So many people take it for granted that ghosts are spirits of the dead. Whether this is true or not is unlikely ever to be proved one way or the other. And perhaps that is the beauty of a mystery.
We need mysteries to be fully human, and nothing satisfies this factor more than a ghost. But the reality is there ARE psycho-sociological mechanisms that can account for the vast majority. Let’s have a few examples from Britain.
Seen on many occasions in St James’s Palace is the ghost of valet to the Duke of Cumberland, Sellis. Usually seen propped up in a bed with a slit throat, this gruesome ghost seems to be a remembrance of Sellis’s death in May 1810. According to his master, Sellis tried to kill him, but, failing, committed suicide. A pertinent ghost rumour of the time had it that the Duke was the murderer, killing Sellis to stop him blackmailing him after he had had an affair with the valet’s daughter.
Past residents of the Cumbrian village of Eden Hall used to speak of a ghostly skeleton that swung from a rotting gallows on stormy nights. The ghost is said to be that of Thomas Nicholson, hanged in August 1767 for robbing and murdering his Godfather. His body was left on the gibbet for two days as a warning to others.
Screams are said to echo through Marsden Grotto, a series of caverns between South Shields and Sunderland. Once used by smugglers to hide their booty, one smuggling gang was betrayed by a man known as John the Jibber. A friend of the smugglers heard of the betrayal and warned the gang before they were arrested. Later, they got John the Jibber, took him to the cavern, put him in a barrel, hoisted him to the roof and left him to starve.
Most of these stories we can dismiss in terms of producing real ghosts. But within most ghost stories we can see an important social function. For in the main, the classic ‘true’ ghost story usually held an important moral message, warning of the dangers of such things as murder or infidelity.
Thus, by allying the moral aspect to the supernatural, the morality is enforced by scaring a superstitious population into thinking twice about being immoral. Indeed, not only did ghost stories become the vehicle for the moral tale. Sometimes fame would be achieved and remembered by the famous becoming ghosts.
Typical is Grace Darling, one of England’s greatest heroines. Born in 1815, she was the daughter of William Darling, keeper of the Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands off Northumberland.
In 1838 the ship Forfarshire floundered. Grace and her father took their small rowing boat into stormy seas and rescued five crewmen. Grace then made a second trip with two of the crew and saved a further four seamen.
Grace died of consumption four years later. Seen as a darling of the nation, it was evident she would not be forgotten, and it seems her ghost walks the lighthouse to make sure of it. As late as 1976, two lighthouse keepers appeared on television, telling of their separate sightings of the heroine.
THEORIES OF HAUNTINGS
Most people, today, appear to be scathing of ghost stories, yet in private, most people have experienced something ‘strange’ enough to be classed as a ghostly experience. In 1971 Dr W Dewi Rees reported in the British Medical Journal that half the widows in his practice had seen their loved ones after death. In the 1890s the Society for Psychical Research published a Census of Hallucinations, showing that out of 17,000 people interviewed nearly 1,700 had seen ghosts.
Many theories have been offered to explain ghost sightings. SPR member Frederic Myers thought ghosts to be a kind of residue of personal energy they generated whilst alive.
Edmund Gurney suggested they were, perhaps, a form of telepathy from beyond the grave. In 1943 GNM Tyrrell advanced this telepathy theory by arguing a ghost is a two part drama. The telepathy becomes the ‘producer’, then an other-worldly stage ‘director’ went on to provide the props.
MIND + ENVIRONMENT = SPOOKY
Following the publication of Alfred Watkins’ ‘The Old Straight Track’ in 1921, introducing ‘leys’ and the subject of Earth Mysteries, ghosts have been put down by many to geophysical forces, many ghost sightings appearing at the conjunction of two leys.
Fellow founder of the SPR Sir Oliver Lodge came up with a well used theory when he argued that an event can be photographed upon the environment in which the event took place. Known as the ‘tape recording’ theory, from time to time the event is replayed, producing the ghost.
Researcher Tom Lethbridge offered a variation on this theme in 1963. An old witch used to live next door to him. When the witch died, he felt a field of depression around her cottage. It reminded him of when he had felt a similar depression near Wokingham as a teenager.
A couple of days after this feeling, the body of a suicide was found at the exact spot. Could such fields be impinged upon the environment? Later, Lethbridge and his wife were to visit Labrum Bay and he again felt a depression. On a subsequent visit to the nearby cliffs, his wife felt an urge to jump off.
Lethbridge associated these fields with magnetic fields. Calling them ‘ghouls’, he knew people also produced magnetic fields. Could emotions pass from an event imprinted on a ghoul to a person’s field, thus producing the same emotion, and maybe a ghost?
Ghosthunter Andrew Green has another variation on the theme. When he was a teenager he visited a building thought to be haunted. A murder had been committed there and twenty people had jumped from an adjacent tower. Going up the tower he, too, felt the urge to jump.
Outside the building once more, he took a picture. When developed, there was an image of a girl looking out of a window. Kodak informed him that such images were not unusual with certain films. Green decided such images, and ghosts in general, were generated by someone thinking of a loved one, the thought placing a heat image of the deceased on the location.
DREAMING AND HALLUCINATION
There is, of course, a problem with all these theories. They are all unprovable. More practical is research, in the 1950s, by Nathaniel Kleitman of Chicago, into dreaming. He noted that dreaming actually occurred during REM, or rapid-eye-movement sleep.
If awoken during this period or soon afterwards, the dream was recalled with absolute clarity. Researchers then went on to ask, if, at the point of awakening, the dream was on-going, could it be externalised? The most common ghost is, of course, the ‘bedroom visitor’.
If externalisation of what goes on in the mind was possible, then a valid and logical explanation could be put to the majority of ghosts. Research then went on to show that at the point between wakefulness and sleep, externalisations were, indeed, possible.
Whilst going off to sleep, hypnogogic hallucinations can occur. Whilst awakening, they are known as hypnapompic. But could such a phenomenon be at the heart of all ghostly activity?
Hallucination is one of the most feared words in the English language; more feared, it would seem, than ghost - a word it could easily explain. The reason for the fear is that hallucination is thought to be the province of the psychologically unstable. But this is not the case.
In 1954 researchers at Canada’s McGill University showed that we can all, at times, hallucinate. Placing subjects in sensory deprivation chambers, it became clear that when outside stimuli seems to be cut off, the mind continues to function to the point that it can create seemingly externalised hallucinations.
It seems that when the mind has nothing to process, it will create its own hallucinatory world. And this seems to be equally the case when we are tired. At such times we can mis-identify, or create externalised images, from our own mind.
What could best be termed as a moment of ‘sensory decalibration’ many researchers are satisfied that this is the mechanism behind ghostly encounters. If such a vision occurs as you are nearing sleep, we have the classic bedroom ghost visitor.
At times even the environment can have a hallucinatory effect upon the mind. Psychologist Michael Persinger working in Ontario showed this with his ‘heaven and hell’ chamber.
Bombarding the brain with pulses of electromagnetic energy, subjects have lost control of their feelings and experienced various paranormal phenomena including ‘ghosts’. Persinger believes that electromagnetism changes the level of melatonin in the brain, causing the hallucination.
And such electromagnetic disturbances are all around us, giving the environment a strong influence upon our minds. Such electromagnetic build-up is most commonly associated with thunderstorms - as are many classic ghost stories.
This connection seems to be scientific fact. In the above we have proven mechanisms that could lie behind ghostly encounters. But why should people be more prone to seeing a ghost in a suspected haunted building?
Even more disturbing, how can a person correctly visualise information about a location they should not have? The answer may not be quite as disturbing as we think.
Britain is known as the ‘ghost capital of the world’, with no fewer than 10,000 suspected haunted sites. And the reason for this is easy to find. For it is a simple fact that Britain can boast well over a thousand years of unbroken cultural development. And it is this - culture - which seems to be the key.
Such cultural development impinges upon sites of cultural importance which, if ancient, are guaranteed to have supernatural elements imposed upon them. Typical is the Tower of London, which has been home to many cultural ghosts which have been repeatedly seen and are still seen today.
Hence, we can argue that when a person is visiting such a site, and is perhaps tired at the time, an hallucination of such a cultural ghost can automatically follow.
This process doesn’t, however, explain the almost exact form of such sightings, nor how a non-cultural ghost can be correctly identified after the encounter. But a subtle advancement of this cultural input does.
In February 1951 a guard shot at a figure running between two parked bombers on an American Air Force base in England. When the guard went to investigate, the intruder had disappeared.
Investigating the incident, a security officer called Bordeaux interviewed another airman who, at the same time, picked up a hitchhiker in RAF uniform. Offering him a cigarette, when the driver again looked, the man was no longer there.
The above is one of the earliest accounts of a phenomenon known as the ‘phantom hitchhiker’, where a driver stops for, or gives a lift to, someone who doesn’t exist. With the above incident we must bear in mind that all American Air Force bases in England were originally RAF bases, which were repeatedly bombed during World War Two.
Due to this, right up to the 1960s dozens of similar ghost stories existed of dead RAF personnel. However, not all incidents occur within an easily identified existing culture of ghost sightings.
Typical is the case of Roy Fulton who, one night in 1979, stopped his van to pick up a hitchhiker near Dunstable. A youth of about twenty, the hitchhiker opened the door and got in. Setting off again, Fulton turned to speak to the youth, but he had disappeared. Immediately reporting the incident, witnesses testified that Fulton was deeply shocked by the incident.
The first, natural, inclination is to dismiss such stories as attention-seeking or active imagination. But neither of these scenarios adds up. Stories often come from perfectly sensible people who would rather cover up the event than leave themselves open to ridicule. Something is certainly going on here. And cases can get stranger.
AN IN-DEPTH MIND
One night in 1975 a man rushed into a police station to report he had ‘knocked over’ a girl at Bluebell Hill on the A229 in Kent. Getting out of the car, he had seen she was dead and placed a coat over her.
When the police arrived, there was nothing there. Earlier that year, a taxi driver had picked up a distressed girl near Bluebell Hill and taken her home. Later, he went back to the house to check she was alright.
He discovered that the girl had been killed in a car crash in November 1965, along with three of her friends, close to the site. He went on to pick out the girl from a picture of the dead girls.
To many researchers such stark testimonies are concrete evidence of survival of bodily death. But could a more rational explanation exist to answer such cases? I’ve often written about cryptomnesia, and the ability of the unconscious to absorb phenomenal amounts of information.
We do, infact, absorb most of our information unconsciously. When you look down a busy street, you only ‘see’ what you are looking for. But this seeing is only a conscious mechanism. Whether we are directing attention at other things in the street or not, unconsciously the information is still received and enters our memory.
This same sensory ability applies to every sensory event. We may not be listening to that radio in the background, we may only be scanning that newspaper, but a remarkable amount of the information enters the unconscious mind.
And whilst we may never access this information, it is feasible to suggest that whilst driving, tired, by the site of a previous horrendous accident that had been previously reported, we may unconsciously connect with the forgotten report and hallucinate images from it.
The end result of the encounter is that the very person involved is hallucinated before our very eyes.
Ghost have a logical explanation. Indeed, so exact can the mechanisms be seen to be that the question must be asked: why don’t we see them more often than we do?
Well, it could be that we see ghosts more often than we think. Consider the above taxi driver. Until he went back to check on her, he never knew the girl was a ghost. So maybe we do see ghosts more often. But unless we have reason to suspect, we don’t realise what they are.
© Anthony North, December 2007
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