What do we really know about ghosts?
What IS a ghost? The popular idea is that a ghost is a spirit. However, perhaps surprisingly, this idea is not supported by the evidence from actual ghost and haunting investigations. The following ‘natural history of a ghost’ is based on the results of over a century of serious paranormal investigation.***
Ghosts and hauntings
Because research cannot start by assuming what it will find, here is a basic working definition of a ghost:
Similarly, a basic definition of a haunting is:
An in-depth discussion of these definitions of ghost and haunting appears here. To decide if you’ve seen a ghost, see here.
- a ghost (or apparition) is a human (sometimes animal) figure, witnessed by someone, which cannot be physically present
- a haunting is a series of unexplained experiences generally associated with a particular physical location**
What are ghosts really like?
When: Ghosts have been seen at all times of the day or night and any time of year. There is certainly no bias towards Halloween or Christmas, as some people assume. A recent survey*** found that two thirds of reports of haunting activity occurred in the afternoon. Many ghost reports are one-offs, not associated with any pre-existing haunting.
The duration of ghost sightings can be summarised as brief - usually seconds rather than minutes. It can feel longer to witnesses as weird sights often leave a strong impression.
Where: Ghosts have been reported in many different places, but particularly where people live and work. This may simply be because potential witnesses spend most of their time in such places. Ghosts are not, contrary to popular belief, reported more frequently in graveyards. A recent survey*** found that older buildings produced the most reports of hauntings. Many ghost reports are one-offs, not associated with any pre-existing haunting.
Appearance: Ghosts usually appear as clothed figures. They are not usually surrounded or accompanied by any background scenery. Most ghosts look like normal people - not transparent, or glowing* like their fictional representations (which brings into question dark vigils). You could walk past one in the street and not notice it. Ghosts do, however, often vanish spontaneously or occasionally walk into walls. They also sometimes appear in enclosed spaces. Though apparitions are sometimes seen in ‘period’ costume, as if from an earlier era, this only started being reported at the beginning of the twentieth century. Before that they were normally reported only in contemporary dress. Some ghosts appear to cast shadows or reflections though it is not clear what proportion as the fact may simply not be noticed in some cases.
People sometimes report areas of dense mist as ghosts. However, solid figures are not reported turning into mist, or vice versa. Nor do such mists behave like humans. Therefore, there seems to be no real evidence to support the idea that such areas of mist are ghosts.
Rarely, partial human figures have been reported, often the upper or lower half of a body. Many of these reports come from doubtful sources, such as traditional ghost stories, but there are one or two from investigated cases.
There are dark figures, reported as shadow ghosts. These are very often seen in peripheral vision, sometimes moving. They usually vanish when the witness turns to look at them. For info on shadow ghosts, see here.
Communication: In the vast majority of cases, apparitions appear not to interact (or communicate) with witnesses or even their physical surroundings (indeed they often don’t even move!). Some apparent communication has occurred very rarely, through answers to knocks, but that may be part of the haunting phenomenon rather than anything to do with a ghost. For this reason, the popular idea that ghosts are ‘spirits’ does not seem to be supported by this evidence. Indeed, the idea of ghosts as ‘spirits’, interacting freely with witnesses, though popular (particularly with the media), appears to owe more to tradition and fiction than paranormal research.
Identification: Few ghosts are readily identifiable to a real individual, past or present. Where they are it is often on flimsy evidence (eg. ‘a woman who committed suicide in the building must be the ghost’) rather than by use of photographs, for instance, or other reliable identification methods. Most examples of well-known historical figures being identified as ghosts come from a long time ago. It is possible that the reports of such ghosts have been exaggerated over time. Though it is a popular assumption, there seems little in the available evidence to support the idea that ghosts are people once associated with the haunted location.
The big exception is crisis apparitions which are frequently recognisable as a relative or friend of the witness, often still alive. They have other characteristics which set them apart from most ghosts and they may well represent a separate phenomenon.Effects: Ghosts appear not to affect their surroundings, apart from being visible to witnesses. Though object movement is a common symptom of hauntings, ghosts are not observed actually moving anything. There are recent suggestions that ghosts emit electromagnetic fields (so that EMF meters could act as ‘ghost detectors’) and/or increase the number of negative ions in the atmosphere by their appearance. However, there does not appear to be any empirical evidence to support such ideas. Indeed, it would be difficult to collect any since someone would probably need to be taking readings with an EMF meter while watching a ghost! It is doubtful that this has happened even once, never mind enough times for a statistically meaningful sample.
Photos: The evidence that ghosts can be photographed appears thin to non-existent. Though many photos exist that it is claimed show ghosts, in almost all cases no apparition was seen at the time of exposure. It is therefore doubtful that such figures are the same as those witnessed by ghost percipients. Also, in many cases the alleged ghost in the photograph is transparent whereas real life ghosts are usually reported to look perfectly solid. Most such photos are likely to be the result of long exposures of real people.
Witnesses: An intriguing aspect of ghosts concerns who witnesses them. Many people can spend their entire life never seeing a ghost even if, like many paranormal investigators, they try very hard. Others may see several ghosts in their lifetime as well as often reporting other kinds of paranormal experience (and, in some cases, even seeing UFOs). Most ghosts are seen by a single witness. Where there are multiple witnesses present, some may see the ghost and others not. Rarely do all the witnesses see exactly the same thing.
Many ghosts are not recognised as such at the time they are witnessed. For instance, someone might see a human figure in an office and think nothing of it until later, when they realise they were actually alone in a locked building. Then they start to think it was a ghost. It is only the ‘impossibility’ of the sighting that makes it apparently paranormal (see here).
Types of ghost: Various people have tried to classify ghosts, generally based on what they thought ghosts were. For the purposes of research, given that we are assuming nothing to start with, this doesn’t appear useful. One distinct kind of ghost, however, is the crisis apparition. These are unusual because they are living (usually), identifiable people. However, they seem to be quite different to the traditional apparition associated with hauntings that we are considering here.
Haunting: The traditional idea is, of course, that a haunting is what a ghost does. Given that some ghost sightings are part of on-going hauntings, that might seem reasonable. However, since ghosts tend to appear indifferent to their surroundings (and are not seen producing other haunt phenomena), there is no obvious evidence that these apparitions are orchestrating the haunt phenomena.
Most recent hauntings do not even include any sightings of apparitions. Further, many ghost reports are not associated with any known haunting or haunting phenomena. Therefore, contrary to popular opinion, it is entirely possible, based on the evidence, that ghosts are not an essential symptom of hauntings (whatever the dictionaries may say), far less a cause.
Indeed, it is possible that people only ‘see’ ghosts during episodes of haunting phenomena because they expect to, through psychological suggestion (the apparition itself being caused by misperception). In such a scenario, ghosts not only don’t cause haunting phenomena but may not even be part of them! It is entirely possible that hauntings and ghosts represent two completely separate phenomena.
Another common theory is that ghosts are some sort of ‘recording’ etched into the surroundings and replayed in certain conditions to certain people. There are, however, objections to this ‘stone tape’ theory of ghosts.
What are hauntings?
Ghosts are usually associated with hauntings though, as described above, they may actually be quite separate phenomena. In fact, apparitions appear in rather less than half of haunting cases. Nevertheless, the two are inextricably linked in popular imagination so hauntings need to be described here too. The two central most significant aspect of hauntings are that
When: Haunting activity can occur at anytime, day or night, though the afternoon is probably the most popular time. People often start reporting hauntings when they move into a new house or have building work done on their current one. This is despite previous owners having reported nothing. In many cases this may be due to the New House Effect.
- they are tied to a specific location
- they produce repeated reports over time, from periods of a few days to several decades
Where: Most hauntings take place in buildings, particularly homes and workplaces, though some occur out of doors. Older buildings are more commonly haunted than newer ones, though this may reflect the expectations of witnesses (older buildings look ‘spookier’).
Usually the haunt phenomena are not distributed equally throughout a building. Activity will typically be reported only from certain rooms or areas within the building (hot spots) with nothing happening elsewhere. Indeed, it is very often even more specific than that. Certain locations within a haunted building will often always produce repeated reports of the same kind of activity. So footsteps may always be heard in one room, scratching sounds in another and an apparitions might only be seen in a hall. Cold spots, often associated with hauntings, are generally restricted to one very specific place and do not move about (though they may appear and disappear). This way in which specific haunting activities are tied to specific places does not really support the idea of a ghost actively haunting a whole building.
On the other hand, specific phenomena tied to specific locations within a building does tend to suggest that some cases could be explained by the misperception of natural phenomena. For instance, the way a shadow falls on a wall, a door that opens or closes on its own, an unexplained cold spot in part of a room, a floorboard that creaks noisily, central heating that causes odd knocking sounds when it cools down, the wind producing a moaning sound in a roof, etc. Such natural causes of apparently weird phenomena may be experienced by some or all passing witnesses, some of whom may interpret them as paranormal. Noises are the commonest reported phenomena in hauntings (see here for more details). Once a place gets a reputation for being haunted, other natural phenomena in the area may start to be interpreted in the same way. In some cases, haunting phenomena are only witnessed by one or two people. Indeed, haunting cases may start with just one witness but then others may start to notice things once they know to expect them.
Why: Hauntings almost invariably show no obvious purpose. There is no evidence of any intelligence behind them. Haunting phenomena will appear unpredictably and the form they take shows no obvious logic. The phenomena may increase or fade over time, for no obvious reason (though witnesses’ reaction to the events may change how they are viewed). Oddly, phenomena often decrease when they are intensively studied, either by their usual witnesses or investigators. This lack of any ‘point’ is another reason why the idea of hauntings being the result of spirit activity is not supported.
Single witnesses: Where just one person experiences haunting phenomena this might be explained by subjective hallucination. Hallucinations are by no means restricted to people suffering mental disorders. Most people will experience at least one hallucination in their lives. There are a number of perfectly normal conditions that can give rise to such hallucinations, such as sleep paralysis, old hag, absorption, etc. Many of these are described here and here. There are also some medical conditions, like epilepsy, that can produce hallucinations.
Multiple witnesses: In the case where multiple witnesses report haunting phenomena, suggestion can be part of the explanation. One possible source of suggestion is previous reports of hauntings. If a witness is aware that a place is said to be haunted, they are more likely to misinterpret normal noises and sights as paranormal. In addition, research suggests that certain physical characteristics of a location lead to more reports of haunting phenomena there. Essentially, if the place looks ‘spooky’ then some people may report haunting phenomena there. So, if a place is unusually cool, damp, poorly lit, old, etc. it is likely to generate more reports of hauntings than other places nearby.
Another cause of haunting phenomena reports might be induced hallucinations. The best known example of this is low frequency magnetic fields. Laboratory experiments have suggested that certain people may suffer ghostly hallucinations when subject to weak, low frequency, complex magnetic fields (EIFs). These could be produced by various magnetic objects and electrical appliances often found in a domestic situation. Other factors that might induce hallucinations that could give rise to haunting reports include infrasound and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Many cases of haunting are found, on investigation, to be the result of misperception, hallucination or suggestion. The remaining cases are still a mystery though, in some cases, this may simply be because we don’t have enough information. Even with the hauntings that remain unresolved, there is little evidence to point towards their being the actions of ghosts. It is certainly a mystery well worth investigating.
How to test if somewhere is haunted
There are many places that are allegedly haunted, particularly since the arrival of the ‘ghost hunting’ reality TV programmes. In some cases their reputation seems to rely on slim evidence. So how can you tell if somewhere is really haunted?
Ideally, you need multiple, independent witnesses reporting the same, or very similar, haunting-type phenomena at the same location. These witnesses must not be aware beforehand that a location is allegedly haunted. They must also not have been deliberately seeking ghosts. People who are desperate to see something paranormal sometimes do by the power of suggestion alone!
The mere fact that a vigil has taken place at a location is not a reliable indication that it is haunted. A scientific vigil should be designed to verify and test the reports of prior witnesses. However, many contemporary vigils are more like ‘ghost hunting expeditions’ where, due to the methods used, suggestion is a serious problem.
What IS a ghost?
The characteristics of apparitions, as outlined above, suggest that they are not the causes of, or even essential to, hauntings. It is possible that ghosts and hauntings are separate phenomena. When people suspect they have a haunting, many normal phenomena are re-interpreted as paranormal (see New House Effect). Since many people believe that hauntings are ‘what ghosts do’, they may see ghosts simply because they are expecting to. Even so, the comparative rarity of ghosts in hauntings suggests that such full hallucinations are difficult even for suggestion to produce on its own. It may well take some other factor in addition, like sleep paralysis or EIFs, to trigger them.
Are there any ghosts that are not hallucinations or misperception? There are certainly a small number of cases that don’t fit into the generalised pattern outlined above. It is therefore possible that some haunting and apparition experiences may be caused by other, as yet unknown, factors. More research is clearly needed, though we must sift through a lot of xenonormal stuff before we can find the possible nuggets of paranormal gold.
What we DON’T know about ghosts!
The description of ghosts given above is based on first-hand accounts and credible detailed investigations into hauntings. There is also a lot of ‘ghost lore’ about, based on FOAFs (friend of a friend stories), uninvestigated (and poorly investigated) cases, legends, folklore, tourist brochure stories, speculation and fiction. So, for instance reports of headless horseman, ghostly coaches, well-known historical figures as ghosts, clanking chains, talking ghosts, anniversary ghosts, and so on, though part of the popular image of ghosts, are not reliably supported by the available evidence. Some bits of ghost lore are partly supported by real-life cases but the evidence is equivocal. Into this category comes aspects like floating and invisible ghosts.
Many of these ghost lore reports may well have originated with real ghost sightings that have subsequently been attached to pre-existing legends or exaggerated over time. Others may represent legends and ghost stories that typically accumulate around spooky-looking old buildings, even in the absence of any credible reports of sightings. Usually it is very difficult, or impossible, to find any witnesses to such reports. This is either because they date back a long time (decades or centuries) or because the reports are exaggerated or plain wrong.
Real ghost cases and hauntings primarily contain the elements described in preceding sections and are quite different to ghost lore which is routinely used as the basis for horror movies and ghost stories. Ghost lore probably represents the more extreme effects of the fictional representations of ghosts on real life cases. It is important that such ghost lore should not be included in any overall theory of ghosts unless there is new, credible evidence in its favour.
We know more about ghosts than many people imagine but much of this information is today ignored in favour of assumption-led investigation. Such methods tend simply, by a process of circular logic, to reinforce their own assumptions, without discovering anything new about ghosts themselves. To learn more about ghosts we need to talk more to people who have actually witnessed them, rather than stumbling around in the dark in places where they may have once been seen. Above all, we need to investigate without preconceptions about the nature of ghosts and hauntings.
It is interesting to note that many of the cases that suggest that ghosts might be spirits, such as those where the ghost was positively identified with a dead person or apparently interacted with the witness, all happened a long time ago. It is likely that these cases were not investigated satisfactorily, if at all, at the time and the ‘facts’ were exaggerated over time. Indeed, many such old cases appear to be no more than legend, with no readily identifiable witnesses, dates or details.
When contemporary ghost cases are investigated properly (with witnesses interviewed soon after the events), the picture that emerges is both strikingly different to the traditional idea of a ghost but also remarkably consistent. Hauntings rarely involve ghosts but, when they do, the apparitions do not interact with witnesses. Haunting phenomena appear purposeless and many are tied to quite specific small areas within buildings, where they are frequently shown to be misperceptions of localised natural phenomena. Many ghost sightings are not even associated with hauntings. None of these facts obviously support the traditional idea of a ghost as a ‘spirit’ actively haunting a location.
Most hauntings, and the ghosts that a few exhibit, can be explained by misperception, hallucination and errors in reporting. However, there are some cases that remain unexplained despite careful examination. This may be because we don’t have enough information to explain them. Or it may be that, contrary to popular opinion, there are some ghosts that simply remain a mystery!
* There are a very small number of ghosts seen to glow in the dark and some are even accompanied by their own surrounding background. They are very rare and may be hallucinations.
** Typical haunting phenomena (sometimes called ‘paranormal activity’) typically include:apparitions, odd sounds (such as unexplained footsteps, bangs, scratching, moans, screams, music, whispering), odd sights (like flashes of light, shadows, floating lights, things seen in the ‘corner’ of the eye), odd smells (often unpleasant, sometimes sweet), odd feelings (headaches, static build-up, cold areas, touches by unseen things), object movement (doors, taps and light switches found open/on, objects lost and sometimes recovered, objects falling)
*** Sources include the SPR’s Census of Hallucinations, a recent survey for Haunted Swindon, reliable case reports and surveys by respected paranormal researchers and, of course, investigations by ASSAP and similar organisations
Author :© Maurice Townsend 2009, 2010, 2011
Other ASSAP Articles
Haunting Case reports - Paranormal and anomalous articles
Poltergeists - Poltergeist phenomena
Photographs of ghosts and extras
Crisis apparitions, what crisis apparitions?
Cultural Influences; Why ghosts are spirits - to most people!