|The author's home featuring its resident specter.|
As a skeptical "ghost hunter" my house serves as a kind of laboratory for understanding a haunting. Did that door just swing open on it's own? Yes. The floor has settled toward the street and the doors with hinges on the street side open on their own. Was that a shadow man in the old servants quarters? No. It was the giant oak in the yard of the mansion behind us throwing up shadows. Were those voices I heard in the attic? Yes! Our house is a row house and the neighbors have their television against the adjoining wall. Were those footsteps on the stairs? Yes - they were yours! When you walk on the steps the boards bow slightly and pop back a few minutes later in quick succession, just like walking. And is that a ghost in the window? No - it's pareidolia, the mind misinterpreting the pattern of the leaves reflected in the window glass.
For more than twenty years I have investigated claims of the paranormal. I was raised by my parents to believe in these things. As a young child I saw what I thought to be "a ghost" (what paranormal groups today would call a "shadow person.") As a result, I became deeply interested (my wife would say "obsessed") with the paranormal - and the occult. But as I grew up, I developed a keen interest in more mundane research pursuits; chiefly history, anthropology, and psychology. My budding expertise as a researcher in these areas shaped me to be a more critical thinker - and caused me to abandon my beliefs in the paranormal in favor of a more skeptical outlook. I am still consumed by interest in these the paranormal, but now from the position of skeptical inquiry. I don't want to "debunk" - I want to understand. I want to actually know what people are experience when they have a paranormal experience. One of the primary areas of paranormal research is ghostly encounters. Though ghosts have been with us, arguably, for as long as human culture has existed, very little has been done to answer the question: what is a ghost? I want to take a few moments to explore that.
What is a Ghost?
If you asked "the person on the street" or at least the nearest flat-brimmed cap wearing denizen of your local ghost group what a ghost is, they'd probably give you a definition along these lines: the disembodied soul/spirit/energy of a deceased human being. OK, fair enough. But is that what a ghost really is? For one thing, there's not a shred of evidence that anything of human life continues on after we die. No "energy" in the universe persists without its source - in our case, our bodies. So that's not an answer as to what a ghost is - it's a hypothesis. One of MANY hypotheses. Some (the Catholic church, for one) have suggested they're demons. Others suggest they're extra-dimensional beings. Still others think they're merely psychical recordings of "events past" - a hypothesis expressed in the popular film The Stone Tape. But, again, these are merely hypotheses - guesses. I have a "guess" myself. I think, for the most part, a ghost is a misinterpretation of some non-paranormal phenomenon. My years of field research have led me to that conclusion. I have collected evidence to support my claim. I intend to explore many of these cases on this blog.
Any useful definition of "a ghost" cannot include a hypothetical possibility within it.
As skeptics, when we talk about "ghosts" we're not talking about demons or dead souls, we're talking about what people have claimed to have experienced as a result of what they are calling a ghost. Thus a ghost is in the eye of the beholder. To some, my window photograph above is a piccy of a ghosty, to me it's my bedroom window reflecting the shadows cast by leaves, a hypothesis demonstrated through objective analysis.
So, we know ghosts not by what "they are" but by what "they do." There is an analogy from medical science that will help us to better understand this: syndrome. A syndrome is not a disease - rather it's a collection of symptoms that may have many causes. Or even psychosomatic causes. Unlike a disease, a syndrome is not "one thing," it's a collection of things. It can only be known by its symptoms. A ghost is much the same. We know of a ghost or a haunting through the manifestation of some symptom - some phenomenon that popular culture associates with ghost lore. Doors opening on their own, creaking stairs, cold spots, mysterious lights at night, anomalies in photographs or on recording equipment - they are all "signs" of a ghost.
When a skeptic investigates these phenomena, she isn't looking to tie them to a dead human or a demon, she's trying to find out the cause of the occurrence, whatever it may be. A lot of people have investigated "ghostly phenomena" - not yet have these been tied to paranormal sources. Indeed they are often boringly mundane. So when we speak about "a ghost" - what we are really talking about are "the things ghosts are supposed to do." That is, we're referencing a claim or set of claims attributed by someone to ghosts. It's a useful shorthand to call such phenomena "ghosts" until we understand their actual causes. If that cause turns out to be a disembodied human - outstanding! I will enjoy collecting my Nobel Prize. But to assert we know the cause (e.g. a dead human) is an affront to the scientific method, the means by which a true explanation is achieved.
All in a Name
The word "ghost" has an interesting history. It comes to us, in English, from the Old English word "gast." That word, in turn, originates from the proto-Germanic word "gaistaz," which has several meanings: soul, mind, or terror/fear. This word is an ancient one with Proto-Indo European roots dating back at least to the late Neolithic. One of its ancient meanings was simply "bewilderment or fear," perhaps an equivalent to our modern word "spooked."
The origin of the word itself illustrates that our ancient ancestors, like us, knew ghosts in the same way that we know them - by what they do. They cause fear, they disconcert. And, as the linguistics show, they, like us, theorized that these phenomena were caused by some disembodied aspect of the human psyche - the mind or soul. This is a logical explanation for a pre-scientific people to consider. Any unexplainable phenomenon might well be the result of a hidden, supernatural force. After all, the wind is invisible and acts upon us, fire emerges from nothing, the sun and moon hang in the sky without aid. Within that context, where one has so few tools for knowing, virtually any hypothesis is equally likely on its surface.
We know from how these words were used that even the ancients were prone to fear regarding the things they associated with ghosts. An unknown cause of fear is a powerful thing - worthy of its own word and a comforting definition. The quest, then, to hang the name "ghost" on certain happenstances is an ancient one. So in investigating ghostly phenomena we face thousands of years of cultural knowledge - and cultural baggage. We can't know what scared the ancients, but we can analyze and group together some of the commonalities of what characterize ghostly behavior in our Western culture today.
Signs of a Haunt
- Visual Phenomena: A visual impression, often anomalous. A strange shadow figure out of the corner of one's eye, a weird shape off in the distance, a strange face or pattern in the woodwork or wallpaper, a bizarre mist or cloud, strange lights, etc. Visual phenomena are experienced with the eyes.
- Aural Phenomena: An impression that is heard, often anomalous. Disembodied voices, the sounds of machines no longer present or not in operation, the sound of movement with none visible, the sound of footsteps with no one present to make them, the sound of doors opening, etc. Visual phenomena are experienced with the ears.
- Olfactory Phenomena: An impression that is smelled, often anomalous. The smell of tobacco smoke, perfume, ozone, animals that are not present, etc. Olfactory phenomena are experienced with the nose.
- Somatosensory Phenomena: An impression that is felt, often anomalous. The feeling of being touched, unexplainable scratches or marks, the feeling of being pushed, anomalous pain, etc. Somatosensory phenomena are felt with the body.
- Sensations: An impression that is felt "all over," though not necessarily through the five senses, often anomalous. One's hair standing on end, a feeling of dread, cold chills, a vague impression of something being present, etc. Sensations are more abstract than somatosensory impressions.
- Psychological Phenomena: An impression that originates solely in the brain, often anomalous. Hallucinations, disembodied voices, sleep paralysis, paranoia, "communicating with the dead," out of body experiences, etc. Psychological phenomena are internal to the person having the experience with no external manifestation.
- Technological Phenomena: An impression that is derived from interacting with technology, often anomalous. Ouija boards, dowsing, spirit photographs, electronic voice phenomena, electromagnetic readings, "ghost boxes," etc. Technological phenomena are generated by device, machine, or tool and interpreted by the observer.
Get to the Source
Often the most important aspect of investigating a paranormal phenomenon is isolating it. A lot of ghost hunters, untrained in proper research techniques, never quite figure out how to do that. If you're told that the phenomenon is a rocking chair that moves on its own - then investigate the chair. This is a technological phenomenon - a device is behaving in an anomalous fashion. It's the investigator's job to find out why. This does not require one to run a detailed history of the home and the chair or to bring in loads of equipment, like thermometers and electromagnetic field detectors. The chair itself is the only piece of technology that needs to be involved.
Why is it moving? You start by asking the simplest question first: what could cause it to move? There's no reason to believe it's moving because of a ghost. After all, it could be an invisible Big Foot rocking away. Or the wind. Or the shape of the floor. It is helpful for us to dissuade ourselves of some of that cultural baggage that goes along with the term ghost and simply look at the phenomenon in itself. That's how an investigation intent on answers begins.