Deonna Kelli Sayed is a writer, ghost hunter, and storyteller. She is the author of Paranormal Obsession: Ghosts & Hauntings, Spooks & Spirits (Llewellyn, 2011) and So You Want To Hunt Ghosts?: A Down-To-Earth Guide (Llewellyn 2012). She briefly served as editor of Ghostvillage.com, and was featured on Jeff Belanger’s 30 Odd Minutes and Coast to Coast AM. As a storyteller, Deonna has performed at The Monti and in local story slams. She also writes on other subjects, from Islam to cultural studies, and has appeared on National Public Radio and lectured to general and academic audiences. Deonna is currently working on a memoir, and is a recipient of a 2015 Wildacres Writing Residency.
How did you become interested in the paranormal? What steps did you take to pursue that interest, and were your friends and family supportive?
I grew up in the deepest part of the rural South on a dirt road that dead-ended at the oldest graveyard in the county. A large, ancient Magnolia tree anchored the graveyard, and unmarked graves scattered throughout. My childhood playground was something between a Truman Capote and Steven King novel. It is little surprise that one of my earliest memories was of a shadow figure standing in my bedroom. All throughout my childhood, I perceived entities coming into my bedroom at night; things I was never brave enough to look at directly.
As an adult, I spent some time abroad and lived on top of 2000-year-old burial mounds in the Middle East. I came back one summer for vacation and my cousin gave me Season One DVD of Ghost Hunters. I wasn’t someone who watched reality TV, much less of the paranormal sort. The show was cheesy and clichéd in many ways, but it also held some sort of deep appeal. Here were average people going into average homes interrogating the unknown in a seemingly rational way. Something about the exercise seemed transformative.
When I returned to the States a year later, I became formally involved with ghost hunting. My then-husband had stayed behind in the Middle East and I was single parenting a large number of stepchildren. I needed a social outlet. I needed magic in my life. I needed some sort of stillness to contemplate the bigger mysteries, and ghost hunting provided that.
It wasn’t long before I became involved with a longstanding team in my State, and one part of the TAPS Family Network. I was baffled as to why I found all of this so interesting, and how a reality TV show could foster a movement, of sorts, among viewers to actually go out and do this stuff. We weren’t seeing Jersey Shore clubs springing up around the US, for example. So I decided to write a book about what type of cultural relevancy these shows offered.
As a person who has lived in several countries and encountered different cultures throughout the world, what are the similarities and differences in the way Americans view the paranormal and, for example, Middle Easterners?
Paranormal interest in the US pulls from eclectic traditions, from Christianity to Pagan influences to Native American mythologies. We have the Hollywood factor, as well, which is distinctly American in its sensationalism regarding how such things are presented. Many ghost stories are often hybrid narratives, meaning the activity might be a ghost, or a shape shifter, or a demon, or an earth spirit. Or the noise one hears outside might be Big Foot. The possibilities are endless! On the other hand, some investigators in the United States are familiar with the parapsychology tradition, which explains these events as psi, mind over matter, offering an alternative explanation rather than a supernatural one to matters of the survival of consciousness after death and psychical abilities.
What is significant about ghost stories in the United States is that so many are tied to local history or specific locations–in a sense, exercises that keep local stories alive. There is a healthy sense of curiosity regarding these events, and sometimes a little bit of fear thrown in.
In the Muslim world, most unexplained events are associated with the djinn, interdimensional beings made from smokeless fire that have free will. They can be of any faith, including Christianity or Islam. Djinn are mentioned in the Quran as factual, although Muslims have differing opinions if djinn are real or metaphorical. There is often spectacular folklore surrounding the topic, as well as a cottage industry of exorcists and djinn extractors. Djinn activity is thought to be potentially dangerous, associated with black magic, and harmful. Fear tends to dominate the dialogue. If a family experiences objects moving in the home, they will pull from Islamic and folklore traditions to eliminate the activity rather than considering if the events are psychokinetic, for example, potentially associated with stress or trauma that someone in the home might be enduring.
In the four years since you wrote Paranormal Obsession, what has changed in the paranormal community? Do you see the same controversies, or have any of the issues you raised been resolved? Have they gotten worse?
One of the biggest shifts since writing the book is how the community is increasingly focused on the entertainment side of the field, as well as the cult of personality. Those elements have always existed, even as far back as the heyday of Spiritualism. Tension always defined the gap between the public faces of the paranormal in contrast to the quieter, research side. And the two sides have always endured a codependent relationship, of sorts.
But there seems to be more people emerging with little substance to offer, or little insight. They are just charismatic, or pretty, or exploitive, so they get attention and people assume they are somehow important. There aren’t any “requirements” to become a paranormal investigator, so anyone can do it, and indeed, many people have. I know of individuals who have never been in front of an audience in any capacity. They become a ghost hunter and suddenly they are a “personality” in the field. They get invited to conferences where they think they’ve arrived in the world because there are twenty people in the room during their lecture.
I admit that many invested people have benefited from increased public interest: there is more dialogue and cultural currency around the topic. I wrote two books on the subject. Many have enjoyed speaking engagements. So I don’t want to begrudge anyone with something to offer who has found a niche.
The paranormal field deals with a loaded subject matter, and it has always experienced drama and interesting personalities due to its marginalized, if magical, nature. The field attracts some deeply intellectual, curious individuals as well as others who have deep personality issues.
I struggle with this because I believe in and honor the tradition of academic, parapsychology research defined by the Rhine Research Center, which is often overlooked because it isn’t as sexy as the pop culture approach to the paranormal. On the other hand, I see the importance of the entertainment side: real cultural issues are explored. For example, these shows encourage renewed interest in history and historical sites. The paranormal gives those frustrated with institutionalized religion a new language to talk about metaphysical issues. For many involved in the “field,” this is their first experience with a volunteer group, and some gain new technological and organizational skills that are transferable to other parts of their lives.
Part of me thinks one should just sit back and enjoy the entertainment side because it is meant to be enjoyed and fluffy rather than overanalyzed. For those interested in research, such conversations are taking place in different circles and among different people, and always have (for the most part).
In Paranormal Obsession, you discuss the decline of parapsychology and the rise of “citizen science.” Do you view this new trend of amateur investigation positively? Why or why not?
At this point, parapsychology is citizen science as there aren’t many funding options for such research in the United States. Parapsychologists are winging it, and creatively so, in the absence of mainstream support.
But in the context of ghost hunting groups, there are some individuals who are extremely innovative when it comes to investigative techniques or creating equipment based on certain hypotheses. Also, good investigators have to brush up on basic scientific principles, from how radio waves and EMF work to environmental variables that can play a role in reported activity. Good investigators engage basic research methods and critical thinking skills, and I think that is part of the ghost hunting appeal for some.
What is missing is the creation of a body of data about all the investigations taking place, or even a standard on how to report and collect data. We have an unprecedented amount of investigation occurring at this cultural moment (some of it is dubious, of course). But if someone collects definitive data, we don’t have a way to report or analyze it. There isn’t an archive being created for the future.
Since Ghost Hunters premiered in 2004 and spawned hundreds of paranormal investigation teams, are we any closer to finding definitive proof of the existence of ghosts – the kind of proof a mainstream scientist would accept? Why or why not?
I have experienced and seen things I thought impossible, and those experiences have permitted me to accept that there are events that our current body of knowledge can’t yet explain. I don’t know if these events are ghosts, or disembodied sentient consciousness, or projections of the living. One university professor who moonlights as a ghost hunter summed it up for me when he suggested: “I can’t say if ghosts exist or not, but I can suggest that we are collecting data that something anomalous is occurring.”
We don’t even know what ghosts are (or they souls of the departed? Left over energy? Figments of our collective imagination?). Mainstream science isn’t interested in ghosts, although I sense a move in some corners of science to openly question if science can ever claim to have all answers; science itself shifts along with culture. Theories change as new discoveries emerge. Some scientists are increasingly interested in spirituality, because they sense spiritual experiences access knowledge that traditional science is excluding, for example.
I don’t know if mainstream science will ever agree on life after death, but there may be new discussions around parallel topics (quantum physics, the study of consciousness and the brain) that offer insight into things that were once considered woo-woo and weird.
Finally, I feel that part of the ghost hunting appeal isn’t that we really believe will one day unlock these great mysteries. Many gravitate to this avocation because they are trying to unlock something within themselves, and ghost hunting provides a convenient metaphor. The greatest journey—and the most frightening one—is looking directly at the things we perceive to be haunting us.
Where can our readers go to learn more about you, your books, and your upcoming events and appearances?
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