13:42
TEDxVienna

Carrie Poppy: A scientific approach to the paranormal

Filmed:

What's haunting Carrie Poppy? Is it ghosts or something worse? In this talk, the investigative journalist narrates her encounter with a spooky feeling you'll want to warn your friends about and explains why we need science to deal with paranormal activity.

- Writer, radio host, comedian
Carrie Poppy tells stories on the fringes of human experience through writing, live storytelling and radio. Full bio

Eight years ago, I was haunted
by an evil spirit.
00:12
I was 25 at the time,
00:20
and I was living in a tiny house
behind someone else's house
00:22
in Los Angeles.
00:26
It was this guest house,
it had kind of been dilapidated,
00:28
not taken care of for a long time.
00:31
And one night, I was sitting there
00:34
and I got this really spooky feeling,
00:38
kind of the feeling
like you're being watched.
00:42
But no one was there except my two dogs,
00:45
and they were just chewing their feet.
00:48
And I looked around. No one was there.
00:51
And I thought, OK,
it's just my imagination.
00:55
But the feeling just kept getting worse,
00:59
and I started to feel
this pressure in my chest,
01:02
sort of like the feeling
when you get bad news.
01:07
But it started to sink lower and lower
01:10
and almost hurt.
01:13
And over the course of that week,
this feeling got worse and worse,
01:16
and I started to become convinced
that something was there
01:19
in my little guest house, haunting me.
01:25
And I started to hear these sounds,
01:30
this "whoosh," kind of whisper,
like something passing through me.
01:33
I called my best friend, Claire, and said,
01:40
"I know this is going to sound crazy,
01:45
but, um ...
01:48
I think there's a ghost in my house,
and I need to get rid of it."
01:50
And she said -- she's very
open-minded -- and she said,
01:55
"I don't think you're crazy.
02:00
I think you just need
to do a cleansing ritual."
02:01
(Laughter)
02:05
"So get some sage and burn it,
02:07
and tell it to go away."
02:12
So I said, "OK,"
and I went and I bought sage.
02:15
I had never done this before,
so I set the sage on fire,
02:19
waved it about, and said, "Go away!
This is my house! I live here.
02:23
You don't live here!"
02:29
But the feeling stayed.
Nothing got better.
02:32
And then I started to think,
02:35
OK, well now this thing is probably
just laughing at me,
02:38
because it hasn't left,
02:40
and I probably just look like
this impotent, powerless thing
02:43
that couldn't get it to go away.
02:46
So every day I'd come home
02:48
and you guys, this feeling got so bad
that -- I mean, I'm laughing at it now --
02:52
but I would sit there in bed
and cry every night.
02:58
And the feeling on my chest
got worse and worse.
03:03
It was physically painful.
03:08
And I even went to a psychiatrist
03:11
and tried to get her
to prescribe me medicine,
03:14
and she wouldn't just because
I don't have schizophrenia, OK.
03:18
(Laughter)
03:22
So finally I got on the internet,
and I Googled "hauntings."
03:25
And I came upon this forum
of ghost hunters.
03:32
But these were a special
kind of ghost hunters --
03:35
they were skeptics.
03:38
They believed that every case of ghosts
that they had investigated so far
03:39
had been explained away by science.
03:45
And I was like, "OK, smart guys,
this is what's happening to me,
03:47
and if you have an explanation for me,
I would love to hear it."
03:51
And one of them said, "OK.
03:55
Um, have you heard
of carbon monoxide poisoning?"
03:58
And I said, "Yeah.
04:04
Like, gas poisoning?"
04:09
Carbon monoxide poisoning
is when you have a gas leak
04:12
leaking into your home.
04:15
I looked it up, and the symptoms
of carbon monoxide poisoning
04:17
include a pressure on your chest,
04:23
auditory hallucinations -- whoosh --
04:26
and an unexplained feeling of dread.
04:30
So that night, I called the gas company.
04:35
I said, "I have an emergency.
I need you to come out.
04:38
I don't want to get into the story now,
but I need you to come out."
04:42
(Laughter)
04:45
They came out. I said,
"I suspect a gas leak."
04:46
They brought their carbon
monoxide detector,
04:49
and the man said,
04:51
"It's a really good thing
that you called us tonight,
04:54
because you could have been
dead very soon."
04:57
Thirty-seven percent of Americans
believe in haunted houses,
05:01
and I wonder how many of them
have been in one
05:07
and how many of them have been in danger.
05:11
So that haunting story
has led me to my job.
05:16
I'm an investigator, and I'm
an investigator in two senses:
05:21
I'm an investigative journalist,
05:24
and I'm also an investigator
of the claims of the paranormal
05:26
and claims of the spiritual.
05:29
And that means a few things.
05:31
Sometimes that means that I'm pretending
to need an exorcism
05:32
so I can get -- yes, that's right! --
so I can go to an exorcist
05:36
and see if he's using gimmicks
or psychological tricks
05:41
to try to convince someone
that they're possessed.
05:45
Sometimes that means
I'm going undercover in a fringe group
05:47
which I report on
for a podcast that I co-host.
05:51
And I've done over 70 investigations
like this with my co-host, Ross.
05:54
I would love to tell you
that nine times out of 10, science wins,
05:59
saves the day, it's all explained.
06:04
That's not true.
06:07
The truth is, 10 times out of 10,
science wins, it saves the day.
06:08
(Applause)
06:14
And that doesn't mean
there's no such thing as a mystery.
06:27
Of course there are mysteries,
but a mystery is a mystery.
06:29
It is not a ghost.
06:33
Now, I believe there are
two kinds of truth,
06:36
and it's taken me a while to get
to this place, but I think this is right,
06:40
so hear me out.
06:44
I think there is outer truth
and there's inner truth.
06:45
So if you say to me,
06:48
"There was a man named Jesus
and he once existed,"
06:52
that's outer truth, right?
06:54
And we can go and look
at the historical record.
06:56
We can determine
whether that seems to be true.
06:58
And I would argue,
it does seem to be true.
07:01
If you say, "Jesus rose
from the dead," -- ooh, trickier.
07:03
(Laughter)
07:09
I would say that's an outer-truth claim,
07:12
because he physically rose or he didn't.
07:19
I'm not going to get into
whether he rose or he didn't,
07:21
but I would say
that's an outer-truth claim.
07:24
It happened or it didn't happen.
07:26
But if you say, "I don't care
whether he rose from the dead.
07:28
It's symbolically important to me,
07:31
and that metaphor is so meaningful,
so purposeful to me,
07:34
and I'm not going to try
to persuade you of it,"
07:37
now you've moved it
from outer truth to inner truth,
07:39
from science to art.
07:42
And I think we have a tendency
to not be clear about this,
07:44
to try to move our inner truths
to outer truths,
07:47
or to not be fair about it to each other,
07:50
and when people are telling us
their inner truths,
07:53
to try to make them defend them
by outer-truth standards.
07:56
So I'm talking here about outer truth,
about objective things.
07:59
And there was an objective reality
in my haunted house, right?
08:03
Now that I've told you about the gas leak,
08:08
I doubt a single person here
would be like,
08:10
"I still think there was a ghost, too" --
08:13
(Laughter)
08:15
because as soon as we have
these scientific explanations,
08:16
we know to give up the ghost.
08:18
We use these things as stopgaps
for things that we can't explain.
08:20
We don't believe them because of evidence;
08:24
we believe them because
of a lack of evidence.
08:26
So there is a group in Los Angeles
08:30
called the Independent
Investigations Group, or the IIG,
08:32
and they do great work.
08:36
They'll give a $10,000 prize
08:38
to anyone who can show,
under scientific conditions,
08:41
that they have a paranormal ability.
08:45
No one's done it yet,
08:48
but they've had a couple people
who claim that they were clairaudients,
08:49
which means that they can hear voices
either from the great beyond
08:54
or they can read minds.
08:59
And they had one person
who was very sincere,
09:00
who believed that he could read minds.
09:03
And a lot of these people --
09:06
(Laughter)
09:09
That wasn't a laugh line, but OK.
09:12
A lot of these people really are sincere,
09:15
and I believe this guy was.
09:20
He really thought he had this power.
09:22
So they set up a test with him,
and this is the way it always works.
09:24
The group says, "OK, we have a protocol,
09:30
we have a way to scientifically test this.
09:32
Do you agree with it?"
09:34
The person says yes. Then they test it.
09:35
It's very important that both sides agree.
09:37
They did that, they tested him.
09:39
They said, "OK, you know what?
09:42
You weren't able to predict
what Lisa was thinking.
09:44
It matched up about the same as chance.
09:48
Looks like you don't have the power."
09:50
And that gave them the opportunity
09:52
to compassionately sit down with him
and have a very difficult discussion,
09:54
which basically amounted to,
09:59
"Hey, we know you're sincere,
and what that means is,
10:01
you do hear something in your head."
10:06
And that's a tough thing to face.
10:08
(Laughter) (Applause)
10:11
But that day, that guy got to make
the very difficult decision,
10:16
but really the life-changing decision
about whether to go get help.
10:22
(Laughter)
10:29
But that really could be
the first day of the rest of your life,
10:31
because when we challenge these beliefs,
10:36
we're actually helping people
to make these connections
10:40
that maybe before seemed like
otherworldly explanations,
10:45
help draw us into reality
and maybe change our lives for the better.
10:50
Now, on the other hand,
maybe one time it'll turn out to be true.
10:57
Maybe we'll find out there are ghosts,
11:03
and holy shit, it will be the best thing!
11:05
And every time I do
one of these investigations,
11:08
I still get so excited,
11:10
and I'm like 75 into them,
11:12
and still I swear on number 76,
I'm going to be like, "This is the one!"
11:14
(Laughter)
11:18
Maybe I'm just eternally optimistic,
but I hope I never lose this hope,
11:20
and I invite you to take
this same attitude
11:24
when people share
their outer beliefs with you.
11:28
When talking about testable claims,
11:31
respect them enough to ask
these good questions.
11:33
Challenge and see
how you can examine them together,
11:37
because there's this idea
that you can't respect a belief
11:40
and still challenge it,
but that's not true.
11:44
When we jiggle the lock,
when we test the claim,
11:47
we're saying, OK, I respect you,
I'm listening to what you're saying,
11:49
I'm going to test it out with you.
11:53
We've all had that experience
where you're telling someone something,
11:55
and they're like, "Oh,
that's really interesting, yeah,"
11:59
you know you're being had.
12:01
But when someone says, "Really? Huh.
12:04
Sounds a little sketchy to me,
but I'm listening,"
12:08
you at least know
you're being engaged and respected.
12:10
And that's the kind of attitude
we should have with these claims.
12:13
That's showing someone
that you care what they're saying.
12:16
That's respect.
12:19
Now, yes, most of these searches
will come up empty,
12:25
but that's how all of science works.
12:29
Every cure for cancer so far
has not panned out,
12:32
but we don't stop looking,
12:36
for two reasons.
12:38
Because number one, the answer matters.
12:40
Whether it's looking at the afterlife
or the paranormal or the cure for cancer,
12:42
it all amounts to the same question:
12:46
How long will we be here?
12:48
And two, because looking for the truth,
12:52
being open-minded,
12:56
and being willing to be wrong
and to change your whole worldview
12:57
is awe-inspiring.
13:02
I still get excited at ghost stories
every single time.
13:05
I still consider that every group
I join might be right,
13:09
and I hope I never lose that hope.
13:12
Let's all never lose that hope,
13:14
because searching for what's out there
13:15
helps us understand what's in here.
13:18
And also, please have
a carbon monoxide detector in your home.
13:21
Thank you.
13:29
(Applause)
13:30

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About the Speaker:

Carrie Poppy - Writer, radio host, comedian
Carrie Poppy tells stories on the fringes of human experience through writing, live storytelling and radio.

Why you should listen

On her podcast, Oh No, Ross and Carrie, Carrie Poppy and her cohost join fringe spiritual groups, undergo freaky alternative medical treatments, and examine any extraordinary claims that come their way. Oh No, Ross and Carrie receives millions of downloads a year and has been celebrated by outlets like The Guardian, The A.V. Club, Gizmodo, Boing Boing, SplitSider and many others. Poppy received her master's degree in investigative journalism from the University of Southern California, and her journalism work can be seen and heard in outlets across the internet and the airwaves. She is now writing a book about cults.

More profile about the speaker
Carrie Poppy | Speaker | TED.com