Fact: Around half of the American population, in survey after survey, say they believe in ghosts and hauntings.
There have been dozens of television shows, books, videos and Internet sites in the past 20 years featuring people who claim to be paranormal investigators who found evidence of the paranormal.
Around Halloween time, the media is dripping with hype about ghost tours, ghost hunts, and local paranormal investigations of the community's historical places with breathless claims of proof of ghosts from these amateur ghost hunters.
What should we think about ghosts? It’s a complicated question. Here are some facts and FAQs to help get you square about where we are with our knowledge of ghosts and paranormal evidence.
What is a ghost?
This is a deceptively tricky question! The answer you get will completely depend on whom you ask. The “ghost” is one of the most popular concepts of the paranormal (beyond normal). Yet, there is not one agreed-upon definition across disciplines of what a ghost is since one has never actually been caught and examined.
The common features we ascribe to ghosts is what we learn from popular culture where the concept of “ghost” has changed considerably through time.
The most common idea about a ghost is that it is the spirit of a dead person (or animal). This implies there is a “spirit”. However, we can’t define or measure “spirit,” either, because it has not ever been captured or measured. It’s more of a faith-based belief, like the soul.
Ghosts are interpreted as being what remains of a person that has not passed to the next realm of existence.
Fact: There is no scientific conclusion that any other realm exists for our "being" to pass to after death.
For reasons that are not consistent through time, paranormalists conclude that some unlucky folks may remain incorporeally stuck here after bodily death. Alternately, some paranormalists say that ghosts could be a form of psychic projection of the human mind.
Early scientific researchers (in the 1800s) who studied the concept in a methodical way, avoided the term “ghost”. Instead they used terms like “phantasms of the dead” or “apparitions”.
Your neighborhood paranormal investigator is fond of describing a ghost as a manifestation of the “energy” of a former being. “Energy” in this case is also used incorrectly since there is no energy sustained after you die. When bodies decompose, that energy is released into the environment.
Fact: There is no evidence that “energy” remains or can be contained in a human-looking entity after the body is dead.
Within the corpus of paranormal literature, ghosts come in various types. The poltergeist is a noisy, troublesome, disruptive entity. Intelligent spirits may interact with people or be interpreted as having some earthly purpose to undertake. Residual hauntings are described like the process of a videotape replaying in the environment. Shadow people are said to be mobile black masses that emit an evil presence.
Ghosts that resemble people from many time periods have been reported but the most common reports are those of the recent past or from a well-known historical time - for example, soldiers dressed in uniform or women in Victorian clothing.
Today, we have set ideas of what a ghost should be and how it should behave. A “real” ghost is generally thought to be insubstantial and unthreatening; it may frighten a person, but it would not cause physical harm (although ghosts have become more threatening to add dramatic zing for television reality TV audiences and news media). When a ghost is seen, it is assumed that a person died at that spot some time before. Or, a spirit continues to reside in a place that was closely associated with that person in life.
Paranormal investigators often will not check actual historical records or will not be able to otherwise confirm real-life activities that they now attribute to the haunting such as murders, accidental deaths, or other tragedies. They often can’t confirm such people even existed but use the ghost stories to assert these were likely true.
Fact: Paranormal investigations are rarely supported by good historical evidence and scholarship. Techniques of investigation are amateurish and tend to support a prior belief instead of discovering verifiable and verified information.
"I saw a ghost." What does that mean?
There is also trouble with the physical definition of a ghost. Witnesses see lots of things that they may call “a ghost”:
- solid to transparent human form
- glowing white figure with a human-like shape
- an orb or blob of light
- a misty, nebulous form or cloud
- a dark shadow
Other “ghost” experiences include:
- cold spot or breeze
- a smell without an obvious source
- an “ill” feeling - nausea, breathlessness
- the sensation of being touched, scratched, slapped, pushed, or choked
- pulling of clothes or hair by unseen force
There are very many alternative explanations for such experiences but it is difficult to convince the witness in most cases that it was just their brain creating the feeling.
Witnesses attribute a subjective experience to “a ghost”. So the investigation of “ghosts” is fraught with problems that stem from the lack of definition of what a ghost really is. The idea of what a ghost is has changed over time and across regions and is not based on established conclusions from data (scientific) but on many cultural assumptions, including what is socially acceptable at the time. (Example: Orbs in photographs appeared with the advent of digital cameras but are interpreted by many as a ball of ghost energy.)
A “ghost” is a complex idea, a cultural “construct” - formed from a number of simpler elements and criteria.
Changes in social assumptions, particularly religious- and scientific- informed assumptions, affected the way people think of ghosts. Expectations change through time and so do the descriptions. This shows that ghosts are defined by the human mind as suitable for the occasion. [See RC Finucane, Ghosts: appearances of the dead and cultural transformation for a history]
What do people think is true about ghosts?
Our knowledge about ghosts comes from popular culture stories. Ghosts are not a scientific subject, they are a supernatural belief. Without the need to abide by natural laws, ghosts have great freedom to do whatever they wish and be interpreted however the observer wants.
Many paranormalists pursue the concept of ghosts as proof of evidence of life after death. In the past, ghosts were purposeful - they remained on earth to avenge their death or to reveal information. That is rarely reported now.
Other beliefs (not facts) about ghosts include the following:
- A violent or emotional death could trap the spirit of a dead person in the world of the living.
- Animals have a greater sensitivity to spirits and paranormal energy than humans.
- Graveyards may be paranormal hotspots because of the high emotion level and that they are liminal place between the worlds of the living and the dead.
- Historic buildings are often said to be haunted - mainly because of the cultural connotation of old houses having spirits that remain. Abandoned hospitals, asylums and prisons are said to be haunted due to the great emotional residue, pain, violence, and death that took place.
- Some ghosts may be sent “into the light” and made to leave.
Ghost investigators will say ghosts are composed of energy that remains post-death. That energy influences or is associated in some way with electromagnetic fields. Paranormalists believe that ghosts feed off heat energy, batteries, electricity, electromagnetic fields or “earth energies”.
Fact: The term “earth energies” is nonsensical. There are not “currents” that flow through the earth that can induce paranormal activity. Environmental variables that are routinely measured (temperature, magnetic fields, static electricity, humidity, etc.) in connection with what could be construed as a “ghost” may cause natural features that may be misinterpreted as "ghosts".
Fact: The idea some paranormalists have that ghosts are more likely to appear in paranormal “hot spots” related to limestone, quartz-rich rocks, rust, [stone tape "theory"] or flowing water [water tape "theory"] has no basis in physics, chemistry or geology. This is a manufactured concept stemming from fanciful ideas that the environment can record emotional events and then play them back. Unless you physically carve words or pictures into the medium, emotion is not recorded, let alone “played back” via mysterious, unknown means.
There are thousands of particularly haunted places hyped for notoriety or tourism. Even though such places are given the label “most haunted,” scientists have not found anything anomalous in these places to speak of except an enhanced reputation that primes visitors to interpret every strange feeling or event as “paranormal”. Famous haunted places include Borley Rectory (U.K., now demolished), the Tower of London (U.K.), Waverly Hills Sanitorium (Kentucky, U.S.), Gettysburg battlefield (Pennsylvania, U.S.) and the Winchester Mystery House (California, U.S.).
People have reported ghosts manifest their presence and behave in a wide variety of ways. Some of these ways are inconsistent (such as passing through solid objects but also moving solid objects). Ghosts are said to appear visually (as an apparition), create environmental anomalies (temperature changes, mists, air movements, sounds), move objects, make people feel ill, physically touch or apply force to living beings, manifest sounds (voices, crying, growling, moaning) or smells, create sound beyond normal human hearing (recorded electronic voice phenomena), manipulate magnetic or digital recording devices or powered objects, write words, manipulate devices to communicate words (ghost/spirit box, word generating devices), affect dowsing rods, communicate directly through those who have special psychic talent (mediums, sensitives), disregard physical encumbrances (walk through walls), use technology devices (send text messages and make phone calls). Almost any strange or not obviously explainable experience may be attributed to a ghost.
Fact: Ideas about what ghosts look like have changed through time, influenced by popular fictional stories (Sleepy Hollow, A Christmas Carol) and by theater devices like the phantasmagoria, Pepper’s ghost, or special effects in movies and on television.
Why are ghosts traditionally depicted in a white sheet?
Depicting ghosts in a white sheet may have come from the burial cloth placed around a dead body showing only the face. This stereotype image was exploited by hoaxers and Hollywood and used in iconic representations, making it widely known.
The primary evidence for ghosts are anecdotes - stories that people tell of things that happened to them or that they have heard from others. Ghost stories have been common for millennia, appearing in countless forms, from the Bible, to Macbeth, to the daily news. Anecdotal evidence is the least reliable form of evidence. In fact, most anecdotes are misleading, incorrect, or outright fiction. Anecdotes are rarely confirmed by the listener because they occur in casual conversation where it is polite to accept the witness as being truthful. However, people make an incredible number of mistakes in perception and memory. Our brain fills in much of the information based on previous experiences or guesses. Our memory is not like videotape and our senses easily deceive us. Humans are terrible “tools” of measurement. That’s why scientific processes are far more reliable and used instead of anecdotes as sound evidence.
Other evidence for ghosts include photos and videos which can often not be authenticated or can easily be mistaken interpretations, camera flaws, or deliberate hoaxes. The paranormal world is flooded with fake photos and videos. Remember, what you see on TV and the Internet is all edited to make it look better. It’s entertainment, not evidence.
Other prime evidence from paranormal investigators is EVP recordings (electronic voice phenomena). EVP collection in the real world is uncontrolled with several possible explanations for anomalous sounds including misinterpreted sounds (body noises or clothing rustling), stray radio frequencies, people whispering, or magnetic or digital interference of the recording captured by the device (hard drive spinning). EVP is not evidence for anything paranormal, especially voices from the dead.
Can ghosts be measured or detected?
This question takes us back to the definition problem. We’ve not confirmed what a ghost is so we do not know if it has characteristics that can be measured. Yet, paranormal investigators assume that anomalies in the environment, on film or recording, or even feelings are attributable to ghosts. That is not close to being confirmed when numerous non-paranormal explanations abound.
Today’s paranormalists also suggest that we simply don't have the right technology yet to definitively find or detect the spirit world. But this is not a sound argument: Either ghosts exist with physical properties and appear in our ordinary world (and can therefore be detected and recorded in photographs, film, video, and audio recordings), or they don't. If ghosts exist and can be scientifically detected or recorded, then we should have hard evidence of that — we don't. If ghosts exist and for whatever reason cannot be scientifically detected or recorded, then all the photos, videos, and other recordings claimed to be evidence of ghosts cannot be ghosts.
The following characteristics have been suggested to be attributable to ghosts:
- Temperature drop
- Unexplained sounds
- Anomalies on Geiger counters, electromagnetic Field (EMF) detectors, ion detectors, infrared cameras and sensitive microphones.
Fact: No equipment has ever been shown to actually detect ghosts. Not even "ghost detectors".
Fact: Ghosts used to be described as full apparitions, not mists or orbs streaks of light. Modern ghost pictures are obscure; a full body apparition has never been verified on film though many hoaxes of them have been publicized by the media. Hoaxing must always be considered for ghost “evidence” because it is tremendously prevalent.
Why do people believe in ghosts?
The evidence for ghosts is so very weak, but people still believe in them. This belief is an ancient part of human cultures across the world. Why?
The idea of ghosts offers many people comfort; who doesn't want to believe that our beloved but deceased family members aren't looking out for us, or with us in our times of need? Ghosts served an important literary purpose and were useful in storytelling. Some of these storers were believed to be accurate even though they were made up. Most people believe in ghosts because of personal experience, they have seen or sensed some unexplained presence. Our culture allows us the option of interpreting these strange events as “ghosts”.
Belief in the paranormal has become rather normal. People believe because they are invested emotionally, spiritually or economically. They are only interested in evidence that confirms such a belief and they ignore the reasoning that weighs strongly against the reality of ghosts.
What are the explanations for ghostly experiences?
Believing in ghosts is not ridiculous. It’s a common human idea. When our senses and our brains mess with our perceptions, we may be justified in believing in paranormal experiences. Most people do not comprehend that our senses can and will fool us all the time. We see, hear, smell and feel things that are not really there, thanks to our brains.
When we are bombarded with media messages about ghosts, presented as if factual, it is easy to buy into the belief especially when it is culturally acceptable to do so.
There are many situations where people may perceive they have experienced a ghost. Natural conditions that may in some cases cause people to feel uneasy include exposure to infrasound, darkness, silence, closed in spaces, or high electromagnetic fields. But the most important factor seems to be prior belief in ghosts and expectation that they are present. This is why haunted places enhance their reputation as much as they can. The more they tell you others experienced paranormal phenomena there, the more likely that you will attribute every anomaly to the paranormal and not seek out the actual explanation.
Should you call paranormal investigators if you suspect a haunting?
This is not recommended since the vast majority of paranormal investigators believe that ghosts are the cause for many anomalies and will not have the training or inclination to seek out the best answer. They also are invested in declaring a finding of paranormal evidence. Their methods are amateurish, learned from TV ghost hunters or other non-science-trained colleagues. Confirmation that a house is haunted may be stressful to the family and may cause psychological issues. The verdict of “ghosts” may mask other home problems such as faulty wiring, poor insulation, a plumbing or heating problem, pest infestation, a troublesome neighbor, family stress, psychological problems of a household member, or even child abuse.
If you seriously feel that something is wrong with the house, contact a certified home inspector or a skeptic group who will investigate the situation -- not a paranormal group who claims to be “skeptical” (this term is misused and overused), but a skeptic group who do not subscribe to the paranormal.
Paranormal investigators after all these decades, centuries even, have not advanced any useful information that scientists can use to understand "what is a ghost" (with the possible exception of support for them being culturally derived).
Why do ghosts wear clothes? If ghosts are human souls, why do they appear clothed with inanimate objects like hats and canes. Why do ghost trains, cars and carriages exist who have no life energy?
How can a limbless, immaterial spirit move objects, slam doors or make footstep sounds?
How can an entity without organs and vocal chords produce speech or screams? How can voices we can't hear be recorded on a device?
Why don't paranormal groups collaborate and show that they can get the same evidence, independently and blinded, on multiple occasions?
Why are there no ghosts of ancient man? Why isn’t the world overrun with ghosts, considering all the people who have died?
Humans can detect quantum particles with extremely sensitive instrumentation. Why can’t we yet detect ghosts?
If a place is really, really haunted, why haven’t scientists been able to set up shop there and finally capture genuine paranormal phenomena?
Are Ghosts Real? Ghost Facts. http://www.livescience.com/26697-are-ghosts-real.html
Skeptics Dictionary http://www.skepdic.com/ghosts.html
Spirits of an Industrial Age: Ghost Imposture, Spring-heeled Jack, and Victorian Society by Jacob Middleton
The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts by O. Davies
Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation by R.C. Finucane
A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof by Roger Clarke
An Introduction to Parapsychology by H.J. Irwin
Paranormal America by C.D. Bader, F.C. Mencken and J.O. Baker