Monday, September 30, 2013

BOO! What is a Ghost?

The author's home featuring its resident specter.
If you believe in ghosts and spend a little time in my house, you will likely believe it is haunted.  It's old, the interior has not been given one of those hideous modernizing remodel jobs, it's noisy, doors swing open by themselves, the lighting is ancient, so dark figures move about the walls, it's furnished with our vast collection of books, antiques, and occult artifacts, and there's even a grave in the back yard.  The first week we lived there I took a picture of the second story and found the face of a "ghost" looking back at me out of the bedroom window.  Carl Sagan once famously noted that there "are no haunted houses, only haunted people."  If you are a haunted person - that is, someone disposed to believe in paranormal explanations for the mundane - then our old Victorian would put the scare into you.  I just happen to like it.  I'm a fan of ancient buildings - behind my wife my greatest love is history.  And I feel most comfortable surrounded on all sides by it!  

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: syndromeA 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. 


Aural Anomalies Number 1: Screaming Tunnel, Niagara Falls, Canada

Screaming Tunnel, Niagara Falls, Ontario
The landscape that surrounds the Niagara Valley, to me, seems anachronistic.  A drive from Washington, DC to Niagara Falls will take you through the mountains of Pennsylvania and New York.  The spectacular falls rest in a deep valley and represent, truly, some of the world's most spectacular natural beauty.  But the lands north of the falls are flat and scrubby, reminiscent of where I grew up north of Dallas, Texas.  The area around the falls was scraped clean during the last great Ice Age and has really only been exposed to human habitation for the past 10,000 years.  As such, it lacks the ancient, claustrophobic feel of the deep forests of New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

On the day we visited the Screaming Tunnel - the day after Thanksgiving in the United States - it was as if I were visiting one of the old railroad underpasses near my childhood home in the Cross Timbers of Texas.  It felt uncannily familiar - not a feeling I had expected.  I have explored such places all my life, so I didn't expect much.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised.  It turns out that the Screaming Tunnel of Niagara Falls is, indeed, something special. 

The Story

The description published on the Niagara Falls Public Library's website can tell the background story better that I can.  Screaming Tunnel:

The haunting of the Screaming Tunnel is one of Niagara Falls’ most enduring legends. Located off Warner Road, the tunnel runs under the railway tracks that link Niagara Falls to Toronto and New York City. The tunnel is made of rough-cut stone and measures 16 feet high by 125 long. Around 1982, Canadian movie director David Cronenberg chose the tunnel as the setting for a brutal murder scene in his horror movie The Dead Zone. According to local legend, over a century ago, a farm house located just past the south entrance to the tunnel caught fire one night. A young girl, her clothes engulfed in flames, fled screaming from the house. She ran through the tunnel in an attempt to extinguish her garments but collapsed and died on the tunnel floor. A variation of this story has the girl set ablaze in the tunnel by her enraged father when he learned his wife had won custody of their children during an nasty divorce battle. Another version tells of a young girl who was raped inside the tunnel and her body burned to cover the evidence. All these stories allege that if you stand in the middle of the dark tunnel at midnight and light a match, the flame will go out and a girl’s screams will be heard.

The Location

The site is not too difficult to locate.  We navigated to it just after breakfast with the help of directions found on a local paranormal club's website.  It is located off of Warner Road, within a few hundred yards of Queen Elizabeth Way.  However, Warner Road dead ends before it reaches that larger highway, so it is necessary to approach from the west rather than from Queen Elizabeth Way directly.  Essentially you will follow Warner Road as it runs from west to east to its termination point, just to the west of Queen Elizabeth Way.  You cannot miss the tunnel - it is heavily trafficked and the parking spot is obvious.  Accessing it does not require a walk, but the ground is perpetually wet and muddy as a small watercourse seems to permanently flow through the tunnel.  If you are staying in Niagara Falls and wish to visit the site and you have access to a car, it's no more than an hour's diversion - especially if you plan on touring some of the local wineries (makers of the finest ice wines in the world.)  For collectors of paranormal real estate, it's an easy trip.

The site is not as rural as the paranormal groups which have "investigated" it like to indicate.  In fact, there are several houses across the street from it, just to the north.  And, again, there is a major highway literally within "shouting distance."  The tunnel, itself, is a heavily trafficked foot path.  During the two hours we were on site we observed fresh horse hoof prints in the mud from morning riders and a large hiking club passed through the tunnel into the fields to the south while we explored. From the amount of litter left behind and the tire ruts off the side of Warner Road, it's clear the site gets daily visitors.  The local houses are so close by we could smell the scent of their morning bacon wafting through the air as we explored.  Indeed, according to recent news reports, officials are contemplating closing the site due to the large number of visitors and the inconvenience they create for the neighbors.

The location of the Screaming Tunnel is important - in fact it's the key to understanding the mystery.  (More on that later.)  The reality is, the site is not remote and it is regularly visited.  Even if you go there at midnight, as legend suggests you should, you're not going to be "truly" alone.  There will be people within a hundred yards of you the whole time you are there.  Any phenomena that occur to you while at the tunnel, therefore, should be examined in this light.

The Claims

Putting aside the dodgy photo, video, and EVP evidence one can find on the web that has allegedly been captured here, the essential claims related to the Screaming Tunnel are pretty basic:

1.  A young girl died at or near the site of the tunnel and was consumed by fire.  

2.  If you stand in the middle of the tunnel at midnight and light a match, the match will burn out.

3.  You will hear the ghostly scream of the woman who died.

Investigating the Claims

1.  Death of the Young Girl

There is no reason to expend any time determining whether or not a young girl died in a fire at or near the Screaming Tunnel.  If an exhaustive search could prove this, that would provide no additional support for the latter claims of matches extinguishing themselves and disembodied screams.  Indeed, finding that a girl had burned to death would only provide us with the folkloric source of the legend that surrounds the tunnel.  Any investigator wishing to thoroughly examine this site - to be comprehensive - should, indeed, put in the hours of library research to determine if this tunnel's legend has a basis in reality.  However, my aim in visiting the site was to examine the actual physical claims that are said to be manifest. 

So-called ghost hunters who spend their time looking into the history of deaths at a site are really wasting their time.  Such investigations make two false leaps in logic.  First, it supposes that the "ghostly" phenomena at hand are connected to a dead human being (instead of a dead cat, an inter-dimensional being, a Sasquatch, a vampire, a living hoaxster, someone's imagination, or a mundane physical action/reaction.)  Secondly, it assumes that a death at a site is somehow an anomaly.  In fact, all living creatures die.  The older a site is, the more likely it is that someone has died there.  With enough digging at a site of significant enough age, it is virtually guaranteed the ghost hunter will eventually come across a death they can retrofit to the circumstances of their investigation. 

In most cases, unless the history of the site is directly related to the phenomena under investigation, such background research is simply a waste of time - and overly confusing to the primary focus of one's inquiry.

2.  Matches Will Extinguish at Midnight in the Tunnel

No need to wait until midnight - if you stand in the middle of the Screaming Tunnel and light a match, it will blow out.  Like virtually all structures built in tubular fashion, with ventilation at either side, the Screaming Tunnel forces a draft to channel through it.  As such, it acts as a "wind tunnel" through which air currents pass.  

On the day we visited there was virtually no wind blowing outside and a draft could not be felt in the tunnel.  However, experimenting with matches and a few blades of dried grass quickly reveals that even on a calm day, the Screaming Tunnel forces a strong enough draft that a match will not hold a light.  It is the subtle nature of this draft that gives one the impression that the tunnel is essentially windproof.  It is not.  One need merely stand in the middle of the tunnel and drop a few blades of dried grass to see that a heavy breeze is forced through the tunnel constantly.

3.  Ghostly Scream

It is this final claim that actually makes the Screaming Tunnel an interesting site.  As it turns out, there is an aspect of this claim that is valid.  Due to a trick of the tunnel's design and the landscape that surrounds it, the Screaming Tunnel functions as a whispering gallery.  The tunnel is long with a high vaulted ceiling.  To the north, it opens onto Warner Road and the relatively flat surrounds of the adjacent fields and neighborhoods.  To the south, however, just to the other side of the tunnel entrance, the pathway ascends sharply, boxing in the entrance and creating a very effective echo chamber. 

On exploring the site, my wife and I discovered this phenomena.  I was standing in the center of the tunnel and she was exploring just outside the south entrance.  I suddenly heard her voice, very clearly, over my shoulder, speaking as if she were standing right next to me.  This gave me a start!  She was yards away! 

I asked her if she had been speaking - and she admitted to merely mumbling to herself.  After additional experimentation, it turns out that a person standing at the center of the Screaming Tunnel is privileged to amplified sounds that could not normally be heard over such great distances.  We noted that the sound of people walking in the woods to the south of the tunnel was heavily amplified, as were big rig horns on the highway, and the sound of the limbs of trees rubbing together.  The sounds of the adjacent trees were an especially compelling noise when carried to the center of the Screaming Tunnel - the gave a high-pitched and eerie sound, very like a human voice. 

The fact that the Screaming Tunnel functions as a whisper gallery opens up a wide range of possibilities for explaining the mysterious "scream."  A neighborhood hoaxster familiar with the tunnel's properties would have no trouble sneaking into the woods undetected and giving a midnight shout.  It is obvious to all the neighborhood houses when cars are parked at the site.  The bark of the indigenous red fox carried through the tunnels echo chamber would be terrifying.  Even the sounds of the trees rubbing together, as we observed, creates a creepily compelling sound. 

Mysterious sounds at the site of the Niagara Falls' Screaming Tunnel, it turns out, are not in short supply.  Whisper galleries are disconcerting and unusual aural phenomena.  Most people have never experienced one. It is quite easy to encounter strange, disembodied sounds at the Screaming Tunnel.  Doing so in the dead of night, while expecting a ghostly encounter, would be terrifying.


To those interested in the paranormal, Screaming Tunnel near Niagara Falls is well worth a visit.  It is the rare "haunted" site actually capable of delivering an experiential phenomenon.  Disembodied sounds can be heard at the site and, through limited experimentation, it's possible to understand why.  I hypothesize that the screaming tunnel might provide us some greater insight into understanding that physics behind so-called haunts that manifest themselves aurally.  When an actual phenomenon is present, the landscape, the architecture, or a combination of both might well be its origin.  It is my hope that others who visit the Screaming Tunnel will forgo the ghostly seance, and put my theory to the test and try out the site's unique ability to transmit sound.