what our parents would have recognized. Is it a concidence that we became the "Age of Aquarius" and wound up being "open" to "new" experiences? Would people have found LSD so appealing if they hadn't been primed by popular culture to think that hallucinations could be real? (or at least entertaining)
The subliminal message isn't just that we should be open to these experiences ourselves, but that we should respect others who "society" would call "crazy." This is a major theme of Scientology, concidentally. The anti-medication movement is also trying to make the case that normal people are being unnecessarily medicated -- that what I would consider "suffering" that should be relieved is considered by them to be normal and to be endured by these people. Is it a coincidence that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was an iconic film of the time?
At the same time, incredible realities were on our consciousness, like space travel and nuclear bombs (yeah it was twenty years earlier but we were very aware of it!) and war. We saw nature shows and variety acts and dramas about law and medicine too. That was the "normal" within which the "paranormal" could hide. Scary times inspire ridiculous fantasies.
In the 2000s and 2010s there has been a spate of "reality" shows about the "paranormal," though it was never a dead topic. The X-Files validated the spooky in the 1990s after all, and George Burns as God spoke to John Denver in "Oh God." Things do seem to be tipping away from respect for psychosis, though.
Recently I've seen commercials for a new show about a doctor who practices out-of-body medicine while in a coma. (Nope, not making that up either). There's currently an idiot-savant show about an autistic child with the ANSWERS if only people would interpret his mathematical ramblings correctly. I haven't seen these shows but they don't seem to validate psychosis. I sure hope they don't.
In the 1960s anti-psychotic medication was still very new. My mom's generation was the first not to be forced to spend the rest of her life in a "home." Although she remained reality-impaired in many ways, she was functional enough to participate in society. Ditto, my step-dad. My bro however, believes his hallucinations are real and we're all just bigass downers.
But if your car talks to you, it's OnStar and you should probably do what it says.