What are ghosts?
Ghosts in modern Western culture are generally considered the ephemeral images of the dead, whether person, animal, or inanimate object. Ghosts may interact with the living or they may simply exist as a non-interactive “recording” of some past event.
A single instance of viewing a ghost is called a sighting. When a ghost inhabits a specific place over a prolonged period of time and multiple sightings have taken place, this is considered a haunting. Hauntings may last only weeks, or they may linger for centuries. They may even survive through major changes to the original haunted site, with the ghost continuing to make appearances in spite of the alterations to its environment. Indeed, the ghost sometimes seems oblivious to such changes, walking through walls that used to be open space or marching three feet above a road that has shifted elevation.
A Brief History of Ghosts
Throughout human history, we have fretted over our mortality and created scenarios over what might happen to our consciousness after our bodies die. Civilizations as old as ancient China, Mesopotamia, and ancient Egypt recorded stories of souls returning to Earth to take care of unfinished business, and tales of lost spirits are popular in both Asian and Western cultures.
An old report of a ghost comes from the Bible, in the first book of Samuel. Saul goes to a medium (“a woman that hath a familiar spirit”) and asks her to conjure up the deceased Samuel, which she does. Samuel appears in the form of “an old man covered with a mantle.” The description of Samuel in his undead state, covered with his mantle, seems to set a precedent for the sheet-covered ghost so favored in Western culture.
Another very old ghost sighting comes from Ancient Greece. A Greek writer named Pausanius wrote around 150 AD about a haunting at the site of the battle of Marathon (490 BC). In the words of Pausanius:
“At this place you can hear all night horses whinnying and men fighting. No one who stays there just to have this experience gets any good out of it, but the ghosts do not get angry with anyone who happens to be there against his will.”
Although Samuel was conjured and perhaps not a “true” ghost, Pausanius’ account is clearly that of an already-established haunting which must have been well known at the time.
The ancient Romans in particular had a very robust lore around ghosts and hauntings, so much that they wrote plays and stories about them. Pliny the Younger in the first century AD told the story of a house haunted by a chain rattling ghost who was bringing down the property value. A philosopher named Athenodorus rents the house and, upon sighting the resident spirit, follows it to the courtyard. Upon digging up the spot, it’s discovered that a man was buried there in chains. After an exhumation and proper burial, the haunting ends.
Although Pliny’s story seems quite modern in tone, the truth is that there were very few “friendly” ghosts in ancient cultures. Almost universally, spirits walked the earth only as a result of some wrong done upon them, whether it be an improper burial or a heinous act for which they sought vengeance. Except for once-a-year festivals such as Day of the Dead or Samhain, a ghost sighting was considered an even more frightening and unlucky event than it is now. The concept of the benign haunting is historically a quite recent one.
There are many theories of what ghosts could be. Some people believe that ghosts are the residual energy left behind by an emotionally strong person or event. This theory holds that more energy or electrical impulses are expended during periods of high stress or excitement, and that the energy lingers for a long time.
A similar premise to the above puts forward the idea that hauntings are caused by repetitive activity, i.e., a movement or action that is performed so often that it is etched or recorded in the fabric of space/time. This theory makes the most sense at locations where numerous witnesses spy the ghost doing the same thing over and over, for instance traveling along a specific corridor, with no awareness of the witness. It obviously would not explain instances where the spirit spontaneously interacts with living people.
Freud thought that ghosts are actually the visions of people who are afraid of death. In this sense, ghosts would not be real at all but rather a projection of our subconscious mind.
Some speculate that ghosts are telepathic images. That is, a sensitive person would pick up past vibrations from the area they were in and witness an event or person as it appeared many years ago. This would also explain instances where a person sees a loved one at or near the moment of the the loved one’s death, since the loved one could be unconsciously projecting their thoughts to the receptive person.
Ghosts might also be the result of time slips, if time is nonlinear. An event that happened in the past might be seen briefly in our time because of fluctuations or “cracks” in the time/space continuum. This theory fits with the fact that even at a well-known haunted site, only a small percentage of visitors actually get lucky enough to see the ghost.
On his TV show Mysterious World, Arthur C. Clarke postulated that our minds might play images to our eyes, the same way our eyes relay messages to our brain, but in reverse. In this way ghosts would be bits of our imagination come to life–benign hallucinations, if you will. This would certainly account for many types of sightings and would explain why nary a spirit has been caught on film.
Types of Hauntings
Ghostly visitations fall into two broad categories, and then can further be broken down into discrete types. The following is by no means an exhaustive list, but covers the most common types of sightings. It’s common to experience more than one of these at the same haunted location.
Category 1: Visual Sightings of Ghostly Humans, Animals, or Inanimate Objects
This category is what most people think of when they imagine a classic haunting. It is comprised of the following subtypes:
- Residual hauntings, in which the ghost(s) always appears in the same location, e.g., a private residence or public park, typically performing the same actions repeatedly. These ghosts do not acknowledge the witness in any way and never show any self-awareness of the fact that they are dead. A large percentage of well-known, classic hauntings fall into this subtype, such as the infamous Tower of London. Also included here are “ghosts” of inanimate objects such as vehicles and carriages that are doomed to travel the same road, or even entire phantom buildings that appear and disappear at seemingly random intervals.
- Intelligent hauntings share some qualities with residual hauntings in that the spirit is generally tied to a specific location, or in rare cases a specific person. However, in an intelligent haunting the ghost is well aware of its surroundings and will often interact with living humans. This interaction can be as low key as an acknowledging smile or turning down the bed linens, or as extreme as physical harassment. Almost all malicious hauntings fall into this subtype as well as a large number of benign but frightening ones. Many horror movies feature this kind of haunting.
- Crisis apparitions appear most often to their loved ones at a moment of great crisis or death. Typically, the ghosts appear only once to a special loved one, who may be many miles away at the time of death. These ghosts may interact with the observer to say goodbye, but more commonly they simply appear briefly, saying nothing. This subtype also includes pets who make one final appearance after death.
- Doppelgangers are ghostly doubles of living people. Sometimes the doppelganger is not visible to the person himself, only to observers, and will follow the person around. In other cases a witness will come upon his own or another person’s doppelganger, who may be engaged in some future activity. Doppelgangers were in the past traditionally considered omens of bad luck or even death, although this association seems to have faded. Instead, modern stories of doppelgangers usually focus on the weirdness of seeing the likeness of a person who should not be there.
Category 2: Non-human Manifestations
This category includes noises, nonhuman or animal visual sightings, possessed items, and tactile sensations.
- Poltergeists, literally “noisy ghosts” in German, are spirits or forces that haunt a location by moving or throwing objects, producing loud sounds such as knocking on walls, turning electric appliances on and off, and other such mischief. The classic poltergeist haunting is centered around an adolescent child, although people of any age may experience this type of manifestation. Poltergeists do not show themselves in human form and for the most part stick to audio or visual disturbances. Poltergeist activity can be very intense, but often only lasts for a limited period of time, perhaps weeks or months, before resolving itself. For more information on ghosts.org: Make Some Noise: The Poltergeist Phenomenon.
- Sounds or other signs of common human or animal activity are another subtype of haunting. Classic examples include disembodied footsteps, clinking dinnerware, phantom baby cries, or the headlight and sound of a locomotive on otherwise empty tracks. These may occur in tandem with traditional residual hauntings, but often also present independently with no visual “ghost” component.
- Possessed or cursed objects are inanimate objects said to have a spirit or some type of “bad juju” attached to them. The owners may experience classic haunting type manifestations, including noises or visual sightings directly related to the object, or they may be hit with a run of bad luck. In most cases, getting rid of the object or destroying it ends the haunting.
- Non-human shapes such as mists, creeping darkness, or balls of light may coexist with traditional ghostly activity, but they may also comprise the entirety of a “haunting.” There is a respectable amount of folklore around sinister fogs and mist, in particular, especially in traditionally rainy places like the British Isles.
- Tactile sensations, including cold spots, wind, or a general sense of dread, are a fairly common subtype of haunting that may or may not present together with visual components. The classic “spirit in the cellar/attic,” whereupon family members feel followed or watched by something but never actually witness a ghost there, falls within this subcategory.
Natural Phenomena Often Mistaken for Ghosts
Sleep Paralysis or Hypnagogic and Hypnopompic Hallucinations
Sleep paralysis is a disturbing but harmless phenomenon that results when a person is “stuck” in a hypnagogic or hypnopompic state. Hypnagogic refers to the transition between wakefulness and sleep, while hypnopompic refers to the transition between sleep and waking up. Most of the time, you pass through these phases of sleep quickly and without notice. However, under certain conditions a person’s brain may “wake up” before their body does, resulting in a state of consciousness that is accompanied by paralysis or near-paralysis of motor functions.
While in this state, the individual is highly vulnerable to experiencing hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations, which can present as aural, visual, or both simultaneously. These hallucinations coupled with the paralysis can be extremely frightening to the subject. Typical experiences describe chest pressure, an inability to breathe, hearing disturbing voices, and seeing a presence in the room. Because of the paralysis, the presence is often perceived to be sitting on the subject’s chest. In the past, because of people’s fear of “witches,” people often “saw” an old woman, from which the folk name for this phenomenon, Old Hag, derives. Sleep paralysis is a cause of many paranormal experiences such as ghost sightings, succubi/incubi visits, and alien abduction scenarios.
There are two articles on ghosts.org that go into more detail on this phenomenon: “Old Hag” aka Sleep Paralysis and Hearing Voices (Hypnagogic Hallucination).
Ghost Lights, Ball Lightning, and St. Elmo’s Fire
Ghost lights, also known as will o’ the wisps, spooklights, and earthlights, are a light phenomenon in which the witness views dancing balls of light from some distance at a fixed location. Ghost lights in the U.S. and Canada are strongly associated with train tracks or streets and roads. Accompanying lore often concerns a railroad worker or vehicle driver who lost his head in an accident and now wanders the area searching for it with his lantern or in his ghostly vehicle. At almost all ghost light sites, the lights can be explained by refraction of car headlights or other lights from nearby roadways. For extensive information about this phenomenon on ghosts.org: All About Ghost Lights.
Ball lightning and St. Elmo’s Fire are atmospheric weather phenomena that are sometimes mistaken for the supernatural. Ball lightning is exactly what it sounds like, a ball of light that appears in the lower atmosphere, often very close to the ground. Ball lightning can produce a sizzling sound. It typically moves erratically and often very quickly, although it may also appear to hover. It has been known to enter homes, often forming around windows. St. Elmo’s Fire is a form of ignited plasma that occurs typically around pointed objects such as the tall masts of ships, in conjunction with strong electrical fields such as those generated by thunderstorms.
Hallucinations Caused by Known Agents
Low frequency sound waves known as infrasound, sleep deprivation, and carbon monoxide have all been proven to cause temporary hallucinations in humans. Infrasound can cause a feeling of dread or unease, and there is some speculation that electromagnetic fields may produce a similar effect in addition to causing visual hallucinations. The “feeling of dread” is generally harmless and disappears once the source of the infrasound is turned off or removed.
Excess levels of carbon monoxide may cause confusion, paranoia, general hallucination, and memory loss of one’s own recent actions. Severe sleep deprivation can lead to waking visual and auditory hallucinations. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should see a doctor immediately. Carbon monoxide exposure and severe sleep deprivation are serious medical conditions that require immediate intervention.
More Information on Hauntings
Following is a list of articles on ghosts.org related to ghosts and hauntings.
Hearing Voices (Hypnagogic Hallucinations)
Old Hag aka Sleep Paralysis
The Fox Sisters
Ed and Lorraine Warren
Information is available on the following famous hauntings:
Haunted San Juan Capistrano
The Winchester Mansion
The Julian Hotel
Hotel Del Coronado
Ye Olde Doll Shoppe
Haunted Sunnyvale Toys R Us
Moss Beach Distillery
Proctor Valley Road
The USS Constellation
The Amityville Horror
Register Star Building
Sweet Hollow Road
Legend of Mary Stockum
The Crozier-Sickles House
UNITED KINGDOM & IRELAND
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall
Drury Lane Theatre
The Tower of London
50 Berkeley Square
Pond Square & U-Boat
Gef, the Talking Mongoose Poltergeist
Washington Old Hall
The Chase vault (Moving Coffins of Barbados)