By chance, back in September, I found myself watching the second Republican presidential candidates’ debate, and had nightmares for a week, so Halloween came early for me. But now here it is for real, and I’m on the lookout for ghost stories in the media.
Simon (X-Factor) Cowell is milking an alleged ghost sighting during filming in a house in France. Enough said.
A piece of more or less serious reporting is found in the New York Times, which says:
Ghosts, or at least belief in them, have been around for centuries but they have now found a particularly strong following in highly secular modern countries like Norway, places that are otherwise in the vanguard of what was once seen as Europe’s inexorable, science-led march away from superstition and religion.
The article describes a haunting in the southern coastal town of Moss, in a travel agency, rather prosaically. The staff experienced inexplicable computer breakdowns, strange smells and noises that experts couldn’t trace the causes of. They also suffered constant headaches. The problems vanished when a clairvoyant came in to do some ‘cleansing’, so they inclined towards a supernatural explanation.
Some take a sternly rationalist approach. A humanist sceptic interviewed for the article insists that the interest in ghosts is caused by ‘charlatans playing on people’s fears’. Others came up with other rational sounding explanations. Moss apparently is quite a centre for ghosts, so perhaps there’s some collective suggestibility going on.
Some claim to see a revival of interest in ghosts among fiction writers. The Guardian thinks vampires and the gory horror genre generally are in decline, and that the good old ghost story is back.
Just such a tale is described elsewhere, about a Chicago ghost called ‘Resurrection Mary’. A young man met a beautiful young woman at a dance, and after spending the evening with her offered to drive her home. She gave the address and they set off. But on the way she asked for a detour, and when they reached the local cemetery she got out and vanished. When he inquired at her home the next day, her mother said she’d been killed in a hit-and-run accident five years earlier and been buried in Resurrection Cemetery.
The Chester Chronicle lists a number of hotels that boast of being haunted, presumably because it attracts custom. Example: the Schooner Hotel, Northumberland, a 17th century coaching inn is ‘not for the faint-hearted. The Poltergeist Society has named it the Most Haunted Hotel in Great Britain twice, so don’t expect to get much sleep. There have been more than 3,000 reported spooky sightings over the last few years alone and over 60 individual spirits identified at the property.’
All this sort of thing makes titillating reading, and doesn’t amount to much. If I believe in ghosts, it’s certainly not because of location hauntings, which apart from the sheer number of alleged sightings have little to recommend them from an evidential point of view. We’ve included a few mentions of alleged haunts in the Psi Encyclopedia, but really only because they’re of interest to so many people that it might seem surprising if they were omitted.
I suppose it’s potentially interesting if visitors to a hotel, say, casually mention having seen an individual wearing nineteenth century dress, and want to know if a film is being made nearby, and similar statements are made by other guests on other occasions, which does happen, but these cases are hard to document to a convincing degree. And it’s easy to mock the earnest ghost-hunter, staking out a seventeenth-century house with piles of complicated gadgetry: fun to do, but is there is a single case of this kind that significantly advances our certainty about ghosts?
It’s when the fixed location is absent – a class generally termed ‘apparition’ in the research literature – that you start to find genuinely interestingly veridical elements. Perhaps the most important is the ‘crisis coincidence’ of the sighting occurring at the exact moment when the individual is in the process of dying somewhere else. But there are others: the apparition that is seen by two or more people simultaneously, the apparition that is identified in a photograph, and – a class I find particularly interesting, since it implies the possibility of generating evidence experimentally – the apparition that is deliberately projected by one person attempting to appear to another at a distance (of which there are a few well-documented examples).
Of course it’s possible, and perhaps even likely, that some of the hauntings that get brought out of the cupboard at Halloween actually do encompass convincing evidence of this nature. In which case, the problem has more to do with the lack of research and documentation, or of channels by which these might become known.
All this said, there is one haunting in the literature which by any standards is extraordinary, the so-called Cheltenham Ghost of the 1880s, described in an early issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. The main witness, Rosina Despard, first saw it when she was nineteen:
I had gone up to my room, but was not yet in bed, when I heard someone at the door, and went to it, thinking it might be my mother. On opening the door, I saw no one; but on going a few steps along the passage, 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 back to my room. The figure was that of a tall lady, dressed in black of a soft woollen material, judging from the slight sound in moving. The face was hidden in a handkerchief held in the right hand. This is all I noticed then; but on further occasions, when I was able to observe her more closely, I saw the upper part of the left side of the forehead, and a little of the hair above. Her left hand was nearly hidden by her sleeve and a fold of her dress. As she held it down a portion of a widow's cuff was visible on both wrists, so that the whole impression was that of a lady in widow's weeds. There was no cap on the head but a general effect of blackness suggests a bonnet, with long veil or a hood.
Despard was far from being the only witness. This is indeed something of an anomaly, an apparition that was seen and heard repeatedly by a number of people, and with a clarity and frequency that’s not easily explained away. So it could be dismissed as an ‘outlier’. I’ve attached the full report here, and if you want something stronger to celebrate Halloween with, it’s worth a look.