Psychologist Robert Curran is an well-known expert in folklore and the paranormal, who has written dozens of fascinating books on faeries, vampires,werewolves and stranger things. His most recent book is The Ghost Handbook, a study of ghost fiction and possibly ghost fact. When he’s not writing and exploring the dark corners of our world, Dr. Curran works as a community advocate and educator in his native Ireland.
Why and when did you become involved with the study of the supernatural, paranormal phenomena and folklore?
I suppose I’ve always been interested in the paranormal and supernatural. I grew up in a rather remote rural area of Northern Ireland and if you could see the grey in my beard, you’d know that this wasn’t yesterday. For many people round about, the supernatural was part of their way of life – they believed in ghosts, fairies, “the second sight” – and I suppose that became a part of my life as well. My grandfather, with whom I lived for a time, was a “seanachie” (a man of lore, wise man, storyteller) in the locality and so beliefs and stories were always a part of my life. Later, I travelled in parts of America and in North Africa and elsewhere and began to hear the stories and study the lore of other peoples and I think this has now become a part of my being. Besides which I’m always curious about the ways in which people view the world.
How would you define supernatural? To what extent do you believe in paranormal phenomena?
The supernatural is, I think, an interpretation of the world around us. We all frame up our world and make sense of it in various ways and the supernatural – whether it be magic, ghosts, fairies or whatever – is one way. The best way I can perhaps describe it to you is: Suppose you go up a ladder six times and nothing happens to you and I go up it once and fall off and break my leg. The question which I ask myself is: “Why should he/she go up the ladder and nothing happens, whereas I go up it and have an accident?” Now one explanation might be bad luck or carelessness, but another might be the work of evil spirits, fairies or witchcraft. And I think deep within all of us is a desire to have something outside ourselves guiding us – few of us (I think) want a Universe that simply depends on blind chance, no matter how big a sceptic we are. Having said that, however, my own views have probably been partly shaped by my grandmother who was a huge sceptic, especially when it came to belief and folklore. I’m quite willing to believe in the supernatural and in paranormal phenomena – I won’t discount it – but only when all other explanations and interpretations have failed.
What kind of research do you do when you’re writing one of your books?
My research takes two forms. First I have travelled about a bit and have talked to people about a lot of the subjects I write about (I’m still doing it) and based on what they say I make my own judgements on it. The second form is from reading. I’m answering these questions sitting in the library of my home which is chock full of books on all sorts of esoteric subjects. Some of them might be discounted as plain crazy but even in these you will find a nugget and who am I to judge? Whatever views they have deserve to be taken on board and examined. I’ve always been a voracious reader and a lot of this pays off. When I’m first approached to do a book I usually spend a number of weeks reading around the subject before sitting down at the computer. Oh and the Internet can be a good source of information too as long as you remember that all kinds of things are there.
Are there similarities across cultures when it comes to monsters and things that go bump in the night?
There are definitely similarities between the stories of various cultures – and not only when it comes to monsters. This is because we’re all human and the same sort of things concern us, no matter where we are – hunger, poverty, love etc. These are all part of the experience of being human. Similarly we all experience fear and we try to identify and interpret it in some way. The ways that we choose to do this may be different, depending on our culture and our environment and the monsters that we visualise may be a bit different – but the underlying premise is the same. All of them are, I think, a response to the world around us and how we perceive it.
What would you say has been the most personally gratifying moment in your career?
I’m not sure. I get a great deal of satisfaction from what I write but I also work at other things – for example teaching and working with communities as part of the developing Peace Process in Northern Ireland and this gives me a personal gratification too. On the writing front, I suppose when somebody writes and tells me how much they’ve enjoyed my books (and for some reason some people do) I feel gratified or in some situation where I can say that I’ve made a difference or something would not have happened if I hadn’t been around – that’s very gratifying personally. I know that might sound a bit trite but I do think it’s the truth – it is for me.
Do you think that the old myths are dying in the modern age? Are they being replaced with new myths?
I think that our interpretation of the world around us is changing and this is making what we might call “old myths” to disappear. And, rather sadly, we tend to think that our interpretations are best and that he older ones are foolish. For example, we tend to look back at our ancestors and say “We’re they silly to believe that? We’re much more sophisticated than that!” But our ancestors framed up the world in a way which suited them and if ghosts and fairies were real for them – then they were real. Nowadays we tend to frame up the world in a scientific, materialistic sense. If we can’t touch it, own it, prove it or whatever, then it doesn’t exist and isn’t important. We’re maybe on a different value system from those that have gone before – but that’s not to say that what has gone before isn’t important. So yes, old myths are dying out and new ideas are coming in. It’s all about how we perceive the world though.
Is there a topic that you simply won’t study?
Because I’m curious and want to understand things, I’ve never come across anything to date that I won’t study or hasn’t fascinated me. Wearing my psychologist’s hat, I’ve written on “monsters” like John George Haigh (the Crawley vampire) or Ed Gein in the US and people have asked me “How can you study that”. But I genuinely think I have a need to understand – what makes these people they way they are. And in understanding what shocks and offends us we understand a bit more of the world around us and our place in it. In my capacity as a psychologist I’ve met some strange and offensive people but does that mean that I should give up psychology? No matter how offensive they are, they’re part of the way in which the world works. In trying to understand these things we maybe understand more about ourselves.
Your latest book concerns ghosts. Do you believe in the survival of the self after death?
If you ask me personally if I believe in life after death, I would probably say no (although I could be utterly and completely wrong and I’m willing to admit that). I have a feeling that death may be the end of all things (again I could be wrong). What we refer to as ghosts and other paranormal phenomena might be down to something other than the spirits of the dead. But that’s just my own view and the most fascinating thing (and the thing which intrigues me most) is that I could be completely wrong. That’s what research is all about isn’t it? I remain willing to be convinced.
What do you think of the various ghost hunting programs on television?
I’m very wary of any of these television haunting programmes. In fact I’ve taken part in one or two. The problem is that most of these programmes seem to be driven by viewer ratings – if they don’t attract a big enough audience, then they don’t get made again. Some are simply vehicles for the presenters. So I find it hard to take any of them seriously. In the ones I took part in, we didn’t really find anything – there were a few odd noises which others claimed were the work of ghosts. I thought it might be just old buildings settling. Others claim to have seen things which I didn’t – I can’t really comment on that. We did part of a programme in a prison, and in the hanging wing right under the trap door which murderers had fallen through whilst being hanged and which terrified the presenter out of his skin – I’m afraid I nearly fell asleep (it was late at night and way post my bedtime), it was the most comfortable place in the whole prison. Whether that says more about me, I don’t know. Maybe it was a question of imagination, anticipation and interpretation. But I marvel at how many people on these television shows “experience” things – could it be for audience ratings? Anyway, I’ve given up watching them, so I truthfully couldn’t comment on them any further. Of course, I’m not saying that a place couldn’t be haunted! Maybe just not on a radio or television show.
Does one require special equipment to experience the supernatural? Can you give any advice to would-be ghost hunters?
Maybe as we understand more about what the phenomena that we call “ghosts” is, we may need special equipment (most of which is not cheap) either to monitor our surroundings or ourselves. You can buy all sorts of equipment and I’ve no doubt that some of it may help but maybe the best way to detect “ghosts” is to trust our instincts – but that’s only my view. My advice to would-be ghost hunters? Always look for a rational explanation when looking at the supernatural. When you’ve eliminated every other possible explanation, what you’re left with is probably a ghost.