While some people sense ghosts or see them, others are driven to sort them out, to discover what they really are.
What are Ghosts?
Ghosts are easy to define, hard to explain. Almost everybody agrees on the basic proposition that ghosts are spirits of the dead. But that deceptively simple definition is just a gateway to a thorny thicket of questions, some of them the most profound that humans ever ask.
What exactly is a spirit? Is it the same thing as a soul? Does such a thing really exist? And if it does, can it survive the death of the body? In what form? Why do the dead haunt the living, or just some of the living? Why do some people apparently see ghosts, others not? Are ghosts vengeful? Kindly? Sad? Should we fear them? Avoid them? Seek them out?
The answers depend largely, of course, on whom you ask, and when. People who believe in ghosts or claim to have encountered them – a minority that hovers between 10 to 20 percent, according to most polls taken over the year, are quick to speculate on the nature and significance of spirits. For unbelievers, on the other hand, ghosts are merely the stuff of idle chitchat, the quaint fantasies of credulous minds. But this wasn’t always so. There was a time, beginning about a century and a half ago, when some of the world’s finest intellects (skeptical intellects, mostly) pursued the subject of ghosts in deadly earnest. It was for them, one might say, a matter of eternal life or death.
The First Ghost Hunters
It was in England in the 1880s that a group of Cambridge University scholars formed the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) to fix a cold and skeptical eye on paranormal phenomena. Not given to mysticism, these dons were thoroughly systematic. They would collect information, collate, analyze, theorize, test. They began with ghosts.
A trio of SPR founders Edmund Gurney, Frederic Myers and Frank Podmore, interviewed about 6,000 people regarding their experiences with ghosts. In 1886, they published their results in Phantasms of the Living, a two-volume tome of 1,400 pages. There Myers coined the word “telepathy”, postulating that some ghosts were really telepathic impulses, which percipients, the people who see or sense ghosts, took to be phantoms. “Instead of describing a ‘ghost’ as a dead person permitted to communicate with the living,” he wrote, “let us define it as a manifestation of persistent personal energy.”
Eleanor Balfour Sidgwick, a mathematician and the principal of Cambridge’s Newnham College, speculated that inanimate objects might absorb and store psychic impressions from the living in the same way that stones gather heat energy from the sun. When the impressions were radiated by the object, the figurative hot stones, their energy, she thought, might be perceived as ghosts. The strength of the apparition, Sidgwick believed, depended on the emotional magnitude of the psychic imprint, the amount of stored energy, and the percipient’s sensitivity.
Phantasms of the Living was the first great leap into the paranormal unknown. Based on its findings, the Cambridge group began classifying different types of ghosts. Motive seemed to be one differentiating feature.
“We were struck,” said Gurney, “with the great predominance of alleged apparitions at or near the moment of death. And a new light seemed to be thrown on these phenomena by the unexpected frequency of accounts of apparitions of living persons, coincident with moments of danger or crisis.” As people experienced death or some other extreme condition, he suggested, their psyche became more adept at projecting itself in ghostly guises.
Nor was crisis the only motive. Some apparitions brought balm for the grief of loved ones; others, comfort for the dying. Some apparitions appeared to remind the reincarnate of their previous lives, or to give a future family a preview of a reborn person on the way.
Myers kept his belief that human existence didn’t end at death, but he saw flaws in this telepathy hypothesis. In Human Personality and the Survival of Bodily Death, published in 1903, he theorized that apparitions were a kind of knot of energy emanating from the agent buy strong enough to alter the percipient’s space. As for the actual substance of ghosts, Myers proposed that specters existed not as material beings but as “metetherial” – a kind of fourth-dimensional domain.
Some years later, SPR president Henry Habberley Price, an emeritus professor of logic at Oxford University, echoed Myers with the notion of a “psychic ether,” which he described as “something intermediate between mind and matter.” He believed that thought and other types of mental activity generated an image that survived on another plane even after the death of the thinker. While invisible to everyone, such images might be perceived as ghosts by psychic sensitives.
G. Tyrell, who became SPR president in 1945, devoted 40 years to ghost research. Tyrell, who held degrees in physics and mathematics from London University, is credited with formulating the four categories of phantoms that are still generally recognized today: crisis apparitions, apparitions of the living, postmortem apparitions, and continual, or recurring, apparitions. (More details on Types of Ghosts.)
Drawing on modern psychology, Tyrell proposed that ghosts came out of a confluence of creative energy from the unconscious minds of both the agent and the percipient. He called the result an “apparitional drama,” or “sensory hallucination.”
Researcher Andrew MacKenzie also postulated a link between apparitions and the subconscious mind. Examing a number of reported hallucinatory experiences, he found that most of them came when the percipient was tuning out the external world and concentrating on something else. At such times, MacKenzie reckoned the barriers between the conscious and unconscious come down. The resulting flow from our unknown mental interior sometimes seems to be a ghost.
Inside the Mind and Out
The pioneering work of Tyrell and MacKenzie can still be seen in the work of present day psychical researchers like William Roll, a prominent American parapsychologist. Like them, he explains haunting as an interactive drama between haunter and observer, as he calls the percipient, but he proposes that the phenomena occur along a sliding scale.
Haunting visions or sounds can be related to a particular situation or event, which Roll contends, seems “to leave an imprint in the environment that lots of people can respond to.” But he sees no need for such carrier substances as psychic ether. “All we need to say is that there is no sharp distinction between mind and matter, and that the processes that go on in the human brain may also go on in the human environment. To me the main interest of these phenomena is that they suggest body and mind and matter are not as clearly distinguished as we have been led to believe, that mind is enfolded in matter, that there is meaning in matter, that the physical environment has mental qualities that come from the people who have lived in that environment.”
“Those qualities imprinted on the environment compose the ghostly side of Roll’s equation. The percipient composes the other. Hauntings move on a sliding scale between them, driven by whichever factor, the spectral or the personal, is more active. If the power lies toward the environmental end, the imprint should be so deeply etched that anyone can discern it. At the far end on the percipient side of the scale, the observer creates the ghost out of nothing, that is to say, he or she makes it up.
Roll says that the latter type of haunting seems to follow emotional stress; it is often seen, for example, in strife-torn marriages. Then, according to Roll, the percipient creates “an objective reality” to fill a void. “It is like a dream that has become real,” he explains, “a strong need that somehow has created a situation that satisfies it. My impression is that memories will be drawn out in response to needs. And it is just as likely to happen in a new duplex as in an old mansion.” Anything, including oneself, can be haunted.
Today, speculation about ghosts has largely passed out of the academic realm. Seldom ghost hunters are full-timers who are serious about their subject. Their language is more casual than that of the academicians, and their scientific tastes tend more toward psychology than physics. For instance, Troy Taylor, the founder and president of the American Ghost Society, finds it useful to divide phantom encounters into two types: the intelligent haunting and the residual haunting.
The intelligent haunter, according to Taylor, is “the personality of a once-living person who stayed behind in our world instead of passing over to the Other side.” Such ghosts are self-aware and are able to interact with the living. The residual haunter, on the other hand, is merely “an imprint that is left on the atmosphere” of a haunted site. It is the spirit of an event, rather than a personality, that plays out over and over in phantom form.
As to the nature of intelligent ghosts, Taylor reports that generally, they are “very sad. We have to remember that many of them are very confused over what has happened to them.” Some, he says, don’t even realize that they are dead. Ghosts are never evil, he contends, although they do project in their phantom forms whatever personalities they had in life: benevolent, caring, angry, bitter.
David Oester and Sharon Gill, co-founders of the International Ghost Hunters Society, agree. “A ghost is a mirror of who he or she was in life,” they say. “If they were happy campers in life, they will happy campers in death. The reverse is also true. If they were angry and mean in life, so too in death.” Whatever their natures, the spirits remain earthbound “because of unfinished business, unresolved issues, or because they have a comfort level and choose to remain here. In many cases, the soul or spirit has negative earth emotions that were not released while living, and now these negative emotions are creating an anchor that will hold them back until they can release these negative emotions.”
Times have changed. Pondering a ghost’s “unresolved issues” seems a far less pressing task than trying to validate religion by proving that spirits exist. Now and then, though, an echo of the old urgency can still be heard: “Ghosts are really the evidence,” say Oester and Gill, “that religion should lean toward as proof of an afterlife.”