A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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A ghost is an alleged disembodied spirit of a dead person.* Ghosts are often depicted as inhabiting haunted houses, especially houses where murders have occurred. Why some murder victims would stick around for eternity to haunt a place while others seem to evaporate has never been adequately explained..

Many people report physical changes in haunted places, especially a feeling of a presence accompanied by temperature drop and hearing unaccountable sounds. They are not imagining things. Most hauntings occur in old buildings, which tend to be drafty. Scientists who have investigated haunted places account for both the temperature changes and the sounds by finding physical sources of the drafts, such as empty spaces behind walls or currents set in motion by low frequency sound waves (infrasound) produced by such mundane objects as extraction fans. (Elephants communicate over distances of several miles by infrasound, which can be felt but not heard by humans, and which can be measured by sound recorders. Infrasound waves can be felt and cause things to vibrate, which might make some people think there are ghosts present. They see something moving but don't see anything making it move.) Some think that electromagnetic fields are inducing the haunting experience.* According to ScienceNet.org:

When a person's brain is subjected to certain electromagnetic fields, it can cause them to experience the feeling of unseen presences, which the brain may interpret as visions of God, ghosts, or even alien abductions.

Some ghost experiences may be attributed to sleep paralysis. For example, the description given by Geoff Hutchison, a miner turned medium who wrote a book about his experience, is typical of sleep paralysis. He says he had his first paranormal experience while he was in the Army during the 1960s when he saw a figure: "It was just a man with a big black coat and a big wide-brimmed hat. He just stood there bent over me. I couldn't move my arms or legs and had to lie there."

As I note in my entries on poltergeists and haunted houses:

Even if I provided plausible physical explanations for a million poltergeists [or ghosts] in a million different places at a million different times, there is always the possibility that the next one that pops up will be the real thing. So, those who believe in poltergeists, ghosts, and haunted houses can always take refuge in the fact that nobody ever has enough information to debunk every ghost story, and even if they did, the next one might prove the debunkers wrong!

As a skeptic, all I can say with confidence is that when one considers the requirements for a ghost story to be true, the most reasonable position is that there is a naturalistic explanation for all these stories, but we often do not or cannot have all the details necessary to provide that explanation. We must rely on anecdotal evidence, which is always incomplete and selective, and which is often passed on by interested, inexperienced, superstitious parties who are ignorant of basic physical laws. Thus, there will always be stories like the "Bell Witch" story that attract much attention, especially when made into movies, that will lead many people to think that maybe there is something to this one, even if all the other ghost stories are false. The "Bell Witch" is alleged to be "a sinister entity that tormented a family on Tennessee’s frontier between the years of 1817 and 1821."* The likelihood that we don't have all the evidence in this case is proportionate to the number of years that have passed since the events allegedly took place.

If one is selective enough, one can confirm just about any hypothesis. And, as the history of research into psychic phenomena has shown, the brighter one is the easier it is to rationalize and find reasons to support one's beliefs. Witness Debra Blum's The Ghost Hunters. This former science writer provides a selective history of psychical research to support the view that maybe some of these stories are for real. After all, we can't prove they're not.

[revised] Why do experiences and stories of ghosts seem to always take place in the dark? It seems odd that ghosts like to work in the dark because it's harder for people to see them than in broad daylight. Why are they appearing at all if they don't want to be seen clearly? Maybe the ghost story is a night story because it's easier to deceive and scare people at night when they can't see what's going on. It's usually cooler and breezier at night, too, and both those elements can enhance the deception that a ghost is producing scary sounds and movements. Having ghosts appear in obscure conditions makes it easier to stimulate the imagination and give an aura of mysteriousness to such mundane things as rats rustling in the attic or squirrels sliding in and out of nest holes. Storytellers know that many people are afraid of the dark and that fear makes the imagination work overtime.

Some people try to talk to ghosts by getting together around a table in a dark room. They call such a meeting a séance. The leader of the séance is called a medium. A medium is someone who says he or she can get ghosts to come to the room to give signs to living people that the ghost is real. These meetings never take place in broad daylight. Scientists who have looked into séances say that they are held in the dark because it is easier to trick people that way. The medium or his assistant can produce objects, move things, or make noises and speak in a mysterious voice, while the others can't see what anyone is doing. Many mediums have been caught cheating.

Séances were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but today many people who say they are mediums don't use any props and work in a well-lit studio or on a stage. They don't have their ghosts ring bells or float things across the room, as was done in séances. Today's mediums just say things, claim they are getting messages from the dead, and wait for others to make sense out of what they say. A medium might say to an audience "somebody's grandmother is here." It is up to people in the audience to figure out what the medium means. One person might be young and think the medium means that his grandmother's ghost is in the room. Another might be old and think he means her granddaughter's ghost is in the room. If one of the people in the room speaks up, the medium will say something else and wait for the person to make sense out of it. Scientists call this process of making sense out of questions or statements raised by a total stranger subjective validation. Many people come away from such meetings believing they have been in contact with the ghost of a loved one. Many others think the medium is just playing with people's emotions and isn't getting any messages from the dead. Here is a video of James Van Praagh, one of the more popular mediums performing today. Judge for yourself whether this fellow is actually communicating with spirits.

What does science have to say about today's mediums? Some have been studied and caught cheating, but it is impossible to prove that dead people aren't making noises that some mediums hear. We have the mediums' word for it, but if they are cheating their word is worthless.

If you think you've seen a ghost, you are not alone. Many people think they've seen ghosts. Most likely what happens when a person sees a ghost is that the brain takes whatever fuzzy information it gets from the eyes, ears, and other senses and thinks there is some sort of being out there that is intentionally moving the way it is or making the sounds it is making. We call beings that can direct their own movements intentional agents. Humans have a natural bias called intentionality bias. It is common for humans to think that objects that are not agents, such as branches of trees moving in the wind, are intentional agents when they're not. Once you know that what you saw and heard was the wind blowing some branches, you stop thinking of ghosts. But if you never get a chance to see clearly what it was that your brain turned into a ghost, you can't be sure that what you saw wasn't a ghost. What you saw, though, was probably created by your imagination. You might say that when you are scared by seeing a ghost, you are scaring yourself. Why? Because your brain is probably fooling you and you are not seeing a real ghost out there in real space.[/revised]

There are numerous groups of paranormal investigators that spend their spare time investigating allegedly haunted places. They arrive with coffee pots, flashlights, tape recorders, EMF detectors, video cameras with night vision, metal detectors, and other devices that were not designed to detect ghosts and therefore have no instructions on how to use them for that purpose. (I know. There is no equipment designed for this purpose. How could there be?) The equipment looks scientific, but does that make the investigation scientific? I'd say you're about as likely to detect a ghost with a Sony camcorder as you are to get the truth out of a house plant by hooking it up to a polygraph.

See also astral projection, dualism, EVP, exorcism, haunted houses, medium, near-death experience, out-of-body experience, poltergeist, psychic photography, séance, and "Using ghost stories to teach critical thinking" by R. T. Carroll

* This is the most popular view of ghosts. For the view that ghosts are physical entities, see the entry on paranormal investigator.

reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Brugger, Peter. "From Haunted Brain to Haunted Science: A Cognitive Neuroscience View of Paranormal and Pseudoscientific Thought," Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by J. Houran and R. Lange (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2001).

Christopher, Milbourne. ESP, Seers & Psychics (Thomas Y. Crowell Co. 1970).

Finucane, Ronald C. Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead & Cultural Transformation (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Randi, James. "The Columbus Poltergeist Case," in Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by Kendrick Frazier. (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986).

Roach, Mary. (2005). Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. W.W. Norton.

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, ch. 6 "Hallucinations," (New York: Random House, 1995).

Schick, Theodore, and Lewis Vaughn. How to Think About Weird Things 2nd ed. (Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1998).


Ghost Hunting Tools of the Trade by Brian Dunning Jan 1, 2007


"TAPS vs. SAPS - The Atlantic Paranormal Society meets the Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society."

Skeptiseum: Ghosts and Spirits

Richard Wiseman's work (in The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 7)

Palace ghost laid to rest 29 March, 2001 (Wiseman's study of ghosts at Hampton palace)

Ghost Blusters April 18th, 2001 (Wiseman's study of ghosts in Edinburgh castle)

Ghosts of sisters past

The Ghost in My House: An Exercise in Self-Deception by Bertram Rothschild, Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb 2000

The Ghost Research Society - especially for the gullible

Burnt by Burnt Offerings by D. Trull

Waking Up to Sleep Paralysis by Chris Mooney

news stories

Ghosts 'all in the mind' by Arran Frood

Scientist to create 'haunted house' July 24, 2003 (Richard Wiseman)

Ghost Lusters: If You Want to See a Specter Bad Enough, Will You? - Scientific American

Can ghosts be explained scientifically?

Hampton Court 'ghost' on film

According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 32% believe in ghosts, down from 38% five years ago and up from 25% in 1990. According to a Huffington Post poll in 2013, 45% of Americans believe in ghosts.Last updated 13-Mar-2016

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