By Maurice Townsend
Many serious paranormal researchers accept that some ghosts behave like recordings (sometimes called the 'stone tape theory' after Nigel Kneale's famous TV play)**. They show no knowledge of their surroundings and repeat the same actions whenever seen. They even sometimes appear to follow different room layouts from the existing ones. The case for a recording mechanism of some kind seems good. But is it? The theory of recording ghosts hasn't really got us anywhere, so is it time to drop it?
It is generally agreed by most researchers that there is more than one type of ghost. Suggested types include crisis apparitions, 'recording' ghosts, anniversary ghosts, road ghosts and sentient ghosts. Given their different characteristics, it is likely that these different types of apparition have different explanations. There may even be sub-types of, say, ‘recording' ghosts with different explanations. One of the problems with trying to explain ghosts is that many people, usually those who haven't studied the subject in depth, tend to think there is just one kind of ghost requiring just one explanation. Whenever someone suggests a novel explanation for ghosts it inevitably does not fit all the cases. Thus the explanation is generally rejected and we are back at square one.
If we accept that there are different kinds of ghost, with different explanations, the whole subject can start to move forward.
One of the least contentious kinds of ghost, seemingly, is the ‘recording' type. We all know cases where the same kind of phenomena recur at the same places time after time. Some people have hypothesised that the phenomenon is, in fact, a real recording of a past event, somehow imprinted onto the local surroundings. Attractive as the idea is, no one has yet demonstrated any convincing physical mechanism or medium for this recording.
I really like the idea of a recording ghost. Imagine if we could build a machine to replay such ghosts at will. We would have a window onto authentic history. We could point the machine all over the place, not just at haunted locations, and maybe watch real historical events being replayed. It would beat TV history shows!
However, I have always had problems with the recording ghost idea. For instance, why do we only see an apparition? Why not their surroundings as well? If people are somehow being recorded, why not the whole scene? When you make a video recording you'd be surprised if you only got people on the playback. There are a few cases where a whole scene is witnessed (Edge Hill battle, Versailles), but those are very unusual and may well represent yet another kind of ghost with yet another explanation.
I believe, if we could look for alternatives to the seductive idea of recordings, we might be able to move forward in the search for better explanations for this type of ghost. Even if we don't find a new explanation, trying new ideas is always good for moving any subject forward.
Multiple Explanations for Ghosts
An important first step in looking for any explanation of ghosts is to get beyond the common idea that it is a single, monolithic phenomenon. There is a parallel with UFOs. Most serious ufologists will readily concede that the term UFO covers many different phenomena with differing explanations (such as weather balloons, planes, clouds, planets, laser light shows, earthquake lights, etc). What unites these diverse phenomena into a single one, at least in the popular imagination, is the idea that they are alien spacecraft. This idea has been hammered deep into popular culture by films, books and video games. Ufologists will tell you that a huge percentage of UFOs have natural explanations but there is a small residue of unexplained 'real' UFOs. Whether consciously or not, many ufologists still search for a single explanation for these 'real' UFOs, in spite of their experience with the ‘explained' portion.
A similar situation exists with ghosts. What unites the various phenomena that we describe as hauntings in the popular imagination is the idea that they are returning spirits. But what do we find, as researchers, in real-life cases of haunting (as opposed to fictional ones)? There are odd noises, unexplained lights, object movements, smells and occasionally human figures. As with UFOs, these phenomena could all have different, in many cases mundane, explanations both within and between cases. How did we arrive at the idea that such unusual occurrences were returning spirits? The answer, of course, is popular culture.
I am not saying that all UFOs and ghosts have mundane explanations. I don't think we have enough information to say for sure yet, one way or the other. My point is that the popular ideas of UFOs and ghosts are driving researchers to look for single explanations that, in my opinion, don't exist. Theories should start with the actual evidence, not with popular assumptions.
Classic and Modern Cases
The second step forward is to differentiate between what I call 'classic' and 'modern' cases of hauntings.
By 'classic' cases I'm referring to traditional hauntings, often dating back hundreds of years. These cases are retold in guidebooks, history books and legend and tradition. Such cases may have been investigated several times down the years, but often without access to original witnesses. These original witnesses are generally no longer around or simply cannot be found. Often, the 'facts' of the case (what is supposed to happen, where and when) will be widely known. Some of these 'facts' may be exaggerated, misreported and stylised in a way similar to that of legends. See here for a detailed study.
By ‘modern' cases I mean (usually modern) ones that have been investigated carefully by serious groups, like ASSAP. Often the phenomena may only have started, or at least been noticed, recently. The investigators will usually have had access to the original witnesses, been able to examine the site while things are still taking place and perhaps held vigils there. Generally, the facts of the case will not be widely known to the public.
Why the distinction, you may ask? I think you will see from the definitions that accounts of 'modern' cases are much more likely to be accurate and verifiable compared to the 'classic' ones. And yet, in my experience, it is the classic cases that give rise to much of the lore about recordings. In modern cases we certainly see specific active locations within a building where phenomena (sounds, lights, movement, etc) may be repeatedly witnessed, but not many apparitions stuck in a classic time loop.
No doubt there are readers who will have personally investigated 'modern' cases where apparitions have been witnessed 'performing' repeatedly. If so, I'd be very interested to hear from you. But I can't help thinking that this is a much rarer phenomenon than we are led to believe. I think its occurrence may be exaggerated by poorly researched 'classic' cases that owe as much to legend as history.
Is it Really Haunted?
All researchers want to see, and hopefully record, a ghost. But how do you know the proposed site of your vigil is really haunted? If you are relying on a 'classic' haunting (possibly from a popular book or vigil accounts on the internet) to identify suitable buildings, you could be wasting your time.
If you fill a building (particularly a spooky looking one) with enthusiastic, expectant researchers and tell them it is haunted, maybe even telling them exactly what to expect, it is inevitable that there will be misperceptions and wishful thinking producing apparently good evidence for a haunting. But what if the original case was not properly investigated in the first place? The lesson is, before you do a vigil, investigate the case properly. Check with the original investigators. If you can't find them, carry out your own investigation. Talk to primary spontaneous witnesses, not just people who've been on previous vigils. Investigate the site yourself, in daylight, to look for possible natural explanations. Finally, when you do your vigil, try to find fellow investigators who don't know what to expect (or where to look on the web).
It is popularly said, particularly in accounts of '‘classic' cases, that apparitions represent an identifiable person, usually a former inhabitant of the haunted site. For instance, Mary Queen of Scots is said to haunt many places. However, look more closely at the original reports and often all you will find is accounts of the apparition of a young woman in a place where Mary once allegedly lived. Somebody has apparently jumped to conclusions on the flimsiest of evidence. Once these identifications are made, they become part of the 'facts' surrounding the case, repeated endlessly by the media without question.
How often in modern cases are ghosts definitely identified with former inhabitants, or anyone else for that matter? By 'definitely identified' I mean that primary witnesses actually recognised someone they knew personally or picked someone out from a series of portraits (including both people who once lived there and some who didn't, like a police identity parade).
Even where witnesses positively identify apparitions, how reliable is that evidence? We have demonstrated at numerous ASSAP Training Days that witnesses frequently cannot recall accurately people they have seen just minutes before. Many witnesses are not asked to describe ghosts, often seen in stressful circumstances, until weeks after the event. I would be very interested to hear from any investigators who have personally identified apparitions in their cases and I would like to know their methods of identification.
My main point here is that I have doubts about many of the identified apparitions, particularly in 'classic' cases. Clearly, identifiable ghosts would reinforce the recording theory, but just how reliable is the evidence?
Incidentally, my criticism of apparition identification does not apply to crisis apparitions. These are, of course, frequently recognised by the witnesses who are generally relatives or friends. I believe crisis apparitions are quite different (with different causes) to the 'third party' recording apparitions being discussed here.
Evolution of a Classic Case
It is possible to imagine a scenario where someone, perfectly innocently, mistakes a random shadow on a wall for a human figure and decides it is a ghost. The local newspaper interviews the witness, and an article appears declaring it to be Mary Queen of Scots (because she once visited the place!). Add a few years and mentions in popular books and you have a classic case.
If you doubt this scenario, recall the case of the Belgrave Hall video. An amorphous shape, almost certainly an out-of-focus falling leaf, was caught by a video camera and declared by the media to be a 'Victorian Lady'. Some people have even suggested that it was Charlotte Ellis, a woman who once lived in the hall with her seven sisters! The case is routinely reported on web sites as unexplained.
The reason why many of the ‘classic' ghosts are no longer seen (not in recent vigils anyway) is said to be that they fade away, like an aging recording wearing out. There is an alternative, rather cynical, explanation. Maybe the ghost, identified as Mary Queen of Scots, is still seen but simply doesn't really look much like her! Another, even more cynical, possibility is that the original ghost was merely a legend in the first place.
Ghosts Always do the Same Thing
The most impressive pillar on which the case for a recording theory sits is the idea that apparitions repeat themselves. In classic cases, as well as in fiction, the ghost is often said to be reenacting some tragic part of their lives or trying to right some wrong done to them.
But consider the following. Two people, on different occasions, see an apparition at the same place doing the same thing. If the second person is aware of the first sighting, then clearly suggestion is a possibility. But what if the sightings are completely independent? A researcher will collect the two accounts and immediately notice the similarities. This is perfectly sensible and leads to the entirely reasonable conclusion that the two people have witnessed the same thing. After all, what are the odds against two similar ghosts doing the same thing in the same place? As humans we have an inbuilt tendency to look for patterns and coincidences, which usually serves us well. But suppose there are slight differences in the description of the apparition and what it did. Many researchers would no doubt put these down to differences between the witnesses and the circumstances of their observation. Why? Because many researchers think they know what ghosts do. They know that ghosts repeat.
In fact, the two witnesses may have seen something similar, but how do we know it was exactly the same? Suppose they both see a figure appear in a room and walk into a wall. How do we know it was the same figure and that it walked precisely the same route? It is a crucial point. A recording, as we know from video tapes, is always precisely the same. If the sightings are different in the slightest detail, it isn't a recording! At least not a physical one existing outside the witness's brain.
If the apparition does similar, but not identical, things, there are two possibilities. It could be a 'recording' that plays only in the witnesses' brain and so might vary, according to differences between individual brains. Alternatively, there may be an environmental stimulus in the place where the apparition is seen, affecting both brains and producing similar, though not identical, results. An example of a stimulus might be lights moving across a wall at night, produced by distant car headlights through a window. The stimulus is the same. Most people would probably work out it was car headlights through a window, reflecting off a wall. However, some people, particularly visitors seeing them for the first time, might see them as ghostly lights tracking across a wall and mysteriously disappearing (the 'new house' effect). If two visitors reported the same thing, a researcher might decide, comparing the two accounts, that it was a genuine ghost.
It is known that certain low-frequency magnetic fields can induce ghostly hallucinations in susceptible people in lab experiments. One objection to applying this in the field is that, at first sight, it might seem unlikely that suitable magnetic fields would be exceedingly rare in the environment. However, a study by ASSAP has shown that this is not so.
Another obvious objection to applying this idea in the field is that different people would experience different hallucinations from the same field due to differences in their brains. That is probably true. Any given magnetic field might produce any one of a number of different hallucinations in different people.
Now, suppose there was a quite specific complex magnetic field present at our hypothetical haunted location. It could invoke similar, though not identical, responses in different people. The basic features: a dark figure walking about, say, might be provided by the magnetic field hallucination. The details: clothing, colours, facial features, could be filled in by the witness's brain (and so would differ between witnesses). We are all familiar, from optical illusions, with the brain's ability to make sense of things and add nonexistent 'detail' when necessary. We humans are notoriously good at seeing ‘faces' and human figures in random shapes.
Another possibility is a combination of specific local stimuli. Thus, a low-frequency magnetic field with a specific 'signature' might be combined with other particular local stimuli (eg. sound of the wind, reflections from a window, etc). The two together may make a characteristic apparition with the non-stimulus (sound, reflection) shaping the form of the hallucination induced by the magnetic field. There would, thus, be strong similarities between sightings, but differences in detail. Alternatively, the magnetic field may sensitize the witness to an otherwise normal stimulus and make it appear strange, out of place and ghostly.
My main point is that with repeated, seemingly identical, reports of a particular phenomena in hauntings, recordings are not the only possible answer. Another possibility is environmental stimuli, either constantly or intermittently, present. They may produce similar, though not identical, reports.
Of course, once news gets out that a 'girl dressed in red' haunts a particular room, subsequent reports are likely to agree with it by a process of suggestion.
Old Room Layouts
It is often said, in 'classic' cases at least, that ghosts follow the old room layout of houses. If true, it could be an indication of a 'recording'. If we accept that this happens, for the sake of argument, how can it be explained?
It could, of course, just be chance. If apparitions are the product of an environmental stimulus then they are essentially hallucinations and can do almost anything. So they can walk into walls and, sometimes, by pure chance, follow old room layouts. Would a researcher bother to report if an apparition followed a corridor that had never existed? They would be excited if the ghost followed an old layout but, if the ghost didn't, it might simply be ignored. How many cases are there where ghosts don't follow old room layouts?
It is also possible that the witness, often the owner of the building, may be aware of old room layouts. Given the fact that everyone 'knows' what a ghost is supposed to do, the witness might 'make' their hallucination follow old layouts. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If anyone has a case they've personally investigated where an apparition followed an old room layout, I'd be very interested to hear from them (or indeed, a case where a ghost walks through a wall, say, but does NOT follow an old room layout).
Ghosts are often described as wearing clothes from a bygone age. But as Paul Lee pointed out in his recent article (Anomaly 34 or see similar article here), ghosts have only been seen to wear period clothes since the early 20th century. Before that they were dressed in the contemporary style. That seems very odd if they are 'recordings'. On the other hand, it fits perfectly the idea that people have gradually learned, through the popular media, how ghosts are 'supposed' to behave.
In 'classic' cases, multiple-witness sightings are held to verify the idea of an independent 'spirit' walking abroad. Alternatively, they could bolster the idea of physical 'recordings' (as opposed to individual hallucination). Reliable multiple witness sightings are rare, particularly in modern cases, but they do exist. Take this example from the book Ghostwatching. The authors simultaneously saw a ghost at Charlton House in south-east London. They didn't compare notes until after the sighting. Tony Wells saw a vague darkness, while John Spencer and Lucien Morgan both saw a hooded monk. Clearly some kind of stimulus affected all three people, though it had a different outcome for Tony. If it was a recording, why did Tony see something so different? The only way it could be a recording would be if it 'played' in the witnesses's brains. Since the 'apparition' didn't do anything, it is more suggestive of a static environmental stimulus producing a similar response in different brains.
You will have gathered from the above that I have severe doubts about the 'recording' theory* of ghosts. The picture we have of a 'typical' haunting probably owes more to unreliable 'classic' cases than what we actually find in modern cases. Given that the 'recording' theory has not yielded any useful theoretical predictions to test, I see no reason to keep it. Cases of apparent 'recording' can generally be explained just as well by other causes, such as environmentally stimulated hallucinations.
I would suggest that investigators review the cases they've personally investigated and decide: (a) if there is any evidence for 'recording', (b) if any 'named' ghosts were unequivocally identified and (c) whether environmental stimuli were satisfactorily eliminated.
An interesting point is to note exactly where the witness was standing each time something was recorded. If it was always in exactly the same place it might suggest an environmental stimulus acting on that specific spot.
It is not easy to eliminate environmental stimuli. One way might be to remove or change the object or magnetic field you think may be causing the phenomenon. If the phenomenon ceases or changes, it is likely to be the cause. To verify it you could put the supposed cause back to see if the phenomenon returns.
I would be very interested to hear from readers who have personally investigated cases that either support, or contradict, the 'recording' theory. Please don't send me any 'classic' cases!
Post script: Misperception and haunting hot spots
While 'recording ghosts' may be questionable, it is certainly the case that witnesses tend to report the same phenomena repeatedly in certain locations with haunted sites (see hot spots). However, this may be accounted for by misperception. This involves witnesses misperceiving objects as something else, such as a poorly seen tree on a dark night being seen as a human figure (see case study here).
* The recording theory is not a theory in a scientific sense. It is really a paranormal theory which is more of a speculation based on casual observation.
** Recording theories also get called 'imprints' or 'residual hauntings'
This article originally appeared in Anomaly 36 and has been re-edited.