Growing up in Bury St. Edmunds it is almost impossible to not know the story of ‘Maria Marten and the Red Barn’ one of the most famous murder cases of 19th century England. In essence a fairly tawdry tragedy, there are a number of features – including some overtly supernatural elements – that render it fascinating even to this day, but at the time the sensation it caused was vast, and it was to have ramifications in popular culture, how murders were reported, and even the English language.
I don’t have time to give a full account of the case, so I will quickly summarize it here. On Saturday 18th May 1827 William Corder, a son of a prosperous Suffolk family apparently set out to elope with Maria Marten, a village beauty of humble origin. The two walked separately through the night to a barn, the now infamous ‘Red Barn’ on Corder’s property, Maria dressed in male clothing to avoid local notice. In the barn Maria change in to her women’s attire, and while changing met her death, and was buried by Corder within the barn.
Corder remained in the little village of Polstead, and informed Maria’s parents that he and Maria were to wed by Special Licence, but that to avoid her arrest he had sent her to stay with friends near Yarmouth. She was unable to write because of an injury to her hand. Sometime later Corder left for London, and wrote to her father saying that Maria and he were now married, and living on the Isle of Wight, and very happy (and requesting that the father burn the letters, claiming they were hiding from a Mr P.). Yet he told others in the village during his visits many other stories, with little consistency, as to whether or not he was married, and where Maria was residing in the year before the discovery of her body.
A Sensational Case
Now Corder forms the archetype we are told for the “wicked squire” (the murder was just a little too early for tying her to railway tracks) and Maria the type for the innocent country maiden of Victorian Melodrama, and certainly the story formed the basis for large numbers of plays, many still extant today, which were performed by travelling troupes all over the country. Local author Peter Haining informs us that these plays, performed in barns, gave us the word “barnstorming”. Certainly they were hugely popular, and even when Corder was on trial there were puppet shows all over the region and down to London depicting the murder, and in Bury a camera obscura show. A nonconformist minister preached to a crowd of thousands at the actual barn, which was dismantled by souvenir seekers, and in Polstead today there is no trace at all of the gravestone of the unfortunate Maria Marten, chipped away by curiosity seekers. The London papers sent reporters to the Inquest and Trial of Corder, and 7,000 people gathered in Bury on August 10th, 1828 to watch Corder hang.
The Background to the Crime
Yet all this sensation masks some of the story, which may have a bearing on what really happened on the fateful night. Firstly, Maria Marten was mother of two illegitimate children by a local dignitary, a very wealthy gentleman who is referred to at the Inquest as Mr P. (His identity is known and was given in court, but does not matter for our purposes). As such she was open to arrest for the crime of bastardry, that is giving birth to illegitimate children. In fact no attempt was made to arrest her, because the children were not it seems a “burden on the parish”, and because the father made generous provision of £5 a quarter for their upkeep. (Though actually only one appears to have been alive by the time of the murder, and was being raised by Maria’s parents).
A year before the murder William Corder became intimately acquainted with Maria, who he had presumably known for some time as they lived in a fairly small village, and Corder and her went off to live in sin in Sudbury. While there she gave birth to another child, this one by Corder, and again bastardy charges could have followed. The couple returned to Polstead, and the baby died; Corder took the remains off in a box, and told people they were buried in Sudbury, but he in fact buried the child in a field – the body was never recovered.
Maria and William remained lovers, despite the gulf in their social position (nowhere as great as that between her and her former lover Mr P however), and the apparent disapproval of his family. Corder’s father was dead; several of his siblings had died in the last few years of TB, and his elder brother died in what according to Haining was a skating accident, drowning when he plunged through the ice in to the village pond. Mrs Corder suffered an immense amount of tragedy, and now William was heir, and helping to run the farm. Yet he still did not have control of the money, and when a letter to Maria from Mr P was intercepted by Corder, he apparently stole the £5 maintenance for the child from it. Maria now had a problem; she argued publicly with Corder, who could hang for the theft — and she had no way to protect herself from the long deferred bastardry charges, should they be brought. However if Corder married her and claimed the children as his, they would be legitimate, and the problem would go away.
The Night of the Murder
Twice they prepared to elope, but Corder backed out, leaving Maria increasingly depressed and unhappy. Her home life seems to have been troubled by the moral condemnation of her younger sister, who appears to have regarded her as a ‘tart’, and been particularly scathing about how she dressed herself up. The death of her baby seems to have effected her greatly, she had health problems, and now Corder told her she was about to be arrested for bastardry, using this to frighten and control her. On the fatal night he assured her that she was about to be taken in to custody, and so she dressed in his clothes, and for the third time set out to elope and marry Corder. They left by different doors the Marten’s cottage, and walked to the Red Barn – there she was to out of sight of any villagers change, and they would make off to marry by Licence, so no banns need be read.
Corder was lying. There was no intention on the part of the authorities to apprehend Maria, and what followed appears straightforward enough. Maria was changing out of Corder’s clothes in to her own when she was shot by a pistol in the head, and then perhaps stabbed twice with Corder’s sword, before being strangled with her neckerchief. Her body was placed in a sack, and buried there in the Red Barn.
About an hour after they left the Marten’s cottage, Corder went to a cottage close to the barn and borrowed a spade. Sometime later Maria’s younger brother saw him walking across a field carrying a pickaxe. Corder claimed the boy was mistaken, and this was one of his agricultural labourers who had been grubbing up trees, and who also wore a velveteen coat. (The ‘same coat’ part was true, but at the trial of Corder the labourer denied ever carrying a pickaxe that year as far as he could recall.)
Concealing the Crime: The Red Barn
Corder buried the body just one and a half feet under the floor of the barn, and then cleaned up the blood. From that day on he carried the key, and when the harvest was brought in he personally supervised the laying of the crop over the spot where Maria was buried. There is one curious episode during these proceedings, when he offered one of his farm hands a £1 to cut his throat. The man thought he was joking, but it may well be that Corder was under a terrific strain.
The actual barn (a ‘double barn’ in Suffolk terms) was rapidly pulled down by souvenir seekers. An illustration exists (below) but it is rather misleading – the barn was actually surrounded on three sides by outbuildings, with a courtyard formed by these sheds, and a gate some seven feet high at the front.
With Corder holding the key it became difficult for anyone to enter, though presumably he must have somehow provided access to his farmhands, unless the hay was stored very long term. He was in the village for months before taking off to “be with Maria” purportedly in the Isle of Wight, but actually to perform far more extraordinary deeds in London. We will return to those shortly. However for the next eleven months Maria was to remain buried in the Red Barn.
Supernatural Interlude 1: The Discovery of the Body
‘Providence [[CJ: That is, God]] led to the unveiling of the murder’ according to the Inquest; in fact the events which led to the discovery of the body have been a staple of supernatural books from then onwards, because Maria was discovered after her stepmother dreamt where the body was buried, and thereafter managed to convince her husband (Maria’s father) to go look. Note that in most accounts it is Maria’s mother who has the dream – that lady was long dead it seems, and so it was the stepmother, not that it makes any difference. What we know from The Times, April 22nd 1828 is that the dream was Maria murdered and buried in the Red Barn, and occurred for three successive nights.
Now the papers made a lot of this, but in fact in that era of great scepticism they also offered fairly critical comment as well; sadly from the viewpoint of a psychical researcher like me the evidence for anything supernatural being involved is very weak. Maria and William had always met (and one presumes made love) in the Red Barn – it was “their place”, and they were well known by all to frequent it. As early as immediately after Maria apparently ‘left for Yarmouth’ Maria’s parents were suspicious something had happened to her, and that is why they cross-examined Corder after their nine year old son said he saw the latter carrying a pickaxe near dawn on the night he was supposedly eloping with Maria. Many times Maria’s father thought of entering the building to look for any evidence, but he never did because of the aforementioned difficulty of access and the fact the barn was Mrs Corder’s property. Even after his wife’s dreams, when finally convinced he must search the barn, he took the time to ask permission from Mrs Corder, saying he wanted to look for some of Maria’s clothing which he believed had been left in there. To be honest, such deference by farm labourers and the rural poor towards big farmers and landowners is not uncommon even today, or was at least not when I was growing up.
So Mr Marten took a friend, Mr Pryke, and armed with a spade and a rake they set off to the barn, went immediately to the very spot indicated in the dream and quickly uncovered the remains of poor Maria, much decomposed, indeed mainly skeletal. They fetched others, and during the exhumation of the body it was note there was a mark on the wall where a pistol had been discharged, apparently missing any target. As Corder habitually carried, and occasionally fired in to the Marten’s fireplace, a pair of percussion cap pistols, well it looked bad for him.
So the dream – was it supernatural? On the contrary, the bizarre way Maria who could read and write and was close to her parents had stopped communicating, the conflicting stories told by Corder, the enquiries badly deflected by Corder from Mr P (still sending faithfully his fiver for Maria) and village gossip all meant that the dream was probably little more than a reflection of all too conscious anxiety on the part of the stepmother. She may have even made it up to finally make her husband who had spent eleven months doing nothing but worrying actually go and check Maria was not in the Red Barn dead. Some modern sceptics have suggested the Martens were in some way involved to know where the body was: the Trial record makes a nonsense of that suggestion. The dream caused a sensation at the time, but there is no reason to believe it display any supernormal faculty on the part of Mrs Marten. We are not done with the supernatural — I shall return to other supernatural elements later — but the most uncanny thing about the discovery of the body is just how long it took. However, I do have a theory here – not only did Corder have the barn key, but until April the area where they body was buried was under a large amount of winter hay, cattle food I suspect. Only after the cows returned to grazing could it be easily examined. Perhaps the Marten’s were just every patiently awaiting that chance.
Peter Haining also points out that the barn had an unwholesome reputation before the murder. The Red Barn was so called because it stood on a rise and was stained that colour by the setting sun, and such places were associated in Suffolk folklore with murder and horror. It is inevitable that there are stories of ghostly re-enactments of the crime, but none holds much substance and the Red Barn itself is long gone now.
William Corder’s Lonely Hearts Club Fan
During the eleven months between the murder and the discovery of Maria Corder was of course in Polstead for a long period, but eventually he set off purportedly for the Isle of Wight. In fact he went to London, where Haining suggests he and Maria had a number of criminal associates. I don’t have Haining’s book here to check his sources (it is truly excellent and I do want to re-read it) but what we know from the Trial was that Corder seems to have enjoyed himself, and quite quickly given his unwillingness fixed his eyes upon matrimony. He may have planned to leave the country – her procured a passport to travel to France, but never did – instead he did what has been described as ‘inventing the Lonely Hearts column’. He took out the following advertisement in The Sunday Times, 25th November 1827 –
MATRIMONY — A Private Gentleman, aged twenty-four, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate. To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comforts, and willing to confide her future happiness to one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the Advertiser is in affluence. Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to; and it is hoped no one will answer this though impertinent curiosity; but should this meet the eye of any agreeable Lady who feels desirous of meeting with sociable, tender, kind and sympathising companion, they will find this Advertisement worthy of notice. Honour and secrecy may be relied upon. As some little security against idle applications, it is requisite that letters may be addressed (post paid) A.Z., care of Mr. Foster, stationer, 68 Leadenhall-street, with real name and address, which will meet with most respectful attention.
The advertisement suggests Corder’s lonely hearts ad was not the first, but it certainly worked. He received over a hundred replies, with two definitely gaining his attention. One was from a mysterious lady who wanted to meet him, perhaps with the intent of immediate marriage, at a London church. She described herself, and told Corder to wear his arm in a sling, and to wear a black handkerchief around his neck, and attend a certain service where they would meet. Corder was delayed and missed the service, arriving after the lady had left; he afterwards discovered the woman making enquiries for such a man was a high ranking lady with a large fortune, and he was planning to try and contact her again when he met his wife to be.
Corder met Miss Moore in a public place, and they immediately hit it off. The sister of a notable London jeweller, she was clearly dissatisfied with her single state, and three weeks after that first meeting the two were wed. While the marriage was only to last eight or so months before Corder was executed, it seems to have been genuinely happy, and Mr and Mrs Corder opened a boarding school for girls at Grove House, Ealing Lane. It was there, living with his wife and a few pupils, that he was to be apprehended for murder.
After the discovery of the body it was quickly ascertained by missing teeth, clothing, jewellery and a small lump on the neck the corpse was Maria. There was only one suspect, and the village constable set off to London to try and find Corder. However London was outside his jurisdiction, so he went to a police station, where a policeman named Lea was assigned to the case. It took him fourteen hours to locate Corder despite having absolutely no idea where he might be, or even if he was in London, quite an impressive achievement! If Corder had changed his name or tried to hide it would have been harder, but he was easily located, and Mr Lea entered his house pretending he wished to place one of his daughters at the Corder Finishing School. As soon as he had Corder in his study, he told him the game was up and Maria Marten was found; three times Corder denied knowing the girl. Corder was arrested nonetheless, and his sword taken, along with a small black reticule, effectively a handbag, that was once the property of Maria Marten. Inside it were found Corder’s pistols.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk to face the charge of murder; his wife, believing the charge was bigamy at first, stood by him, and did so until their final parting the day before his execution.He was held over night at the George Inn in Colchester, and on the second night there transferred in the early hours to the Cock pub at Polstead, where the inquest on Maria Marten was to be held at ten the next morning.
By ten am The Cock was filled with interested persons and representatives of the London press. There was a dispute between the Coroner Weyman, and the press about whether notes could be taken for their articles – the Coroner ruled against them, so accounts of the proceedings were filed from memory. The Coroner also noted that already the sensation was great, and that the papers, preachers and puppet shows were ignoring ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and had declared Corder the murderer, to great prejudice against him. There is a strong irony in this, as we will shortly see. Proceedings were they delayed by Corder’s representative asking he may come downstairs and witness the testimony – this was am inquest, not a trial, but the Coroner ruled against him and stated instead he may have the witness statements read to him afterwards. Corder who had descended was forced to return to a room upstairs, while it was determined how Maria had died.
In fact this proved extremely difficult – she appeared to have been shot, stabbed two or three times, and then was perhaps strangled. It was not even possible to decide if she was dead when buried, so burial live was added to the list. In the end there were nine different possibilities as to exactly how she was killed — and at his trial, Corder was charged with all nine, so as to make sure one of them stuck. (‘Murder by pistol, murder by stabbing in heart, murder by stabbing in neck’, etc, etc). This legal nicety, like the fact everything in the charge must be valued (stabbed by sword (“worth one shilling”), buried in gravel and soil (“of no value”) seems a bit odd to us today!
The important thing was the Inquest determined poor Maria had been murdered – and Corder was committed to prison at Bury St Edmund to await his trial, while the sensation continued to grow.
Corder’s Other Crime
Corder it seems had already stolen £5 sent by Mr P to Maria; and after her death eh continued to benefit this way. However as he was in prison in Bury he was accused of another crime that could have sent him to the gallows, this time fraud. Those guilty of fraud were shown no mercy at all under the law in 19th century England – while murderers might have their sentence commuted from death on occasion, fraudsters, no matter how innocent, were hanged.
We will never know if Corder was guilty of this crime, but it does appear likely. On the 14th April 1828 Corder had apparently arrived at the White Hart in Manningtree, stating he had business with the bank opposite, Messrs Alexanders. Making conversation with Mr Dale the landlord, he explained he was an agent sent to cash a cheque, and when the bank opened he presented a cheque for £93 on the Hadleigh branch payable to a Mr Cook of Wenlam-Hall from the account of Mr Atkins, butcher of Stratford. The banker Mr Taylor refused, as he knew neither party, but Corder explained he was Cook, and was well known in the area. The landlord of the White Hart helpfully said he knew Mr Cook by sight, so the money was handed over. The presumed Mr Cook was paid in local currency notes — I’d like to know more about what these were – and Cook/Corder dashed off to the Branch Banking Establishment at Ipswich where he exchanged the notes for gold and departed before the fraud was discovered that night. When arrested his wife found eighty pounds in gold in his drawer, and Corder never denied the charges, simply saying “I dare say they will try to make enough of it”. He appeared genuinely defeated and contrite when confronted by Mr Taylor and Mr Dale, both of whom identified him as the fraudster. It seems the crime was committed for the purpose of funding his move to Grove House and new boarding school.
One of the curious things about Corder’s life is he never seemed to have enough money. That is the fate of many of us, but Corder was from an affluent “middle class” home, his father was dead, and since his brother’s death he was heir to the farm which was extensive – the Corders were locally important folk. Yet he hints time and time again at trouble at home with his surviving family, and while it is clear he doted on his mother, she seems to have been unwilling to surrender any control over finances to him. She was very attached to him, and almost certainly took his side in any family squabbles, but she may well have disapproved of Maria, if she knew anything of their relationship, and certainly Corder while a snappy dresser with expensive tastes seems to have been unwilling to seek financial aid from this obvious source.
The trial held at Bury St Edmunds continued the sensation. Chief Baron Alexander presided, and his orders that no one was to be admitted until he had taken his seat led to absolute chaos as the crowds milled around outside, and once his carriage arrived it took an hour and a half for him to gain entrance and for the trial to finally begin. Corder was charged with murder on nine counts, to cover all possible ways he disposed of Maria, and was horrified and outraged to discover the Coroner Weyland was now the Prosecutor! As he complained, this meant the Coroner had already seen all the evidence and cross-examined the witnesses, whereas the Defence had not had access to anything but reports of those proceedings.
However the case against Corder was fairly substantial – last seen with the victim, who was found interred in his barn, with wounds that could have been made by his pistol and sword, and having lied for eleven months about her whereabouts. He had taken his sword to be sharpened shortly before the murder, and there was no evidence he planned to procure the promised marriage licence or actually elope with her; he appeared to have taken special care to cover up the burial site, and for the first time in his life kept the barn locked after the murder, and his endless lies to her family, friends and Mr. P about where she was certainly looked grim. Maria was unhappy when she set out on the fatal night, and Corder had been terrorising her with the claim she was about to be arrested for bastardry. Afterwards when he was supposedly living with her he had refused to give an address to her parents claiming the couple were in fear of Mr P (who whatever his moral failings, seems to have actually done much to support his illegitimate children and keep an eye out for Maria’s welfare). The picture from the trial that emerges of Corder is of a weak, not very bright schemer, who lied constantly to cover up Maria’s fate. Yet there was more to the man than this: he had many friends, his new wife was devoted to him, and those who came to know him in gaol felt sympathy or even liking for the fellow. He was clever enough to work hard on his defence, and indeed his wife and it seems Corder were convinced he would be acquitted – and perhaps today he would be, on technicalities.
So how did Corder hope to be found innocent? There was little hope of claiming the manner of death was incorrect and try for a technicality, as he had been charged with all nine! His second chance was stronger: arguing the body was not Maria Marten. He however chose to admit it was, and the evidence was such there can be no doubt it was anyway. His third strategy was to object to the Coroner now being employed as the Prosecutor, and the Judge was certainly sympathetic to that, as he was to Corder’s point the notoriety of the case was such he had already been judged guilty by the press and public long before the trial began. However, Corder decided to argue the one strong argument he could make, namely that Maria Marten had committed suicide, and he had merely covered up her death.
According to Corder his pistols had been in Maria’s possession since their time in Sudbury, when she took them to have them repaired. The gunsmith testified that a man and a woman collected them, but others did testify to seeing them in Maria’s possession. In his summing up the judge mentioned Corder “snapping” them at the fire at the Marten’s cottage on the fatal night – I was not clear from the trial evidence if it was on this night he did this, but the Martens certainly said he used to do this. If it was, Corder had the pistols when he left their house. However, we know the pistols were found in Corder’s School in what was essentially Maria’s handbag. Corder claimed she had the pistols that night.
As they left the house to elope Maria was seen by her family to be crying, and as she changed at the barn Corder asserted she began to abuse him, comparing him unfavourably with Mr. P. Seeing a chance to call off the elopement and wedding, he claimed that he told her if she spoke to him like this before they were wed how would she treat him once they were married?, and telling her he would not marry her he walked away. As he did so he heard a shot, and turned to see her lying dead, having shot herself in the head with his pistol. (No explanation was given for the second bullet mark, on the wall, though she may have fired there first to attract Corder’s attention as he left, if his account was in anyway true.) He panicked, and concealed the body, cleaned up the scene, went and borrowed a spade and then later returned with a pickaxe, and buried poor Maria in the barn. After that he did all he could to conceal her fate, and this was why he told so many lies and wrote so many untruths.
The greatest problem facing Corder was how to explain the evidence of the neckerchief pulled tight enough to have throttled the girl – this happened he claimed as he dragged her body to the grave — and how to account for the wounds made by a stabbing instrument, growing wider as it went in, attested to by three surgeons and attributed to his sword. Corder made an interesting defence — that these marks were made by the spades of those who discovered and dug up the corpse. I’ll return to this later.
The End for Corder
The jury retired and spent over an hour discussing the case, before finding Corder guilty. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday, and was taken from the court in a state of near collapse. He committed to Bury gaol, and met twice more with is wife, who seems to have behaved with great courage and dignity, and offered him a lot of religious literature and pious exhortations. Many clergy and others sought an interview, but Corder refused to see them, though he did spend time with the chaplain. Finally, on the morning of his execution, he wrote and had witnessed a confession. According to this the argument was actually about the burial of their child — Maria was worried the baby’s body would be uncovered. Why is hard to understand, though many have speculated Corder killed the child, though that claim seems to have little evidence to support it. In the barn they fell to fighting, and while struggling Corder pulled out his pistol, fired and Maria fell dead. He then covered up the crime, and events proceeded as above. Whatever the truth, Corder was led out at noon and hanged in front of 7,000 witnesses on a pasture behind Bury gaol, where he died quickly, his end speeded by the hangman pulling on his legs.
So Was Corder Guilty?
In recent years there have been a number of attempts to suggest Corder was not guilty of the murder. Given this appears one of the most open and shut cases I can think of, and that he confessed, it is hard to see any other possibility. There is however one possibility I think, well perhaps two. At the times rumours circulated Corder was also having an affair with Maria’s stepmother, who was not much older than Maria, and she was involved hence her knowledge of the burial site. I find that hard to believe. Other authors have mentioned Corder’s criminal associates, and even a gypsy fortuneteller lady, but all this strikes me as nonsense. Corder was there when she died, and covered up the death – but was he actually telling the truth about suicide? Maria seems to have been deeply disturbed that night, and perhaps she did have the pistols — if so, perhaps the handkerchief round her neck was irrelevant as Corder suggested. The “sword wounds” could easily have been made by Mr Marten as he found the body. As a child I can recall Suffolk farmers using unusual looking “mole spades” with long slender blades, not unlike those used for tree planting today. Mr Marten was a mole catcher. We know that Mr Pryce probed the ground with the handle of his rake, and found an iron spike, perhaps part of Corder’s pickaxe. The wounds in the heavily decomposed body could be many things. So did Maria shoot herself? I find it extremely unlikely, and think not. Corder must have realised if she had covering the matter up would only make things worse, and in an argument as described I find it hard to see why she did not shoot him instead. A second, slightly more plausible theory would be that actually there was some suggestion of a double suicide, and each discharged a pistol at their head, but Corder decided to live and fired his in to the wall. Possible, but there is no evidence for this at all, barring the curious bullet marks in the wooden wall of the barn. No, I am afraid I think Corder was guilty, but fired twice, trying to stop Maria in some kind of violent physical struggle, probably with the intention of scaring her – but maybe with the intention of murder. In his Confession Corder says this, and there seems little reason to doubt him, though he is at great pains to swear before God that he did not make the sword wounds alleged.
Supernatural Interlude 2: The Ghost of Corder
In Moyses Hall musueum today you can still see a collection of relics related to the infamous murder. These include a particularly grisly item, a book about the trial bound in the Corder’s skin!
For many years Corder’s skeleton was used for anatomy lessons at teaching hospitals. One doctor became fascinated by this grim artefact and on leaving his post stole the skull, replacing it with another with a more ordinary history. Shortly after his return however terrible noises were heard and before long he began to see the shadow of a man in his house, a man who had come to reclaim what was his… Finally, terrified and haunted to the limit of his nerves by Corder’s ghost the unfortunate doctor disposed of the curiosity and peace once more reigned. So claimed a book on Suffolk folklore I read in the 1980′s anyway.
A few months ago I was, as a former member of ASSAP who had left more than a decade before, asked to speak at the ASSAP 30th anniversary conference. A brave move on the conference organizers part I thought, given the way I present and the fact I think the only time they had ever seen me speak was on theories of apparitions which I gave with glove puppets in a badly made Punch and Judy style booth that collapsed as part of my “act”! Still I was asked for a title I would talk on, and the above was the first thing that came to my mind; and so I wrote a conference presentation, which people were nice about.
I rejoined ASSAP and was surprised how cheap it was, and today through the post came a VERY heavy issue of ANOMALY with a page count of 250. I regret all the years I missed the ASSAP Journal, especially as it is currently not available on LEXSCIEN, but this one contains almost all the conference presentations as well as several other articles. If you are interested in ghosts you may want to take a look. By kind permission of the editor, Dave Wood, my paper, with only the graph missing, follows.
Why Everything We Think We Know About Ghosts Is (Probably!) Wrong
It is easy to be controversial, and makes for a good title. So I must begin with an admission; I have no idea what the reader believes about ghosts, and so can’t tell if you are wrong or not, and secondly I’m probably wrong myself.
Furthermore,when I talk about ghosts I mean “the experience of an apparition”; I’m not going to define apparition, except loosely as an “appearance of a person or object not physically present”. I don’t mean necessarily “spirits”. “Spirits of the dead” may or may not be the same as ghosts, but the case for each stands quite independently. You can have life after death without ghosts, and ghosts without life after death. They may well be, but need not be, related.
I have also committed the sin of using the terms “ghosts”, “apparitions” and even “haunting” as synonyms in this article, simply to make it a little more readable and avoid repetition. All those terms have technical uses in parapsychology; but on the few occasions where I have employed them in a technical sense I have endeavoured to make this clear.
Some years back I was reading a popular book that described a number of purported cases of ghost experiences, when something struck me forcibly. Almost all the accounts were closer to the kind of phenomena featured on the ghosthunting popular TV show Most Haunted than the kind of things my years of careful reading in parapsychology would have led me to expect.
That popular ghosthunting T.V. could be closer to the actual recorded ghost narratives than say Tyrrell’s or Hornell Hart’s magisterial studies of the ghost experience struck me as absurd. Could quite frankly dubious cable T.V. be a step ahead of parapsychology here?
How do we research the ghost experience? There are several methods. The first is simple – we go and try to see them ourselves, by hanging around purportedly haunted locations. This approach is the “vigil” approach. In fact, it is almost synonymous with ghost-hunting in the public mind. And it’s nothing new – long before Most Haunted and the explosion of paranormal television shows, Elliot O’ Donnell was writing books about his adventures with spooks doing just this sort of thing.
Give the horrendous ethical minefield that is investigating cases in private homes, many ghost groups stick to public houses, castles and stately homes. These ghosthunters are primarily concerned with trying to experience the haunting and record evidence of it, usually directly by sound, photographic, or video recordings, or instrumental readings.
Despite the popularity of this approach, there are other methods of investigating apparitions. It is theoretically possible to “experiment” with creating ‘apparitions’ in the lab – for example by psychomanteum studies, where the percipient is placed in a dark chamber gazing at a mirror and where some report startling experiences. Another form of research that attempts to employ quantitative methods, albeit in the field was pioneered by Gertrude Schmeidler, and involves mapping of the subjective experiences of a large number of people (or a small number of self-professed “psychics”) on a map where information on earlier “spontaneous” experiences are recorded. Some valuable work has been done by Wiseman et al. at Edinburgh Vaults and Hampton Court Palace looking for environmental variables that tally with areas where members of the public report unusual sensations while walking around under controlled conditions.
Alternatively one can do what I tend to do, and just interview witnesses and try to visit the locations and make sense of what happened, taking what one might call a “detective” approach to the case, tracking down testimony and considering its plausibility and possible factors influencing the “sighting”. Many of the cases written up in the journal literature are of this type. Some are extraordinarily well conducted studies of a specific set of environmental variables in a place with a long history of purported “hauntings”, such as for example the work done by Braithwaite and Townsend at Muncaster Castle (Braithwaite & Townsend 2005).
The Survey Tradition
However there is another method used to research the ghost experience, which dates back to closing years of the nineteenth century – the Survey tradition. In fact possibly the most exhaustive piece of parapsychological research ever undertaken was of this type: the Society for Psychical Research’s (henceforth ‘SPR’) Census of Hallucinations. 17,000 people were approached and asked ‘Had they ever, when awake, had the impression of seeing or hearing or of being touched by anything which, so far as they could discover, was not due to any external cause?’ .9.8% of those surveyed responded positively. When you hear the pub quiz factoid that “one in ten people experience a ghost”, that probably comes from the Census Report, that was published in 1894.
When you do this sort of qualitative research, what you do is amass a vast number of cases, and try to find commonalities, themes and motifs in the ghost experiences reported. A number of researchers have used a similar approach, allowing us to look at how the “apparition” experience varies over the years. A brief non-inclusive list focussing on the major British studies might include
1894 The SPR’s Census of Hallucinations
1948 D.J West’s Mass Observation Survey
1974 McCreeley & Green
1990’s D.J. West’s Pilot Survey
2002 Dr Hilary Evans Seeing Ghosts
2008 Wiseman and Watt Online study
2008 Dave Wood (ASSAP Chair)
2009 Romer & Smith: The Accidental Census
2010 -2012 Strange Survey, Rebecca Smith’s Ph.D. study
In fact other collections of spontaneous cases like those of Louisa Rhine and the early SPR collection Phantasms of the Living, as well as the dozens of collections of “true life ghost stories” published over the years are effectively part of this survey tradition. All that distinguishes the SPR Census from most books of local ghost stories is the methodological rigour and formality of the way the cases are written up, and of course the scale.
Clearly in a short article I lack the space to properly explain the methodology employed in each of these studies. (I am also sure many readers will choose to skip even this brief overview of some of the key themes, put off by the word “methodology”.)
Surveys are a phenomenological (in the sense the term is employed by David Hufford) approach; they do not allow us to study the apparitional experience directly, but they do allow us to study the percipients report of the experience. This is the case in many studies however: I might choose to study genius, while not being a genius, or depression, yet have never experienced many of the emotions and symptoms experienced by some depressive patients. The unimportant thing to grasp is that it is the report of the experience that is being studied, and that no human experience is entirely un-mediated by cultural and contextual factors. So is the Victorian experience of apparitions reported in the Census of 1894 similar to that of the present day, those cases from the studies of the 21st century? There are minor differences, which I do not have space to properly explore here; but on the whole the overwhelming feeling one has is that the experiences reported are essentially similar, and I would find it hard to be able to place a date on many of the apparitional reports, so independent of they seem of time, place and culture.
An obvious question that arises is “how do we know the survey respondents are not lying?”. The answer is simple – “we don’t”. Complex exclusion criteria have been a factor of many studies, and questionnaire research always faces this issue, and some methods have been evolved to reduce the number of false reports accepted. Ultimately however, someone who wishes to hoax the researcher by making spurious claims can always do so, and that case may well enter the database of “classic cases”. However cases which feature a strong set of literary conventions or folklore motifs are obviously suspect, and others may be questioned. The value of the survey approach is that the case for understanding the apparitional experience it makes is based on a large body of cases: while any given ghost narrative may be questioned, and scepticism is the proper approach to take, the overall picture that develops is the important thing.
Given that this “phenomenological” approach is employed that deals with ghost accounts, not the apparition itself, can we really learn anything from it? To explain how the Survey approach works requires a very brief diversion in to some key concepts in research methodology. There are several crucial divisions in research; between laboratory research, and fieldwork, between deliberately produced ostensible psychical phenomena and “spontaneous cases” which just happen unexpectedly, and between qualitative and quantitative research approaches.
Quantitative research has been jokingly categorized as “bean counting”; it is concerned with numbers, and statistical analysis of material. Most census data of the type gathered by the UK Government in the National Censuses which occur each decade is tabulated and presented in this form – such and such a percentage of the populace are employed in manual trades, or state their religion as “Hindu”, or live in households with 2 children for example.. A great deal of the early survey material was concerned with such numerical data: how many people had the experience, what were their ages, genders, education level, social class, etc. All remain valid questions, though today professional survey organisations which conduct large scale polling are perhaps better suited for gathering this kind of information than the independent researcher, simply because they have the reach, facilities and methodological knowledge to deliver high quality data.
Qualitative research is a little different. It deals not with numbers, but with understanding how and why things are and answering non-numerical questions. It is used in a number of academic disciplines but especially in the Social Sciences, and in marketing research and focus groups. Data is collected in the form of interviews, recordings, written statements or survey responses and is then analysed using one of a number of theoretical approaches, often today Grounded Theory or Thematic Analysis.
To help understand how such analysis is performed, let us consider a short narrative from the Accidental Census (2009). In this study the responses were extremely short, collected by use of the Facebook social media type, and were then explored by email with the percipient by the collector.
English female, 30′s
When at university, I saw my boyfriend’s housemate standing in the kitchen doorway. Said housemate was taking part in a rowing contest on the other side of the country at the time.
The house was a 3 story terrace with only one entrance – through the kitchen. Beyond the kitchen was a small hall with doors to the downstairs loo, one bedroom and the staircase up to other bedrooms. John and I were eating at the kitchen table when I became vaguely aware of someone standing in the hallway. Richard (let’s call him that, I can’t actually remember the lad’s name) was tall, blond and sporty, and lived in the ground floor room, so when I saw a tall figure in a tracksuit I didn’t really think much of it, as it was prob. just Richard going to the loo.
Shortly after that – during the same meal – John said that we could do …something…(prob to do with hogging the bathroom) …since we were the only people in the house that weekend. That was when I said “but Richard’s in, I saw him” to be told that no he wasn’t, he was rowing for college over at Lancaster.
Folklore suggests that this must be a sign of imminent doom, but all was well. I really can’t remember if I told Richard about it. Prob. not, as it would have made me sound a bit weird.
This case is of the “phantasm of the living type”, and while brief it provides a wealth of material for analysis. The method employed in the study was to create two columns, with the account on the left side of the page, and the right hand side was then used to write notes on what was going on line by line in the narrative.
So for example
John and I were eating at the kitchen table
Notes: sitting (percipient), eating (percipient), with others, kitchen (percipient)
when I became vaguely aware of someone standing in the hallway
Notes: “became vaguely aware”, vague sense of person present, not seen directly?, hall (apparition), standing (apparition), different room.
While this process is labour intensive, exploring the material in this way leads to the development of a real feel for what is going on. The authors both independently produced notes on each case, and from these developed codes, such as in this case the direct quote “became vaguely aware” which is an interesting phrase because it suggests that the sighting was not as simple as just seeing Richard walk in. We were able to explore questions arising from matters like this through correspondence. Some codes such as the position of the apparition and the percipient are obvious, others such as the ones handling the witnesses response less so, but over a large number of cases the codes begin to coalesce in to categories, such as for example “apparitions of the living” or “apparitions seen while eating”or “witness does not realise anything unusual about figure seen at time” or “apparition and percipient of different gender”. It is important to write brief memos, as you go, exploring your ideas on how the categories and data relate, and eventually you start to build theoretical models – but everything derives not from the existing literature on apparitions, but from what is actually reported in the cases. It is obviously not possible to do justice to qualitative research methods here, and this short explanation is meant to simply act as a brief guide to one possible approach, in the hope that a few readers will be interested enough to explore the topic further.
To understand the value of Qualitative Research methods in the study of apparitions it is important to understand another key division in research methods, between “Top Down Models” and “Bottom Up Models”, which are not as salacious as they sound! A “Top Down” approach is where one starts out with a theory, for example, “ghosts are produced by telepathy”, and then examines how the data collected fits this model. A “Bottom Up” approach collects a number of accounts from people who claim to have seen apparitions (percipients) and then rather than test them against existing theories, the researcher instead looks carefully at what the accounts contain, and attempts to build hypotheses that are drawn directly from the data, remaining “naive” as to existing theories. (In fact if you think you would like to try this approach, you may wish to skip the section on “Theories of Apparitions” below!). Grounded Theory, one popular qualitative approach is so named because the theories are “grounded in the data” – the research questions arise from what is there in the accounts, rather than the hypotheses being dictated by existing theoretical frameworks.
Many readers of Anomaly have probably noticed that in technical discussion of apparitions a number of classic cases crop up time after time. Many of these cases were first published in the Journal of the SPR, in SPR collections such as Phantasms of the Living or are from the spontaneous case collection of Dr Louisa Rhine (J.B.Rhine’s wife). Yet the majority of “canonical” apparitional cases we read are probably still today taken from the 1894 Census of Hallucinations, and at least five books and articles exist analysing material from that collection. Perhaps the two most important are Tyrrell’s book Apparitions (Tyrrell, 1943), a classic, if somewhat hard read, and the equally dense article Six Theories on Apparitions (1956)by Prof. Hornell Hart. What these two works attempt, with some success, is to critically examine then current theories of apparitions in the light of the cases presented in the Census and Phantasms of the Living. While DJ West has performed invaluable work in keeping the Census tradition alive and has carried out several major research projects, and presented valuable data for comparison with the earlier studies, he did not choose to publish the extensive “raw data” of the witness statements and supporting testimony gathered by follow up enquiries that the Census authors did. (Sadly the SPR never dedicated an issue of Proceedings to any of West’s studies, which would have provided the space for a detailed examination of his cases. West, one of the great figures in psychical research, has in my opinion been done a grave disservice by the lack of recognition afforded to his studies for this reason). It was not until the 1970′s that a major new collection of cases that were published along with an accompanying analysis, by Charles McCreery & Celia Green in their Apparitions (1974). This remains an excellent (and by the standards of most books on this topic highly readable) exposition on the ghost experience, and Green & McCreery identified a number of interesting aspects of the subject. It was not until 2002 that a new book on theories of apparitions, Dr. Hilary Evan’s superb Seeing Ghosts (Evans, 2002)performed more detailed analytic work, though Evans did not conduct a large scale case collection of his own.
For those interested in the study of apparitions these four books are essential reading. There are many other fine books on the subject, but Tyrrell, Hart, McCreery & Green and Evans remain the authorities that every student of the subject should (in this author’s opinion) consult. Yet all of these books careful analysis of the ghost experience are based firmly upon cases and data that were garnered from the survey tradition, not from individual case investigations. So such work is clearly important, and has shaped our modern understanding of apparitions, and our theories about ghosts. It was while conducting a small census of this type that the author first came to seriously question the classic theories of apparitions from the parapsychological community, as not fitting the evidence provided by the narratives, particularly the evidence of physical effects – objects moving, doors opening and closing, and so forth – that seemed to crop up frequently in what were otherwise classic apparitonal accounts.
Telepathic Theories of Apparitions
There are of course dozens of competing theories about ghosts and hauntings. The most popular even today are probably the Spirit Hypothesis (that ghosts are “dead guys”), Recording Hypotheses (ghosts are “recordings trapped in an environment and replayed when the conditions are right”), the Sceptical Hypothesis (ghosts are “mis-perceptions, hallucinations, misinterpretation or downright hoaxes”) and perhaps surprisingly the Daimonic Hypothesis (ghosts are non-coporeal yet non-human intelligences, such as faeries, angels, djinn, extra-dimensional entities or demons). In the USA in particular demonic theories of hauntings are proving surprisingly popular at the present time, with the ghost-hunting community there having a large number of self professed “demonologists” active, following in the footsteps of perhaps the most famous of all, Ed and Lorraine Warren. For a detailed recent study of competing theories I would recommend a paper by Peter MacCue (2002).
To do justice to the many hypotheses offered over the years to explain the ghost experience would take a paper many times longer than this; so I will restrict my comments to the tentative theories produced by the early SPR group who undertook the Census of Hallucinations and to Tyrrell who analysed the findings of that great project later. I therefore will restrict myself to outlining very briefly outline the theories of Frederic Myers, Edmund Gurney and G.N.M.Tyrrell here, as representing one major strand of thought in apparitional research, indeed arguably the dominant position in parapsychology to this day. Their theories have much in common, and some major differences, but are all “grounded” in the Census of Hallucinations cases.
The Census of Hallucinations contains an important clue as to the theoretical structures that underlie the research in its title. A hallucination is defined as “perceptions in a conscious and awake state in the absence of external stimuli which have qualities of real perception, in that they are vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space.” Many hallucinations occur in persons who are suffering from stress, fatigue or certain illnesses, both physical and mental. However hallucinations are also prevalent in persons who are seemingly well, and not suffering from any kind of disorder (Bell et al. 2011) Some of the most common of such experiences are the sense of being touched when no one is present, the sensation of hearing one’s name called, and seeing motion out of the “corner of the eye” which if often mistaken for a cat or small dog or similar.
Many hallucinatory experiences in normal healthy life are associated with the edge of sleep, and the hypnagogic and hypnapompic states are well known to many with an interest in this area; vivid visual imagery seen on falling asleep, or waking. The author once had a hypnapompic image, essentially a carry over from a dream, of a stocky blonde man who he believed was an intruder in his bedroom. He threw a bedside light at the figure, only to discover he had actually been awakened by his then partner as the cat was being sick on the bed! Most hypnapompic imagery is less realistic than this persistence of a dream in to the waking state, but it is well known and doubtless accounts for many apparitional reports. The Census and later studies have removed cases where there is some doubt as to whether the percipient was actually fully awake, and we must recall that dreams, themselves a hallucinatory episode, show the incredible power of the mind to hallucinate vividly and often convincingly.
It is not therefore particularly surprising that people see “ghosts”, given the well known capacity of the human brain to hallucinate. A second, perhaps better known explanation for many ghosts sightings is simple mis-perception – when we mistake something for something else. I am sure many readers are aware of how the shadow cast by a coat on the back of the door can take on ominous outlines and appear as a menacing phantom in the early hours of the morning, and again to draw upon my personal experience I once saw a figure rush out on a rainy night and attack a friend of mine walking home. The “ghostly assailant” was as we subsequently discovered nothing more than a shadow cast by a street lamp on a wall, but my cry of horror was real enough!
So given how easily our senses can be deceived, are we correct to take on a resolutely sceptical approach and assume that ghosts are nothing more than “phantasies of a disordered brain” as the 18th century Rationalists believed, brought on by tiredness, indigestion or ill health? Certainly the medicalization of the ghost experience became a dominant trend in 18th and 19th century thinking on these matters, with even theologians decrying ghost stories as nothing more than “mere” hallucinations.
This consensus (still popular among academics today) was to be ferociously challenged by the 1894 Report on the Census of Hallucinations. Of course, the majority of cases were of the type one would expect, and entirely consistent with the mis-perception and hallucination hypotheses. There remained however a small number of what the SPR termed veridical cases. A veridical case is not easily explicable by the hallucination hypothesis, because in it some information was transferred to the percipient by the apparition that could not have been known at that time by any normal sensory apparatus. The classic examples are the appearance of a deceased person to a relative or friend at some distance, before news of the death or illness had arrived. (It may surprise some readers that the exact time and condition that constitutes death is still debated today in the medical establishment, though of course a consensus exists that “brain death” is the best measurement. For this reason twelve hours before and after death were treated as death coincidences by the Census).
Other crisis apparitions were of the living; some event or danger seemed to have occurred that caused them to appear at their moment of need to a distant person,and in some cases this may have saved them, Other apparitions provided information that was unknown to the recipient, and subsequently confirmed (one of the most famous cases of which dating some thirty years from after the Census, The Chaffin Will Case, has recently been severely critiqued by new research by Mary Roach (Anon, 1928; Roach, 2007).
That many apparitional sightings were of persons alive and in good health, and not undergoing physical or emotional crisis was already known to the SPR from Phantasms of the Living (Gurney 1886), and the Census bore this finding out. Of the apparitions where the identity of the “ghost” was known to the percipient, half were of living persons in good health. This seemed to raise severe difficulties to the idea that apparitions were the discarnate spirits of the dead, and the hypothesis of an ‘astral body’ that could leave the body at will was challenged by the fact that in some cases the “ghost” was not aware they had appeared elsewhere.
It was not the appearance of the spook that caused the threat to the hallucination hypothesis with the veridical cases, but rather the transfer of information. But what if the information was transferred by something that we would today call telepathy? F.W.H.Myers, wrestling with the problem posed by apparitions, was fully aware of the apparent success of what today would be called ESP tests performed by other SPR members, and was equally aware that one counter tot he idea of human survival suggested by the alleged evidence of mediums was that they had read the minds of the sitters. He coined the phrase telepathy for this mind-mind contact, and in fact it was widely held by many in the SPR circle that telepathy had been demonstrated by various experiments written up in the Proceedings and Journal.
It was with this exciting prospect of an experimentally demonstrable telepathy that the Report on the Census (Sidgwick et al 1894) authors analysed their case materials. (There was much more going on, as we shall see later, but this is perhaps the key influence upon their thinking.) A number of telepathic theories to explain veridical apparitions arose, with the first and simplest being that proposed by FWH Myers (1903) himself. In his model the “ghost” is a living person, who through some conscious or unconscious need sends a telepathic message to the percipient. The percipients brain receives the message, which then manifests as a hallucination: they then “see” the ghost.
Edmund Gurney developed a slightly more complex version of this – in his model, it is not that the “ghost” (a living person) initiates the apparition, but the percipient. According to Gurney we all constantly scan by telepathy the world around us for information of use to us, and we may well pick up information about a distant party, such as their sad death. Again, the brain then tricks us in to “seeing” an apparition to explain how the information came to us. This model can explain cases where the apparition appeared some hours after the death of the “ghost”, as other people who knew of the tragedy could be the source of the “signal”.
Tyrrell’s (1943) theory is close to Gurney’s: it is the percipient who initiates a “scan”, receives the information, and then hallucinates it, using the well known capacity of the brain to dream to generate a hallucination where the apparition makes sense in its environment. Like Myers and Gurney’s theories however, additional models had to be devised to explain certain types of case, such as collective cases (see below) and hauntings, where a number of people over many years see a ghost that appears to be connected to a place, rather than a specific witness.
Nonetheless, rather than postulate spirits or invisible entities that permanently exist and move around us, or the “residual energy” of the Recording hypothesis, the idea that apparitions are hallucinatory, but in some cases are associated with real information transferred from a living (or in some of their theoretical speculations dead) agent is a very attractive one, that does seem to make sense of a large number of the features reported in the Census cases. It is probably fair to say that for the twentieth century parapsychological work on apparitions has been dominated by these telepathic/hallucinatory models of the experience. The question is, are they correct?
Are Ghosts Hallucinations?
Let us assume for a moment a universe where “ghosts” are hallucinatory experiences, generated entirely within the brain. This is a simple and entirely sensible position – in fact I think it’s what the 18th and 19th century consensus of scholars was – ghosts are just imagination, or mental aberrations, or straight mis-perception of normal (or unusual) events or objects. All of this is perfectly reasonable and doubtless accounts for a very large number of “ghost” experiences. We all know we can hallucinate, even if our only experience of hallucination is the weird and wonderful world of dreams. Such “ghosts” will share certain properties, being the product of a “disordered” brain.
The theoretical properties of these hallucinations are –
i) They will only appear to one witness at a time – though a mis-perception (where there is something there, it just fools the senses, as in an optical illusion – mis-perceptions are not hallucination technically) could theoretically be shared by many. If a stick in the water looks like the Loch Ness Monster, it is possible that hundreds of observers could simultaneously see it and reach the erroneous conclusion it is a lake monster.
ii) They will convey no information to the percipient not known to them at the time. Again a caveat – if a ghostly monk now appears to you tonight, and tells you the winner of the Grand National, we would all be impressed. If it subsequently turns out to be incorrect, we might wonder if you simply dreamed the whole affair. Yet even if you were right, that could still be the explanation. Some horse has to win after all? The conveying of veridical information adds weight to the apparition being an external “thing”, not a hallucination, but does not alone substantiate it.
iii) They will not objectively cause physical ‘real world’ effects – no opening doors, moving objects, or otherwise impinging upon physical reality. Being mental constructs they can’t – if physical effects are ascribed to a ghost, then they must be mis-attributed. So this model can not be invoked to explain poltergeist effects, and there has been a sharp tendency therefore in parapsychology to differentiate between apparitional cases and poltergeists, as being completely different types of phenomena. We shall return to this later.
iv) They will not reappear in the same place over time to different witnesses, as in a “haunting”. This requires a little explanation – if it is well known that an Oxford courtyard is purportedly haunted by a Civil War general who was executed by firing squad there, we should not be surprised if others purport to see “the ghost”. If however over a period of many years many people witness an apparition, and agree on certain characteristics, independently and without apparent foreknowledge of the purported haunt or the history of the place – then surely we may be justified in doubting the hallucination explanation?
So how well do ghost accounts meet these criteria? On point I. “seen by a single witness” we know this is commonly not the case. About 10% of SPR Census cases were seen simultaneously by multiple percipients – the experience which got me interested in all this was of that type, shared with four other witnesses. We can invoke mis-perception as I have already stated – human perception is notoriously fallible, and a whole theatre of people can be wowed by a magicians trick.
Furthermore, in many cases there is communication between the parties – “do you see the monk?” etc, and even where there is no verbal communication there is the possibility of non-verbal prompting. In his classic analysis of the SPR Census cases Tyrrell noted that in many multi-percipient cases witnesses saw the apparition from their perspective – a very clever trick for a hallucination. So if I was in front of the ghost, I would see his face – if you were behind, his tailcoats. Yet Tyrrell saw this as perhaps evidence of telepathic refinement; to make the apparition convincing to the primary percipient, others present must be drawn in to the apparitional drama. And of course this does not always happen – the Census contains several cases where others present did not see the “ghost”, even though they should have if it was physically occupying space in the way a normal mundane object does.
Yet I would not want to make too much of this (certainly less than Tyrrell et al did) – for we have the problem that by the time testimony is recorded there has often been conferring among witnesses, which I suspect does much to shape the memory of the experience. In my own experience (at Thetford Priory, Norfolk, in 1987) one of the other percipients (David Aukett) forbade us to discus the experience till we had committed it to paper – and on comparing we found that our descriptions of the apparitional figure were sharply divergent. (We did however all agree on the movements and the staircase which we saw, which did not exist in reality). I am fairly certain (given that none of us can now recall what happened that night with any degree of confidence at all) that the staircase down which the apparition descended and then exited (and which subsequently proved to no longer exist) was mentioned in the verbal exchange during the sighting – presumably why we agree on this detail – once someone mentioned it, we all “saw” it.
So point one is in fact, I freely admit, questionable evidence against the hallucination theory, but clearly it must be taken in to account.
Let’s move on to ii) where “the ghost tells us something we did not know”. The problem with veridical cases, assuming they hold up to thorough investigation and we are convinced by the contemporary evidence or the percipients honesty, is that it could simply be coincidence. Sidgwick et al calculated that there were four hundred and forty times more death coincidences than would be expected by chance in the Census cases, but there mathematics was somewhat questionable. Unlikely coincidences do occur after all, and one might think of something, and then it occur, simply by random chance. One might even hallucinate quite normally information that one has subconsciously pieced together, in an act of intuition manifesting as a waking dream, at least in theory.
It is iii. – physical effects, that would be most fatal to the hallucination theory. Before we consider the SPR groups findings, let us look again at the Census question.
Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living being or inanimate object, or of hearing a voice; which impression, so far as you could discover, was not due to any external physical cause? (Sidgwick et al, 1894)
So the Census question actually ruled out iii) – physical effects, barring the common and I suspect very normal somatosensory hallucination of being touched. The SPR theorists did not ask about objects moving, or ghosts physically effecting objects – because they had decided they were telepathically induced hallucinations, and such clearly ridiculous phenomena were quite evidently incompatible with this theory. Rebecca Smith is currently writing her PhD on a pseudo-replication of the Census of Hallucinations, and has shown me many occasions where the census cases do appear to contain physical aspects; these have in most cases passed without comment in the analysis or have been explained away as part of the hallucinatory tableau. Sadly it seems to her that the SPR group were in fact engaging in “top down” analysis, being so convinced of the evidence for the telepathic/hallucinatory model that they overlooked testimony in their sources that was damaging to that case. In the next section I will attempt an explanation as to why in terms of what was going on in the Society for Psychical Research at the time, and subsequently, and why I feel this may have had grave implications for 150 years worth of parapsychological research on ghosts.
We may know turn to point iv., “hauntings” (in the technical sense). In fact Myers theories included an explanation for hauntings, that is “ghosts seen in a location independently by different witnesses over the decades” – he thought a telepathic impulse could somehow be caught in the environment, and then be replayed years later to a suitably sensitive percipient. So if the reader has just expired laughing at my poor arguments, your ghost may be seen in the future by later generations – but it is just a recording of the past events, your amused demise! In fact this “recording hypothesis” is one of the most popular lay theories of ghosts today – but it too rules out any kind of iii) physical phenomena. In fact at the time of writing a major cross-cultural study of popular beliefs in emotions remaining and effecting the physical environment has just been published. (Savani et al 2011).
The Problem of the Poltergeist
And yet – in a large number of cases, apparitions appear to correspond with actual physical effects. Objects move, doors open and close, and stuff gets thrown about, etc. Parapsychologists usually differentiate between “haunts” (where an apparition is seen in a building many times by different witnesses) and “poltergeists” (where physical effects occur), but there is an overlap. And if ghosts are effecting physical objects, they are clearly not hallucinations, which are purely mental phenomena, unless something else si involved, a point I shall return to in my speculative conclusion.
Now it could be that these physical effects are in fact hallucinations, or mis-perception in themselves. Film exists from the Rosenheim poltergeist case where the lights swing, and there are a few other pieces of alleged poltergeist footage – but the evidence is hardly overwhelming. However smashed items, weird electrical disturbances, peculiar flight and impact characteristics seem to be consistent across many of these poltergeist cases. Why? Physical phenomena are an embarrassment to many psychical researchers – but we find them so often I have to concede they have some basis in fact. The same kind of things have been reported for 2,600 years, across many cultures. Yet in the 1890′s the poltergeist was a highly disreputable creature, with SPR member Frank Podmore ascribing the poltergeist to nothing more than naughty children playing tricks, an analysis that many modern readers may be sympathetic to.
Yet the poltergeist cases are really just as acceptable, if in some cases not better attested, than the apparitional cases. So why were they ignored in the Census? Well partly the clue is in the name: the Census of Hallucinations was just that, and it is clear from the early Proceedings that the SPR group who analysed the cases were deeply committed to a telepathic/hallucinatory model. Physical phenomena were, as Rebecca Smith has pointed out, an embarrassment, and were therefore outside the scope of the research project.
Yet something even deeper was at work. The founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882 had attracted a number of leading scientists and thinkers, and the American Society for Psychical Research did the same when it was founded a few years later. The early SPR did a great deal of work investigating purported mediums, against a background of popular enthusiasm for Spiritualism, and earned a strong reputation, despite its lack of “corporate opinions”, for what today would be called debunking of ostensible psychic phenomena. Controversy over the sceptical tone of SPR publications and investigations led to a crisis in 1888, when a large number of members who were disposed towards spiritualism and belief in in in particular physical mediumship left the SPR, to form their own organisation (Grattan-Guinness, 1982)
The remaining “rump” of SPR members were certainly no friends to the “lower” or “physical phenomena” of the séance room, and a series of critical reports on mediums such as Eusapia Palladino (balanced by the more positive Fielding report of 1908) led to an atmosphere where claims of physical effects were regarded with grave suspicion. Then the telepathic hypothesis, which was entirely compatible with the mental phenomena of the more “respectable” mediums yet could not be implicated in the suspected conjuring tricks of the physical mediums emerged, and the Census of Hallucinations was conducted with this prevailing attitude of latent hostility among (some but not all) SPR members to alleged physical phenomena. Stephen E. Braude has thrown much light on this period in his excellent work The Limits of Influence: Psychokinesis & and the Philosophy of Science (1996). Braude, Smith and myself have all independently reached a broadly similar position; namely that the early SPR was in effect hostile to certain types of “embarrassing” testimony, and may have downplayed them unconsciously in their analysis.
Furthermore, a strong party in British intellectual life was hostile to the SPR as investigating nonsense (others, including of course Disraeli and Balfour, strongly favoured it: Balfour served as Secretary and his brother as President of the SPR, and Gladstone described its research as “the most important work being done in the world today”.) The SPR had to deal with a dual attack, from both extreme proponents of the spiritualist party who saw the Society as debunkers, and from hostile materialists who saw it as simply studying popular superstition and outside of the scientific method. It would be unsurprising if some SPR members were hostile to any “spiritualist” interpretation of the evidence from apparitions, and the constant attempt to find scientifically respectable explanations for phenomena must have made the telepathic/hallucinatory models of apparitonal experience seem extremely attractive.
Of course later generations of researchers were to rehabilitate physical phenomena, and the SPR has been at the forefront of poltergeist research, but I believe it is from this moment in 1894 that the split between the “poltergeist” and the “ghost” dates. It has been accepted with occasional queries right through to the present day, though some writers have bravely opted for a discarnate intelligence or spirit based model at least some poltergeist experiences, including some of the major theorists in the area. (For example Playfair 1980, Wilson, 1981, Stevenson 1972, Spencer, 1997).
The orthodox position in mainstream parapsychology, if such a thing can be said to exist, appears to be that poltergeists are best understood as generated by a living agent unconsciously generating psi in what I have in the past described as a “nervous breakdown taking place outside the head” – the theory of recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis, or RSPK for short. A considerable body of theoretical work exists in support of this hypothesis (for example Roll 1980, Rogo 1979). Any attempt to claim that physical phenomena have been unfairly removed from the discussion of apparitonal cases must however contend with the authority on these matters, Gauld & Cornell’s magisterial study Poltergeists (1979), which is likely to be cited by any parapsychologist challenged on the idea that poltergeist and apparitional cases may actually be little more than an accidental classification dating from the 19th century, descriptive but not necessarily reflecting different causalities.
Gauld himself questions strongly whether poltergeists and hauntings are separate types of phenomena, or a continuum of one phenomena classified by their ‘symptoms’. Central to the book is Chapter 12: The Poltergeist and the Computer, where he performs a cluster analysis on 5000 cases drawn from the Literature and covering several continents and much of recorded history. At the end of ten iterations the clusters are reduced to two groups, Group 1, broadly representing what parapsychologists would recognise as poltergeist cases, and Group 2, traditional hauntings. It seems the traditional divide between apparitional cases and poltergeist cases may hold true.
Yet Gauld notes with apparent satisfaction that many of the Group 2 “hauntings” still contain significant physical effects, and that the Group 1 “poltergeists” contain cases where apparitions were seen. Alan Gauld dismisses (to my mind quite correctly) the tendencies of the telepathic theorists of ghosts to claim any reported physical effects were hallucinatory in a passage so vivid it deserves to be cited in full:-
“ostensibly physical phenomena have taken place that have in fact left a clear physical trace behind them: objects have in reality been displaced, bolts drawn, doors opened, objects smashed, etc. …if normal human beings together or in succession see door-handles turn, feel beds rise under them or bedclothes pulled off them, hear bell jangle…. then we have evidence that certain types of physical events occurred: and if one dismisses this evidence for reasons of theoretical tidiness related to ones views about certain types of visual hallucinations (recurrent apparitions) one is in danger of isolating one’s theoretical position from any modification by the facts – a tendency which, carried to extremes, lands people in lunatic asylums.”
Despite these strong words, physical effects in hauntings are still largely ignored, for just such theoretical reasons; yet one can not help feeling that in parapsychology the “lower” (physical) phenomena remain as disreputable as in 1894.
So if the evidence from actual reports of apparitional experiences does not seem to support the telepathic/hallucinatory model of ghosts, then how do “recording models” fare? Space will not permit a detailed discussion here, but a brief overview of the evidence seems in order. The earliest “recording hypothesis” I am aware of is that of FWH Myers, where he postulates a psychic ether which permeates buildings or the environment, on which certain events may be recorded, and later replayed to one suitably sensitive if the conditions are right. Myers did not live to fully develop the idea, which he used to explain hauntings (in the technical sense) and collective cases where his telepathic model appeared flawed. However his ideas were taken up and developed by H.H.Price, and are discussed in Hart’s essay Six Theories in some detail. It was not until however Nigel Kneales radio play of 1972 The Stone Tape that the idea really entered popular consciousness, and became one of the most widely held popular theories of apparitions. The play coincided with a new technology reaching the mass market, the tape recorder, and many homes would have these, so the idea of a recording was timely. Wood (2007) provides an excellent discussion of recording hypotheses.
In essence recording hypotheses are just as incompatible with physical effects as telepathic/hallucinatory models. Indeed the actual mode in which the ‘recording’ is played back may well be considered to be telepathic/hallucinatory, but perhaps the central feature of recording theories is that there is no self-aware entity present, merely a recording, what Derek Acorah calls “residual energy”. In recording theories there is no one there to communicate or interact with; it is akin to watching an old episode of The Muppet Show repeated on TV – Kermit is not going to suddenly turn and hold a discussion with you, or move your tea cup.
While the theory is attractive for cases where the same figure is seen repeatedly replaying exactly the same action, it is not the behaviour of many of the apparitions detailed in the literature, or collected in surveys. One example would be the Cheltenham Ghost (Morton 1892) where the apparition appeared to be aware of and indeed actively avoided engaging with the witnesses, but dozens of cases could be cited where this difficulty arises. It is also of course extremely difficult to find a way in which the recording hypothesis can be brought to bear on the physical phenomena commonly reported alongside apparitions.
The Accidental Census
To examine closely the findings of each of the surveys conducted over the years is far beyond the scope of this article, but in 2009, quite by accident, the author became involved in a small scale census that is of interest simply because of the similarities in the way it was conducted and the original SPR census, though they may not be immediately obvious.
Briefly, Rebecca Smith was writing a proposal for a pseudo-replication of the Census of Hallucinations using the internet, and owing to generous research funding from the SPR she has undertaken the research as part of her Ph.D. studies at Coventry University. (It is worth noting that I have not yet seen Smith’s data, as her research is being conducted completely independently of the research I am discussing here, and for ethical reasons and to maintain the independence of her analysis she has not revealed any of her findings to me to date. This means that I am fully aware that everything I say in this article may prove completely nullified in just under a year when Smith publishes her findings. Nonetheless as they employ a different methodology, different type of analysis and are of a much larger sample it still seems pertinent to discuss the Accidental Census now.)
The author jokingly posted the Census of Hallucinations question on Smith’s Facebook wall, where her friends could read it. To my amusement several responded with different accounts of personal appearances. Interested, I then posted the question on my own “wall”: more accounts were forthcoming. Realising we had the opportunity to collect some first hand narratives from people we knew, and easily conduct follow up research, we both refined the question and over a period of several months posted it again and again, and then developed a set of notes for interested friends to act as “collectors”, and to post the account on their “walls” and collect cases for us. This was done fairly informally, but by the time we ceased the project (as Smith was about to register for her Ph.D. and begin her own very different collection of narratives, which is conducted via the website www.strangesurvey.com) we had collected 62 accounts which met the criteria of the original SPR census. (Cases were excluded for a large number of reasons from the Census of Hallucinations, for example because the percipient was in bed and may have been asleep.). While the sample is clearly too small to allow for generalisations to be made, the cases covered North America, Continental Europe and the British Isles, and a wide range of experiences.
While this is hardly a sensible way to go about any kind of research, the serendipitous opportunity was in fact very close to the original SPR method. The SPR administered a questionnaire via “Collectors”, who generally asked the questions of people who were known to them. This was believed to reduce the possibility of deliberate hoaxing, and allow for the avoidance of informants known to be untruthful in such matters. In the Accidental Census the use of the social media site Facebook meant there was usually at least some relationship between the informant and the collector. Smith concluded, probably wisely, that this methodology was too innovative for her own research, and has instead used a more traditional web based questionnaire based upon the Census of Hallucinations to allow for a direct comparison.
What was striking about this small scale “accidental census” was how much it caused Smith and myself to question both popular beliefs concerning the ghost experience, and the theories in the parapsychological literature. Whereas I had formerly questioned telepathic models of the apparitional experience on the common sense objection that it was using one paranormal claim (ESP) to explain another (apparitions), after we completed the project the author came to question a large number of what I have termed “myths” regarding the apparitonal experience. However an obvious objection, beyond the very small size of the sample, arises – what if the ghost experience itself, or what is considered part of that experience has somehow changed in recent decades?
The Changing Face of the Ghost Experience
What was most striking was how similar many of the accounts were to classic apparitional accounts from the 1894 census. The wording of the question undoubtedly led to many of these similarities, but it seemed to us that apparitions still behaved much as they always had. However Wood (2008) has shown that the number of classic visual apparitions appears to be declining compared with earlier surveys in his census (with Nicky Sewell) of Swindon, Wiltshire. Drawing upon earlier work by Sewell and Gould on trends in the depiction of hauntings in popular television Wood argues compellingly that popular television depictions in reality T.V. ghosthunting shows (like the aforementioned Most Haunted) have influenced public perceptions of what constitutes a ghost experience. Researcher Trystan Swale has also identified what he perceives as a change in the phenomena reported in the last ten years, and again ascribes it to the influence of reality television shows concerning apparitions.
This may go some way towards explaining the press releases that accompanied the release of Dr. Richard Wiseman’s 2010 book Paranormality, where he reveals survey results that show much higher figures for the number of people claiming to have witnesses a “ghost” than earlier studies suggested. Today a photograph with an “orb” (an easily explained photographic anomaly that occurs on digital camera shots) or even a rustling of a plastic bag can often be interpreted as a ghost by those inclined to believe in them, and all the more so given the explosion of public interest in participating in “ghost hunts”, whether commercial such as those offered by several companies, or arranged by an enthusiastic “local group”. For the Accidental Census we excluded any report where the percipient was actively ghosthunting at the time of the experience, or which were based entirely on photographic anomalies, no matter how striking. Such social and cultural factors may be the cause of the decline of the reported apparition rather than any actual absence of traditional “ghosts”.
Still we must not take this too far just yet. A further possibility is reflected in the age of percipients at the time of the experience. Many experiences are reported from early childhood, and we chose to discard those where the percipient was aged ten or under at the time of the experience. Given a large number of these experiences were of visual apparitions, and that the average age of the census respondents is much older, this would if not taken in to account lead to a situation where it may appear that visual apparitions were more common in the past than in the most recent decade, if the average informant was over twenty. A second “spike” in the number of visual apparitions reported occurs around the ages of 17-21, so again, if the average informant was as in our study in their thirties, then it would again appear that visual apparitions were forming a smaller part of the reported experiences than they had in previous decades. It should be possible to check this hypothesis from the Haunted Swindon dataset.
A third possibility arose from the Accidental Census. It has long been suggested by researchers that genuine apparitonal experiences are what [psychologists term ‘flashbulb memories’. Wikipedia defines the term as “highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshots’ of the moment and circumstances in which surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.” I have heard both Caroline Watt and Patricia Robertson refer to how these events are supposedly never forgotten, and Jeff Belanger in his book Our Haunted Lives (2006) where he writes “…these are profound events, and they’ve been burned in to your long-term memory… Whether 5 or 50 years have gone by, the experience is still vivid.”
This has always puzzled me. I have had a few personal experiences that appeared to me to be paranormal, but as the years pass, I have clearly forgotten more and more about them, and when I come to write about them now I have to check back to my earlier writings. This is equally true for me of matters as diverse as when I first met people, what I was doing on 9/11, my first day at school, etc. Many seemingly important and dramatic events in my life, such as a car crash, I struggle to know recall at all, and I even forget who I was with in the car, let alone what the car looked like and how I felt during and after the crash as I lay trapped in the wreckage. I can imagine it, but I can’t actually remember much, beyond a friends joke as we were finally all pulled free, which just came to my mind as I typed these words. I suspect, but have no way to demonstrate, that the act of re-telling an event helps one recall it.
Perhaps some people do have “flashbulb memories”; the notion has been critiqued by psychologists, and I certainly do not seem to. Even in the original SPR Census it was noted that the longer the interviewer spoke to the informant, the more chance they would remember some incident that met the survey question. (Sidgwick, 1894). In fact the SPR Census found something odd; the number of recent reports, within the last year for example, was many times higher than the number of older reports. This effect was very evident in the Accidental Census, and during the conference presentation I showed a number of charts based upon the data to show how memories of paranormal experiences seem to fade over time, and/or people are far more likely to report recent phenomena. I tested this hypothesis by collecting 100 cases at random maintaining the gender bias of the three surveys (see below) I used from recent studies and then looking at time elapsed since the experience.
The ages of the informants provide a cap for the time that could have elapsed since the experience, which is obvious and means we can disregard the right hand part of the chart past age 30. There does however appear to be a clear relationship between gender and the time elapsed since the experience, perhaps suggesting that women are more likely to report recent experiences than men, who are more likely to recall events further back in time, perhaps in childhood. Given the very small size of the sample I have resisted the urge to draw further conclusions from this, and await with interest Smith’s data to see if the pattern is there demonstrated at a statistically significant level.
Two years ago I collected a small amount of survey data on somatosensory hallucinations – the sense of being touched when no one was present. 40% of respondents felt that had been “touched” in the last month, putting it sown to muscle twinges or mis-perception in the majority of cases. Yet few could remember having had the experience before (7%). This suggest strongly that minor experiences like this, or believing one hears one’s name named called, are very quickly forgotten. However such experiences are often considered “ghostly” in the correct context, as can be demonstrated by Smith (2008) where she studied 172 narratives of ghostly experiences of people in a hotel that had featured on the TV show Most Haunted, many of whom were there specifically to “ghost-hunt”, that were collected over a three year period.
My working hypothesis is that therefore visual hallucinations are more commonly remembered with the passing of time, and will therefore if the questionnaire used for the survey is open to physical effects and these more often forgotten phenomena, and if the context is correct (that is that a reputation for haunting is in place) already, then visual apparitions will crop up less as a percentage than in former decades. Looking at the Accidental Census data it does appear that visual apparitions are far more likely to be recalled after twenty years than any other category. Further research is of course needed, but I have come to severely question the “flashbulb memory” hypothesis when applied to paranormal experiences.
Are Ghosts Historic?
Something else of interest came up in the Accidental Census. Swale has suggested that in the past ghosts were often archetypal, of the brown monk, grey lady and phantom cavalier type. Such stories are certainly over represented in collections of British Folklore, but the author wondered if this might be because for an author writing a folklore collection these stories might be seen as reflecting genuine oral legends and historic material, and therefore be recorded while other apparitions, especially personal cases involving family members, were disregarded for genre reasons. I have closely examined the Census Report (1894) and find that perhaps the majority of apparitions appear in what was then modern dress, that is Victorian fashions, or those of the proceeding decades. Often even in the Census apparitonal clothing is noted as outdated such as the figure dressed in 1970′s Saturday Night Fever styles I researched in Suffolk following a sighting in the late 1980′s ; but this does not actually tell us much. A primary way in which the percipient becomes aware of the fact that the apparition is not of “this world” is the fact it is dressed in an archaic manner, so there may be a selection effect, in that apparitions dressed in contemporary manner may not be noted as apparitonal at all! Clothing of visual apparitions reported in the modern surveys was in most cases modern, with a small number of Victorian or “old fashioned” cases making up a minority. If my suggestion that it is the archaic nature of the dress that causes the apparition to draw attention and be noted as such, then I would speculate that such cases will be over represented in road ghosts cases and those reported in outside locations, as opposed to those in private homes, unless there is along history of haunting associated with the property.
Our census research seemed to show no particular association between the age of a property as far as known and the likelihood of a report, though Wood (2008) notes there may be such an effect in Swindon. I think the fairest conclusion would be that while old houses may well have more legends of haunting associated with them, spontaneous cases experiences can occur in buildings of any age, including in our sample several new builds. This again seems to testify against the Recording hypotheses as an explanation for apparitoonal experiences.
Where & When Can I See A Ghost?
The association of ghosts with stately homes, crumbling castles and lonely inns, while undoubtedly useful to the commercial; ghost night companies, does not appear to be borne out by the Accidental Census figures. One might expect “set and setting” to play a large part in producing expectation conducive to apparitonal experiences, yet in fact the locations where apparitions were reported were astonishingly mundane and prosaic. A detailed analysis must wait, but 70.5% of experiences reported when at home (including the garden). Of the remaining 29.5% when not at home almost a quarter happened while the percipient was in a car travelling. Only 16% of cases occurred outside. Other locations varied – a training course workshop, a park bench, two experiences in churches during services, a fashion show, and so forth. Only one – a burial mound overlooking Bristol – met the “spooky” criteria, and that was provided by the author himself.
Given you are much more likely it would appear to witness an apparition at home than anywhere else ( I am tempted to set up commercial ghost nights based on this premise, where interested parties can pay me to sleep in their beds with them to see if ghosts appear) it may be of interest to look at where the apparitions were seen.•53% occurred in the bedroom; 11% on the stairs, 8% in the kitchen, 6% in the Dining Room , and 5% in the Garden or Living Room. Other locations in the house get only one mention: curiously only two people reported an experience in the loo or bathroom.
As to when, in Wood (2008) Wood and Sewell discovered most visual apparitions occurred in the afternoon. In our sample 37% of sightings occurred during the day, but after removing cases associated with sleep paralysis and edge of sleep phenomena, we were left with 50% of cases occurring in daylight, and 50% in darkness. The sample was too small to be sure if this is significant, and there was no strong seasonal association, beyond a slight prevalence of cases in the summer months.
Three Theories of Apparitions
While it is tempting to continue to assail popular and academic theories of the apparitonal experience in the light of survey research, obviously much more work is needed. It seems fitting to instead offer a few highly speculative models of the apparitonal experience for future researchers to shoot down, based upon their own research. I will therefore offer three possible models that seem in keeping with the facts as I currently see them reported.
The first I shall call the Contextual Hypothesis. In a previous article (Romer 1996) I suggested that cases of haunting are often best considered as a series of potentially unrelated incidents, that become a “haunting” by being mis-associated with each other. It is as I noted earlier no great surprise that even healthy people hallucinate, and once someone in a property has seen a figure, then minor phenomena of the type frequently reported instead of being mildly puzzling and quickly forgotten are woven in to the narrative of a “ghost”, and a haunting story develops that is far greater than the sum of its parts. This sceptical and naturalistic hypothesis is supported by some modern research, where persons asked to keep a journal of unusual incidents reported a large array of minor phenomena. (Houran 1996)
A second model is similar, but is based on the idea that humans may possess psi abilities, ESP that includes the potential for psychokinesis. I have developed this at length in unpublished writings, and refer to it as the Psi-de Effect Hypothesis. If psi exists, then we might expect that normally there would be some resistance to manifesting effects that were visible and noticeable to the agent; after all we all “know” it is simply impossible. My psi-de effects ideas suggest that once a place has a reputation for haunting, people may actually haunt themselves, moving objects, picking up information by ESP and hallucinating figures, and manifesting the ghostly activity by their own psi powers. Of course this theory explain a miracle by invoking another miracle, but it does explain why different phenomena seem to be associated with different groups of investigators, even in the same location. The contextual hypothesis arguably does this just as well.
The third hypothesis I propose is nothing new at all: it is the Invisible Intelligences Hypothesis. Perhaps after all these years of research and theorising we are no closer to a scientific theory of ghosts than we were in 1882, and it really is just “dead guys”, daemonic entities or the similar. I am aware that hypotheses about spirits and discarnate entities are immensely unfashionable in parapsychology, and often how parapsychologist differentiate themselves from the popular ghosthunting mob is by their sophisticated and convoluted models. I can not help but feel however that Invisible Intelligences remains far more in keeping with the evidence we find in the accounts than many of the theories that academic parapsychologist have promulgated, no matter how disreputable they may be.
An End Note
It came as a great relief while writing this piece to discover that almost every one who has made a detailed study of apparitions actually agrees with me that they are associated with physical phenomena, though few have expressed it as strongly as Alan Gauld did. It was even more of a relief to find that ASSAP Chair David Wood (2008) found physical effects in 50% of his census cases. I would just like to take this chance to thank ASSAP for the opportunity to address the 30th anniversary conference and to publish this paper based upon that talk, and the marvellous audience who did not lynch me after my somewhat controversial statements on apparitonal research. If any reader is interested in conducting their own detailed analysis or case collections of this type, I would encourage them to write to me if they feel I could offer any support. Until Rebecca Smith’s Ph.D. research is published I can not say if my speculations in this paper will stand or not, but I also wish to thank her for her kind assistance over the years. I would like to thank Rebecca Smith, Rosie Freeman and Tom Ruffles for reading drafts of this paper, and my anonymous reviewer from ASSAP: all their feedback was invaluable.
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OK, a light-hearted one this lunchtime. “why do ghosts go woo?” is an excellent question that was asked on Twitter by Ian Rennie to Hayley Stevens, and she, Kimberley Kendall and I discussed it for a while. I always joke that in Denmark ghosts go “WØØ! WØØ!” (they don’t), but it does lead to the question of what noise the ghosts of other cultures and languages make. When Hayley referred the question to me I thought the answer would be easy to find; after all, I have plenty of books on the cultural history of ghosts, Actually it wasn’t, and i can’t find much evidence they do go “woo!” even in my children’s books, but I certainly had that impression. I think actually the real answer if this is a modern sound that beasties are meant to make is it may derive from the use of the theramin for making spooky sound effects for films and TV: but I could well be wrong. Steve Parsons of Para.Science responded to my Twitter query with a suggestion of early talkies (sound films) with white sheeted ghosts going “woooooo!” so perhaps some people can have a quick look? The Laurel and Hardy Society produced this, but the music stops us telling what the original sound if any was…
While trying to look it up I also found the etymology of “woo” as in the modern sceptical usage of a “woo” as a “gullible believer” discussed: the phrase was of course originally “woo-woo” and some have traced it back as far as the end of the 1960′s employed in this sense. I think we might be able to work out one possible source for it through that…
I think that may answer that, though I can’t of course be sure?
OK, so what noises do ghosts make? Well first we have to decide what is actually a ghost in our modern sense. What is often cited as the first modern ghost story. Pliny gives in his Letter to Sura: LXXIII) the following account –
Now the following story, which I am going to tell you just as I heard it, is it not more terrible than the former, while quite as wonderful? There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled, hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued. Even in the daytime, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm. Consequently the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost.
However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold. It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, enquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention. The first part of the night passed in entire silence, as usual; at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard: however, he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but, in order to keep calm and collected, tried to pass the sounds off to himself as something else. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up, saw, and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger, like a person who calls another. Athenodorus in reply made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and threw his eyes again upon his papers; the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher, who looked up upon this, and seeing it beckoning as before, immediately arose, and, light in hand, followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him.
The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; for the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones, being collected together, were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.
Pliny gives some other (less often cited) ghost stories including one of his own, but here we have the prototype of many modern haunt stories. The philosopher in question, Athenodorus Cananites, lived from 74BCE-7CE, and so this is a ghost story from roughly the time of Christ. The ghost acts in archetypal form, rattling its chains, clanking and making a racket. And here we see why Victorian ghosts, and indeed many ghost in our Classically educated nation used to rattle chains! Actually the loud noise is similar to some cases of “phantom housebreakers” which I describe on my Polterwotsit blog; for here let us simply note the ghost is associated with human remains, and appears at night in human form, wanting repose and scaring folks. All pretty central to the ghost story?
Now of course there are much older stories of ghost and spirits, from Sumer, Babylon, the witch of Endor in the Bible raising the spirit of Saul, from Ancient India, China, I could go on for ages. I won’t though, because this is perhaps the ghost story that had the biggest impact on British culture. It’s maybe hard for people to get now, but in ye olden times (well Early Modern Britain) everyone educated gent learned Latin and Greek, from Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Plutarch etc. Right the way through from Shakespeare to the Victorians, we were a culture that was literate in both the Bible, and the Classic, and so tales of Greece and Rome were hugely influential. Pliny was someone cited as freely at Oxbridge in the 18th century as Shakespeare, Joyce or Ezra Pound are today, or if you prefer, as Dawklins, Ince, Cox and Wiseman are today!:)
So Victorian ghosts clanked and rattled chains? No, only in fiction and popular cultural representations. What “real” Victorian ghosts sounded like i will return to later, but for the moment let’s go back to the middle ages…
We have a number of sources for medieval ghosts. The miracula and mirabalia are books of miracles and wonders that were kept for the edification of tourists, sorry pilgrims, in many medieval abbeys. Ghosts sometimes crop up — and some are deeply, deeply, weird,more similar to what we today classify as “high strangeness” UFO accounts than apparitional reports. Ghosts change shape, being tortured souls seeking rest and entry to heaven – we encounter things such as a sinful knight who haunts in the form of a drinking horn, and souls trapped in the form of hats that fly around emitting sparks! For all the high strangeness cases, there are also a lot of fairly normal sounding apparition cases: and they do seem to groan, cry, or wail. Now Steve Parsons also mention the fact “woo!” sounds like the cry of an owl, and that immediately reminded me of Shakespeare, and from hence i recalled the imagery of Isaiah 34:13-15, here given in the King James version –
And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls. The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest. There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate.
This imagery of a desolate ruin, a potentially haunted place is certainly evocative, and would have shaped popular consciousness every bit as much as Pliny I guess. I may be unusual in that I know the KJV but even a century ago I think most people would know those words… (Incidentally there are much more accurate versions of the Bible around today, so don’t get too excited about the dragons!).
Anyway I can’t actually find a reference to a medieval spirit hooting like an owl: I read through the whole of andrew Joyce’s excellent book on Medieval Ghosts this morning, and had a quick flick through Jean Claude Schmitt’s (1998) Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, and found nothing useful here. Still I recall many passages about screech owls in classical texts on Necromancy, and while I do not have my coipy of Daniel Ogden’s Greek and Roman Necromancy to hand, I certainly can look it up later.
What is clear is that medieval ghosts speak: indeed there primary purpose often seems to be to dissuade a sinner from their wicked ways, lest they end up suffering the same miserable fate as the ghost! Sometimes they need to put matters right or seek revenge, like the woman who had cheated her husband and son out of her will, giving everything to her brother, or the case of the man who fell through the roof and died while trying to ctach his wife committing adultery, then returns to haunt her! Medieval ghosts are actually very vocal…
The Living Dead
As a bit of a digression to out main theme, 12th century England was a bit hammer House of Horror. Specialists often differentiate between the apparition and the revenant, with the latter being an animated corpse — a descendant of the draugr of Norse mythology, the dead who rise from their graves and seek to terrify and destroy the living. These are the British ancestors of the Vampires and Zombies of today, but they are far more horrific than Edward Cullen – in fact they are far more horrific than even Jedward Cullen would be! (You will have to be UK based to get that joke I’m afraid…)
The Medieval Chroniclers tell us quite a bit about these beasties, and my favourite tales come from William of Newburgh. He dedicates three chapters of the fifth book of his Chronicle to the theme, and I think his words are still spine chilling even today…
It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony. It would be strange if such things should have happened formerly, since we can find no evidence of them in the works of ancient authors, whose vast labor it was to commit to writing every occurrence worthy of memory; for if they never neglected to register even events of moderate interest, how could they have suppressed a fact at once so amazing and horrible, supposing it to have happened in their day? Moreover, were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome; so I will fain add two more only (and these of recent occurrence) to those I have already narrated, and insert them in our history, as occasion offers, as a warning to posterity.
If you are interested in the whole story, read chapters 22-25 here.
Now you may very well be thinking at this point “pah! old hat! I knew all this…” I shall therefore proceed in part 2, assuming I ever find the time to write it, to look at what noises Victorian and Modern Ghosts make according to the findings of psychical research – but for now I shall leave you with an anecdote. I have above offered what I hope is a sensible explanation as to why Victorian Ghosts clank chains – but many years ago my friend David Curtin suggested that gurgling, groaning and the clanking of chains in ghosts might coincide with the development of the indoor toilet – rather than tell visitors Aunt Fanny was locked in the lave with a very dodgy tummy, the ghost was blamed for the noises!
And just in case you all think I have finally taken leave of my senses in dedicating my leisure time to the pressing societal issue of “why do ghost go woo?”, a) will it really be any more irrelevant than anything happening at a political conference this week, and b) I’m not the first – Ian Topham has a thread on the topic on the Mysterious Britain forum!
I’ll be back with a part two at some point
You can say what you like about Professor Brian Cox, the guy has style. The discussion of the Infinite Monkey Cage episode on spooks et al. led to his Twitter postings that apparently caused outrage, and the amusing little spat that followed while distracting us from the more pressing issues of lift etiquette (if you are not a reader of PZ Myers, Skepchick blogs or Dawkins that might pass you by, but never mind) has continued on and off on Twitter, and Cox has now tagged it, you guessed it, #ghostnobbergate.
I have hugely enjoyed the discussion. Let’s face it, no one is actually interested in my opinions on the matter; well 15 people have commented on my blog, but almost everyone has been someone I know from the transpersonal or parapsychological community, or an old friend. I can’t really see why, what am I doing wrong? Roy Stenman’s blog Paranormal Review has attracted outraged Cox fans — and Hayley Steven’s get her blog post on this retweeted by Professor Cox? And what do I get? Ignored. I made specific critiques of what was said on the radio show, but no one has addressed them.
Perhaps it’s my fault for not taking it seriously enough. So here, to prevent this being another long and tedious blog post, here are five things that #ghostnobbergate showed me…
#1 People find it OK to comment on things they know nothing about.
And I agree, sort of. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. You don’t have to be an expert or have a huge knowledge of the research literature to hold an opinion, or we would all be agnostic on EVERY issue. Richard Wiseman and Bruce Hood certainly bring a lot of knowledge to bear on the issue of paranormal belief, and make an educated case against based on their reading of the evidence. Ince has perhaps wisely remained quiet, but he always struck me as deeply intelligent, and anyway I have discovered from Twitter he has excellent taste in music so I have nothing bad to say of him. Andy Nyman is doubtless brilliant, but I believe misinformed on some issues. And the hordes of slathering bloggers saying “it’s all crap”?
Well they are entitled to their opinions. However they denigrate mine, which is there is some deeply weird stuff here that really needs a lot more research before we can dismiss it. I have spent rather a long time, and read rather a lot of books and journals on the issue, and I have spent some twenty odd years pursuing original research. There are fundamental questions about the apparitional experience I can not answer, but that is I suspect because I am framing the question incorrectly. But I find the dismissive “it’s all crap” rather funny, because the people concerned are so often making an argument from ignorance. Hayley Stevens has looked at the evidence, and done a lot of investigations, and has come to a very different conclusion to me — that’s a fair and reasoned position in my eyes. But many of the twitter commentators would not know Gurney, Sidgwick & Myers if it bit them on the kneecaps, Rosenheim from the Evil Dead, think RSPK is something you due to a party invites and assume Houran and Lange is a Swedish sofa manufacturer.
So sure, everyone is entitled to an opinion. One based in ignorance of the subject matter is however not worth much, it’s just in the literal sense prejudice – pre-judging an issue.
#2 Many “skeptics” are not remotely sceptical and many “rationalists” are not rational.
In fact emotive responses have dominated a lot of the stuff I have seen. Prof Cox offered a rational critique when he apparently said ghosts violate the Laws of Thermodynamics – and if your theory does that, it’s dead. I’m not sure which Law was referred to as I have not seen Cox’s original comment. I seen to recall the Third Law is a statistical law? Anyhow, yep, that would be a rational argument. But it requires us to say what a ghost is, and he has not defined that for us yet? I’ll return to these problems further down.
Now I find few sceptics on this matter wh0 actually seem to doubt things, and question stuff. If they did they might actually bother to become informed about what has been written on the issue – say by reading the Apparitional Experience Primer and the Poltergeist Experience Primer. Of course campermon and the sceptics of RationalSkepticism forum have looked at the evidence closely, and I enjoy debating them, as with some of the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation forum) members, but most of the Twitter stuff appears fairly ignorant with a few notable exceptions, like the chap or chapess who invoked Feyrabend and the limits of Popperian falsification!) Instead they have bought in to a dominant paradigm, and not even looked at the research on the issue.
To make a snap judgment on an issue like this, where we do not know what Cox means when he employs that notoriously slippery word “ghost”, seems profoundly irrational, and many people make a classic thinking error – an appeal to authority. That only works if the authority knows what they are talking about, and there is a consensus, or overwhelming agreement. If I said I rejected the Standard Model, people would think I was bat shit crazy, and if I said I rejected it because Sylvia Browne or Deepak Chopra disagreed I hope you would refer me for psychiatric evaluation. These people are not physicists, and hell I would not actually take their opinions on my area seriously either. But a lot of purported rationalists and sceptics are praising Cox despite his apparent lack of knowledge of the subject.
#3 I don’t know what a “ghost” is, or what it means
I study apparitional experiences and poltergeist cases — what parapsychologists call spontaneous cases. But as Andrew Oakley pointed out, the word ghost is horribly open to interpretation. In fact everyone in the field faces this problem. So what I study is experiences that people refer to as “ghosts” — and that can mean all kinds of things. I use a definition based on phenomenology: regardless of whether it was swamp gas reflecting off wires and the Planet Venus, or the shade of Great Aunt Nora, I call it a ghost if that’s was the percipient, the witness, calls it. and yes most “ghost” experiences have a truly straightforward set of explanations that cover them — hallucination, misperception, edge of sleep experiences, illness, wishful thinking, fraud (though that was pretty rare in my experience) and so forth.
I don’t know what Professor Cox means by “ghosts”. Without a definition their is no way I can meaningfully comment on his assertion belief in ghosts is silly. He has not defined his terms. I have before written extensively on the reasons one might doubt that all “ghosts” fall in to these categories – I describe my reasons here. But unless we know what he means by a “ghost” I can’t see any reason to be bothered by Cox’s opinion.
#4 Thermodynamics excludes ghosts
As I said, I don’t know where Prof. Cox said this. If he did, I’m baffled but I would actually like to see a brief explanation of his reasoning. The closest I can think of to this claim is Milton A Rothman’s version of it, which was that Thermodynamics excludes ESP, extrasensory perception. You can read about that in A Physicist’s Guide to Scepticism (Rothman, 1988). The reason Rothman makes the claim is simple; early parapsychological research in to ESP appeared to show that ESP was independent of distance and possibly time, so a card guessing experiment across the Atlantic would be as successful as one that took place from my room to my neighbours. This argument seemed fatal to ideas like Sinclair’s mental radio, and in fact if a physical process is involved is in fact going to violate Thermodynamics; so Rothman argued. But parapsychologists no longer are sure things work like this, and that ESP is actually entirely independent, and many of the assumptions that older psi researchers held have been questioned, so Rothman’s critique is arguably irrelevant. If you doubt me on this, take a look at two excellent essays; Paul Stevens ‘Are our assumptions more anomalous than the phenomena?’ and Jezz Fox’s ‘Will we ever know if ESP exists?’ both in ANOMALOUS EXPERIENCES: ESSAYS FROM PARAPSYCHOLOGICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES, edited by Matthew D. Smith. MacFarlane & co Inc. Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina and London, 2010. But ghosts? I have no idea what Cox bases his claim that ghosts are excluded by Thermodynamics upon. Until I see his definition of ghosts I’m not going to be much wiser, either.
#5 People Ignore Me!
Perhaps wisely, pretty much everyone refuses to be drawn in to a discussion of this. Which is to my mind a bloody shame. Because actually, I think I might have something interesting to say. The same people who denigrate ghost believers seem to be unaware of the interesting body of ghost research, even fascinating papers by Richard Wiseman like this and this. I spent much of the nineties chasing environmental variables for hauntings, much as Braithwaite and others still do; Braithwaite produces interesting stuff like this . I did a decade on this kind of thing before like Becky I moved on to phenomenological studies of the experiences, in the tradition of Hufford and DJ West. Yet the majority of the scathing Twitter commentators are never even going to take the subject seriously enough to actually read any of the science, and I think would be shocked (and dismissive) if they knew there was a large peer reviewed literature. I suspect “cognitive dissonance”, though I’m actually a critic of Festinger too, so maybe I really suspect good old plain ignorance. But hey, at least I’m enjoying myself!
OK, so it all started with the radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage (and you can listen to it from this link). It was quite funny, and as normal irreverent. Ince and Cox were funny, and joined by Wiseman, Bruce Hood(whose book Supersense I keep meaning to review) and Andy Nyman. As such there was clearly no attempt at balance or actually addressing the pro-paranormal perspective, but I’m not sure this is required for comedy. Still this walked a thin line between humour and science, and the naive could easily be misled by simple assurances like Hood’s opening claim that ghosts were scientifically non-viable.
Andy Nyman talks about ghost narratives as they developed over time – and surely they do, though his claim that ghost stories start with Pope Gregory is laughable to anyone with any knowledge of Classics (and I was fairly shocked by his apparent ignorance of the earlier ghost narratives – see Ogden for an instant refutation, or Felton ) and his claim that ghost stories exist for purposes of religious control pre-Reformation, and become secular afterwards is so laughably over simplified I felt this show may take several diazepam to listen to, doing to History what Most Haunted does to academic parapsychology…
I think anyone who has ever studied Hamlet is aware that ghosts hold a peculiar position in the Early Modern period, and anyone with a knowledge of theology would be in tears at this misrepresentation of a horrendously convoluted issue. Oddly almost nothing in Nyman’s account reflects anything in the academic literature on the development of the ghost narrative. The audience are hardly likely to appreciate this, but maybe I am too harsh on Nyman for a throw away explanation on a radio show. At the end of this piece I list a few excellent books for those interested in the area. Unfortunately I am incredibly boring in this respect, usually describing myself as a cultural historian of ghosts if someone asks me what I do. I start to quote the Bylands Fragment and they go away. And anyway, the detective genre and detective story narratives have evolved over time. Do detectives not exist?
Richard Wiseman was as usual hilarious. His discussion of sleep paralysis and incubi had me laughing out loud — but long therm readers of this blog will know that his proffered explanation is a rather drastic over simplification of a horrendously complicated issue with no agreement on the physiological or neurological factors involved — it was basically the usual sceptical place holder “sleep paralysis”, and while Richard does offer the old idea that we are paralysed in (REM, though he did not say so) sleep to prevent injury, I’m not sure how many sleep researchers still hold this true. I have seen it questioned in my recent review of the literature. I fear the truth, while as Richard suggests probably located in mundane causes, is actually rather more mysterious than he leads us to believe, with several competing models vying as explanation and none currently empirically demonstrable. And you know I’m going to mention Hufford here don’t you? Well maybe not if you are not as obsessed by actual parapsychological/folklore studies as me, but there ya go.
No the problem is I feel like a tosser making these carping critiques of a comedy show, but when public intellectuals spout bollocks, even in a humourous light entertainment show that should clearly not be taken seriously at any level, up and down the country people think they are being informed and educated, when really they are being sold a rather glib and very superficial treatment of a complicated and intriguing area of academic debate. In short it’s a lot like the pop science pot boilers one finds in Waterstones – fine for ignorant peasants like me, but no substitute for the real journal stuff. If my fellow sceptics did not so often but uncritically accept anything that meets their prejudices, and actually questioned what they hear from even big names with honest-to-God PhD’s, it would not be a problem. If people read deeper in the issues, that would be fine. But life is short and love is always over in the morning – oh sorry that’s a Sisters of Mercy lyric — anyway we don’t have the time or the inclination a lot of time to go read Prof John Beloff or Prof Archie Roy or some other eloquent defender — we just take the bloke on the radios word for it. As I commented this morning on Twitter, the irony of modern life to me is that Sceptics appear full of certainties, while “believers” like me are assailed by doubts at every turn.
Still, this is a comedy show. I have a sense of humour. Critiquing it feels wrong. As I said, it makes me feel like I’m missing the joke, have no sense of humour, and I’m somehow being a bully. I hope none of these are ever true. One of my friends, and academic from the same institution as Bruce Hood was horrified by the show, as he pointed out it was full of holes. I laughed at him gently, and reassured him no one would take it seriously, hoping I was right. Anyway I am less than seven minutes in, but should I keep breaking a butterfly on the wheel?
Hood made a interesting point suggesting (in line with his oversensitive entity detector hypothesis) that ghost experiencees are more likely to find order in random patterns – type I errors — I’m not sure that is the case. I think the papers he is citing suggest paranormal believers are more prone to Type I errors, and that may be true – and although there is a correlation between paranormal believers and people who have seen a ghost the two are just not the same. But I have not yet checked, so this may be an unfair critique. Anyone out there know?
Anyhow enough! I have a sense of humour. Some nonsense is inevitable in any pop-science treatment, but I’m not going to sit here and rip in to the remaining two thirds. I can cope with nonsense being spouted even on a show that claims to be a “bastion of rationality” — some people have lives and have not dedicated themselves to decades on these subjects – well Wiseman has both, for which I am frankly envious. You should by now gather that a) I’m astonishingly critical, and sceptical of almost any claim I hear from an “expert” and b) this was a light hearted treatment with a condescending and at time close on sneering tone, but genuinely funny and entertaining — just don’t take it too seriously.
And there it should have ended, and I would have laughed, enjoyed the show, and never said another word about it.
Then it all got nasty. Some people suffered a sense of humour failure, and appear to have complained to the Beeb that the show was unbalanced, pitting five sceptics against, well no one. It’s not that you can’t find people with PhD’s who believe in ghosts, indeed heaven forbid people with PhD’s who research ghosts. Now I actually disapprove of the complaint, because the Infinite Monkey Cage is comedy, not a serious debate show. Indeed so crass were some of the errors in this show it was not just comic, it was bleeding laughable
But it does also masquerade as a) rational and b) scientific, and let’s face it if that is the case then having someone who could discuss the opposing case might have been fairer, and actually funnier. I can think of plenty of people, I’d have done it and been publicly crucified, I mean hell I did Ghost hunting with the League of Gentlemen (and very nice they were too), and certainly in the case of Reece Shearsmith astonishingly open minded and happy to read the journal stuff himself — despite his hard core sceptic beliefs — and they might have even found someone talented and funny to appear if they called the SPR? But calls for balance seem sadly misplaced in a light entertainment show, if only as I said rational sceptics actually bothered to check the assertions of big name sceptics as carefully as they examine the writings of Creationists for errors!
A few of my mates from Skeptics in the Pub mentioned it to me, and I am always happy to offer an alternative viewpoint (and pedantically jump on errors!). But I could not take it seriously. Some people did though, and called in the great God “broadcasting objectivity”, and while I sympathize it seems heavy handed for thirty minutes on Radio Four aimed at an audience who probably don’t care much either way, but want a good laugh. Still I don’t blame them, I blame the BBC…
Here is how the show was advertised – the emphasis is mine…
‘Brian Cox and Robin Ince are joined by actor Andy Nyman, psychologist Richard Wiseman and neuroscientist Bruce Hood to investigate popular claims of supernatural events, and debate whether a belief in ghosts and psychic abilities is harmless fun, or if there are more worrying implications.’
Investigate? Yeah maybe. Debate. Nope. A debate by definition requires some disagreement. False advertising by the BBC led to the complaints I think, from disappointed listeners, not the show itself. It never was a debate. In fact it was not really an investigation – it was a quick chat with a few intriguing suggestions, a few bizarre mistakes, and a rather superficial gloss for people who aren’t really keen on actual debate or the involved issues. Light entertainment, nothing more, nothing less — but actually fun, even though I’ll never take any other topic they handle seriously again.
And then Brian Cox made a mistake. He turned to Twitter in frustration, and the word “nobbers” was used. I mean really. Nobbers. Yes, Nobbers. It sounds like the playground taunt of a five year old.
Here is my official statement, which also has the benefit of being a fact. There are no ghosts, so it would be silly to believe in them.
“There are some utter nobbers out there!”
So ran Professor Cox’s reasoned dismissal. Now actually I understand his frustration, because I think the complaints were misjudged, because of the appalling way the show was advertised. I assume he is referring by utter nobbers to people who complained, but I secretly hope he meant ghost researchers like myself, as pretty much every other commentator on “Cox and Nobbers” seems to think. Why?
People have called me far worse. and to be fair, I quite like “utter nobber”. “That CJ is an amazing nobber!” might count as false advertising, but its the kind of reputation I would like to have where young ladies are concerned. Professor Cox has been voted one of the sexiest men alive, and why parapsychologist Cal Cooper and a few others might give hm a run for his money, well I need all the help I can get. So yes, I have to admit, I am an utterly amazing nobber…
And if this playground smut offends, then be grateful I have not made all the other puns I could on the unfortunate juxtaposition of bollocks, cox and nobber. In deference to my dear friend Richard “Dick” Lay I won’t go there. Because I am big and grown up, and don’t resort to playground name calling and making puns on people’s names, which with mine might be throwing stones in glasshouses.
Instead I did the adult thing, and tweeted Prof Cox, asking him if he was familiar with the peer reviewed literature on apparitional experience. I thought maybe he had read say Dewi on the Hallucinations of Widowhood from The Lancet, or was familiar with the Report on the Census of Hallucinations, Tyrell’s Apparitions, Evans Seeing Ghosts, or Hornell Hart’s Six Theories of Apparitions. I jest of course, I was pretty sure he had no clue what he was talking about. But if he responded I was ready to reply with at least Public Parapsychology’s excellent pdf An Apparitional Experiences Primer.
He didn’t, but he is busy with a book, and let’s face it this is not really his field, so I don’t blame him for not being drawn in to a discussion. But at least I git something better than a mildly funny radio show from all this — now I can proudly tell all that I am an “utter nobber”. And that has to be worth something?
Davies, O (2009), The Haunted; a social history of ghosts, London, Palgrave Macmillan.
Felton, D. (1999) Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity, Austin, University of Texas Press
Finucane, R.C (1982) Appearances of the Dead: Cultural History of Ghosts, Junction Books
Finucane, R.C. (1996), Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation, Prometheus Books
Hood, B.M ( 2008) Supersense: why we believe in the unbelievable, New York, Harper Collins.
Hufford D.J. (1982) The terror that comes in the night: an experience-centered study of supernatural assault traditions. Philadelphia:University of Pennsylvania Press, – Still by far the best book on sleep paralysis, night terrors, and the phenomenological study of the same.
Ogden, D (2002) Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook, OUP USA.
Wiliams, Wilson, Ventola (2010) An Apparitional Experiences Primer (pdf)
Schmitt, J.C (2007), Ghosts in the Middle Ages: Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, Chicago, University of Chicago.
Over at http://www.rationalskepticism.org I’m debating the poster known as Campermon, an excellent chap. So far we are just really getting started, but I thought I’d share one of my posts, just in case anyone interested…
“My sincere thanks to Campermon for his excellent response, which clear took a great deal of work, and has done much to move the debate forward. What strikes me immediately is how much we agree on. I will take a temporary halt from my catalogue of marvels – or “ghost stories” as many have termed them – to discuss what we have so far established. Firstly Campermon stakes out his position on ghosts clearly; “that they are purely manifestations of the brain that do not represent objects in objective reality.” He writes with considerable accuracy and verve on hallucinations, and hypnagogia: fields I have written extensively upon in the past, and where I feel well qualified to comment. And I will comment – I agree absolutely with Campermon here. As I wrote in my opening post
CJ wrote: I would imagine every reader of this debate has hallucinated – if not through drugs, fever or exhaustion, then in that most wonderful yet familiar of things, our nightly dreams. That our brains can conjure up convincing people, exotic landscapes, or whole dramas as if we are really there I think anyone who has ever had a dream will admit.
If ghosts were confined to sightings by a single individual at a time, then I would be forced to immediately concede the debate. That complicated multi-sensory hallucinations that can draw us in and seem utterly real, along with simple misperceptions and errors of memory, and still rather mysterious sleep phenomena – sleep paralysis, night terrors, ‘old hag’, hypnogogia and lucid dreams – can occur, that I accept without question. Yet I still hold to the argument I am debating for: and here is why…
Let us assume for a moment a universe where “ghosts” are hallucinatory experiences, generated entirely within the brain. This is a simple and entirely sensible position – in fact I think it’s pretty much what the 18th and 19th century consensus of scholars was – ghosts are just imagination, or mental aberrations, or straight misperception of normal (or unusual) events or objects. All of this is perfectly reasonable and doubtless accounts for a very large number of “ghost” experiences. As I have stated from the beginning, we all know we can hallucinate, even if our only experience of hallucination is the weird and wonderful world of dreams. Such “ghosts” will share certain properties, being the product of a “disordered” brain.
The theoretical properties of these hallucinations are –
i) They will only appear to one witness at a time – though a misperception (where there is something there, it just fools the senses, as in an optical illusion – misperceptions are not hallucination technically) could theoretically be shared by many. If a stick in the water looks like Nessie, it is possible that hundreds of observers could simultaneously see it and reach the erroneous conclusion it is a lake monster. ( I don’t think Campermon has invoked misperceptions yet, but it seems a fair extension of his position, and a sensible one, to allow for it?)
ii) They will convey no information to the percipient not known to them at the time. Again a caveat – if a ghostly monk now appears tonight to Campermon, and tells him the winner of the Grand National, we would all be impressed, not least Campermon I suspect. If it subsequently turns out to be incorrect, we might wonder if Campermon dreamt the whole affair. Yet even if Campermon was right, that could still be the explanation. The conveying of veridical information adds weight to the apparition being an external “thing”, not a hallucination, but does not alone substantiate it.
iii) They will not objectively cause physical ‘real world’ effects – no opening doors, moving objects, or otherwise impinging upon physical reality. Being mental constructs they can’t – if physical effects are ascribed to a ghost, then they must be misattributed.
iv) They will not reappear in the same place over time to different witnesses This requires a little explanation – if it is known that an Oxford courtyard is purportedly haunted by a shot Civil War general, we should not be surprised if others purport to see “the ghost”. If however over a period of many years many people witness an apparition, and agree on certain characteristics, independently and without foreknowledge of the purported haunt – then we may be justified in doubting the hallucination explanation.
So how well do ghost accounts meet these criteria? On point i) seen by a single witness, we know this is commonly not the case. About 10% of SPR cases were seen simultaneously by multiple percipients – the experience which got me interested in all this was of that type, shared with four other witnesses. We can invoke misperception as I have already stated – human perception is notoriously fallible, and a whole theatre of people can be wowed by a magicians trick.
Furthermore, in many cases there is communication between the parties – “do you see the monk?” etc, and even where there is no verbal communication there is the possibility of non-verbal prompting. In his classic analysis of the SPR Census cases Tyrell noted that in many multi-percipient cases witnesses saw the apparition from their perspective – a very clever trick for a hallucination. So if I was in front of the ghostly Dawkins, I would see his face – if you were behind, his tailcoats.
Yet I would not want to make too much of this (certainly less than Tyrell et al did) – for we have the problem that by the time testimony is recorded there has often been conferring among witnesses, which I suspect does much to shape the memory of the experience. In my own experience (at Thetford Priory, Norfolk, 1987) one of the other percipients (David Aukett) forbade us to discus the experience till we had committed it to paper – and on comparing we found that our descriptions of the apparitional figure were sharply divergent. (We did however all agree on the movements and the staircase which we saw, which did not exist in reality). I am fairly certain (given that none of us can now recall what happened that night with any degree of confidence at all) that the staircase was mentioned in the verbal exchange during the sighting – presumably why we agree on this detail – once someone mentioned it, we all “saw” it.
So i) is in fact, I freely admit, questionable evidence against the hallucination theory, but clearly it must be taken in to account.
Let’s move on to ii) where the ghosty tells us something we did not know. A quick anecdote here – because I am feeling self indulgent, at this late hour! Many years ago a group of munchkins, er sorry students, came to my room in college halls and announced they intended to do a Ouija board. I was amused and a bit concerned – I had seen people scare themselves silly by such things, but they wanted me to play as I had a reputation as knowing about such things. I refused, but said they could do it in my room if they wished, and I would observe and banish any horrors they called up from beyond the grave
They messed about for a while, the Ouija giving seemingly (seemingly?!!!) nonsensical answers. Finally I was bored, and said I would join in after all. And I cheated – I pushed the glass, and we soon had a message from a chap who was terribly burned, needed help, and I even made up a street address. They freaked out, someone fetched a map, and yes the street existed – well I may have seen it, I had been in to town, and dredged it out of my unconscious. I’d certainly seen maps of Cheltenham. And then to my amusement, they insisted on going and tracking down the house address, expecting to find the chap perished in the flames. I barely dissuaded them from calling the fire brigade! But hey, it was near the Kentucky Fried Chicken, so I tagged along. (I was a vegetarian in theory at the time, prone to late night lapses).
We went to the street, and there was no house at the address – perhaps luckily – but a gap in to a small row called Jenner Walk. “Perhaps it’s down there” someone said – and we walked down to find ourselves in a small burial ground. The name on a tombstone corresponded to the name I had invented for my “ghost” – it was a common name I think – but from that moment on they were convinced. I told them I had pushed the glass, and the whole message was made up by me, and it was just coincidence – but they did not believe me. I was a bit puzzled, but more amused than anything. Then one of them said “of course you were pushing the glass how else could it have moved? The message came from the spirit though.” Er, actually in poltergeist cases “spirits” seem to move things quite well on there own, but yes he had a point – the medium is not the message after all. Had I telepathically received a message? Actually I don’t think so – I think it was just an amusing and slightly freaky coincidence – but there is a theory that ghosts may represent an externalisation (or hallucination) of an ESP (telepathic or clairvoyant) impulse. Campermon has given an excellent explanation of the problems of the “mental radio” model of telepathy – I will address it in my next post in detail, as I think that will take us forward, but the purpose of my anecdote is to illustrate that simply because information is seemingly conveyed there is no need to invoke dead souls or telepathy – it could all be chance.
Now a little on the history of psychical research. The SPR back in the 1890′s was pretty much a mixed bag of believers and sceptics as today, but the people who worked on theories of apparitions – Myers and Gurney in particular – were I suspect strongly opposed to a “spiritualist” explanation of spooks.
They believed, from what today appear rather simple experiments, that they had found evidence of telepathy – mind to mind contact. (And again I must say I will return to Campermon’s objections to this concept in a future post, as they have considerable weight and good scientific sense behind them). These SPR theorists instead were of the opinion that spooks WERE hallucinations – but hallucinations that were “seeded” by an ESP message. (Well Myers thought this of some cases, but not all). And unsurprisingly their findings seemed to bear out this hypothesis – in the great Census of Hallucinations, they found many examples of what they termed Crisis Apparitions – where the hallucinated ghosty represented a person who at that time (with 12 hours either side allowable) was having a dramatic crisis or dying. I forget the exact number of such cases – one in 48 I think – but it was sufficient for them to decide that there telepathic theories were on the right lines.
They performed some very dodgy statistical calculations on the number of persons dying at any time, and felt they could rule out chance, and got copies of death certificates, sworn testimony from others who were told of these apparitions before the bad news arrived, etc, etc. They ruled out any where the person was known to be ill, or one might reasonably anticipate the events. The “purpose” of these hallucinations was to their mind to give form to a telepathic impulse. Such crisis apparitions are still reported today – but recent studies (including my own 2009 one) have shown them to be nowhere near as prevalent as in 1894. One could argue that with improved communications the news of a death almost always arrives before the ghost – but I suspect there is something else going on. Somehow the phenomena seemed to meet the expectations of the researchers – yet the actual question asked by the Collectors (not the theorists) in the Census
Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living being or inanimate object, or of hearing a voice; which impression, so far as you could discover, was not due to any external physical cause? (Sidgwick et al, 1894)
In no way seems to me biased towards such results, and similar questions were used on later studies which provided fewer crisis reports. I would suspect folklore stories were providing the explanation – but the collection of independent corroborative testimony and death certificates suggest this was not so. The incidents were believed to have occurred. It is a minor mystery, but an intriguing one…
So why have I dwelt upon this issue? Because the Census question actually ruled out iii) – physical effects, barring the common and I suspect very normal somatosensory hallucination of being touched. The SPR theorists did not ask about objects moving, or ghosts physically effecting objects – because they had decided they were telepathically induced hallucinations, and such clearly ridiculous phenomena were quite evidently incompatible with this theory. In fact Myers theories included an explanation for iv) ghosts seen in a location independently by different witnesses over the decades – he thought a telepathic impulse could somehow be caught in the environment, and then be replayed years later to a suitably sensitive percipient. So if John has just expired laughing at my arguments, his ghost may be seen in the future by later generations – but it is just a recording of the past events. In fact this “recording hypothesis” is one of the most popular lay theories of ghosts today – but it rules out any kind of physical phenomena.
And yet – in a huge number of cases, apparitions appear to correspond with actual physical effects. Objects move, doors open and close, and stuff gets thrown about, etc, etc. Last post I dealt with poltergeists in depth, for this very reason. Parapsychologists usually differentiate between “haunts” (where an apparition is seen in a building many times by different witnesses) and “poltergeists” (where physical effects occur), but there is an overlap. And if ghosties are effecting physical objects, they are clearly not hallucinations, right? Hence my opening gambit – poltergeist cases.
Now it could be that these physical effects are in fact hallucinations, or misperception in themselves. Film exists of Rosenheim where the lights swing, and there are a few other pieces of alleged poltergeist footage – I was once part of a team who videod a toilet seat banging up and down – but the evidence is hardly overwhelming. However smashed items, weird electrical disturbances, peculiar flight and impact characteristics (and as Dr Barrie Colvin has recently discovered, highly unusual acoustic properties in percussive raps associated with poltergeist phenomena) seem to be consistent across many of these poltergeist cases. Why? Physical phenomena are an embarrassment to many psychical researchers – but we find them so often I have to concede they have some basis in fact. The same kind of things have been reported for 2,600 years, across many cultures. What the hell is going on here?
So I pose a challenge to the great people who read this debate, and comment in the peanut gallery. It’s in two parts. Firstly, I have no idea where any of you live, but find your local newspapers – a couple will suffice – and type “ghost” and “poltergeist” in to the search engine. Look at what turns up, and identify any purported cases of spooks, and link them in the discussion thread. Are there physical phenomena reported? Do they meet the kind of thing I discuss in my previous thread? I think it will prove interesting, and I can not be accused of selecting cases to meet my theories. You can choose a newspaper somewhere else in the world if you like.
Secondly, can each interested observer, regardless of your personal convictions, ask ten of your acquaintances, at random or selected for convenience, if they have ever experienced a ghost or other weird phenomena, and if so, if you might anonymously give their story? I will be genuinely interested in what comes up – because I predict that when you interview them these pesky physical effects will form part of the narrative. I have a few ideas which might explain why this is so in normal terms – but I am not convinced that hallucinations can explain it.
I wrote this update for Facebook fans of my little ghost research group, GSUK. I thought I may as well share it on my blog as well!
We maintain a quiet but social forum, and are always delighted to welcome new members. You can sign up here –
and it is the first place we announce new research or forthcoming events. Once you have signed up Becky or I have to approve you, so please do include an email – this is simply because we used to be besieged by SPAMbots who put some, er, interesting, links all over the forum!
If you have forgotten your password, just drop me a line at email@example.com and I’ll sort you out
or visit their website at http://www.spr.ac.uk/main/
Becky completed the MSc course in Parapsychology at Coventry University – http://www.facebook.com/search/?q=MSc+Parapsychology&init=quick#!/pages/Coventry/Coventry-University-MSc-Parapsychology/109629113877?ref=search&sid=642030568.4198790475..1 – highly recommded if you have the time and money.
She is now working on a PhD in anomalous experiences based on looking at peoples strange happenning and so forth. Last summer she and I conducted a trial piece of research, which we are currently coding, with one very interesting result straight off — http://jerome23.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/charting-the-unknown-ghosts-memory-the-progress-of-time/
I have been busy writing reviews for The SPR (one is in the current issue of the Paranormal Review actually: Tricia Robertson on psychic surgery, a most fascinating talk) and i’m keeping up to date on the latest in parapsychology.
Becky and i are now officially an item – we still have not moved in together, so we are commuting between Derby and Cheltenham at weekends, so things are a bit hectic.
The Next Event
No dates yet, as i’m still trying to sort out the best location, and what exctly we want to try. Our ghost nights are always a bit “different”, but I’ll keep you updated!
Please note all this is a work in progress: little more than a series of memo’s in which Becky and I are developing ideas we want to explore…
OK last night I posted on a topic that interested me, and seemed to suggest that we forget anomalous experiences quite quickly. Andrew has raised the possibility that the more recent experiences may simply be made up: I admit that is possible, but wonder why people would claim the fictional experience was situated in the last twelve months, rather than long ago, or just today?
This morning I am going to look at the data again, but this time look at age at time of the experience rather than time elapsed between the experience and the report. The first chart shows the ages of our respondents – by category, as we do not possess precise ages for most respondents, and many said things like “when I was living with my parents” or “twelve years ago”.
Table 1. Age of Persons Who Responded
As you can see, they cluster around the 30′s - unsurprising given the method of collection, as most of the people who viewed the question were in that age category! However the age of percipients does set an upper limit for both how long ago an experience can have occurred, obviously enough (people can not have anomalous experiences before they were born), so I have reproduced the data here. It is a shame we did not ask for more precise ages!
Perhaps more interesting is the following chart, which shows how old people were when the claimed anomalous experience took place.
Table 2. Number of INCIDENTS reported by age category
The sharp decline after 30′s is simply owing to the age of our respondents as shown in the first chart, os it is not safe to assume any falling off in experience as we grow older, and the data set is really too small to allow for any meaningful statistical analysis (which is why the study used Grounded Theory methodology). The 1894 Census saw a peak around the age of 21: however there were methodological problems in that Census which may account for this. The Census of Hallucinations (1894) discounted experiences below the age of ten years – we have reported on them and included them in our dataset.
Bear in mind these are experiences, not people. As we shall see in future reports, some people reported many incidents of allegedly anomalous experiences. Also note that continuing and ongoing experiences were not included in these figures. 42 incidents could be placed at a certain age in the percipient’s life from the accounts submitted.
However, some experiences (mainly those in childhood) were placed at a precise age: so here are the break downs for the under 20′s…
Table 3. Incidents in the Under-20′s
The number of experiences at age 18 to 19 appears comparatively high: not quite sure why that should be. Maybe moving away from home?
Anyway these figures are not as interesting as the last set to my mind, but if anyone has comment or thoughts on all this we would love to hear them!
Time to tell ghost stories!
OK, here is my ghost story. It was the reason for my involvement in parapsychology, and almost twenty years on I believe it to be true, but no longer can rely on memory. This account was written in 2001 (for a book introduction, hence narrative/genre style).
“It was 1987 and I was at a wargames meeting with four friends, all aged about the same as me – I was the youngest at just about to turn 18. We were driving through a town called Thetford in Norfolk, England, when one of us needed the loo badly, so we turned in to a cul-de-sac off the flyover which runs through the middle of town, looking for an alley or something for a call of nature!
At the end of the lane we stumbled across one of those delightful secrets English medieval towns spring on you – flanked by modern housing estates we found a medieval Priory, laying in ruins, built of the local flint stone and clad in ivy. A sign in the car park informed us that it was Thetford Priory, a victim of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-C16th.
Well we were not that enthralled by this (we were from Bury St Edmunds with its beautiful monastery ruins), but we wandered through the evening light – it was about 8-8.30pm on a warm August day, (August 8th 1987) which in England means it is still light, day in fact – and eventually found a secluded part of the ruins, where the urgent business could be undertaken behind a bush. As the other chaps gathered we turned to look at the ruins one last time.
It was then we became aware of a joker wearing a black sheet over his head, pretending to be a ghost. I think it was Darren who saw him first, and remarked on this guy in a very light hearted tone – he was looking at us from a first storey (thatone above the ground) window, and was obviously watching us. Now if you imagine someone whose skill at Halloween costume making seems to go as far as throwing a bed sheet over his head, well that is what we saw – at least that is what I think I saw!
Darren, being the most headstrong of us said ‘lets scare him!’ and charged forwards, towards the facade of the building, which has one large arch and a smaller one in which there was a staircase up to the room we had seen the chap in. As I followed, partly to restrain Darren, partly in a spirit of Scooby Doo ‘and I’ve of gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you pesky kids’ I’m not sure what I was thinking.
And then we saw him coming down the stairs – the sheet billowed out like a woman in a ball gown, and there were three dark spots on his stomach area. At least that’s what I saw, and as I was running – well I was not the most observant. We threw ourselves up the staircase at the guy, who was now well within reach, halfway down the stais; which is why our impact with the flint wall at the back of the room came as a surprise. No stairs existed.
There was no floor in the room the figure had stood in. I struck my head, as did Darren. We were both nauseous, and I felt like i might vomit a few minutes later. There was also a distinct feeling of coldness, and I completely lost the plot.
What had the others seen? Well everyone agreed that there was a very real and very tangible staircase. They all also agreed that there was a figure, though David described it as a smoky mass – but if he did not think it was a joker in a sheet, why did he not challenge our statement before? Axel said it looked like a monk – but any shadow can look like a monk, hence the hundreds of spectral monks said to prowl English towns. Marcus later described the figure as like spiderman in a black costume.
Anyway on the way back we had a curious mix of nausea and extreme emotional reactions, along with a strong feeling of being cold, and a lot of shakiness. Eventually we got home (16 miles) and on the way David forbade us to discuss what we had seen. Only David had any previous belief in the paranormal, and he suggested we created independent signed testimony. . The statements were kept, and then compared – it was then that the fairly major differences in the description of the figure first came to light – apart from an agreement on the staircase, the figure being male, and wearing black, there was however a complete consensus on the order of events.
There was one more rather bizarre aspect to this sighting – as we left the Priory we had a sense the building was in somehow rebuilding itself, making its self more real, around us. Axel shouted ‘jump the walls – break its reality’. We missed that off the documentary – it sounded too sensational. Yet it was exactly what I felt, and evidently Axel too, and as I ran for the car I also felt as if with every step I was plunging deeper in to mud or wet sand – possibly a physiological response to extreme fear, the legs turn to jelly sensation.
At this point I had a major crisis of belief. At that point I was an absolute atheist materialist and advocate of scientific reductionism, despite my family’s firm belief in spooks etc, maybe because of it. The experience convinced me that people did see ‘ghosts’ – that experience is genuine. What those ghosts are – hallucinations, tricks of the light, abnormal mental phenomena, ESP, spirits of the dead, demons cavorting, whatever – I did not and still do not have sufficient data to judge. It just became obvious to me that people had profoundly unsettling experiences which were hard for those who had not been there to relate to, and which lead you to question your sanity, your place in the world, and what the heck really happened.”
I welcome any comments. My position: the experience of having encountered a “ghost” is undoubtedly a real experience, but that tells us nothing of the mechanisms or causality underlying the experience. I recently asked the lads what they thought we experienced that night — now if the confabulation theory is correct, we might ahve expected the story to grow in the telling. Tow responded – Marcus wrote
I remember me, you, Munch, Axel and Darren going to the Priory on a misty night. We all (even me the arch sceptic saw a stairway in that door way. Some of the rest of you (Axel and Dave esp) also saw a monk with some stab wounds. We all freaked out and ran off for a bit. When we came back nothing was there apart from a ‘vibe’. There you go that is all I can remember, it was circa 20 years ago.
Then Axel responded –
TBH Chris, I have very limited memories of the event.
Dave, Darren, Marcus, you & I were there.
We say a black, robed figure come out of the arch.
We ran away.
Now bear in mind this is despite having occasionally discussed the story between ourselves over the years, and having even featured on a documentary show talking about it in 1996. We really now have very little idea of precisely what happened that night — and I don’t think any of us would pretend otherwise, though I have not heard back from Darren or Dave. Still that in itself bears out one of the findings of the Census of Hallucinations - and makes me doubt the widespread assumptions that stories of ghost experiences grow in the telling, or are crystal clear in the memory.
I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank those who have donated so far to the blog; you know who you are, and i think I have talked to each of you, and to the gentleman, he knows who he is, whose sixty pound donation astonished me and means that I have food and electric till my next money comes through. What can I say but a very sincere thank you to you all?
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) are probably known to many readers of this blog: I first joined back in 1992, was a member for a couple of years, and after a fifteen year hiatus have recently once again become an Associate member. Some of you may still be storing SPR Journals and Proceedings for me – if so thanks! Perhaps some readers would consider joining up?
Founded in 1882 the SPR are still Britain’s (if not the world’s) leading parapsychological organisation, and hold regular monthly meetings in London as well as occasional Study Days which are always worth the effort. The London based nature of most events makes me an irregular attendee – London is about as accessible to the Moon for me with no car and no money, and Becky is based in Derby so it’s not much easier for her — but the excellent Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR), and a popular magazine The Paranormal Review arrive in the post four times a year and are never devoid of interest. (There are also irregular occasional Proceedings (PSPR). In fact these form much of the basis for my reading in what is going on in contemporary parapsychology, along with the excellent Journal of European Parapsychology (not an SPR publication). On top of these benefits, SPR members also receive a generous download provision from another independent project, LEXSCIEN, the online parapsychology library -- where one can search through, read or print as needed 150 years worth of peer reviewed psychical research and parapsychological literature. Unfortunately I had already joined LEXSCIEN before rejoining the SPR, but it really is a huge plus to SPR membership for anyone interested in the subject – you can take a look at Abstracts and a few bits and pieces for free anyway.
Of course the greatest benefit is the other members: I have been privileged to have the opportunity to meet so many people, from the late John Beloff, Manfred Cassirer, Maurice Grosse and Andrew Mackenzie through to the many wonderful people I have learned a great deal from and whose work I knew, such as Tony Cornell, Tom Ruffles, Alan Gauld, Mary Rose Barrington, Archie Roy, David Luke, Tricia Robertson, Terry White, Guy Lyon Playfair, John Randall and Eleanor O’ Keeffe and many many more interesting people through the SPR’s events. And we should not forget the offices and library in London where members can find a wealth or research materials and assistance!
Ghosthunters & The SPR
Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in “spontaneous cases”: that is non-experimental psychical research. (Mrs Sidgwick seems to have originated that distinction and the phrase “spontaneous cases” in the Report on the Census of Hallucinations in PSPR, vol 10, 1894 I noted yesterday!) So now we have ghost groups, often deeply committed and sometimes very efficiently run, all over the country. These “local groups” like Cheltenham’s PARASOC however always maintain a distance from the SPR, I suspect more through ignorance of what the Society has to offer than by design. Some people are just in to the subject for “legend tripping” – they enjoy a spooky night in a haunted house, but want little more from their hobby. Many are put off I suspect by the dry prose of psychical research literature, especially some of the papers which feature quantitative methodologies and page after page of statistics, or just by the fact that articles are very technical. Yet the Paranormal Review rarely features such papers, and even if one is not willing to fire up SPSS (a stats computer program) to check the stats for oneself, the peer reviewed nature of the JSPR means one can always learn something from an article and have faith that the numbers mean what the author states!
So why don’t ghosthunters from local groups join the SPR? You don’t have to be a brilliant academic with a brain like the Mekon – you can be a normal person, and don’t have to speak like you swallowed a thesaurus.
The SPR is far less stuffy than many similar academic groups, warm and accepting. From the earliest days the membership ranged from the brilliant and famous (and many were) through the mighty and powerful (Balfour was Secretary of the SPR while Prime Minister, and on some old Proceedings the address for correspondence is given as 10 Downing Street, London!) through the scandalous and eccentric (George Sand) to the humble – chambermaids, undermaids and grocer’s assistants appear in the lists of members. Nothing has changed (except you can’t send mail to number 10 any more!).
Now the SPR is not, and never has been cheap, compared with joining your local ghost group. What it does do however is you bring you in to the mainstream and give you access to what has gone before in psychical research, and give you a chance to contribute insights and research to the wider parapsychological community. Long term readers of this blog may recall my piece on “types of ghosthunters” where each category I jokingly discussed ended “and never publish their results.” Of course many groups do publish newsletters, or decent websites where they chronicle their findings, but if you don’t publish in a mainstream publication, and I suspect some of the cases people have studied would make great Paranormal Review articles at least, how can you say you are doing scientific work? Scientists publish their results, and share with each other. While the peer reviewed JSPR may prove daunting to many with a non-academic background to write for, that is the aim. (they were kind enough to publish something of mine, and I’m not brilliant!). Even if you don’t want to write up articles , you can file your reports with the SPR library, and providing they are readable I am sure the SPR will be willing to store them for future researchers.
On top of all this the SPR has a number of members with a huge amount of experience in investigating spontaneous cases, and a Spontaneous Cases Committee who can usually help you, and put you in touch with a local member who will provide valuable knowledge and experience in your investigation if you so desire. How else will you be able to say as Venkman did “Symmetrical book stacking. Just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947?”, if you don’t know the literature?
The SPR has been doing this research for 150 years, so why do so many groups stand apart? They do NOT affiliate with local groups, by long term principle, but they will still give you as a member all kinds of valuable ideas and information you can bring to bear on your own research efforts, and provide a forum to discuss and meet with genuine experts in the field. The new SPR updated website has for the first time an online payment form – current annual membership prices are (January 2010) £60/ £40 unwaged/ £30 student, but honestly, you would pay more for a lot of psychical research related books and events out there.
I’m sure many of us have signed up to a local group only to later find they have a secret mission – in the case of the old Cheltenham group (CPRG) taking over the world, but in the case of many groups simply finding the Holy Grail or defeating the evil minions of some dire satanic cult, like the Inland Revenue – anyway another reason people hesistate to join psychic research groups is in case they are thought to be committing to belief in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis, without even a steady paycheck to compensate. This is not an issue with the SPR owing to a very important rule -the SPR as a body has no corporate opinions on the phenomena it studies, all members owning their own beliefs. So even if you are completely sceptical of all alleged paranormal phenomena, you will find SPR members who share your beliefs. There are actually a few important guidelines for SPR members – you can’t use membership in the Society to promote yourself or product (blast there goes my psychic phone line – “Madame CJ speaks the future, only £20 a minute!”), ad so forth. You can read them here.
Anyway what occasioned these brief thoughts is that the SPR website at www.spr.ac.uk – note the ac.uk domain, I was always impressed they got that! – has just undergone a major overhaul, with a lot of new material. There is a guest essay, a form to report your experiences, links to some members research (hopefully as soon as Becky has her ethics approval through she can get listed) and a listing of recent books on parapsychology and related topics, as well as extensive revisions throughout. So stop reading this, go have a look!
Hope to see you at an event one day, and if you join do comment.