GREAT GHOSTS: SPIRITS, SCIENCE AND SUPERSTITION
It would not be inaccurate to claim my book, Fringe-ology, is shot through with ghosts. Though I explore seven different paranormal phenomena in great depth, the book starts with ghosts, raises the subject in the middle, and concludes there, too.
We are used to encountering ghosts, as a culture, in several places. We have some strange experience in our own lives. We meet someone we trust who tells us some incredible story. Occasionally, a newspaper or some local TV news broadcast will cut some “light” news feature on a haunted hotel or bar, particularly around Halloween. Most commonly, I think, we happen across one of the many rigorously awful ghosthunting programs on television.
Of these, the one I think most worthwhile is the first-hand account.
My initial inspiration for writing Fringe-ology is an old family ghost story I grew up with as a child. So, as I promoted the book in various settings, I heard many ghost stories from attendees, usually after the crowd dispersed for the night. One man told me about a ghostly, feminine voice that would cry in the family dining room every night. A couple told me their daughter’s invisible friend proved to be the ghost of an old train conductor. Their daughter described him in detail, particularly his uniform, with the boxy hat, before they researched the house and found that a train conductor had lived and died there many years beforehand. A woman told me about a ghost who “played” with her, moving her car keys, for instance, from the peg where she habitually hung them to various, unlikely places, including inside the refrigerator.
There are potential skeptical explanations for some of this that should occur to us immediately. But the narrative arc of these stories often includes some fairly dramatic steps to come up with a prosaic explanation. During my time spent ghosthunting as part of my research for Fringe-ology, I ran across many people who seemed excited by the idea that their house was haunted and disinterested in any Earthly explanations. But I also met many who felt they were being plagued by something they didn’t understand, and hoped for a rational, terrestrial cause to be discovered.
One story passed on to me concerned a woman who claimed her house was haunted by a pair of children, who had the highly annoying habit of messing with various devices around the house. They changed stations and volume settings on the radio. They turned the lights on and off. She would go to the radio or the light afterward and see that the controls in question appeared to have been physically manipulated—the light switch maneuvered “up” and “on” from the “down” and “off” position, for instance. But the most dramatic and annoying thing they did is switch the ringer off on her phone.
To provide some context, her whole story took place before cell phones, when handsets included a little plastic tab on the side that could be slid in the opposite direction to turn the ringer off. Over a period of months, as these phenomena occurred, she got especially tired of friends, family and colleagues telling her they could not reach her. “I called again and again and you never picked up,” they’d say.
Finally, after finding the ringer turned “off” on numerous occasions, she put a strip of tape over the ringer to fix it in the “on” position. I find this detail delightfully funny. Why would a “ghost” have the power to move the ringer switch but not the tape? She told me that throughout the experience she doubted the idea that her home was haunted. She had, at this stage, conducted enough research to know that a pair of children had died in the basement of the house. And their antics did seem playful, and attention-getting, like a child grabbing at her skirt. But she was skeptical and thought of the tape as a barrier and a test.
So she put the tape on and went about her business in the house for several hours. Then she returned to find the tape rolled into a tight little ball beside the handset. And the ringer? Now switched to “off.”
We are left with only a couple of possible explanations, including a stealthy intruder who crept into her home, undetected, for the sole purpose of mystifying its occupant. Or she was making the whole thing up. Or… well, we have to concede that there is a mystery afoot.
In the many months since I completed Fringe-ology, there have been plenty of ghost stories in the media: The publicity department at Thorpe Park, in Surrey, claimed a ghost caused an entire, 64-foot water ride to be moved because it was frightening everyone who caught sight of it. Cries of "hoax!" followed quickly. Touring comedienne Karen Rontowski revealed her alter-ago as a ghost hunter. Some paranormal investigators in Knoxville, Tennessee have cooked up a plan to restore a historic building by charging admission to give “ghost tours” of the site. Turning to the truly outlandish, Gawker reported on a ghost that supposedly liked to grope one old woman—all night long. (This reminds me of a story I’ll get around to writing in one of my next projects, an e-book.) Gawker also wrote an item on a pair of ghosts seen—and photographed—copulating in Ohio.
This next story sits behind a pay wall. But the sheer number of ghostly goings on at the Naval Academy Grounds in Annapolis, Maryland is impressive, complete with one employee who quit the place over ghosts. And lastly, unexpectedly, one Salem hotel operator denied her spot is haunted—never mind what extra business the reputation might bring her.
The best developments in this particular aspect of the paranormal, however, are more scientific. I myself guest-hosted an episode of Alex Tsakiris’s Skeptiko, interviewing writer Guy Lyon Playfair about some research he collaborated on with Dr. Barrie Colvin.
In the paper Colvin published, he claims that true poltergeist sounds actually demonstrate a different acoustic signature than “normal” sounds. But an even more intriguing study was just released from the lab of Dr. Michael Persinger, who partnered up with one of the early pioneers in parapsychology research: Dr. William Roll.
The paper, “A Prototypical Experience of ‘Poltergeist' Activity,” is an adventurous ride across the far frontier of science—and a whole lot more intriguing, I think, then putting all hauntings down to superstition and imagination. In this instance, Roll, Persinger and their co-authors report on a woman they call “Mrs. S.”, a middle-aged woman with no kids, a divorce in her past and a husband in her present. About 17 years before the experiments discussed in the paper began, Mrs. S. suffered a traumatic brain injury so severe she fell into a coma for two days. After she awoke, strange things started to happen.
Knocking sounds, luminous discharges from her left hand, disruptions in electronic equipment, and an ability to see strange, colored lights—or “auras”—around people in her view. The authors further claim that The Incredible Mrs. S. can move a pinwheel with her mind. A photometer, which measures photon emissions, caught an increase in photons around her when she entered a particular, anomalous “brain state.” She hears voices, but displays no other signs of any mental illness. In fact, she seems to be functioning normally but for these strange occurrences, after which she feels a profound sense of… sadness.
As I read over the paper, I must confess to a profound feeling of skepticism. No matter how open minded we might be, such reports are tempting to simply dismiss. But the intriguing part of the study is the line of thought researchers are following. They claim to have found an anomaly, an uptick in electrical activity, over her right temporal lobe. They further claimed to have cross-referenced scans of 1,000 people who had suffered closed head injuries with a comparable number of students with no such medical history. No one had the same pattern of chronic, increased activity. Moreover, as it states in the abstract, “The rotation of a small pinwheel near her while she ‘concentrated’ upon it was associated with increased coherence between the left and right temporal lobes and concurrent activation of the left prefrontal region.”
A similar effect was noticed during these odd, spontaneous photon emissions.
What are we to make of this?
Well, Roll and Persinger conclude that there is no need to verify the more extreme claims reported by the woman, her husband and friends—or even the claims of the research group, which saw the pinwheel move at Mrs. S’s, presumably only mental, effort. Instead, they argue, the people reporting “sensed presences” or odd sounds and sightings of auras—who feel distressed about it all—can be investigated for this temporal lobe anomaly and perhaps treated with anti-convulsant medication. They also might be taught, the paper concludes, to see these phenomena not in supernatural terms but as the product of a dysfunction in the brain.
Of course, there are questions that remain: If Mrs. S can actually make a pinwheel move, why not something else, less prone to moving in an invisible breeze or exhalation? If she can make a physical object move, including the pinwheel, then just how is that happening? One thing to like about Persinger, who includes geomagnetic energy as part of the equation in this paper, as he has in the past, is that he is willing to man the gates of western science on one hand—undercutting the whole notion of ghosts as disembodied entities—while storming the ramparts on the other. After all, if Mrs. S. really can move an object with her mind, we do need to start drawing up some rather serious amendments to our current understanding of physics.
I’d like to toss out one intriguing point, by the way, which runs in favor of the paranormal. According to this paper, when Mrs. S. was asked to move the pinwheel, the anomalous activity in her brain occurred only when the pinwheel actually moved. Not when it didn’t.
I’ll leave this here, for now, on that mysterious note. And I will close by mentioning that Persinger’s co-author William Roll died just as this paper was published. An 85-year old psychologist, Roll was born in Germany and lived in Denmark before coming to America. He conducted parapsychology research at no less august an institution than Oxford for eight years, and worked with J.B. Rhine’s parapsychology lab at Duke, where some of the most successful and hotly contested telepathy experiments ever completed took place.
He was the lead investigator on a 1984 poltergeist case, which produced a famous—and again, roundly debated—photo of Tina Resch. And on his way out the door he left us this strange paper.
With any luck, perhaps someone will contact Persinger and invite the Incredible Mrs. S. to their own lab, to see if the results of this study can be replicated.