Why Everything We Think We Know About Ghosts Is (Probably!) Wrong

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?

Investigating Ghosts

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.

Methodological Issues

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.

Analysing Apparitions

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.
Recording Hypotheses

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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Wiseman, R., Watt, C., Greening, E., Stevens, P. & O’Keeffe, C. (2002). An investigation into the alleged haunting of Hampton Court Palace: Psychological variables and magnetic fields. Journal of Parapsychology, 66(4), 387-408.

Wiseman, R., Watt, C., Stevens, P., Greening, E. & O’Keeffe, C. (2003). An investigation into alleged ‘hauntings’. The British Journal of Psychology, 94, 195-211

West, D.J. (1948) Mass-Observation Questionnaire on Hallucinations. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 34, 187-196

West, D.J. (1990) A Pilot Census of Hallucinations. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 57 (215), 163-207

West, D.J. (1995) Notes on a Recent Psychic Survey. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 60 (838), 168-171

Wood, D. (2007) “Stone Tape Theory: An Explanation”. Paranormal Site Investigators.

Wood, D. (2008) Where Have All The Apparitions Gone? Conclusions of a census of hauntings. Paranormal Review, 46, 10-13.






About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
This entry was posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events, Science, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Why Everything We Think We Know About Ghosts Is (Probably!) Wrong

  1. Dave McBowen says:

    Way too long, lost interest after a few paragraphs,

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Hey Dave, yes but that is because it’s a journal article based on a conference presentation for specialists in the field. That’s why it is so long. Obviously if i just wrote it for my blog it would be very different. However as it is not written in “academese” but hopefully plain interest I posted it — cheers for having a look anyway!

      cj x

  2. How does a hallucination differ from just plain old mistaken identity? As I understand it, the human visual system is constantly on the look-out for human-like shapes, particularly faces and silhouettes. Sometimes it really is just a curtain flapping in the breeze, or a Z-axis collage of a foreground postbox “body” with background tree-branch “arms”, or a coat hanging on a hook…

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      A hallucination is a false sensory input: a misperception is when the stimuli is real but misinterpreted. As you say, misperception is common for exactly the reasons you give. Hallucinations are comparatively rare.

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  6. Dave Schumacher says:

    Do you have digital copy of Dr. Smith’s dissertation or a reference to the published articles? Thanks for your help! You can email me at davidschumacher5@gmail.com

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