Can we design larps that produce paranormal experiences?
Paranormal experiences are characterized by a perception that something that was previously thought to be impossible has happened. The paranormal is often part of the fictional settings of larps. We can, however, use techniques and practices inspired by events in the real world to allow our larp participants to experience what it is like to have a paranormal experience. These techniques should only be used with full and informed consent, and only as a tool to allow participants to shape their own experience. The article lists possible techniques for achieving collaborative paranormal larp experiences, and gives a concrete design example of a larp inspired by real-world psychic espionage.
What is the paranormal?
People have always experienced strange events. They may have had a dream that came true, seen a ghost or witnessed a highly unlikely coincidence. Even though many believe in the reality of supernatural phenomena, and many have had strange experiences,Between one third and one fourth of the population has had a paranormal experience, based on surveys in European countries . The proportion is higher in the US, where around half report at least one paranormal experience (Haraldsson & Houtkooper, 1991). Another survey found that over one third of British adults reported at least one paranormal experience (Castro, Burrows, & Woolfit, 2014).these kinds of events are still considered really weird. For example, if you see a person you know to be dead, or something happens exactly as you dreamed, you will probably be surprised no matter what your beliefs were previous to that experience.
The paranormal means that which is outside the normal. It refers to events that we cannot explain through known natural forces. For example, seeing a weather phenomenon you do not know the exact cause of would be a normal phenomenon, but feeling like you are communicating with an intelligent blinking light in the sky would be paranormal. Having a paranormal experience then means sensing or feeling something that breaks with how you usually think the world works.
This article is about creating circumstances that allow us to have these kinds of weird experiences – which I will call “paranormal” experiences. They are perceived as being outside the normal world of experience, and they are often interpreted to mean that something that is ordinarily believed to be impossible has happened.
I will only discuss paranormal experiences that do not have a psychopathological origin. In other words, experiences that arise from healthy human functioning and not as a symptom of mental illness.
It does not matter if the paranormal is really real.
Some argue that all paranormal experiences are misinterpretations of ordinary events, and others argue that they truly are supernatural. No matter what we believe about the origin of these experiences, they are real for the person having the experience in that moment. For example, you may happen to think of someone the second before they call you and get a strange feeling of premonition at that moment. Later on you may think it was just a coincidence and forget it happened, or you may think you had a genuine psychic experience. Whatever you decide later, the experience was real when you got the call. This experience is the focus of this article, not the question of what is fundamentally real.
The paranormal can be more than a background part of the larp setting.
Often, the paranormal is part of the fictional worlds that are used as larp settings – settings where demons, ghosts or prophecies are real. My suggestion is that larp can also approach the paranormal in a different way – by creating a space where the participants can play with belief and allow themselves to experience, if only for a second, something impossible happening.
Larp is sometimes seen as a way to access other kinds of experiences, and we have played with everything from the sensual to the horrifying. Why not also the impossible?
All larps aiming for weird experiences must have full and informed consent as the basis.
The degree to which the participants can allow themselves to believe in the paranormal is an important factor in allowing paranormal experiences to happen. I do not believe it is possible to do this with unwilling or uninformed participants. It would also be unethical to design a larp where you trick someone into believing something impossible has really happened. Larp must be based on consent, and allowing paranormal experience is not the same as just scaring the participants. Leave the tricking to the false prophets and fraudulent mediums, and instead embrace the unknown in collaboration with your participants.
General principles for allowing paranormal experiences
Do not use any magic tricks or deception.
The techniques described below do not involve any tricking in the form of magic tricks or lying to your participants. If the aim is to have a genuine paranormal experience, then any tricks or deception will lessen the impact. If you use methods that involve suggestion or aim to increase the likelihood of a correct guess, be transparent about this.
If you design your larp free of tricks or deception, then any participant that has a weird experience during the larp is more free to attribute the experience to something paranormal rather than trickery or unintentional information leakage from the organizers. Allow the participants to believe in the weirdness of an experience without looking for the secret to a trick or trying to uncover deception on the part of the organizers.
Give the participants tools to believe in the experience.
A person’s beliefs highly influence how they interpret their experiences. The degree of belief is also a factor in allowing oneself to have these kinds of experiences. This means that the larp participants should be given tools for having their characters believe in the possibility of paranormal experience as strongly as possible. They can create, or be given, characters that have strong beliefs.
This also means that it is useful to pay attention to the context that the characters are acting in. Context is very important for how experience is interpreted. A noise on a busy street goes unnoticed. A noise in a haunted house may be interpreted as a paranormal event.
Give the participants tools to use their imagination.
Larps often use external cues for supporting the imagination of the participants. However, when designing larps that allow for paranormal experience, it may be useful to also give special attention to the inner worlds of the participants. The paranormal is often associated with vague sensations, hunches or inner impressions. The inner world is a play area that has great potential, and there are many techniques for enhancing the imaginative power of the participants.
Larp designs that allow the participants to focus on their inner landscape may find it useful to emphasize the group aspect of the larp, rather than leaving each participant isolated. Merely imagining the same thing as the rest of a group may feel more powerful than doing it alone. The participants can also be allowed to communicate and play up each other’s sensations, impressions and hunches, and thereby further enhance the experience.
One way to bring attention to the inner experiences of the participants is to guide them in some form of meditation. Various kinds of meditative practices are common in modern larps. Having the participants focus on their immediate surroundings and breath may lead to a pleasant and relaxed state of mind. This could be a kind of intermediate exercise leading to more intense experiences, or it could be used with the aim of creating paranormal experiences in itself. Unusual physical and mental experiences also commonly occur when meditating, and may be interesting especially to those who are new to meditation.
Prepare to give basic emotional support.
For many, the paranormal is associated with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. This association is formed both by popular culture and because naturally occurring paranormal experiences often happen in connection to powerful and sometimes negative life events. While the people who choose to attend an event that is clearly communicated as connected to the paranormal are probably prepared to immerse themselves in the experience, they may still experience unpleasant emotions. Prepare for allowing participants to choose their degree of engagement, and for a soft landing after the larp. Familiarise yourself with guides and best practices for larp safety, a good starting point is Koljonen’s (2020) fundamentals of larp design safety.
Techniques for allowing specific paranormal experiences
In this article, I will focus on three classic kinds of experience that are often investigated in the literature on the paranormal. From skeptics and debunkers to ghost hunters and self-proclaimed psychics, these kinds of experience are often reported and written about:
- Extrasensory experiences or “being psychic”
- Experiencing a strange coincidence
- Sensing the presence of a ghost
Techniques for allowing extrasensory perception.
Popular fiction is teeming with representations of characters who can see the future or sense what is happening far away, and self-proclaimed psychics are common in contemporary media landscapes.
Extrasensory perception (ESP) occurs when a person appears to get information that none of the ordinary senses could provide. Extrasensory experiences often have content of strong personal and emotional significance, and they are often vague and give only partial information about the event to which they presumably refer (Watt & Tierney, 2014). The experiences range from the relatively mundane, such as thinking of someone the moment before they call or guessing the outcome of some event to more intense experiences such as dreaming of an event that happens the following day or hallucinating something that is happening far away.
It is also possible to have second-hand ESP experiences by having information about oneself guessed by another person. This can be from a person claiming to be psychic, or it can be that a friend had a strange dream that fits very well with current life events.
Everybody guesses correctly once in a while, but what makes ESP experiences stand apart is the sense of wonder and impossibility that usually follows the experience. The emotional reactions to these experiences vary, with the most typical being happiness or anxiety (Watt & Tierney, 2014).
In a larp, participants can experience receiving information psychically through:
The possibility of guessing something.\
From 1983 to 1989, the parapsychologist Charles Honorton and his colleagues conducted one of the largest studies of ESP done to date (Bem & Honorton, 1994). Their method was to place two people, “sender” and a “receiver”, in two separate, acoustically isolated chambers. The “sender” looked at a randomly selected visual target, and the “receiver” was given the “Ganzfeld procedure”. This means that the person was reclining in a chair with translucent ping-pong ball halves taped over their eyes while a red floodlight directed towards the eyes produced an undifferentiated visual field, and white noise played through headphones to produce an undifferentiated auditory field. The receiver was instructed to pay attention to any images coming to mind, and to report verbally their thoughts. This went on for half an hour, and at the end the receiver was asked to guess which of four targets the “sender” had been looking at. At the end, the sender and receiver met and the true target was finally revealed.
While it may be too complicated to set up such an elaborate laboratory for a larp, it gives an example of what kinds of situations parapsychologists have created in order to facilitate ESP. Some participants reported imagery that aligned quite well with the target, and the experience of seeing the target revealed at the end must have been quite powerful for some of the participants.
By setting up situations where the participants may guess something correctly, you can make it possible for them to experience ESP. The more detailed, unlikely or obscure the target of the guess is, the more likely it is that someone who guesses it correctly will feel like they received the information through paranormal means.
Imagining something that may have relevance in the future
In 2003, a group of 47 people attending a “remote viewing” workshop attempted to imagine the circumstances under which Saddam Hussein would be found (Schwarz, 2018). They went through a series of exercises prompted by the instructor such as visualising various features of his person and surroundings. The participants then drew their impressions as best they could, and the workshop instructor Stephan A. Schwarz compiled a list of “consensus” impressions as answers to a series of questions. When Saddam Hussein was found about a month later, Schwarz compared the answers to the actual circumstances and was struck by what he believed to be close similarities between the participants’ guesses and the outcome.
The group exercise led by Schwarz is one example of trying to imagine something that may be relevant in the future. By asking the participants to imagine what will happen later in the larp, you can make it possible for them to experience precognition or sensing the future. Making more specific predictions will make it seem more unusual if any of the predictions come true. This technique might be relevant for a larp where there is a lot of uncertainty or where parts of the larp take place in an environment not fully controlled by the organizers. For example, the participants might imagine events that could occur, followed by walking around the city in a pervasive larp.
One important note about Schwarz’ workshop: The participants were asked if they would like to try and “find Saddam Hussein”, and could opt out. In fact, about a dozen of the participants did so. Make sure that your participants are aware of and comfortable with what the larp will explore.
Being the target of cold reading
“Cold reading” is a deceptive psychological strategy used to give, what seems to be, a convincing psychic reading (Rowland, 2002). Cold reading is not the same as simply guessing. It is a set of techniques to move from general to more specific statements in a conversation, and it requires conscious effort from the person doing the reading. Most people can learn the basics of cold reading, and it’s not unlikely that the recipients of cold readings experience the reading as a paranormal event. Cold reading is per definition deception, but that does not mean it cannot be used in a larp based on informed consent. Even if the participants know that cold reading is being used they may still feel that some guesses are more correct than they “should” be – after all, that’s the whole idea when using specific cold reading techniques.
The technique can be used in larp if there are enough facts established about the character being given the reading that it makes sense to guess correctly. It can also be used before the larp to prime the participants for experiencing something paranormal. If cold reading or a similar technique to increase the likelihood of guessing correctly is used, make sure to inform the participants in advance.
Techniques for allowing weird coincidences
Unrelated events coinciding in a meaningful way are often portrayed in fiction as a sign from God or destiny that a course of action is right or that the hero of a story is on the right path. In real life, many of us experience weird coincidences that have personal meaning (Coleman, Beitman, & Celebi, 2009).
These can be small events that merely seem a bit strange, such as hearing a favorite song on the radio immediately after receiving good news or seeing a meaningful phrase repeated several times in a row on social media. They can also be connected with big decisions or life-changing events such as “miracle” coincidences where unlikely events prevent fatal accidents, or a chance meeting that propels a career to the next level. One important component of a weird coincidence is how it makes the person experiencing it feel. Some may feel like the universe is perfectly in harmony in a single moment, feel dizzy or disoriented, or feel like they’re dreaming.
In a larp, weird coincidences can happen when:
Elements line up in an unusual and meaningful way
Experiencing that different external events line up in a way that seems to fit perfectly for your story or character can be experienced as a paranormal event. In real life, these kinds of events are often associated with meeting people in unlikely places, such as meeting your neighbor on vacation on a remote destination. If you are designing a larp with a very large playing area such as a city, these kinds of coincidences may occur.
Another kind of common event is seeing meaningful or recurring images or text. One example is the frequency illusion, where an obscure phrase or idea is encountered many times in a short period of time. Another example is seeing images or text that strongly relate to what you are currently thinking or doing, such as seeing someone post just the recipe you were looking for on social media. In a larp, these coincidences can be encouraged by including complex environments with many small details. For example, you may include a screen that shows random wikipedia articles, or randomly generated sentences may appear in an app that gives the characters advice.
The participants interpret random events as signals from the universe
The series “Hellier”, available free on YouTube, is an example of a group of people who follow strange coincidences wherever they lead. In the series, a group of paranormal investigators investigate what they at first interpret as an appearance of alien creatures. However, as the investigation proceeds they interpret a wide range of events as signals from the universe that they are investigating a greater mystery. The mindset of these investigators allow them to experience otherwise ordinary events (such as finding a tin can or a balloon) as paranormal.
One way to enhance the feeling of random events as meaningful is to guide the participants in interpreting everything as signals from the universe to the character. This could mean following weather patterns, seeing symbols in maps or simply exploring an area in great detail while interpreting the findings as signals. As the reading of these signs lead to the characters taking action, the signs may seem like meaningful guides for the character’s journey.
Techniques for allowing the perception of ghosts
Hauntings and visits from the dead have been the focus of a great number of works in popular culture – both in fiction and in ghost-hunting series presented as nonfiction. Experiencing communication with departed loved ones is the least common of the three kinds of paranormal experiences discussed in this article, but one representative survey in Great Britain still found that around ten percent report having had this experience.
People who sense what they perceive as ghosts report a wide variety of experiences. Common varieties include a feeling of something being present, temperature change and strange sounds and smells. In some cases apparitions are seen, either clearly or as vague shadow-like figures (Wiseman, Watt, Stevens, Greening, & O’Keeffe, 2003).
In a larp, participants may experience sensing a ghost through:
Interpreting sounds and images as signals from ghosts
Participants can experience stimuli that allow them to easily imagine “something” being present. This can allow them to sense the presence of ghosts or other entities. The stimuli can be vague sounds such as white noise or short random clips from radio stations. It can also be visual impressions such as shadows or points of light.
The near-death researcher Raymond Moody is famous for his “psychomanteum”, a large mirror with dim lights on either side. When one sits with this mirror for a while, it is common to experience slight hallucinations. Moody used this for an apparently successful kind of grief counseling, where the bereaved were given the opportunity to believe that they were contacted by deceased dear ones (Moody, 1992). A similar technique may be used in larp to allow participants to feel like a ghost is nearby.
Participating in a seance
Seances are well-known through ghost stories and horror movies, and are often associated with fear and negative outcomes. However, contemporary spiritualism is usually more oriented towards positive emotions and the hope of survival after death. Many of the techniques used in contemporary seances can be useful for larp designers. This includes fostering a positive, creative and “party-like” atmosphere before the seance, encouraging openness to whatever may occur during the seance and ritual techniques during the seance itself.
Wiseman, Greening, and Smith (2003) document cases of paranormal experience in seances using suggestion. They hired an actor to play the medium, and he made clear at the start of the seance that he did not possess any mediumistic powers, and would simply guide the participants through the seance. During the seance, the actor made suggestions of paranormal events such as that a table moved. These suggestions led several of the participants to experience what they saw as paranormal events. In fact, about a third reported after the seance that the table had moved. Several participants also indicated that they had experienced the kinds of strong sensations and psychological states often associated with paranormal phenomena, such as feeling a strong sense of “energy” or smelling something unusual. One approach to larp design could then be to simply give the participants the opportunity to conduct a seance. This may in itself allow them to experience weird phenomena.
Another possible source of inspiration is “the Philip experiment”, where a Canadian group of parapsychologists imagined that they believed in a ghost, and called to him every week for several months (Owen & Sparrow, 1976). After a while, they reported physical phenomena including hearing knocking sounds and seeing the large seance table move around the room. This paranormal experience created through a structured process of make-believing in a ghost may also be achieved in a larp.
Visiting haunted environments
Places known to be “haunted” may more easily allow experiences associated with sensing ghosts. Experimental research suggests that at least some of the reports of sensing ghosts arise from factors in the environments where the ghost was sensed. This could simply be that the environments are cold, draughty and include sporadic, unusual sounds (Wiseman, Watt, Stevens, Greening, & O’Keeffe, 2003).
Some researchers have also suggested environmental factors such as local magnetic fields or radioactivity. In recent years, many have paid special attention to low-frequency sounds or “infrasound” (Parsons & Cooper, 2010). Some research suggests that exposure to this kind of sound may lead to feeling a sense of presence, experiencing temperature changes and seeing vague peripheral hallucinations. Haunted environments may then be places where these kinds of sounds occur naturally.
Allowing larp participants to visit such environments may allow them to more easily sense ghosts or other entities. Of course, the safety and legality of the visit should always come first. A serious larp organizer should have little difficulty getting access to a comfortable but haunted hotel or similar place.
Practical design example: Controlled Remote Viewing
The larp Controlled Remote Viewing (2020) by the artist Mark Durkan and myself is an example of a larp that uses several of the techniques described above to open up the possibility of experiencing being psychic.
In this larp, the participants take the roles of characters joining the first session of a training programme for enhancing psychic potential. The goal of the larp is to give the participants a practical impression of what techniques real-world government agencies have historically used to train psychic spies. The larp also allows for the possibility of experiencing real ESP in the form of correctly guessing an image hidden in an envelope. The larp is designed to be run in a black box and takes three to four hours from start to finish. I will outline some important design choices we made for the various phases of the larp.
Before the larp: Real ESP targets and double-blind selection
Before the larp, we give a person who will not be present at the larp access to a database of several hundred images that were historically used in a psychic espionage training programme (the “Stargate programme”). This person chooses a set of targets, prints them and seals them in brown envelopes. This means that neither the larp organizers nor any of the participants know what the targets are, except that they are images of places on Earth. This means that if any participant comes close to guessing the target during the larp, they are more free to attribute the guess to ESP rather than trickery or unintentional information leakage from the organizers. This is clearly communicated to the participants.
Pre-larp briefing: Clear communication and safety measures
When the participants are gathered for the larp, we start by stating that our goal is to re-create historical training programmes and explore how using a character as an alibi might generate an ESP experience. We then list the various techniques we will use in the larp and give special attention to how the participant may bring themselves out of any unpleasant experience. We also make clear that they can leave the room at any time, and that we will be available for a chat after the larp. We focus on making sure that the participants feel that they are in control of how they make use of the lightly consciousness-altering techniques that we use.
Pre-larp workshop: characters with strong paranormal beliefs and a guided visualisation of a paranormal experience
The participants are given characters who have a strong belief in the paranormal. This is both stated in the character description and reflected in a set of “test scores” that the characters are given at the beginning of the larp. These scores are explained before the larp, and are presented as results from real-life psychological tests showing high scores on items that have been associated with ESP ability, such as a high degree of belief in the paranormal.
The participants are also invited to a guided visualisation of the characters paranormal experience. This is done by first guiding the participants to a state of heightened focus and then asking them to imagine a strange event in the characters life unfolding. The participants are guided by open questions about the event and are asked to use hand movements as visual feedback to the larp organizers about their progress in imagining the event. The visualisation technique relies on continually affirming that the participant is in control of the experience at all times. We also use inviting and open language, allowing the participant to choose to imagine the event in great detail or to skip over all or parts of the event.
The aim of this is to give a strong sense of what it is like to be someone who has experienced weird things and who believes in the possibility of ESP.
During the larp: Use of sensory homogenization to enhance imagination
During the larp, the characters sit for approximately ten minutes with white covers over their eyes, a strong red light focused on their faces and loud white noise from a set of speakers. The aim is to enhance the participants imagination and possibly allow for light auditory or visual hallucinations, making it more easy for the participants to imagine the targets that they will later try to guess.
During the pre-larp briefing we test this method by asking the participants to sit in a short practice session and calibrate the level of light and noise that we will use during the larp. We also make clear that they can remove their eye covering if they feel uncomfortable.
During the larp: Guided meditation and creative exercises
During the larp, the characters try to guess the image inside a sealed envelope. To facilitate this, we invite the participants to focus their breath and enter a state of calm focus. Then they draw a series of increasingly complex shapes, culminating in a drawing that incorporates the elements they have created and that aims to represent the target. After this, the envelope is opened and the characters discuss their performances.
The aim of this technique is to allow all the participants to slowly build a repertoire of shapes and impressions that they can draw from to compose an image. Clear shapes and textures makes it easier to discuss the drawings after opening the envelopes, and allow for the possibility of guessing parts of the target.
After the larp: A short de-roling, round of impressions and the possibility to talk more
After the larp has ended, we facilitate a short exercise to leave the character behind and invite the participants to sit in a circle and share a short sentence or two about how they are feeling right now. After this, we hang out for a while and make ourselves available if any of the participants want or need to talk.
The purpose of this is to give a slow landing after the larp and to be able to detect if any participants have had an emotionally unpleasant experience. We do not expect this larp to be particularly disturbing for the participants, but we acknowledge that the paranormal may evoke feelings of anxiety. We therefore wish to help the participants have a pleasant and calm ending to the larp.
I have outlined some general principles and techniques for allowing paranormal experience in larp. Larp is sometimes seen as a way to access a variety of ways of experiencing the world. The larps that are organized around the world today are filled with all kinds of unusual experiences, and allow the participants to explore areas of themselves that may be hidden in everyday life. With the ideas and techniques in this article, we may now also design larps that allow us to experience the impossible.
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Cover photo: Image by Tumisu on Pixabay (cropped).
This article is published in the companion book Book of Magic: Vibrant Fragments of Larp Practices and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:
Bruer, Erlend Sand. “Paranormal Experiences in Larp.” In Book of Magic: Vibrant Fragments of Larp Practices, edited by Kari Kvittingen Djukastein, Marcus Irgens, Nadja Lipsyc, and Lars Kristian Løveng Sunde. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt, 2021.
|↑1||Between one third and one fourth of the population has had a paranormal experience, based on surveys in European countries . The proportion is higher in the US, where around half report at least one paranormal experience (Haraldsson & Houtkooper, 1991). Another survey found that over one third of British adults reported at least one paranormal experience (Castro, Burrows, & Woolfit, 2014).|