Two-thirds of Americans say they've had a paranormal encounter

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
October 20, 2022, 3:25 PM GMT+0

Have you ever felt an eerie, unexplained presence? Seen the lights flicker at unexpected moments? Heard a whisper from a mysterious source? According to a recent YouGov poll, 67% of Americans believe they've had at least one of 13 paranormal experiences polled about.

Half of people who say they've had a paranormal encounter believe they have one of seven paranormal abilities asked about, such as being able to hear voices or read minds. One in three people who've had paranormal experiences say that they've lived in a house they believe is haunted. One scientific explanation for paranormal encounters — sleep paralysis — also finds support in our data. People who say they've had experiences with the paranormal are twice as likely as people who haven't to say they've had sleep paralysis at some point in their life.

Encounters with the paranormal

In an earlier poll, we asked Americans an open-ended question about their paranormal experiences. We grouped popular answers to this question into a list of 13 types of encounters, and in the recent poll, we asked Americans whether they've had experiences with each type. Below, we present findings from the open-ended responses on the Oct. 12 - 14 poll as well as follow-up poll results from Oct. 13-16 demonstrating the share of Americans who say they've had each form of encounter. Quotes have been edited for spelling and grammar and may not be representative of all responses.

37% of Americans say they've felt a presence or unknown energy

"I woke up immediately after my grandfather passed away and felt something was in the room with me. I saw what looked like heat waves hanging in the air beside the bed."

"I was laying in my bed in an old apartment I rented. I woke up and it felt like someone was on my chest. I tried to scream and it was like I didn't have a voice. Then, all of a sudden the weight was lifted and I found myself on the floor. I never slept in that room again."

33% of Americans say they've heard an unexplained sound or music

"My mother and I would hear music and a baby crying in our old house. It was late at night. None of our neighbors were close enough to hear and they didn't have babies."

"I heard a music box play (on its own) at the exact same time I felt the presence of a loved one."

30% of Americans say they've smelled an unexplained odor

"I often smell cigarette smoke and nobody in the house smokes. But my deceased mother-in-law did. Whenever I smell cigarettes, I believe she's visiting us."

"Smelling the cologne of my mother, stepmother, and grandpa in my room after they died. Dreaming of them with realistic and current conversations."

29% of Americans say they've heard the voice of someone who wasn't there

"My husband and I heard (and accidentally recorded) a demonic voice in the stairwell of our house one evening in 2019. It was not water pipes, nor an animal in the walls; this was a protracted, forcefully articulated sentence, spoken in some language that made no sense. If I had been alone (or even if we hadn't caught it on our Nest Cam), I would probably have doubted what I heard. But we have the recording, and it's still pretty chilling."

"After my grandmother was killed in an automobile accident, I distinctly heard her voice telling me that she was OK and I shouldn't be upset about the details of how she died."

28% of Americans say they've felt an unexplained change in temperature

"I was in a 100-year-old hotel in Brazil with abandoned floors that were accessible. As my friend and I explored, the temperature dropped and we saw orbs of light."

"Lying in bed at night, suddenly felt like someone was lying next to me. I felt a burst of cold air and a hand on my shoulder."

25% of Americans say they've seen lights or other devices turn on or off without explanation

"When I was young, mom had a little girl ghost that moved house to house with us. One night the ghost turned on lights and TVs all simultaneously. Mom and I unplugged everything and went back to bed. Not 15 minutes later it all came back on. TVs were blaring."

"Several encounters with ghosts, including one that turned on the burner on the gas stove while I watched the knob turn from five feet away."

22% of Americans say they've seen an object move without explanation

"We purchased our home back in 2010. Within the first couple of weeks we started to hear noises, things moved, and certain items disappeared. The items usually came back after a few days, but sometimes it was weeks and months before the items reappeared. Have seen our 'friend' several times: shadows that moved, etc."

"There was an unusual incident in a restaurant where I worked involving objects moving where they weren't supposed to."

20% of Americans say they've seen doors open or close without explanation

"I went to my friend's house. She reportedly had seen many ghosts in her house. She said that they slammed the kitchen doors and I agreed with her, although I had my doubts. Hours after I got there, we were sitting in the kitchen and her cupboard doors started opening and slamming shut. It was very scary."

"There have been a couple times when I was pet-sitting at my grandma's and had the animals with me in the room and heard doors and drawers being opened and shut."

19% of Americans say they've seen a spirit or ghost

"This is only one of many paranormal experiences I've had. This happened 50 years ago and is something I will never forget. A friend's father had passed away and I was spending the night at their home. I was apparently thirsty and woke in the middle of the night to get a drink of water. When I sat up in bed, I saw the deceased man standing in the doorway of the room I was sleeping in. I turned to get my bathrobe at the foot of the bed and when I looked back, he was gone. What I learned the next day is that I had been sleeping in his room."

"I used to see ghosts when I was little. My mom said when I was very young she caught me in the kitchen trying to turn on the burners. When she asked what I was doing she said I told her a little girl told me to do it. She ended up taking the knobs off of the burners for a while. I don't remember that but vaguely remember being terrified of things I'd see at night when I was around 4 or 5 years old."

Americans who've had what they believe are paranormal encounters are divided as to the cause of these experiences: 35% think it's more likely they were otherworldly or supernatural, while 29% think it's more likely the encounters have a scientific explanation that they just aren't aware of. Others (36%) aren't sure.

We also followed up with people who said they'd seen a spirit or ghost to find out more about their experiences. When asked about the identity of the spirit or ghost they encountered, people are equally likely to say it was someone they knew, such as a family member (29% say this) as they are to say it wasn't (29%); 28% say they've seen both types of spirits or ghosts.

People who say they've encountered a spirit or ghost are likely to have encountered them more than once; 75% of these people say they've encountered one at least twice, including 32% who say they've encountered one five times or more. Thankfully far more people have encountered good ghosts than evil ones: 40% of people who say they've encountered spirits or ghosts say they've only encountered good ones, while 7% say they've been evil and 17% say they've been neutral. Around one in four say they've encountered a mix of good, evil, and neutral spirits.

Paranormal abilities

Two in five Americans – 39% – say they have at least one of seven paranormal abilities asked about. The largest share – 24% – say they have the ability to psychically sense others' emotions or auras. The next most common ability, claimed by 15% of Americans, is hearing voices or sounds from spirits or ghosts. Between 12% and 13% of people believe they can either psychically see events in the past (retrocognition), present (clairvoyance), or future (precognition). Fewer say they can read minds (9%) or communicate with the dead (8%).

Age is a dividing factor when it comes to believing one has paranormal abilities. American adults under 45 are far more likely than older Americans to say they have the ability to sense emotions or auras (30% vs. 20%), hear voices or sounds from spirits or ghosts (22% vs. 10%), or psychically see events they're not present for (21% vs. 7%).

Paranormal encounters are more likely to happen to people who believe they have paranormal abilities. Americans who say they have at least one of the seven paranormal abilities polled about are much likelier than people who don't to say they've had each of the 13 types of paranormal experiences polled. Nine in 10 Americans who say they have at least one paranormal ability (93%) say they've had a paranormal experience, compared to half of people who say they do not have any paranormal abilities (50%).

Haunted houses

Paranormal encounters can result from haunted dwellings. One in four Americans (25%) say they've lived in a house they believe was haunted, and these people are far more likely than people who don't believe they've lived in a haunted house to say they've had each of 13 paranormal encounters asked about. In most cases, they are two to three times more likely to say they've had a particular encounter.

Sleep paralysis

One plausible scientific explanation for paranormal encounters is sleep paralysis, in which a person is conscious but unable to move or speak just after falling asleep or waking up. Sleep paralysis occurs when the body's transition to or from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is out of sync with the brain. Throughout history and across a variety of cultures, people experiencing sleep paralysis have reported symptoms such as feeling a dark presence, having hallucinations, and sensing a suffocating pressure. Several paranormal encounters shared with us by respondents share a remarkable similarity to the experience of sleep paralysis. Here are a few examples:

The feeling of floating above one's body and being unable to speak, common symptoms of sleep paralysis, are central to one respondent's story of a paranormal encounter:

"I was sleeping next to my boyfriend and I woke up in a spiritual state, hovering over him. I opened my mouth to scream into his face as I hovered over him, but no sound came out."

Another respondent describes feeling paralyzed and encountering a demon while breastfeeding in the middle of the night. This experience, which closely aligns with other postpartum sleep paralysis narratives, is not uncommon:

"I had an encounter with a demon over my infant daughter's soul. In the middle of the night, I brought my baby back to bed with me to breastfeed. A skull face came up over the side of the bed and suddenly I couldn't move or speak as it spoke in my mind to tell me she was his. I was extremely scared and started praying in my head. Within seconds I could move and the demon disappeared. I said a lot more prayers thanking my Lord."

Demonic cats and cat-like creatures also feature heavily in descriptions of people's experiences with sleep paralysis, such as the one featured in the popular painting The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli, as well as in one respondent's story:

"There is a cat that has attached itself to me. Many nights l feel it at the bottom of my bed. I feel like if it ever comes to the head of my bed l will die."

In a separate part of the poll (focused on sleep) we asked people whether they had ever experienced sleep paralysis. People who told us they had were significantly more likely than people who had not to say they've had each of the 13 paranormal encounters we asked about. For instance, half of people who've had sleep paralysis (49%) say they've felt a paranormal presence or unknown energy, compared to 32% of Americans who haven't experienced sleep paralysis. Similarly sized gaps exist for most other paranormal experiences asked about.

RELATED: Americans are split on buying a house where the prior owners were murdered

— Carl Bialik and Allen Houston contributed to this article.

This poll was conducted on October 12 - 16, 2022, among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.

Image: Getty (David Wall)

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