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Where belief in miracles exists, evidence will always be forthcoming to confirm its existence. In the case of moving statues and paintings, the belief produces the hallucination and the hallucination confirms the belief. --D.H. Rawcliffe
A collective hallucination is a sensory hallucination induced by the power of suggestion to a group of people. It generally occurs in heightened emotional situations, especially among the religiously devoted. The expectancy and hope of bearing witness to a miracle, combined with long hours of staring at an object or place, makes certain religious persons susceptible to seeing such things as weeping statues, moving icons and holy portraits, or the Virgin Mary in the clouds.
Those witnessing a "miracle" agree in their hallucinatory accounts because they have the same preconceptions and expectations. Furthermore, dissimilar accounts converge towards harmony as time passes and the accounts get retold. Those who see nothing extraordinary and admit it are dismissed as not having faith. Some, no doubt, see nothing but "rather than admit they failed...would imitate the lead given by those who did, and subsequently believe that they had in fact observed what they had originally only pretended to observe....(Rawcliffe, 114).
Not all collective hallucinations are religious, of course. In 1897, Edmund Parish reported of shipmates who had shared a ghostly vision of their cook who had died a few days earlier. The sailors not only saw the ghost, but distinctly saw him walking on the water with his familiar and recognizable limp. Their ghost turned out to be a "piece of wreck, rocked up and down by the waves" (Parish, 311; cited in Rawcliffe, 115).
Parish, Edmund. Hallucinations and illusions; a study of the fallacies of perception (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1897).
Thousands wait for Knock apparition Joe Coleman, a Dubliner who fancies himself clairvoyant, predicted the Virgin Mary would appear at the old parish church in Knock. A crowd estimated at more than 5,000 showed up, some claiming they could see the sun shimmering, changing color, and dancing in the sky, which they took for a sign from the heavens.