Today over my lunch I selected two bits of reading material to look at. One is a book by a British science writer Matthew Hutson about magical thinking (which is actually quite good, and which I might review here eventually, as it is raises some interesting issues). The other is the latest issue of the SPR’s Paranormal Review, which arrived a few days ago.
First I picked up the Hutson book and carried on reading from where I left off, a brief discussion of afterlife beliefs. He rehearses the standard arguments against them: mind processes are affected by drugs and diseases that attack the brain, so it’s logical that the mind is the brain; Susan Blackmore and Olaf Blanke on NDEs; and so on. On the subject of ghosts he mentions that 34% of Britons report believing in ghosts, and 43% of respondents in this survey report having communicated with the dead, but adds:
Most ghost stories aren’t cinema-worthy, let alone enough to compel Bill Murray to dust off his proton pack. They usually amount to hearing a wind chime or footsteps, seeing a shadow move in the corner of one’s eye, or feeling an eerie presence. Such encounters implicate nothing more than draughts, knocking radiators, or pets, plus anxiety, expectation, visual illusion, selective memory, and imagination. Some ghost-myth busters have offered brain-altering magnetic fields or chill-inducing subsonic frequencies as additional explanations.
Having finished the chapter I turned to the Paranormal Review, where I found an article titled 'A Neighbour’s Return'. I'll give the gist.
It's September 1983 and a Miss Parsons is returning to her flat in Bayswater, West London, having lived abroad for more than a year. While waiting for the lift she is greeted by a neighbour, a Mrs Leyton, who she has known for years, and who is delighted that she has come back at last. They chat about this and that, and then Miss Parsons draws attention to her neighbour’s wrist, having noticed that it's bandaged. “Oh it has been like that for a month or more,” is the response. Miss Parsons is in a rush, having double parked, so Mrs Leyton says, “I don’t want to keep you”, and they part.
The next day Miss Parsons meets with the porter, and during the course of the conversation he mentions that Mrs Leyton died last Christmas. He pays no attention to Miss Parson’s protests and adds that the woman’s sister is in now in her flat, trying to sell it. Miss Parsons says nothing further, assuming it was the sister she must have been speaking to. But when she meets the sister it is someone quite different. The sister mentions that the injured wrist was the cause of Mrs Leyton’s visit to a doctor, during which a severe heart condition was discovered, from which she died soon afterwards.
The incident was investigated eight years later, and revisited by the author of the article, Peter Hallson. The essential details are confirmed by documents and an interview with Miss Parsons. Hallson examines two possibilities: that the encounter was a case of mistaken identity; and that Miss Parson’s memory of it might have become corrupted by the eight-year time lapse between it and the investigation, causing details to be forgotten or false ones added.
However there are some significant arguments against both these: mistaken identity would require another resident closely resembling Mrs Leyton, who happened also to have injured her wrist, and who also knew that Miss Parsons had been away – an unlikely combination of circumstances. Reference to the bandaged wrist at three different times in three weeks – the original encounter and Miss Parsons’ subsequent meetings with the sister and another relative – all argue against false memory.
Hallson cautions against considering such cases as hard evidence of survival, but thinks it’s at least interesting enough to put on record. That’s seems about right, although considered collectively, a substantial number of well evidenced incidents of this kind might reasonably be held to point in that direction – as the authors of Phantasms of the Living argued.
I just find it remarkable that this phenomenon barely ever gets mentioned in casual debunkings like the one in Hutson’s book. Of course it could easily be brushed aside – ‘such cases are invariably found to be caused by hallucination, mistaken identity, the corruption of memory over long periods, and suchlike’ - but we don’t even get that. It seems not at all to have penetrated the collective educated mind that this sort of thing happens.
I was expecting to write something along these lines in a few weeks time when Halloween comes round, always an opportunity for media folk to take a little walk on the spooky side. I’ll be looking out in those reviews, articles and broadcasts for the slightest sign of knowledge of the SPR’s research, without expecting any. But it seems to me that this is a problem with a doable solution. If the SPR (ideally) or some other organisation set itself the task of educating the media about the phenomenon of crisis apparitions within, say, five years, it could perhaps get measurable results.
What I also find rather intriguing is that these ‘ghosts’ don’t appear remotely ghostly. The ‘trick of the light’ school of thought assumes they’re wispy shades, something quite 'other'. But in all the most striking anecdotes the narrator at the time has no suspicion that he/she is not dealing with a real person. They’re normal encounters, seemingly with real people, and if they aren’t real people, that surely makes them very cinema-worthy indeed.