Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor

Ghosts? Boo! Vampires? Hiss! Zombies? Uhhhhh! When it comes to the paranormal, demonic possession is the new black art.

Is that brand of evil a good thing to play up for Halloween? Not at all, according to Sharon Hill, who watches the woo-woo beat with a skeptical eye for her website, Doubtful News.

"It's shocking. People have been killed in exorcisms," Hill told NBC News. "This is just morally wrong. They're getting into some scarier areas — not just fancy scary, but truly scary."

Despite all the excesses of exorcisms, Hill thinks the trend is only "going to get bigger before it goes away."

Why?

The usual suspects include movies and TV shows that feature demonic possession and exorcisms — including "The Rite," a 2011 film starring Anthony Hopkins; the long-running "Paranormal State" TV series, which featured a demon stalker; and this year's entrant in the demonic scare-fest, "The Conjuring." (A sequel is reportedly in the works.)

Another factor might be Pope Francis' frequent references to Satan's power. “Some may say, 'But Father, you're too old-fashioned,'" the pope said this month during a sermon. "'You're frightening us with these things.' No, it's not me! It is the gospel! And these are not lies: It is the word of the Lord. Let us ask the Lord for the grace to take these things seriously. He came to fight for our salvation. He won against the devil."

For whatever reason, demons are hot: Exorcists in the United States, Poland, Ireland and Italy say they're overworked. "Our hands are full," one Polish exorcist, the Rev. Andrzej Grefkowicz, told AFP.

Hill suspects that paranormal promoters are starting to take advantage of the devilish trend.

"The trend now is still sciencey equipment, sciencey jargon, but there's definitely a swing toward the spiritual," she said. "The scientific approach kind of failed them. They didn't get anything out of it, so they needed something a bit more flexible."

Spooky science
The science behind the spookiness is what drove Hill to create the Doubtful News website two years ago. She also writes a column called "Sounds Sciencey" that appears on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry's website.

Sharon Hill delves into reports about Bigfoot, the Bloop and things that go bump in the night for her website, Doubtful News.Courtesy of Sharon Hill

"I've always been a weird-news junkie, and I have a science background, so I've always been interested in the natural explanation," she said. "My day job is, I work as a geologist, in policy and regulation. My main interest is science and the public: How can we connect science to the public in terms of appreciation and understanding?

On the Doubtful News website, Hill and her colleagues provide reality checks on weird phenomena ranging from the anomalous "Bloop" heard deep in ocean waters to a Norwegian supermarket's Halloween special on severed human limbs.

"The No. 1 thing that gets me hits, sad to say, is Bigfoot," Hill said. "Unfortunately, I have a certain reputation for being the Bigfoot skeptic — and right now it actually is a topic of science and the public, because the Bigfoot researchers are putting themselves out there as scientists."

She had high praise, however, for one of the world's most prominent Bigfoot researchers, British geneticist Bryan Sykes. This month, on a TV documentary titled "Bigfoot Files," Sykes suggested that samples of hair attributed to Himalayan Yeti monsters were genetically similar to ancient bear specimens.

"I really liked that program, because it actually showed Dr. Sykes as being curious and friendly and warm," Hill said. "He was a great example of a scientist. It really tied different evidence together, and helped you see the whole picture."

Are there any weird topics that Hill avoids? Weirdly enough, yes.

"There are so many hoax UFO videos that I try to stay away from them," Hill said. "Every day there are thousands of reports — and that would just get tedious."

Spooky tales from Halloweens past:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.