Trick or Treat? Separating Fact from Fiction this Halloween: What we really know about ghosts, poltergeists and hauntings
By: Elliott Van Dusen
Published: October 13, 2019
There is one thing that Maritimers enjoy once the fall season besets upon us, and it isn’t the breathtaking fall colors or the delectable pumpkin spice lattes. No, it’s those good old fashion ghost stories shared amongst family and friends that give rise to goosebumps.
But as Halloween quickly approaches, amateur ghost hunters will be given their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame on television. Sure some of these individuals are entertaining and even downright comical, but their investigative methods, or lack thereof, contribute to the spread of inaccurate and misinformation which perverts the social science discipline of parapsychology.
Yes, it is a misconception that parapsychology is a pseudo-science. It is actually recognized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science as a social science. Parapsychology is the scientific study of extra sensory perception, mind-matter interaction, and survival after bodily death, which includes apparitions. Parapsychology, along with my degree in Criminology (which is a mix of Psychology and Sociology) are all considered to be soft or social sciences because they are essentially the study of human behaviors, interpersonal / societal relationships and human interactions which are often times very fluid, contain multiple and ever changing variables and are almost impossible to exactly replicate during laboratory experimentation. A physical or hard science such as biology, chemistry and physics use mathematical formulas, contain repeatable experimentation and can be strictly measured producing the same results each time.
So what do we really know about ghosts, poltergeists and hauntings?
We know that no conclusive piece of equipment can accurately and irrefutably detect the presence of a ghost. This is because parapsychologists and other scientists do not know exactly what consciousness is made up of, nor do they know the true environmental effects consciousness has after it leaves the human body. There has been some evidence collected during field investigations in support of temperature changes (both hot and cold) and electromagnetic field radiation detectors having detected anomalies in the environment when a spirit is believed to be present. Ghost hunting television shows often display a variety of technology that provides the viewer with an entertaining experience but also leaves them with many fallacies. An example of this can be seen with the use of instrumental trans-communication devices that record what is known as an electronic voice phenomena or EVP.
EVPs are believed to be the disembodied voice of a spirit captured on an audio or video recording. Often times EVPs are not heard until the audio or video is reviewed after a field investigation. EVPs are difficult to substantiate as authentic proof of a haunting because there are many theories surrounding what an EVP actually is. An alternative theory to the intelligent disembodied spirit communicating with an electronic device through psychokinesis comes down to psychology. A psychological phenomenon known as audio pareidolia is when the human brain perceives nonsensical speech sounds and then interprets it as something familiar, such as a word or sentence. Another theory is that EVPs are the recording of the investigator, investigative team or client’s thoughts whom are present during the investigation. Their thoughts are projected onto the device through telepathy. Forensic analysis of any recording afterward is extremely difficult to differentiate between a disembodied spirit, perception of a voice, telepathic psi phenomena or even radio wave interference. This is why EVPs are suggestive evidence but alone, are not definitive proof of a haunting.
Another fallacy that needs to be dispelled is that darkness draws out ghosts. Television shows portray investigations in the dark strictly for dramatic effect. Statistically, ghost sightings have been reported during all hours of the day and night. Eleanor Sidgwick of the Society for Psychical Research analyzed hundreds of ghost reports and concluded that they could be seen in daylight, artificial light, at dawn or dusk, in various parts of a house and both inside and outside. Unless there is a specific reason to investigate a haunting in complete darkness, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that it is advantageous to do so.
The word poltergeist is a German word meaning “noisy ghost”, however, contemporary parapsychology believes that the haunting activity in a poltergeist case is not actually caused by a ghost at all. It is believed to be caused by a living person(s) referred to as living agent(s) through mind matter interaction, specifically, recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (RSPK). RSPK is the repeated physical effects influenced by one’s mind occurring over a period of time. The activity in a poltergeist case also ceases to occur if the living agent(s) are no longer present. So, how does one tell the difference between a ghost and a poltergeist?
With a ghost, the auditory sound of the movement or breakage of objects is commonly reported whereas with a poltergeist, the actual movement or breakage of objects occur. The objects in a poltergeist case also move with unusual trajectories. Spontaneous fires or the sudden appearance of water are commonly reported in poltergeist cases. The 1922 investigation into the spontaneous fires at the Mary Ellen Spook farm in Caledonia Mills, Nova Scotia by the American Society for Psychical Research is an excellent example of this type of poltergeist activity. The disturbances in a poltergeist case are also short lived, usually only lasting between one and half weeks up to one and half years, whereas a haunting can last years or even decades.
Parapsychologists have also discovered that certain environmental conditions impact the brain which subsequently effect human experience. The late neuropsychologist Dr. Michael Persinger discovered that test subjects exposed to magnetic fields in a laboratory reported seeing apparitions and even religious figures such as the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ. Environmental conditions also play a role in residual hauntings. A residual haunting is when an apparition replays the same scene over and over as if it were a hologram or recording. The apparition does not interact with you because they are unaware of their surroundings. This is known as the place memory theory and Parapsychologists believe that this type of haunting is energy which has been recorded within the environment itself.
Parapsychological research has come a long way since the 1800’s, but it still has a way to go. We can credit what we’ve learned today from brave academia personnel stepping outside of their comfort zone in the respective fields of psychology, physics and other disciplines to research a topic that is heavily criticized and lacks serious public and private research funding. Most important of all though, we’ve learned what we have through human experiences and those brave enough to share their stories.
- Elliott Van Dusen is the Corporate Director for Paranormal Phenomena Research & Investigation and author of "Evil in Exeter". You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.