In Search Of Apparitions
By Guy Lyon Playfair
No two ghosts are alike - and a good ghost hunter will approach each haunting differently. In this series, Guy Lyon Playfair describes how serious researchers go about their business, and the kind of evidence they seek.
"FEAR CAME UPON ME, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up. It stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof."
This is how the experience of seeing a ghost is described in the Book of Job 4: 14-16. The word 'ghost' comes from an ancient root meaning 'to be scared', and to many, including Job, encounters with ghosts have been literally hair-raising. Fortunately, some people, far from being frightened, are willing to seek out ghosts and actively investigate them.
The existence of ghosts has been accepted without question in almost all cultures throughout history. Only with the growth of the scientific outlook in the West in the last few centuries have their existence and nature been disputed, But serious attempts to find out what they are and to study their behaviour are surprisingly few. And many people still respond to the idea of ghosts with an irrational blend of fear, ridicule and laughter. We reject what we do not understand, rather than face the possibility that there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, let alone taken seriously, by the scientific establishment
Ghosts are even rejected by people who have seen them. 'I saw it, but I still don't believe it!' is a commonly reported reaction, for the human mind instinctively rejects information it cannot assimilate and interpret. Clearly, better evidence, and more of it is needed before the ghost can find its way into the physics and biology textbooks.
What, to begin with, is a ghost? Dictionaries define it as the supposed disembodied spirit, or soul, of a dead person. This explanation of the nature of ghosts will not be assumed here, however, for apparitions of living people are frequent. The word 'ghost' has also acquired the sense of a vestige of something, as in 'the ghost of a smile'. Frederic W.H. Myers, a leader of early psychical research, echoed this meaning in his characterisation of a ghost as 'a manifestation of persistent personal energy' - a conclusion he had reached after careful study of a mass of evidence.
A great deal of evidence is available, for seeing or hearing ghostly presences is a very ,common experience. In 1889 the British Society for Psychical Research, of which Myers was a founder member, embarked upon a large-scale survey of experiences of apparitions, asking the question:
Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living being or inanimate object, or of hearing a voice; which impression, so
far as you could discover, was not due to any external physical cause?
Almost 10 per cent of the 17,000 people who replied said 'yes'. Later surveys in several other countries confirm this picture.
Isolated appearances of a ghost may be undramatic, but when repeated over a long period become worthy of study. An example is the ghost reported in 1892 by a medical student, Miss R. C. Morton. She wrote:
I saw the figure of a tall lady dressed in black, standing at the head of the stairs. After a few moments she descended the stairs, and I followed for a short distance, feeling curious what it could be. I had only a small piece of candle, and it suddenly burnt itself out; and being unable to see more, I went to my room.
This ghost lent itself to study. Over the following seven years six people besides Miss Morton saw the ghost, which closely resembled a known former occupant of the house, while about 20 people heard sounds apparently made by it. Sightings followed a regular pattern: the figure would walk downstairs (the resourceful Miss Morton sometimes tied threads across them, but they remained unbroken), enter the drawing- room and stand in the window. Then it would leave the room by the door, walk along the passage and disappear.
Cornering A Phantom
Miss Morton, who must have been an exceptionally courageous young woman, made frequent attempts to converse with the ghost, but although it seemed aware of her presence, it never replied. She also tried to touch it, but it always got out of the way. 'On cornering her, as I did once or twice,' she wrote, 'she disappeared.' Miss Morton even tried to 'pounce on it', with the same result.
Once she saw the figure at the usual window and asked her father if he too could see it, but he could not. When he walked to the window, the phantom promptly walked round him.
The family's cat took no notice at all of the ghost. The dogs, however, frequently reacted as if they had seen somebody. One would run to the foot of the stairs, wag its tail and jump up as if waiting to be patted, but then back away with its tail between its legs and hide under a sofa. Another dog was often found 'in a state of terror' for no obvious reason. This sensitivity of some animals to supernatural presences has prompted their use as 'ghost-detectors'.
In any investigation, it helps to know something of the likely course of events. While the nature of ghosts is still mysterious, their behaviour has been studied in great detail. G. N. M. Tyrrell, in his book Apparitions, published in 1943, identified four main groups by their pattern of activity.
The first of Tyrrell's groups consists of apparitions that haunt certain places. These, of which Miss Morton's ghost is a typical example, are what are now termed 'place-centred', rather than 'person-centred'. 0n the whole they do not arouse fear and they sometimes come to be treated as part of the family. They rarely do any harm.
The second category consists of postmortem apparitions, taking place some time after the death of the person seen, and not related to any particular place or event.
Thirdly, there are crisis cases, in which the apparition is of someone who is undergoing some profound experience at the time (often unknown to the percipient), such as an accident or illness or, of course, death.
The last of Tyrrell's categories is the least known type of apparition, but perhaps the most intriguing of all the experimentally induced apparition. The ghost in these cases is not of a dead or dying person but of someone alive and well who has deliberately attempted to make his or her image visible to someone else. Tyrrell found records of 16 successful attempts of this type, and wondered why such an evidently repeatable experiment had been ignored by researchers. It remains a neglected area of study and, although there has been considerable recent study of 'out-of-the-body' experiences, reports of self-induced visibility at a distance remain very rare.
Those ghosts for which evidence is most compelling, and that critical researchers have concluded are genuine, usually show a number of features. Such a ghost obeys the laws of perspective, looking different to different observers; it appears solid; it is visible when viewed in a mirror; and it makes sounds appropriate to its movements - footsteps can be heard, for example. It generally gives the impression of being as real as a living person, if only for a limited period. A sensation of sudden cold may be felt.
The feeling of coldness is also a commonly reported feature of poltergeist cases, but poltergeists are unlike conventional ghosts: they cause physical objects to move, yet they are not seen doing so. Apparitions have been reported in association with poltergeist activity, but we have yet to see one pick up an object and throw it.
When a ghost is seen by only one person, the suspicion arises of hallucination, error or deception whether practised by the percipient or someone else. But ghosts are often seen by more than one person at the same time, though not necessarily by everybody present. This is often sufficient to rule out the possibility of deception or mistake, but the true nature of the apparition remains unknown. It is not necessarily a disembodied spirit - it could be an 'intersubjective' phenomenon, the joint creation of the percipients' minds.
An apparition may provide some plain evidence of its nonphysical nature. It may pass through walls; sometimes it appears and disappears through phantom doors that open and close while 'real' doors stay closed; it may become transparent and fade away.
Nevertheless, these elusive wraiths can apparently be recorded on photographic film. There are many alleged photographs of ghosts, but few are convincing. Fraud has been so prevalent in the field of psychic photography that attention has been diverted from the rare examples that may well be the real thing. One impressive case took place at Raynham Hall, Norfolk, home of the Marquis of Townshend, in 1936. A professional photographer and his assistant were taking photographs of the house. While photographing the staircase, the assistant reported seeing a ghostly figure coming down the stairs. The picture taken at that time, which has been pronounced genuine by photographic experts, does indeed show a misty form. The house has a long history of haunting by a lady in brown, who was seen simultaneously by two witnesses in 1835. Later she was seen by the author Captain Marryat, who ungallantly fired a shotgun at her. Despite this unwelcoming action, she was seen again in 1926 by Lord Townshend and two other witnesses.
Convincing pictures of ghosts have been taken in churches. In I940, a local solicitor snapped an unmistakably human form in front of the altar of St Nicholas's church, in Arundel, Sussex. More solid in appearance than the brown lady of Raynham Hall, it was still partly transparent. Some have interpreted it as the figure of a kneeling priest. A similar figure appeared in a photo taken in St Mary's, Woodford, in Northamptonshire, by Gordon Carroll in 1966. Two ghostly
priests turned up in the picture of Lady Palmer taken by her friend Miss Townsend in the Basilica of Domremy, in France.
The prize for technical quality in a ghost photograph must go to the Reverend K. F. Lord of Newby, in Yorkshire, who recorded the presence of a very clear, if somewhat stagey, hollow-eyed spook before his altar.
These are examples of 'place-centred' ghosts. Photographic evidence for 'person. centred' apparitions is more ample. The family photograph albums of the London medium Gladys Hayter contain dozens of colour pictures of inexplicable lights, shadows and - apparently - partly dematerialised living human beings. In 1979 she took a shot of a child in a car, a picture that seems entirely normal except for the fact that, as she has testified, no child was in the car when the picture was taken.
There are no photographs, however, as persuasive as the best eyewitness accounts. Cumulatively, the weight of evidence, of all kinds, suggests that ghosts exist. But, despite a century of intensive research, what they are, and the conditions under which they manifest themselves, are questions that are still awaiting definitive answers. Ghost hunters still face mysteries in plenty.
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