What Paranormal Tourism Reveals About the Human Psyche


October is ‘Halloween season’ – a fun cultural holiday for many people worldwide. It represents a socially sanctioned time of year when children and adults alike can escape to a realm of fantasy and mystery that involves the simultaneous expression of the ‘lighter’ and ‘darker’ sides of human nature. In addition to carving pumpkins, dressing in costume, and the nightly ritual of trick-or-treating, a favourite activity this month for many people is the psychosocial phenomenon known as ‘paranormal tourism.’ In fact, these excursions are very popular throughout the entire year. Over the past decade social scientists have increasingly researched this niche to learn why it possesses such an enduring and widespread allure. One recent market study has revealed new insights that have wide potential for understanding consumer motivations for immersive experiences.

Paranormal tourism is broadly defined as “visits to any setting or locale for the explicit purpose of potentially encountering paranormal phenomena, whether for leisure, investigation, services, products, or conventions.” Thus, this activity encompasses both ‘legend-tripping,’ i.e., deliberate excursions to spooky locations, as well as virtual excursions such as live-streamed videos or television shows about ‘ghost hunts.’ Folklorists might regard such pursuits as examples of ‘ostension,’ which is showing or acting out a legend’s narrative in real life. From the perspective of tourism, paranormal tourism is arguably a hybrid between ‘heritage tourism’ (focused on local culture and history) and ‘dark tourism’ (focused on sites associated with human tragedy, suffering, or death). This hints that paranormal tourists are searching for escapism or thrills. But the new research indicates that paranormal tourists consistent of both active and passive seekers, and that these consumers are even willing to travel to inconvenient locations to get their paranormal ‘fix.’

What is that ‘fix’ exactly? Well, it seems to involve two mechanisms that unfold in parallel. First, paranormal tours are in essence ghost narratives in which anyone can actually participate in an active way. Indeed, they are perhaps the prime example of genuinely ‘immersive’ experiences that many contemporary consumers strive for. Such experiences are often defined as “an illusory environment that completely surrounds you such that you feel that you are inside it and part of it.” The term originated with technology environments that were designed to command the senses such as “virtual, augmented, or mixed realities.” Yet, paranormal tourism seemingly is popular across a wide array of consumers because it embodies five specific features that create a powerful brand personality, similar to the most successful products like Amazon or Apple. These characteristics are defined by the ‘VAPUS Model.’ Specifically, ghostly narratives — as religious-cultural beliefs, shared stories, or putative experiences ― show Versatility, Adaptability, Participatory aspects, Universality, and Scalability. Together, these features interest and engage wildly diverse audiences.

Second, consumers are willing to pay for these VAPUS experiences, in part, because they are neither positioned nor expected to be ‘illusory.’ Thus, the emerging data are helping to refine our understanding of the nature and relevance of immersive experiences. Rather than indulging in a techno-generated ‘illusion,’ paranormal tourists are buying into a sort of lottery… the chance to experience something genuinely ‘otherworldly.’ Note that this need not involve thrills or chills associated with scary attractions, such as horror movies or amusement park rides. What we are talking about is the opportunity for people to be lifted out of the mundane experience of their everyday life. This happens most dramatically when people are situated “betwixt and between” reality and fantasy by witnessing events or having experiences that challenges or expands their expectations and understanding of what is possible.

Thus, people seem to be yearning for ‘authentically visceral experiences’ that broaden their intellectual and emotional horizons. Many poets and academics have characterized this naturally occurring state of ‘surrealism’ as the essence of psychological ‘enchantment.’ Putting it all together, the popularity of paranormal tourism, in all its guises, seems to indicate that the classic ‘experience economy’ so long touted by business pundits is now transforming to an ‘enchantment economy.’ From this perspective, Halloween season is less about “things that go bump in the night” and more to do with “things that stoke the wow factor in the mind.” After all, who among us is not looking for a little enchantment in their lives?

Read the full article in the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly here.