Investigating the Origins of the Paranormal: Reality, Entertainment and Manipulation


10 weeks

Day and time:

Thursdays, 6.30-8.30pm

Next course: Starting date
Thursday, 26 Apr 2018
Future courses: Upcoming dates

Course overview

Related subjects

Cultural Studies

Department Anthropology

Richard Hoggart Building

Paranormal beliefs have become extremely widespread in recent years, and are now a focus of many forms of popular entertainment (with paranormal themes informing many contemporary films, TV dramas and reality shows). Why is this? Why do so many of us believe in paranormal phenomena such as ghosts, UFOs, and Bigfoot? Are such beliefs harmful or even dangerous?

I thoroughly enjoyed this course and it exceeded my expectations. I learnt a lot of new topics and it definitely gave me a lot to think about between lessons. 

Participant, 2017

In examining the origins, history and contemporary significance of the paranormal, this course critically uncovers some of the ways in which paranormal beliefs not only help us in dealing with the anxieties of living in a rapidly changing, globalised world, but also how those beliefs have been subject to political manipulation around issues of race and national identity.

Whilst social media and online sources have played an important role in popularising the paranormal, these sources often offer incomplete and uncritical perspectives; alternatively, this course offers participants the opportunity to discuss and debate the contemporary importance of the paranormal in an engaged, academically-informed and enthusiastic manner with Justin Woodman: a social scientist and anthropologist who has researched the impact and significance of paranormal for the past 15 years.

As such, the course is not concerned with either proving or disproving the existence of particular paranormal phenomenon, but with providing participants with a developed critical framework for understanding both the psychology of paranormal beliefs, and how paranormal beliefs shape our social, cultural and political understandings of the modern world in often surprising and unexpected ways. In doing so, the course introduces you to the history and contexts of the concept of ‘the paranormal’, with a focus on the following: ghosts and hauntings; psychic powers and parapsychology; ufos, alien encounters and alien abduction narratives; conspiracy theories and urban legends; monsters, ‘living’ dinosaurs and ‘cryptozoology’ (the study of unknown animals); historical anomalies and ‘lost’ or ‘hidden’ civilizations.

What are the course aims?

The aim of the course is to develop participants' understanding of and ability to critically analyse the social and cultural significance of paranormal beliefs - and the reasons why the paranormal is so prevalent within forms of popular and visual culture and contemporary media – through the lens of various anthropological perspectives.

To this end, you will acquire a critical understanding of key anthropological theories as they pertain to understanding social and cultural salience of paranormal beliefs and experiences. You will also acquire an understanding of why paranormal beliefs continues to be relevant in a contemporary, globalised world by looking at the relationship between the paranormal, visual media and other forms of popular culture.

What will I study?

Each session will be delivered in a 2-hour format which will involve approximately 1 hour of lecturing (broken down into 2 x 30 minute lecture sessions, complimented with short films and other audio-visual material). The remaining time will be devoted to group/workshop activities to enable you to clarify and consolidate your knowledge, develop your insights and engage in critical evaluation of the ideas presented in lecturers and reading materials, and share your ideas with other members of the class.

Future courses

Upcoming dates:
Thursday, 26 Apr 2018 - Thursday, 28 Jun 2018

How to Apply

Please click on the date of the course you'd like to attend. You'll be taken to Eventbrite, which is our booking system:

Please be aware that our short courses sell-out quickly, therefore early booking is advisable to avoid dissapointment.



Tutor information

Dr Woodman studied at Goldsmiths where he completed his doctoral research on concept and the politics of the ‘demonic’ within contemporary occultures in the UK. His current research interests include: esotericism, speculative fiction and popular culture; racism and political extremism within cultures of conspiracy; religion, cognition and the ‘New Atheism’. He currently lectures in our Department of Anthropology and specialises in teaching introductory modules to adult learners. Dr Woodman has over 15 years of experience teaching introductory anthropology courses to adult learners on non–accredited courses, and has a stage 1 teaching qualification in this field.‌ He also teaches on our short course, Culture, Society and the Making of Humanity: Introducing Anthropology



Learning outcomes

On successful completion of this course, you will be able to:

  • Identify and evaluate how anthropological approaches can be used to understand and critically evaluate the contemporary social and cultural significance of paranormal beliefs and experience
  • Identify various features of the category of ‘the paranormal’, as well as the range of relationships that connect specific paranormal beliefs, practices and experiences with the cultural contexts in which they occur.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the relationship between paranormal beliefs and society/social change.
  • Demonstrate an ability to engage in exposition and critical evaluation of their own and others’ ideas through participation in group discussions and exercises.
  • Demonstrate an ability to reflect with sensitivity upon worldviews, viewpoints and beliefs different to your own.

About the department

Goldsmiths has one of the best Anthropology departments in Europe and is committed committed to cultivating a unique and creative approach, seeking to encourage originality and to challenge the norms with regard to the way we approach our subjects.

We are also committed to supporting our students by creating a responsive and collaborative learning environment, and by providing inspiring opportunities for personal and social development both within the classroom and without. The Department of Anthropology also has an international reputation for pioneering new fields including visual anthropology and the anthropology of modernity, and as such is committed to making the discipline of anthropology relevant to understanding and engaging with important and contemporary global issues.

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