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The Season for Ghosts

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.

Elsewhere, Ben Radford speaks out for sceptics, and is also on hand to explain to puzzled journalists why people believe in ghosts.

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.

Download Cheltenham ghost jspr

A Journalist Returns

A few people have gently chided me for my absence, which I too regret, but can’t do much about. We’ve talked a lot here about the problems facing psi research, and there comes a time when it’s more important to do something that just talk. Which unfortunately doesn’t leave much time for thinking – the essential precursor to talking. But I appreciate being reminded to get back into the groove, as we old hippies say.

Regular readers will like to know that the Psi Encyclopedia is a going concern, and with luck will be in business within two or three months, once the glitches have been ironed out. At this early stage there are about a hundred articles contributed by thirty writers, totalling around 350,000 words. It could be four times that within two or three years, and if we keep the momentum up, perhaps as many as 800 entries eventually, including book reviews and short profiles. The balance isn’t as good as I’d like, with not enough on experimental parapsychology. But some well-known people in the field have agreed to contribute, so this should even out quite quickly.

Owing to an oversight, the website briefly escaped into the wild a few weeks back, and there were frequent sightings on Google. I heard from one source that it came up unexpectedly in a search on a psi topic, second only to Wikipedia, and occupied the next three places as well. My own tests weren’t as successful, so the search terms he used must have been pretty specific. But I still found it heartening.

In the meantime, I browse forums to pass the time on bus journeys, and have been pleased to see links to some quite sensible articles in the mainstream(ish) media. And so to the real subject of this post, which is not me but Peter Kaplan, the former New York Observer editor, who died two years ago. In a recent piece in Elle his widow Lisa Chase describes experienced a series of startling coincidences in the three months following. Convinced he was trying to reach her, she contacted a medium, Lisa Kay. There followed an immediate telephone reading that produced a number of specific items of information:

LK: He's talking about a ball. He says, 'Find the signed ball in the bag and give it to David.'

While Peter was in the hospital, a good friend, knowing he loved the Yankees and particularly Joe Torre, their longtime manager, got Torre to sign a baseball—a talisman. But the day I brought it in, Peter shook his head. "I can't," he said. "Put it away." I didn't know why it upset him, but I put the ball in his closet, in a canvas bag that I'd packed with his clothes and toiletries to bring to the hospital.

LK: He's showing me blood. Did he die of a blood clot? Something about blood. I'm seeing the word 'genetic.' She said it in an almost staccato fashion: Ge-net-ic.

LC: He died of a blood cancer. And his doctors told us it was probably related to the lymphoma his father died from…

LK: 'I'm a lucky guoy. I got the better end of the deal.'

What was amazing about this was the way Lisa pronounced it: "guoy," not "guy." It was precisely the way Peter said it, with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent. He'd use that expression when we were making up after a fight: I'm a lucky guoy…to have you.

Some of the details could not have been learned in a quick Google search, Chase points out.

She goes on to talk to the Windbridge Institute’s Julie Beischel, the mediumship researcher. She also persuades the medium to meet her, to find out more about what she does. This sort of stuff interests me, because I’m always curious about what mediums actually hear and see when they get contacts:

"First," she said, "I don't talk to dead people. I don't see dead people. I hate that." It drives her nuts. "Spirits are energy—energy can't be destroyed, just read the quantum physicists. Max Planck. They're just on a higher vibrational frequency, and I have to tune in to that."

What did she do to prepare? "I meditate. I quiet my mind. I connect to my heart, set an intention to read. I make sure I'm well hydrated. I leave my problems at the door, making myself completely available to be a receiver." What happens when the signs, or "hits," as she calls them, start to come? "Sometimes it's a little movie. Sometimes a picture. A symbol. Sometimes it's just one sign—a smell." Or a sharp, fleeting pain in her head if, say, the deceased had a brain tumor.

It’s not (or shouldn’t be) remarkable to see personal testimony like this written up in a glossy women’s magazine. But it’s unusual to see the thoughtful musings the article prompted in an essay by a New York Times writer, Ross Douthat, who clearly didn’t mind kicking up the usual angry gibbering from rationalist readers in the comments thread. Douthat suggests that the idea of secularism can be reinterpreted to mean that we can embrace numinous experiences as real – in other words, without treating them as strictly psychological events – and continue to be considered ‘secularist’ just as long as we don’t use them to get into institutional religious activity.

Under secularism, in other words, most people who see a ghost or have a vision or otherwise step into the supernatural are still likely to believe in the essential reality of their encounter with the otherworldly or transcendent; they’re just schooled to isolate the experience, to embrace it as an interesting (and often hopeful) mystery without letting it call them to the larger conversion of life that most religious traditions claim that the capital-S Supernatural asks of us in return.

What secularism really teaches people, in this interpretation, isn’t that spiritual realities don’t exist or that spiritual experiences are unreal. It just privatizes the spiritual, in a kind of theological/sociological extension of church-state separation, and discourages people from organizing either intellectual systems (those are for scientists) or communities of purpose (that’s what politics is for) around their sense, or direct experience, that Something More exists.

This interpretation – which I think is clearly part of the truth of our time — has interesting implications for the future of religion in the West. One of the big religious questions going forward is whether the large swathe of people who have drifted from traditional faith but remain dissatisfied (for excellent reasons!) with strict neo-Darwinian materialism constitute a major market for religious entrepreneurs. Is there a version of theologically-liberal Christianity that could actually bring these drifters back to church and keep them in the pews? Is there some new synthesis –pantheist, deist, syncretistic — that could seem plausible and nourishing and intellectually satisfying enough to plan an actual new religion in “spiritual, but not religious” territory? Is there enough residual Christian orthodoxy knocking around in the West’s cultural subconscious to make a revival or Great Awakening not only possible but likely? Etc.

This isn’t new thinking - a lot of people are quite consciously in this space - but it’s interesting to see it voiced in the mainstream media. We don’t have to treat science as the ultimate arbiter when it comes to the reality or otherwise of psi phenomena, since this is subject to competing interpretations. 'Secularist' doesn’t equate with 'materialist', and it’s fine to disagree with physicalist science. What matters is that we don’t rock the boat by using psi experiences as a reason to return to orthodox religiosity, or construct a new quasi-religious ideology that demands allegiance. A plea for pluralism, in other words.

What militant rationalists hate about this – and they’re right to be anxious – is that it chips away at the old materialist faith. That’s the role for which institutions like the CSI (CSICOP) were created, to badger editors into rejecting articles that take psi claims seriously. The message is: Don’t you realise what a laughing stock you’re turning your publication into? We’ve seen how devastating that can be in freezing out serious debate about psychic experiences.

But if, when these editors die, and, being natural communicators, strive to communicate the astounding fact of their continued survival, it’s natural that their living peers should show at least a little curiosity and interest, and not give a damn what anyone else thinks.

The more people like Douthat are willing to stick their heads above the parapet, the less power the sceptics’ ridicule will have.