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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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.
Investigating a Haunting
Investigating a ghost ultimately comes down to common sense. Firstly, it is necessary to visit the site of the haunting and take detailed notes on the environment. Are there any obvious factors that could be causing strange noises or smells, or even hallucinations? Could the ghost have been nothing more than a reflection or trick of the light? Is there a secret door or panel through which the ‘ghost’ could have passed? Thoroughly scrutinize your surroundings, taking photos so you can later think it through and demonstrate to others what you have established. Is a phosphorescent fungus emanating light after dark? Could rats or mice in the walls be causing the odd scratching noises? Check out the structural integrity and electrics of the house. Examine all possibilities very, very carefully.
If you haven’t already interview every witness, taking careful notes. Follow police procedure here, and interview witnesses separately, keeping them apart so they can not contaminate each others testimony. Try to assess how honest they are being about their experiences, and try to avoid asking leading questions. Feel free to use quick trick questions to try and see if their story changes. Any good website on interview technique for journalists can teach you a lot here!
Ideally, check the witnesses medical history, and check their current physical health (but bear in mind questions of ethics and confidentiality, as always). Some apparitional experiences, especially those of hallucinatory smells, can be rooted in temporal lobe epilepsy, though the experience is also fairly common among the perfectly healthy. Was the percipient very tired, or under the influence of drink, drugs or medication? Do they seem reliable? Many a case come in to doubt when you meet the witness face to face!
There is a mass of theoretical material which could be considered, such as the Persinger field fluctuation theory (that ghosts are associated with falls and poltergeists with increases in the Earth’s Magnetic Field readings which in turn is related to sun spot activity). Or what about Serena Roney-Dougal’s fault hypothesis? (that quartz crystals in fault lines generate a piezoelectric field under seismic stress which causes neurochemical reactions which render you more psychically aware, or just prone to hallucinate). Or maybe you’d like to examine Albert Budden’s electrical allergy hypothesis? (that some people have an allergy to electrical fields and therefore hallucinate aliens, ghosts, etc.) Try to think of how you can create simple tests to falsify various hypotheses. This is where ghosthunters tend ot be weakest – in their understanding of the theoretical frameworks and testing thereof. Many are just “collecting evidence”, trying to secure a conviction if you like, to prove the existence of the “paranormal”. Taht might catually be holding us back from making progress on understanding the actual causes of many “paranormal” events…
Information on current parapsychological theories can be discovered easily from the web. Keeping up with the current research is sadly a full time commitment, but a LEXSCIEN sub can get you access to a lot of reading material.
Generally when investigating ghosts the vital thing is to establish what type of experience you are dealing with. Did the “haunt” try to communicate, act intelligently, or show awareness of its environment? The next question is the ghost of who? You need as much information as possible on that person, their likes and dislikes, what happened to them, etc. Is it really a disincarnate person? How does that work? A demoin pretending to be one? A trickl of the light? Overactive imagination? :)
Sadly, ghosts will not materialize in front of your cameras. No matter how good the evidence someone will say it is a fake, and you may as well resign yourself now to the fact that definite irrevocable proof will be forever beyond you. You can’t change the world, but you can impress the parapsychological community. Therefore gathering evidence and publishing reports is a vital part of being a parapsychologist. Try to make your case as watertight as possible, write it up properly, and make your findings available!
Investigating an apparition can be even more frustrating. At least a ghost interacts with you, and maybe even talks back (even if it is only hollow moans). Imagine investigating the Royalston Ballroom that is haunted by the apparitional smell of violets! How would you proceed? The thing about apparitions is that they are supposed to replay when the conditions are right. They have no motive, though they have an identity or origin that must be researched. But ultimately, what really matters is ensuring you can work out what is needed to trigger a replay. Once you have identified this, you may wish to gather all the equipment you can and attempt to make recordings, or possibly purchase the property and try to make money by taking tourists on ghost tours! The only problem is that such manifestations may have a short life span, and that it may very well ‘run out’ halfway through the investigation, never to recur… or may just be totally fictitious. ;)
Crisis Apparitions and Phantasms are equally hard to investigate. Firstly you must identify who the agent who ‘created’ the haunting is. Then you must attempt to locate them, and in the case of crisis apparitions save them from whatever danger they are in if they are still alive, or deal with the problem if you are too late! Another even worse possibility develops from the idea of the Phantasm – if the person who is inadvertently appearing as a ghost is alive and well how do you convince them of the situation and attempt to stop the haunting?
Despite all the difficulties ghosts are a fascinating field of study, and Investigators may expect many interesting possibilities and unique situations to arise out of any haunting case.
A few research questions to help you get started —
Who owned the property in the past?
What are the inhabitants personalities like?
What is the geology of the area?
Are there underground streams, sewers, subsidence etc?
What is the state of physical repair of the property?
What does local legend and folklore say about the area?
What is the local history of the area?
What records, floor plans, deed, wills etc, etc can be gained from City Hall?
What other paranormal events have occurred in the area in the past?
Is there any important material in the newspapers archives?
Can professionals – Doctors, Ministers, Social Services – help the family? Ask the family to contact them if you will, but never try to take on a job better suited to a highly trained professional. Keep your distance, act professionally, don’t take sides in family poiltics or try to play therapist…
What is the natural fauna and flora of the area?
Is the weather significant?
Are the graves of previous inhabitants local?
House Adverts in old newspapers may reveal significantly lower prices for a reputedly ‘haunted property’?
Is any major construction work occurring in the vicinity?
When and how has the structure been rebuilt or renovated?
Do animals react strangely in the property?
Have you prepared floor plans?
How do you set about investigating a case? Something unusual, quite purportedly paranormal is occurring – the investigators seek to understand it. The following notes are merely tentative guidelines. There can be huge differences between one case and the next. In 1995 the author, working as a field researcher investigated three mediums, three hauntings and two poltergeists as well as an out of the body experience. There is a huge variety from case to case; yet it has become obvious that certain methods are consistently useful.
On arrival at the location the first thing to be done is to fully interview each of the witnesses. Interviews should be done individually with the interviewer and interviewee out of earshot of those who are yet to be interviewed, and those who have given testimony should not discuss their answers with those yet to be cross-examined. The testimony is often the centre of a case as it is quite possible (and in reality probable) that the investigators will not themselves experience the phenomena, although anything is possible! Try to think of clever questions, and always be aware that people are usually telling the truth as they perceive it, which may be coloured by their own assumptions. Use common sense to try and get a grip on what they really believe and their motivations in talking to you.
Obviously to get the right answers you need to ask the right questions!
“I had thoroughly searched the ruin before, hence knew my plan well; choosing as the seat of my vigil the old room of Jan Martense, whose murder looms so great in the rural legends.”
HP Lovecraft, The Lurking Fear
Secondly, prepare a map of the property, and mark the exact positions of each person present at the time of each event, as well as the location where any phenomena occurred. In addition, examine the surroundings in as much detail as possible. How often has one been able to track that pesky knocking spirit to a faulty water pipe in the basement? This is the only way to rule out normal explanations for what might otherwise seem completely inexplicable.
Photography can then be used to create a permanent record of any evidence left and also of each room and the exterior of any property. Armed with this information the team should then return to a safe place to discuss and plan their next move. This planning phase is vital, but most teams will neglect it. We call the initial visit the recce (for reconnaissance) and use it to be well prepared for a vigil or full investigation. It is important that the testimony is compared, and the relative reliability of witnesses assessed. Was there a natural explanation for events? It is probably true as Sherlock Holmes said that it is a mistake to hypothesise before all the evidence is available, but in psychic research it is invaluable to be prepared, and to consider all options, ‘however improbable’. You should try and think of possible experiments and ways to test what is happening on location…
“I had come with a fierce resolution to test an idea. I believed that the thunder called the deathdemon out of some fearsome secret place; and be that demon solid entity or vaporous pestilence, I meant to see it” HP Lovecraft, The Lurking Fear
Next you must fall back on your own initiative and ideas. Can you establish a hypothesis for what is occurring, and if so can you devise a plan to test it? Tryu and think of something that will falsify your theory – you can’t prove it is right, you can prove it is wrong however!
Various persons will also offer their own explanations based on their personal belief systems, but which is and which is causing the current problem? Investigators should use their imaginations to devise tests that will test the evidence. Does the knocking spirit only appear when the hot water faucet in the bathroom is opened? Test it to find out!
“Fear had lurked on Tempest Mountain for more than a century. This I learned at once from newspaper accounts of the catastrophe that first brought the place to the worlds attention…”. HP Lovecraft, The Lurking Fear
Library research is one of the least exciting but most necessary aspects of psychical research. The library may tell the investigators what buildings if any, once stood on the site in question, and give details on a vast range of relevant previous owners). Geological surveys are also vital – is the property subject to subsidence or underground water which may be causing some of the phenomena?
As well as libraries they might check out local records offices, newspaper archives and university departments for specialist information. The one book I like to carry is a history of fashion – it allows swift evaluations of witness statements against known dates for certain styles of dress. Yes I know the idea of me knowing anything about fashion may shock!
Even when all the witnesses are interviewed the investigators have still not exhausted the possibilities of talking. Do the locals know anything? Of course, such additional interviews can get tricky when considering the wishes of those already involved. Often, a family suffering a haunting, for example, will not want any of their friends or neighbours to know for fear of ridicule. It is always important to bear such things in kind when investigating. A witness who previously knew nothing about the phenomena and did not know the other witnesses is worth their weight in gold, for obvious reasons.
So what can I say about the Science of Ghosts event?
Well I have been at the Edinburgh Science Festival, and I sort of wish I was there today. I was in a planning meeting last night though for our own Festival, so keep watching this space! Anyway, the opening event was The Science of Ghosts, which attracted a great deal of media attention, and I think I can say that it was an excellent day, and you should have been there! (Unless you are Becky, in which case you were there!)
Becky drove up – it’s a terribly long way, the train is bad enough and we spent the night before trying to find the venue. There were no directions on the website, and finding accommodation and the venue were major hassles – and Richard Wiseman never replied to my enquiry email – next time I shall try Caroline. Even the Science Festival staff who were first rate overall were unable to help us as we walked around Edinburgh in a fog on friday night, seeking where we were going the next day. If I had not been able to call Laura Nelson and get her to perform net searches we would probably never have found the venue. Next problem was parking – this is central Edinburgh, and all the parking we could find was a) extortionate and b) maximum four hours. We asked at the uni – the sat nav had taken us to the wrong uni campus, and Edinburgh as two universities as well just to add to the fun — and no one could help. We also spoke to a nursing student, who was really friendly and helpful, but had absolutely no idea where the Anatomy Lecture theatre was!
Walking round Edinburgh in the fog is quite eerie – beautiful city, but chilly and with deep mist like something from a Jack the Ripper film. At a students suggestion we ate at Monster Mash, a little restaurant that does sausage, gravy and mash in various varieties – not much change from twenty quid, which makes me think if this is how Edinburgh students live no wonder they have huge debts, but really good service and great food. Highly recommended! It’s off Teviot Place I think.
On Saturday morning up soon after daybreak to get the bus for the seven miles from the nearest affordable accommodation – a Travelodge in Dreghorn, in to Central Edinburgh. The Travelodge was fine, with exceptionally friendly staff and superb service – and bus pretty good as well. I must say Scots do seem very friendly, even to those of us with English accents.
So we got to the venue, and the excellent Festival staff in their orange shirts were very welcoming. I wish I had taken names to email praise to their bosses – but thanks to all of you! About 200 people attended the session — I was hoping to meet a chap off the JREF forum, and spent a whole day clutching a PSPR (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research) – The Scole Report actually – to give to him. Never found him, so gave it to laura in the end, and she can pass it on when she has finished with it!
First event was Richard Wiseman on Investigating ‘haunted’ locations: A scientific approach. This was on quantitative approaches to spontaneous case investigation, and to be honest I don’t think anyone who knows me would have found it particularly new. I have after all being banging on about Gertrude Schmeidler’s approach since the early 1990’s, and as Parasoc, the later CPRG and GSUK have all used various forms of quantitative assessment based on my various methodological designs, well nowt new here.
What is it? It’s when you use people recording impressions and marking them on a map and compare that data against existing witness sightings, in essence. :)
It is however still a minority approach in ghost investigation among parapsychologists I think (mainly because parapsychologists always strike me as woefully ignorant of the literature and the papers describing the idea were published in American parapsychological journals from the 1960s to 1983 I think, not the PSRP or JSPR - hence little known in this country.
Those interested can check out Quantitative investigation of a “haunted house”. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1966, 60, 137-149 was the paper which inspired me to try it initially, and Quantitative investigation of a “haunted house” with sensitives and a control group. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1968, 62, 399-410 and Quantitative investigation of a recurrent phenomenon. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1975, 69, 341-352. I’m sure there is a 1983 paper, but I forget it! Gertrude Schmeidler is one of the true giants of modern parapsychology, and I hope one day to meet her if she ever lectures in Britain. Google will find my own comments on experiments with these – I may try and get the data from the GSUK experiment at Tamworth Castle last summer written up properly soon, if Becky is interested in doing that. Those interested on my musings on this approach ot investigation can find it on google easily enough, on the JREF Forum, or even on some earlier posts on this blog.
Anyway Richard Wiseman did a presentation on the research he was part of at Hampton Court Palace and Edinburgh Vaults. I’m guessing a lot of readers of my blog have already read the papers – but you can read about this and learn much more on www.richardwiseman.com Furthermore you can download three of the papers by Wiseman et al on the research which are really very interesting reading, if a bit dry and technical. Have a look!
Criticisms? I was rather surprised at the emphasis placed on the infrasound hypothesis of Tandy’s – I spoke to both Ian Hume and Tony Lawrence last year about it and both felt it had been taken further than Vic intended, and given the debunking work of Braithwaite published in I think the EJP last year (yes Jason Braithwaite and i agree on very few things – this is one of them though!), and the ubiquity of low frequency sound in nature, I’m extremely sceptical. I saw Ciaran’s Silent Sound experiment referenced – but I have not read the paper so I’ll reserve comment for now. I’ll just not that I think from the papers that other environmental stimuli were far more important? Um… not convinced!
Generally though Richard Wiseman’s talk was a plea for environmental theories of haunting to be taken seriously by sceptics I think. Whats that?
I’ll give an example. A few years ago Becky raised the idea that some of the phenomena associated with the Station Hotel, Dudley may be linked to seismic activity. We know that ten days before Dudley Castle featured on the Most Haunted Live show, there was a major earthquake in the vicinity. It seems likely that the underground activity may have been responsible for, and may still be responsible for, some reports of odd phenomena in the district. This is a classic environmental theory of haunting – no ghost, but something in the place making people perceive “ghosts”. So an environmental theory is one that postulates some natural but not easily detected force is acting in ways which cause apparent ‘hauntings’.
Such ideas are currently very fashionable in parapsychology, and this has led to research like that of Wiseman et al at Edinburgh Vaults, looking for factors which may cause apparent “hauntings” seemingly with some success.
In the 1950’s the President of the Society for Psychical Research (henceforth SPR) G.W. Lambert put forward his UNDERGROUND WATER HYPOTHESIS. He argued that in fact many “hauntings” were caused by underground water, such as streams flowing underground, and that these hidden water courses could cause all manner of odd vibrations, sounds and other phenomena which were interpreted by witnesses as ghostly. He attempted to demonstrate this with particular reference to the famous Morton Case, or Cheltenham Ghost. His theory here was that the Despard family hallucinated the “lady in black” after hearing and feeling sensations caused by periods of heavy rainfall.
It would be fascinating to objectively research this against 19th century rainfall figures for Cheltenham, if such can be found, but the only “proof” he offered was that the hauntings apparently ceased following the opening of the Dowdeswell Reservoir in 1888. In fact this argument is flawed in three ways – a) the ghost was continued to be seen well in to the late twentieth century b) maps of the water table do not suggest any underground watercourse beneath the house at least in the last few decades,and it is relatively unlikely as the house (called St. Anne’s today) stands on a slight ridge between the Chelt and another river valley (Wyman’s Brook) and c) the Reservoir, while still extant, was decommisioned in the 1990’s without any noticeable effect to the water table in the area in question. Further research with Severn Trent would of course be worthwhile.
Of course the archaeologist and occultist T.C.Lethbridge had already suggested underground water may act as a battery or necessary power source for paranormal entities – his ideas were developed through his interest in dowsing. Lambert may have been providing a rationalist answer to this apparent link. What might be interesting is to bring the resources of modern geology to bear on a dozen or so “strongly haunted” spots, hunting for underground water courses.
In the early 1970’s a rival theory developed, linking paranormal activity with fault lines. The earliest version I have seen were a series of articles in the early Fortean Times (then The News) looking at possible links between UFOs and seismic activity in Leicestershire and Staffordshire. Paul Devereaux in particular looked at “earthlights”, lights that seem to appear around areas of seismic stress. It has been suggested that quartz under pressure may produce light effects, or electrical fields which may have some effect on the human brain (see the work of Dr Serena Roney-Dougal.) The problem with this theory is that Britain has mainly tiny faults in the west of the country – yet East Anglia for instance appears very haunted, at least to a casual observer! I did some research on this in the 1990s, which was discussed on a TV show, which suggested that South Gloucestershire haunts did indeed cluster around fault likes, or junctures of fault lines. This was suggestive, but further research is desperately needed before we can draw any conclusions.
Devereaux also drew attention to the fact that most megalithic tumuli and henges seem to cluster around fault lines. I have a sneaky suspicion this may have more to do with geology though and natural reasons than Earth Mysteries – the west of England,where such things are found, is fairly hilly and I suspect that most tumuli and henges in the East where ploughing and arable farming weremore lucrative have long since been destroyed by intensive agriculture, whereas in sheep and cattle farming areas the have survived. As near surface faulting is more common in hilly and rocky areas, we might therefore expect to find a correlation between tumuli and faulting, but not a mystical or paranormal one!
So the question remains – can earthquakes, tremors and seismic activity cause apparent “haunting” phenomena? I believe the answer is yes, probably – earthquakes seem to have an effect on animals and therefore probably on humans, but I do not think we need worry about much more than vibration and shaking occurring – the electrical and earthlight ideas are interesting, but tremors felt unconsciously as Becky has suggested may well be enough. There is, however, still one piece of experimental evidence against the theory to be considered.
The major physical movement of objects has long since been noted as a feature of Poltergeist (RSPK) cases. In the 1970’s SPR veteran researcher Tony Cornell decided to test this hypothesis, in association with I believe a Cambridgeshire council. He arranged for access to a council house which was about to be demolished, placed articles in several rooms, and then had the house literally shaken to pieces by large industrial machinery/ He remained inside as long as it was safe to do so, observing, and then had cameras which filmed until the house actually collapsed. The footage was shown on Anglia TV – I’d love to see it again, as am recollecting from memory of an event many years ago.
Now what the experiment seemed to demonstrate is that vibration caused major cracks in walls etc before any objects flew as they do in poltergeist cases. The vibration would be extremely obvious to a human observer long before any apparently paranormal motion was detected!
Now I know bugger all about geology or earthquakes, but I will raise three quick replies to this problem…
1. The vibration in the experiment was as I recall provided horizontally, by a belt or chain around the structure. In a tremor, he pressure would be vertical – the actual source of movement deep underground.
2. Objects did of course move under vibration. the moved slowly, over a period of time – just as the object at the Station Hotel on the infamous Most Haunted footage did.
3. I suspect the higher up a building you might be, the more you would feel the effects. Room 214 is on the second (3rd US) floor, high above the road, and at the bottom of a major hill, built in to the slope. While I believe it is too high for traffic to cause th motion see on the footage, it does strike me as entirely possible the movement of the chair could be caused by underground activity.
Anyway this should mean you are up to speed on what is meant by an environmental theory of ghosts – and apart from a strong doubt on my part about the idea of confabulation and “paranormal experience” narratives growing with time, which I queried at the end of the day briefly – more research needed, and I think it would make a fascinating PhD if i can find funding, as probably outside the scope of Becky’s — anyway that takes us to the end of the first session, and 10am. Er, given there are seven more sessions to describe I think I shall take a break and return to this shortly with a Part Two!
A technique I have been playing with for some years, which may be of interest… A way of employing psychic claimants and sceptics in investigating a purported haunting.
The idea was first developed by NY parapsychologist Gertrude Schmeidler, in her paper on Quantitative Assessment of A Haunted House. I don’t have the paper or the reference to hand, but the proposed protocol has been developed quite a bit since then, though to almost universal disinterest. A few UK groups I have been involved with have tried it, with varying levels of success, but surprisingly positive results.
Note a positive result here means a high degree of agreement between the “psychics” and the witnesses – but that in itself tells us nothing about the nature of the “phenomena” — I’ll get back to that shortly…
Here is my current version thereof. I still refer to it as the Schmeidler Protocol, as it is clearly based entirely on that, and because The Schmeidler Protocol sounds like it should be a cool 70’s thriller or a Quatermass episode. Feel free to critique my methodology —
Now firstly, you are going to need an experimental team. Let us assume you are the Investigation Coordinator. Firstly, locate your haunted property. Interview your witnesses – being careful not to ask leading questions – and get the main facts. A case with multiple witnesses and visual apparitions, preferably where the witnesses have not conferred is ideal. However any multiple attested ghost case where you can record primary accounts from the people concerned is cool. Obviously one with no published history, where events are currently occurring, but are known to very few people works well.
Secondly you need to have a set of good clear accurate maps. These are issued to your psychics or their “buddy” (see next).
Now, take your “witness testimony”, and select words relevant to the phenomena for each account. Just a list of words which constitute a hit. How improbable that hit is is really really problematic to work out – word frequency tables won’t work in my opinion, because the nature of the ghost narrative predisposes certain words more than in normal usage, and ghost books are edited and hence not reliable as a source. Also some words simply go together in conceptual blocs – young, pretty, talented, sexy, actress, singer. Cliches! Cliches bugger up your probabilities no end. Still you need to know what constitutes a “hit” for the Word Challenge! ( I might not be a rich and famous ghosthunter, but I might have made it as a gameshow host…) Also get your witnesses to draw on your map exactly where they saw things. Take measurements if need be. Then produce a composite master map, showing all witness reports.
OK, next up – find your psychics. I’d personally try and get them from 30 miles or more away (I’d also drive them to the location hooded, blindfolded under the hood, wearing head phones and playing loud music by a very circular route, just in case. In the past this has provoked severe motion sickness, but has not actually resulted in me being sued or arrested – to date.) Many psychics might prefer you just don’t tell them where they are going till the day, and some properties location or function is obvious once inside and the blindfolds taken off anyway.
Now you need five psychics, and 5 buddys – fellow investigators, with no knowledge of the building,and who are kept apart from each other, and have never met the witnesses. The buddys should each have a VCR and record all testimony. They should hand the map to the psychic.
Now the psychics and buddy are sent in, independently, to the empty building. Each records on their map where and what they are experiencing, marking exact locations if possible. I usually use small squares which can be filled in. Record all the walk through.
Thank your psychics. Give them a filmed ten minute debrief after they left the building, asking of extra impressions etc. Make it clear they have everything they want to say recorded, and have no” I was going to says”. When they have agreed that on tape, end the interview and film.
Now this is pretty hard work. Why five people to walk the psychic round? Why can’t you just do it?
Because you know what happened and where. Even if you are incredibly careful with what you say, your body language breathing or even sweat might be giving them clues. So someone who does not know the stories or witness testimony is needed to do this. Also, as we are going to test the mediums/psychics/sensitives statements for consistency, well if you have just heard Madame Arcana say this room is filled with an invisible demonic menage a trois, when you take Fluffy the Vampire Boffer in the same room 5 minutes later you might give off clues… So you need independent walk rounds.
I’d also ask 5 imaginative ghost sceptics to walk round as a control – but there is a problem here. We can’t prove they are not actually psychic. In fact one of our sceptics consistently hits well above chance in ESP tests 9for the first ten minutes till they grow bored at least), and on a couple of runs of this experiment did better than some of the “psychics” – more on this in a moment..
Next, you thank everyone, and play back the testimonies on a big screen, to make sure everyone agrees they were not edited. Then you can overlay the maps on transparencies, and talk through the results, and introduce the witnesses. the press might like this bit too – if the venue wants coverage. Its a nice way to round off the proceedings.
* the psychic testimony versus the “Word Search” lists
* the psychic maps versus each other
* the psychic maps against the witness maps
So what have you got?
* ghosts do not wander around much – a rather large assumption!
* the witnesses are reliable
* the psychics had no foreknowledge of the building
You might have some evidence indicative of the haunting hypothesis.
Of course by “haunting” here I mean in my usual sense to mean – something makes people think this bit is spooky. You might want to look for mould, damp, lighting oddities, weird angles, etc, etc to see why people all chose the same areas. The fact they agree ultimately tells us nothing about the nature of the “haunt” – it merely tells us there is an objective “haunt” ie. something odd going on in that particular area. Smell may well be important, or magnetic fields, or I dunno. You work that out for yourselves…
So there you go. I’ve written up a lot more on how this can work, and indeed since ’93 when I first tried it in the UK it seems to slowly be becoming more common. Not many ghosthunters pay any attention to it, but I personally think it might be rather useful?
WILD PARANORMAL THEORY!
I wrote this for fun a couple of years back on James Randi’s forum… thought might amuse! I thought time to allow myself some wild speculation and kookery, and the original featured LOTS OF STUFF IN CAPS, and bright coloured text and fonts. Still, I actually was quite serious, as I realized as I got in to typing it – so here is a less brightly coloured, parody lite version of my musings. Reading them know I think they were quite sensible actually…
Ok, here goes… question — “if ghosts are spirits, how do they open doors, bang on stuff, and interact with the physical world?”
Well I have argued for a long time that ghosts may be primarily INFORMATION – not necessarily the Recording hypothesis (a ghost is a recording of a past event) , but something similar.
The idea is a ghost is NOT physical in the accepted sense – it is closer to being made of the stuff of ideas or thoughts, but an objective idea/thought, which may be experienced by independent witnesses. It is real – just non-physical.
No if so, a human brain may be needed to “receive” said idea. So hence the absence of excellent quality ghost photos/films – (some do exist, but let us pass on that for a moment, and assume they can all be explained away) – by this theory ghosts can only manifest when there is a human being to see or hear or whatever them.
Yet as a casual search and analysis of a random sampling of ghost cases by Becky Smith and myself showed – ghosts are USUALLY associated not just with appearances, but with knocks, bangs, small object movement, doors opening, etc, etc. Minor physical phenomena.
Also, and confusingly, many ghosts show directed intelligence – they seem to act with purpose, and occasionally even interact with the living. An information model could include the possibility of intelligence – but a recording can not. So is there a way of saving the recording hypothesis in the light of the physical and intelligence aspects of the hauntings?
My guess is yes: the key is in the observer.
Now we are dealing with miracles, and two very different miracles interest the ghost hunting kids and the parapsychology gang in my experience.
Ghosthunters generally are interested in ghosts. Duh.
Parapsychologists are interested in supposed unknown powers of the human mind, called PSI – ESP, which includes psychokinesis (mind movement), telepathy, clairvoyance etc, etc.
Assuming both miracles exist, and that is a big assumption, I think ghosties might work like this.
The ghost of Elizabeth haunts the physical location of Harris’ house – and is information. Some, maybe all humans have the capacity to experience Elizabeth, maybe the cat too, but when there is no observer, ‘she’ can not be perceived. Ghosts haunt people, not houses.
If a witness however “tunes in” to Elizabeth, their own psychic powers may be activated – they can blame the impossibilities they commit on the ghost. Denial of personal responsibility for the psychic actions may be psi-enabling according to many parapsychologists. Ditto belief. Both might make some sense. It was the ghost moved it, not me.
So if you took 5 different ghosthunting groups to the house, although there might be some agreement on the ghost, there might also be a lot of different phenomena, unwittingly created by the different groups own psychic powers, unleashed by the fact they can perform impossibilities because “Elizabeth” did it… . I call these hypothetical “additions” to the phenomena “psi-de effects” – a term I am proud of, but if anyone invented it or can find a reference to it before 1993 do let me know!
So my guess, and we are multiplying miracles here, is that the “ghost” does not ever interact with the physical in any way. That is done in fact by humans, using these psi powers, who ascribe it to the ghost. This would explain the physical aspects of the hauntings –it might even explain some of the intelligent behaviour.
In which case even Recording/Stone Tape could be rehabilitated as theories to explain ghosts. I have no idea how psychokinesis would effect matter (wonderful gobbledigook – “you wouldn’t understand madam – it’s technical!) , but at least we have no moved from “spirit” to a ‘mere’ energy conversion.
If I am right, Spirits by definition possess no energy, no mass, only information. It requires information to be a fundamental principle of reality – which I’m guessing might annoy those who know something about physics, which I am afraid I don’t.
So when a psychic talks about energy – it is their own energy that is really involved – not the ghosts. Without the ghosthunter, there is NO ghost – but that does not make it in any sense less real.
And furthermore – lets apply Occam’s Razor to this tawdry mess of multiplied miracles – we don;t actually need the ghost or spirit to be real. If PK, or some other psi abilities were real, then Harris’ belief in the ghost as it build may slowly allow him or another resident to psychically generate the ghost by PSI alone… which strikes me as no more likely than the ghost, but in keeping with what we are seeing.
That was fun. It may even make some sense, and it’s therapeutic to take the mickey out of oneself and ones colleagues occasionally. Personally, I don’t think we need to invoke anything more than misperception in this case, but hey its always fun to think up a theory!
Have fun, and really do hope you get to the bottom of it. Hope my levity does not offend. I really do hunt ghosts for a living, more or less… if only I could charge my clients I’d be wealthy!
Any comments or ideas? :)
I managed to find this on the Waybackwhen internet archive, and as I frequently cite it, and thought it might be of interest, I’ll reproduce it here. The title is taken from a very famous ghost story, but seemed appropriate! This piece was originally written in 1994, and revised in 1995 and 1997. [[XXXX]] indicates 2006 edits when I put it on my ghost group’s forum.
I note the revision history, but the position stated is very much that I held in 1994 – it has changed in many ways since then, but I think it was one of the first pleas to take an approach that looked at what we might find if both psi and the spirit hypothesis held some truth, or were partially true, but more importantly now is that I had realized the potential of experimental work with psychics even back then. Little did I realize that Most Haunted would happen within a decade, and unfortunately every one would experiment in this direction!
Anyway, as people keep coming here looking for the Edinburgh Science of Ghosts event (and one more time – http://www.scienceofghosts.com/) which I will be attending as a punter like you, well I may as well publish one of my articles on the topic. Please note I am in no way at all connected with said event — I just thought it looked fun and advertised it on my blog after it was first mentioned on the parapsychology mailing lists!
The Haunted or The Haunters;
The House and The Brain
(from copy dated July 18th, 1997)
When investigating a “haunting” there are two main schools of thought in the [[group]].
The first takes the ‘common sense’ view that the disturbances we look at are caused by external agencies, such as ghosts, spirits and the like.
This could be called the haunted school for it believes that paranormal events do occur and are something like an affliction, or at least little to do with the witnesses.
The second school is that of the haunters, those who believe that the occurrences are primarily the responsibility of the witnesses themselves.
This could be further subdivided into those who do not believe in the paranormal except as hallucination or delusion (the sceptic’s camp), and the position I intend to consider, that which holds that paranormal events do have an objective existence but originate within ourselves [as a result of unknown psychical powers.]
It is quite a remarkable claim. Imagine Mr. Jones has called us in to investigate mysterious goings on in his home. The last thing he expects to hear in reply to his worried question “What’s haunting my home?” is the answer “You are, Mr. Jones.”
Now of course for many years parapsychologists have postulated the idea that poltergeist phenomena are created by PKE or psycho-kinetic energy; that is that a human being is responsible for the haunting. Unfortunately popular works on parapsychology have created a popular conception of haunting as either by ghosts (apparitions appear, chains clank, doors open and close, etc.) or by poltergeists (an emotionally repressed and deeply frustrated youngster lets off steam by throwing furniture about psychically and generally having a nervous breakdown outside of their head).
This is the basis for the concept of the person-centered versus place-centered haunting; the former “poltergeist”, the latter a “ghost”.
Could it be the distinction is false? One of the great strengths of the [[my group then]] is that the investigators tend to make repeated visits to a property and spend several hundred hours at any site, and hence come to analyse cases thoroughly. Most of our investigations have included both traditional ‘ghost’ effects such as apparitions and a history of disturbance through several tenants, and traditional ‘poltergeist’ phenomena such as objects moving and in many cases S.O.D.
(Author’s note: SOD is an acronymn for small object displacement. A good example is a craft knife which vanished while repairs were underway at The Bell in Dursley, and reappeared a few minutes later on a table where it certainly was not a moment before. SOD is easy to explain away as misperception but I am personally convinced by the fact this phenomena has been mentioned to me on almost every case I have investigated without leading questions, yet it is not considered part of the traditional repertoire of a haunt. SOD is easy to remember; indeed rarely has a technical term been so appropriate. The mnemonic to recall this is “Where’s the sodding ghost put my car keys/cufflinks/whatever?!”)
So how then does one set about haunting oneself? Well according to most proponents of the RSPK [Recurrent Spontaneous Psycho-Kinesis – Star Trek style technobabble at its finest that I have critiques elsewhere] or poltergeist theory the human agent who creates the disturbance is unaware of their actions, at least on a conscious level. After suffering a set of paranormal events such as SOD and object displacement what is more natural than to start seeing ghosts?
In the 1950’s the then President of the S.P.R., G.W. Lambert devised his much maligned geophysical explanation for haunting resulting from underground water. His theory was in essence that an underground water course may flow under the ‘haunted’ house and that after heavy rainfall the stream results in subsidence of the property or other structural movement, possibly causing the house to vibrate and knock objects flying simulating ‘poltergeistery.’ He took the theory one stage further, stating that these odd noises could the be psychologically ‘rationalized’ by the percipients minds creating a ‘ghost’ to account for them, and then seeing the imaginary ‘ghost.’
In essence I think Lambert may have been on to something. Environmental cues such as the ‘Corridor’ and ‘occulted space’ things I found in my work with Curtin and Lay, as well as a variety of other stimuli, may lead a sucession of tenants to the same conclusion, namely that their house is haunted, even if no knowledgeable local tells them so.
Once the belief is there, or even the vaguest shadow of a doubt, it must surely become that much easier for the mind to generate micro-PK (or minor poltergeist) phenomena. It has been repeatedly claimed that believers score higher than sceptics on ESP tests, and there is some reason to believe that motivational factors should also be considered. Once the idea of a haunting is broached, do the family then begin to generate the haunting?
What follows? As the Psi/haunting builds up more and more people within the family become convinced, and their scepticism breaks down. Thus the haunting becomes increasingly severe. Members of the family then begin to explain the events by reference to a guilty third party or ‘ghost’ and may in line with Lambert’s theory begin to see or hallucinate apparitions. It may only be at this stage that they consciously begin to consider themselves “haunted”, the build-up having been largely ignored by the conscious mind. Then again a sighting of a ‘ghost’ with its origin in misperception, temporal lobe epilepsy or other stimuli may actually initiate the sequence.
If the hallucinatory nature of the apparitions seen seems unlikely, as in a case where two witnesses see an apparition simultaneously, it is still hard to rule out the possibility of one telepathically transmitting the image to the other. More problematic is the situation where two witnesses, many years distant in time and with no knowledge of the earlier experience both see an identical figure. This could be rather unconvincingly explained by recourse to archetypal or locationally suggested visions (a monk in a church for instance) or possibly by evoking the idea of Super-ESP which is sometimes used in discussions of mediumship.
Why does it end? Well if the initial PKE disturbance is occasioned by psychological forces then we may expect those feelings to eventually be alleviated as the chief instigator or focuses circumstances change. Often all that is needed to cure such a ‘haunt’ is the intervention of someone with counseling skills who is able to pay a little attention to the frustrated person. Of course it is significantly better if the person who ‘cures’ the situation has an air of authority and possibly even some hi-tech gadgetry to wave around. Simply announcing ‘the ghost’s gone’ may sadly stop the exteriorization of the internal complex and lead to the eventual breakdown of the agent if they can not find a better way of ‘letting off steam.’
What of ‘exorcism’, ‘deliverance’ or ‘moving on’? If the exorcist has less than full confidence in their own abilities or the focus has developed a dislike for the would-be helper then we might expect a violent reaction; the ejection of the exorcist or the worsening of the haunt. This is not a game for idiots or fools, but requires a mature sensible person who is likable and possesses certain counseling skills.
It is with the matter of exorcism however that we find the greatest problem with this theory. Practical experience, not as yet backed by any theorectical or experimental basis, has shown that haunting tends to reoccur some three months after exorcism. Unless there is some compatible pattern in the fields of psychotherapy, counselling or psychoanalysis I find it hard to see why this should occur. The second outbreak is rarely as severe as the first and is usually not a source of worry to anyone involved.
A word of apology and a disclaimer. This article has been hard to develop and reflects my own developing ideas. Although I am a [[group]] member this article is in no way representative of the ideas of the group. The group holds no corporate religious or philosophical beliefs, and all views are those of individual members. I certainly do not intend to denigrate the psychics, especially Miss M. A——, who is just as vital if these ideas are true, for she is the best ‘cure’ I know of for ‘psychic disturbances’. I therefore offer a brief word on the psychic, haunter and the haunted.
I have never rejected psychism as a belief system. This is a constant source of amusement to my more sceptical colleagues, but I see no conflict in my position. If poltergeists are caused by the mind of a human agent we do not necessarily have to give a psychosomatic explanation for their ‘exorcism’. The psychics energies may well be one and the same as those which are causing the haunt; that is the agent is in fact a latent psychic who simply does not know how to control the energy they are generating. The problem for me is that against my wishes I am being led further and further towards an epiphenomenalist rather than dualist position, and hence am rather inclined to see ‘spirits’ as exteriorized fragments or sub-personalities of the human agent or psychic, a convenient label or mental device to perform the task. I am however willing to be proved wrong, and end by stating that if anyone has any doubts about a psychic’s talent then they should meet a good one, and listen. The results are edifying. [[Obviously this should not be read as an endorsement of the reality of psychic powers!]]
A bad attempt at humour on my part, originally written back in the days when I was a researcher/consultant for the TV show Most Haunted , and posted by me on a few websites since. I rather like it though, and it does contain a lot of truth!
If you are looking for Edinburgh Science Festival’s Science of Ghosts event the website is here –
I mentioned it in a previous post and loads of people have come here looking for it! Still I am going, and hope to see you there! Anyway on with the spookiness…
The six types of Ghosthunter according to CJ –
1. the Safari Group - out to “catch” a ghost on film, armed with the latest in video, camera and laptop equipment. Every “vigil” begins with several hours of wiring and setting up sensitive devices all over the shop to allow these latter day big game hunters to bag the spook. Usually succeed only in making you uncomfortable using the toilet in case you are being filmed or monitored, and while generally pleasant folks there is more technobabble than an episode of Star Trek. Always find an “anomaly” which as they are usually waving around EMF meters sensitive enough to pick up a fridge being turned off at 300m is no surprise! Unfortunately likely to follow their own mobile phones in their pocket around with the EMF meters, convinced it’s a spook, and tend to be Very Serious Indeed, while having very little knowledge of the literature of parapsychology. Never publish their results.
2. the Legend Trippers – usually young people, who have dared themselves to go to the spooky place, where they plan to drink alcohol, tell ghost stories, frighten each other and make out. Not all legend trippers are teenagers – some are much older, but if you want to flirt and hear a lot of screaming these are your folks. No ghosts caught but they have a good time, a bit like a fairground haunted house! They never publish their results.
3. the Pyscho-dramatists - ok, these tend to be ladies, and these groups usually revolve around one or two star performers, with several minor competing mystics, all of whom compete to tell you the story of the lost little Victorian girl who was the daughter of the wicked Squire who abused her terribly, etc, etc – sort of paranormal MisLit. Occasionally they encounter Terribly Evil Entities (TM) whose lack of corporeality has not slaked their lusts, and who have designs on the mediums person, which in many cases having seen the medium and witnessed their shrieking I would agree anything planning on ravishing is a deeply unnnatural entity. When they find a spook a redemptive myth is played out, and the spirit “moved on” in to “the light”. Bizarrely, despite my cynicism I once saw this process appear to do something useful — not all people in this category are nuts — however a considerable number are. They never publish their results.
4. The Enthusiastic Amateurs – always nice, people unsullied by contact with other ghost hunters and sometimes still naive enough to think that orbs are definitely paranormal, and scorn the dust hypothesis, these people have watched Most Haunted and bizarrely responded by wanting to do it themselves rather than selling their TV and emigrating. I like them a lot, because generally you can teach them a few good habits, and sell them merchandise for said dodgy TV show, and because on the whole these are good hearted people with often great knowledge of local folklore and history. Enthusiastic, fun folks. They never publish their results.
5. The Ghosthunting Machiavelli - this person has been in a dozen groups in the last year, all of which split off or schism-ed from each other. They have appalling relations with half the groups in the UK, and love to discuss ghost group family trees, their many enemies, and who is doing what with whom (in the bedroom not the haunted house usually!). Often they have a profitable sideline in running paying events, but really they seem to mainly succeed in creating new groups and then alienating the committees of said groups. They never publish their results, which is probably just as well!
I suppose I should offer my own perspective and why I differ very slightly while still having many of the failings I point out light heartedly in others, and some new ones all of my own. All these “types”, and most groups contain a mix of types, resulting in internal conflict, favour a method of investigation called the “vigil”, which means pretty much sitting around all night waiting for stuff to happen. They hope to observe and interact with the phenomena first hand, and hence all the mediums/night vision cameras/EMF meters (very handy of you want to put a nail in the wall and not electrocute yourself, or see if your neighbour has turned on their washing machine, not so useful for ghosts!) and shouting “is there anybody there?” Not bloody likely with you lot kicking up a row.
I have of course sat through many hundred of these (being paid to do so for a long while) but my preferred method is the Inquiry Model. Briefly, arrive in daylight, and interview carefully the witnesses to previous “sightings”. Record their testimony, and photograph “the scene of the crime” from many angles. Try to ascertain where the story originated, and who knew what and when about the purported phenomena. Collect interviews and evidence for as long as it takes,and perhaps attempt to reconstruct the incident. Carefully check out maps, and local histories for any useful clues, and then consult with relevant experts – often builder, plumbers, electricians, naturalists, geologists. The emphasis here is on understanding how the account arose, and on trying to find the origin and explanation for the ghost, rather than sitting around trying to see it yourself. of course if the occurrences are frequent you might well do that — but the tragedy of Most Haunted was it suggested ghost hunting was about personal encounters with the unknown, whereas really its generally about understanding and trying to explain other peoples experiences, and then writing up what you find. I’m not sure I have put this very well, but perhaps you can follow my intent?
Anyway, not sure if that is particularly helpful, but I thought I’d try and explain and am happy to field questions if I can. That is my personal experience, and despite my cynicism, I rather like the vast majority of ghosthunters who are lovely folks – and it is a topic I genuinely love talking about!
This is in St. Briavels Castle, between Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff and Oxford in the Forest of Dean. An excellent cause, a chance to get spooked, make new friends and maybe even see a ghost!
Thought this might interest some readers of this blog — Phantomfest are a volunteer ghost group who are holding a charity ghost night in aid of the Youth Hostel Association on Saturday, March 14th, 2009, wher emember sof the public can learn how to hunt ghosts. Tickets are £35 including some simple food and accommodation in Youth Hostel style bunk beds, but a whole evening of fun ghosthunting style activities! They do a number of these throughout the year but this may well be the last one in 2009 as the Castle is closing for refurbishment, do so try to make it. There are usually about 50 guests present for the various talks, ghost hunts and other spooky goings on, and I’m giving a talk or two as per usual. You get to sit in the dark and maybe see something – in fact on my first ever ghost hunt there I saw something I still can not explain, and on a recent visit experienced two bouts of mysterious physical phenomena!
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details, or visit their forum at
if you decide to come along or have been before do add to the comments so we can chat about it!