BWW Interview: PART ONE - SUPERNATURAL HISTORIAN & AUTHOR MASON WINFIELD
Mason Winfield is an author and a historian of the supernatural.
He does enjoy the "ghostly/paranormal business".
This is part one of my two part interview with Mr. Winfield ... and what better time to do a two part interview than the month of Halloween.
Thank you Mason Winfield for the interview.
MCL: Describe what the supernatural is?
MW: The ghostly/paranormal business is wacky in almost every sense, but we can at least be coherent with our terms. And while we must never let terminology lead us, it has to be acknowledged that terms can help us clarify our thinking.
Supernatural is an imprecise term, even though I use it a lot as shorthand. What we of course mean by the word is, roughly, "things, beings, or events that are apparently non-natural." It means things that appear ghostly or magical; things that run counter to the currently accepted laws of cause and effect in the material world; things that cannot be explained by means of the scientific method.
Since there's so little serious acceptance for the effectiveness of magic - we know people practice it, but does it work? - and since our eventual subject is ghostly, we may find it more useful to think about other things that are presumed to operate counter to the accepted laws of physical reality: psychic phenomena. We need to distinguish the psychic from the general paranormal.
Psychic phenomena refers to "spooky things (again shorthand) presumed to originate with the human mind, soul or personality" - the immaterial components of us called the psyche. Handy examples of psychic phenomena would be ghosts, ESP, prophecies, telepathy, visions, and (presumably) poltergeist phenomena.
Despite the heavy pop use of the word paranormal to mean "ghostly," the word is most useful as it was traditionally used, referring to things that were simply out of the current picture of the normal. Psychic subjects would be components of the field of the paranormal the way dogs would be members of the canine order, but the paranormal would include everything else you can think of - UFOs and ETs, mystery monsters, earthly energies, crop circles, even ancient mysteries - that is not accepted as valid by the mainstream. None of those items are presumably supernatural - "magical/ghostly." They are simply not accepted.
This means, of course, that someone calling him- or herself "a paranormal investigator" could be using the term incorrectly, unless he or she is also studying other types of paranormal subjects. Someone who runs around in allegedly haunted sites hoping to call up or experience phenomena presumed to be ghostly is more properly a psychic- something. ("Investigator" seems an exceptionally formal term for that pastime.)
Never forget that things that are at one time considered paranormal do sometimes become accepted as normal. The Mountain Gorilla was looked at in most of the 19th century like Bigfoot is right now. (The Africans had surely had their own opinions, but the Gorilla beringei wasn't "discovered" by Europeans until 1902.) Archaeoastronomy - the astronomical orientation of much preindustrial ritual architecture like Stonehenge and many Mesoamerican towns and temples - was ridiculed like a UFO ride in mainstream circles until two fine scholars, Gerald Hawkins and Anthony Aveni, did objective studies of those respective structures and wrote books about them. Closer to home, the "Clovis First" theory in American paleoanthropology was such a fixture that responsible archaeologists who dared suggest that there could have been people in the American continents before the arrival of the classic Clovis projectile point (roughly 13,000 years before present) were ridiculed at conferences and parties as if they had suggested the Great Pyramid was built by UFOs. (Then Tom Dillehay stood by his guns and said, Come and look at Monte Verde with me and see what C-14 dates you get.)
But one paranormal thing being found to be true, I point out, does not imply that any others are. It merely suggests that we should give a fair shot to most of the subjects we consider, and that we should always be willing to question.
That smashing breakthrough has not happened in any of the subjects we still consider paranormal.
MCL: How did you get into it?
MW: I was interested in psychic/paranormal subjects as a kid. But I'm a curious guy, at least about a lot of academic subjects, most of them more mainstream. I'm really a lit man. I studied English and Classics at Denison University and got my MA focusing mostly on Brit lit at Boston College. I have interests just as strong in Celtic and Iroquoian culture, in world folklore, and in several favored writers, including Shakespeare, Yeats, Joyce, and most of the British Romantics. I could have enjoyed a career in any of those disciplines, and indeed the reason I didn't go on for a Ph. D. was that I thought I would have been funneled into an ever-narrowing study and unable to keep up with all my other interests. I just didn't want to specialize.
A good MA doesn't get you many jobs outside teaching. The work to achieve it, though, does prepare you to study just about anything strategically and quickly, at least in anything close to the humanities. I knew I had that skill when I left teaching at an independent boarding school, and I had to figure out what I could do with it. Except for going back to high school teaching, it seemed too late and too difficult to start a new career in mainstream academia. My goal was to have an independent career writing and speaking based on subjects of my own interest. I saw the fascination the general public had in the paranormal, and I set about to specialize in it, specifically in my region, Western New York. Shortly after I left teaching I had a book deal and a budding career as a speaker and ghost-walk company founder. I figured a decent scholar would do all right quickly. I've been sort of an entrepreneur in the field ever since.
MCL: What makes you so interested in it?
MW: In the big picture, although the psychic/paranormal may be disrespected, the breadth of the subjects it touches is impressive. It's objectively interesting, and you can use it to do some good. The paranormal is a great hook to draw people to be interested in things that almost anyone would consider valuable, including history, architecture, anthropology, preindustrial cultures, Native American tradition, and folklore. You can use paranormal-related talks and tours to raise awareness of architectural and cultural preservation.
In the little picture, the personal, I find some of the most tantalizing folkloric stories to be ones that involve magical powers, events, and beings. Supernatural literature is simply charming to me. I like the imaginative connection to the past as well, which in some ways seems so much more interesting than the techie present. I guess also I like the potential of the imagination over the limits of brute reality.
MCL: You've written many books on the supernatural ... why do you think people are so interested in it?
MW:I think there are two main reasons. One is the most obvious, that people love to be titillated. They like to be safely scared. Ghost-, wonder-, and monster stories tend to do all that.
The other is that in general, every reader or viewer is selfish, and some of the ultimate questions to be answered about life on this planet (Is there a life to come? Are we alone in the universe? Is life simply physical?) are at least in the long run addressed by psychic and paranormal subjects.
MCL: Is the Buffalo, N.Y., area rich with the supernatural?
MW: I used to think the Buffalo region was exceptional for supernatural folklore and paranormal report, but to state that I'd have something to compare it to. I'd have to subject many other regions of the nation to the same sustained study I've given this one, which would take me several lifetimes. Let's say with conviction that Buffalo and the Niagara Frontier have a lot more supernatural folklore than you would expect based on the general patterns.
In places with deep historic pasts and long legacies of dramatic historic action, getting a bunch of ghost stories is plucking the low-hanging fruit. American coastal cities, for instance - Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans - have directly experienced several major wars and had many more years of dense historic occupation. Almost any town or village in Europe has a thousand years behind the development of its folklore.
On the Niagara... It would be unfair to say that we were out of the currents of history, but except for the War of 1812, the Niagara is a bit of a backwater on the grand stage. Here on the Niagara, historic - white - contact is only about 400 years old. Settlement goes back roughly two centuries. Our human history just isn't that old.
MCL: You host a Ghostwalk. Please let everyone know what a Ghostwalk is?
MW: A Haunted History Ghost Walk is a narrated, guided walking tour of a small area, typically a village or the district of a city, focused on psychic, paranormal, and other mysterious stories about its present, its history, and its deep past. It's all outdoors, and we typically walk no more than a mile and no longer than 90 minutes. We stop for storytelling breaks at sites and spots of relevance.
We are storytellers, not ghost-hunters. We are historians and folklorists, not psychic mediums who talk to the dead. We are profilers, looking at tendencies in the accounts of perceived human experience at sites and leaving the ghostly/spiritual interpretations to others. Exploring the connections between ghost stories and other disciplines - like architecture, folklore, occultism, and Native American tradition - is our signature. We're the only ghost walk outfit in my knowledge with a working understanding of parapsychology.
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