I believe in something I can't prove, so I maintain an agnostic approach to the paranormal. I don't know if ghosts and psychics are real or not. I'll go so far as to say "maybe sometimes."
But my rule of thumb when presented with a psychic or a ghostly experience is skepticism. Not because I'm a hardened skeptic (I'll listen with a sympathetic ear), but because many people who bring these things to public attention are in fact wrong. Skeptic and debunker James Randi has a standing offer of 1 million dollars to anyone who can show him proof of paranormal phenomena. That offer has been up since 1964 and no one has claimed it. Thus, when presented with paranormal phenomena, my gut reaction is "Tread carefully, I'm being conned."
I watched some Paranormal State the other day while working and talked to Alex about it. There's a strong trend in that show of people who really really believe in ghosts explaining weird phenomena that way. (Though I have no sympathy for the woman who thought a ghost was physically terrorizing her family and refused to move because "I love this house.") One family was just freaked out by their creaky house (I live in an old house -- it's called "settling"), except that their daughter had sleep paralysis, which they interpreted as a manifestation of the ghost/demon.
Sleep paralysis "leaves the person fully conscious, but unable to move. [It] may be accompanied by terrifying hallucinations and an acute sense of danger. Some scientists have proposed this condition as an explanation for alien abductions and ghostly encounters." Triggers include migraines, stress, sleeping facing upwards, irregular sleep schedules, sudden life changes, a lucid dream right before (source). It's also very common to feel as if something is sitting on your chest (source).
My husband read elsewhere that most people will experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lives.
Mine was this morning.
I had this dream. Sometimes I wake up just enough to open my eyes but fall back to sleep instantly, and somehow my bedroom is incorporated into the dream. The dream itself was pretty creepy. Instead of being on the second floor of an old house, my parents and brother and I were on the first floor and had a lake out beside us.
In this dream, I decided to go swimming but, when I got out there, before I took my glasses off, I saw five skull-painted faces bobbing just past the house, in a semicircle, glaring. So I thought "They look like they want to drown me" and turned around and went back inside. Because if I went in that water, I knew they would. (Being hunted while swimming is my least favorite nightmare, so I'm thrilled I avoided it.)
I walked past my brother in the living room, went to my bedroom, and lay down beside my dad and talked to him about the faces in the water. He said he knew about them. He'd found the vessel that held the extremely powerful demonic force they worshiped. It scared him. He said they wanted it back and were most likely violent.
I thought "I hope my brother doesn't try to go swimming before I warn him about the dangerous people in the water."
I tried to get up to warn him.
I couldn't move. My dad wasn't in the room anymore, just me and the vessel on the bureau.
Then, like the girl in the show, I had a shadowy beast (mine was like a monkey) sitting on my chest, choking me. In my head, I forced my arms up to try and push it off, but I knew my actual arms weren't moving. I tried to move my physical arms and couldn't. The shadow monkey disappeared and I couldn't move at all, no matter how hard I willed it.
I fell back asleep. My dad was back and the room filled with people. I had to stand at the foot of the bed and give a class presentation on the vessel that I hadn't prepared for. (Yeah, that's right, on top of a demonic shadow monkey and skull faces that wanted to drown me, I had a SCHOOL nightmare.)
I then managed to wake my mind up enough to realize I was dreaming and try to snap out of it. It took another few minutes to order my body to cooperate.
I stumbled out of the bedroom, exhausted but not willing to stay in bed. I found husband opening his new snow boots. He apologized for waking me up, and if I'd been more awake I would have laughed. Instead, I waved a vague hand in his direction and mumbled that he hadn't, then told him I thought I'd experienced sleep paralysis.
After hearing my weird dreams, he agreed. He'd done the initial research to disprove that episode of Paranormal State.
And now I'm glad that I got to experience it. Aside from the nightmare bits, it was pretty interesting. I'm still not 100% sure it was real sleep paralysis, but during and just after the monkey part I'm pretty sure I was awake and unable to move.
As for paranormal phenomena, I still maintain it could exist. But I also take the practical path of "There's probably another explanation." From what I could tell on Paranormal State, a lot of it is just intense belief coupled with fear. A lot of the families showcased on PS have believers that go generations back. Many have one intense believer swaying everyone else, a person who hasn't sought other explanations (or who has and hasn't found another answer).
When kids were featured as seeing ghosts in PS, someone else always brought the idea up. Most of the time, it seemed like the parents were at fault, but once it may have been school friends or a neighbor talking about someone who died somewhere specific.
I don't deny that people see, hear, and feel strange things. But I believe that most of the time, there are other explanations for odd experiences. Before looking for a ghost, look for a cat. Before deciding on a poltergeist, have someone check your home's foundation. Before a wraith, look for sources of light and shadow making weird patterns.
An active imagination in the dark can be the scariest thing of all, and most of the time that's probably what's haunting you.