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ghost

A ghost is an alleged disembodied spirit of a dead person.* Ghosts are often depicted as inhabiting haunted houses, especially houses where murders have occurred. Why some murder victims would stick around for eternity to haunt a place while others seem to evaporate is one of the great mysteries of the spirit world.

Many people report physical changes in haunted places, especially a feeling of a presence accompanied by temperature drop and hearing unaccountable sounds. They are not imagining things. Most hauntings occur in old buildings, which tend to be drafty. Scientists who have investigated haunted places account for both the temperature changes and the sounds by finding physical sources of the drafts, such as empty spaces behind walls or currents set in motion by low frequency sound waves (infrasound) produced by such mundane objects as extraction fans. Some think that electromagnetic fields are inducing the haunting experience.*

Some ghost experiences may be attributed to sleep paralysis. For example, the description given by Geoff Hutchison, a miner turned medium, is typical of sleep paralysis. He says he had his first paranormal experience while he was in the Army during the 1960s when he saw a figure: "It was just a man with a big black coat and a big wide-brimmed hat. He just stood there bent over me. I couldn't move my arms or legs and had to lie there."

As I note in my entries on poltergeists and haunted houses:

Even if I provided plausible physical explanations for a million poltergeists [or ghosts] in a million different places at a million different times, there is always the possibility that the next one that pops up will be the real thing. So, those who believe in poltergeists, ghosts, and haunted houses can always take refuge in the fact that nobody ever has enough information to debunk every ghost story, and even if they did, the next one might prove the debunkers wrong!

As a skeptic, all I can say with confidence is that when one considers the requirements for a ghost story to be true, the most reasonable position is that there is a naturalistic explanation for all these stories, but we often do not or cannot have all the details necessary to provide that explanation. We must rely on anecdotal evidence, which is always incomplete and selective, and which is often passed on by interested, inexperienced, superstitious parties who are ignorant of basic physical laws. Thus, there will always be stories like the "Bell Witch" story that attract much attention, especially when made into movies, that will lead many people to think that maybe there is something to this one, even if all the other ghost stories are false. The "Bell Witch" is alleged to be "a sinister entity that tormented a family on Tennessee’s frontier between the years of 1817 and 1821."* The likelihood that we don't have all the evidence in this case is proportionate to the number of years that have passed since the events allegedly took place.

If one is selective enough, one can confirm just about any hypothesis. And, as the history of research into psychic phenomena has shown, the brighter one is the easier it is to rationalize and find reasons to support one's beliefs. Witness Debra Blum's latest book, The Ghost Hunters. This former science writer provides a selective history of psychical research to support the view that maybe some of these stories are for real. After all, we can't prove they're not.

It is said that ghosts like to work in the dark because it's harder for people to see them than in broad daylight where their invisibility is more visible. It's also easier to deceive and scare people at night because they can't see what's going on. It's usually cooler and breezier at night, too, and both those elements assist the ghost in producing scary sounds and movements. Ghosts don't like to work in conditions where people can easily see what they are doing because then people would see them for what they are rather than for what they imagine them to be. By appearing only in the dark they can maintain their mysteriousness better. Besides, ghosts have found that many people are afraid of the dark and that fear makes their work much easier.

There are numerous groups of paranormal investigators that spend their spare time investigating allegedly haunted places. They arrive with coffee pots, flashlights, tape recorders, EMF detectors, video cameras with night vision, metal detectors, and other devices that were not designed to detect ghosts and therefore have no instructions on how to use them for that purpose. (I know. There is no equipment designed for this purpose. How could there be?) The equipment looks scientific, but does that make the investigation scientific? I'd say you're about as likely to detect a ghost with a Sony camcorder as you are to get the truth out of a house plant by hooking it up to a polygraph.

See also astral projection, EVP, exorcism, haunted houses, medium, mind, near-death experience, paranormal investigator, poltegeist, psychic photography, séance, and "Using ghost stories to teach critical thinking" by R. T. Carroll
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* This is the most popular view of ghosts. For the view that ghosts are physical entities, see the entry on paranormal investigator.


reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Brugger, Peter. "From Haunted Brain to Haunted Science: A Cognitive Neuroscience View of Paranormal and Pseudoscientific Thought," Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by J. Houran and R. Lange (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2001).

Christopher, Milbourne. ESP, Seers & Psychics (Thomas Y. Crowell Co. 1970).

Finucane, Ronald C. Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead & Cultural Transformation (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Randi, James. "The Columbus Poltergeist Case," in Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by Kendrick Frazier. (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986).

Roach, Mary. (2005). Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. W.W. Norton.

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, ch. 6 "Hallucinations," (New York: Random House, 1995).

Schick, Theodore, and Lewis Vaughn. How to Think About Weird Things 2nd ed. (Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1998).

websites

Ghost Hunting Tools of the Trade by Brian Dunning Jan 1, 2007

SAPS & TAPS

"TAPS vs. SAPS - The Atlantic Paranormal Society meets the Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society."

Skeptiseum: Ghosts and Spirits

Richard Wiseman's work (in The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 7)

Palace ghost laid to rest 29 March, 2001 (Wiseman's study of ghosts at Hampton palace)

Ghost Blusters April 18th, 2001 (Wiseman's study of ghosts in Edinburgh castle)

Ghosts of sisters past

The Ghost in My House: An Exercise in Self-Deception by Bertram Rothschild, Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb 2000

The Ghost Research Society - especially for the gullible

Burnt by Burnt Offerings by D. Trull

Waking Up to Sleep Paralysis by Chris Mooney

news stories

Ghosts 'all in the mind' by Arran Frood

Scientist to create 'haunted house' July 24, 2003 (Richard Wiseman)

Ghost Lusters: If You Want to See a Specter Bad Enough, Will You? - Scientific American

Can ghosts be explained scientifically?

Hampton Court 'ghost' on film

According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 32% believe in ghosts, down from 38% five years ago and up from 25% in 1990. According to a Huffington Post poll in 2013, 45% of Americans believe in ghosts.

Last updated 12-Sep-2014

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