Saturday, 3 August 2013

A theory on how ghosts are created

Phantoms and poltergeists have appeared throughout history if not before. Skeptics say the reports are all due to mundane causes, self-deception or fraud, and skeptics have a valuable role in filtering out those cases where there seems to be something odd going on. Phantoms and poltergeists seem to be points on a spectrum of paranormal activity ranging from sensing an “atmosphere” to grand pianos dancing in mid air (perhaps the most frustrating poltergeists are those who rain pennies into an empty room: I want to meet one that rains gold sovereigns, guineas, rare stamps and high value bearer bonds, not these cheapskates).

Typically hauntings, which include poltergeists, have a start and a finish. Most poltergeist cases last a few years and vanish. Hauntings tend to last longer and involve recognisably human apparitions. Poltergeist infestations where people are harmed appear to be uncommon but far from unknown. The history of some hauntings suggests that the phenomena are created by the observers and some of these then seem to develop a life of their own. This does not explain everything of course and a unified theory may not be possible. Here are a few cases this hypothesis may fit.

The Mackenzie Poltergeist

In December 1998 a homeless man slipped into the Black Mausoleum in Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. He smashed some coffins and fell into an undiscovered mass grave containing the bodies of plague victims. At this point he ran out as fast as possible, and ran into a security guard and their dog who naturally also ran. Since then there have been reports of something malevolent, christened the Mackenzie Poltergeist, in the churchyard. The next day a woman peering through the grill of the Mausoleum was reportedly knocked down by a cold blast and another was found lying nearby with bruises round her neck. She claimed invisible hands tried to to strangle her.

Edinburgh Council first locked the vault and tried to ignore it. Then they gave a local author permission to run controlled tours to the Mausoleum. Paranormal activity has escalated since then and now the poltergeist attacks two to 4 people a month. Dead animals tend to be found near the vault, electrical equipment tends to malfunction there and victims tend to get home before they realise they have been injured. Occasionally the phenomena follow them home.

The most likely theories are

  • Some form of hysteria that led to people interpreting mundane phenomena as paranormal.
  • The homeless man released a malevolent spirit trapped in the vault.
  • The Man's fear created a malevolent spirit that grew stronger and stronger as the attacks continued.

The first theory seems unlikely, since attacks started the day after the man fell into the pit. The second theory sounds plausible but does not say how the spirit got into the pit and there are no tales of a spirit being trapped there. The third theory again sounds plausible but seems no more likely than the second and both would be anathema to most skeptics. The third theory would have pleased Stan Gooch who believed all spirit phenomena were the result of unusual human powers.

We can discard the notion that the phenomena were fraudulently produced by (say) the tour operators. On its own the Mackenzie Poltergeist seems to be more like a malevolent spirit ( or perhaps a spirit created as a guardian of the pit) than a poltergeist and could have been created at some point.

Edinburgh Vaults
The Niddry Street Vaults are a series of tenements built into the arches of Edinburgh's South Bridge. Poor construction led first to their abandonment, then to population by refugees from the Irish Potato Famine (created because farmers preferred to export potatoes, as they got a higher price abroad than at home) and several generations lived and did in the vaults before they were sealed off in the early 20th century.

The vaults were rediscovered in the 1980s and eventually a company started to offer ours to the vaults. After a while visitors began reporting ghostly experiences and their tales had enough common features to indicate something strange was happening. Visitors have experienced bruises and minor injuries especially when entering a stone circle in which a Wiccan claimed to have trapped an evil presence. Skeptics put all this down to the effects of traffic vibrations and expectation by visitors. These explanations fail to cover the injuries to visitors and the lights apparently being switched off by one ghost.

Again likely theories include the Malevolent Spirit theory and that the spirits were created by visitor expectations perhaps from a feeling the place SHOULD be haunted. If the Wiccan did manage to trap the spirit inside a stone circle the spirit is unlikely to be the Mackenzie Poltergeist, though this possibility cannot be excluded.

Mary Kings Close

Mary Kings Close is a number of former streets of Edinburgh, rat runs between tenements that were effectively sealed off when the tenements there were partially demolished and the Royal Exchange building built on top of them. The tale that the close was sealed off in 1645 when plague hit Edinburgh appears to be an ancient Urban Legend but may have created expectations that led to the notion the close was haunted. Some paranormal phenomena here can be attributed to Marsh Gas from Edinburgh's Nor Loch, and these seem to have been used by a 17th century religious lunatic and scientist who seems to have invented the hauntings in order to further his religious campaign.

The haunting in the close is not malevolent but there seems no historical evidence to support the most famous ghost, a little girl named as Annie. Here the idea that the hauntings resulted from creation of spirits by human expectations seems more plausible than the idea of spirits being around for centuries and not noticed till the close was reopened, though the evidence for a genuine haunting is largely anecdotal and not supported – or disproved- by psychic investigations.

The Philip Experiment

So far we have seen some weak evidence for the spontaneous creation of spirits. Some investigators have gone a step further and tried to create spirits. Perhaps the most famous case was an experiment in Toronto where investigators created a fictional biography of someone who never existed and held seances to try and contact the person. Eventually he came through and started volunteering details of events not in the biography. The investigators wondered whether they had psychically accessed details of a real person but found no evidence such a person ever existed.

Here it seems a deliberate effort to create a spirit succeeded, or almost succeeded, since there is no indication the spirit ever manifested to other circles or outside the séance context. Interestingly the creation of the spirit involved repetitive actions reminiscent of magical rituals and the attempted creation of a god by a group of chaos magicians, possibly used by Frank Herbert in his book The God Makers. The use of ritual and repetition ( for example the repetitive tramping of visitors through Greyfriars Kirk) may be important in this context.

Kenneth Bacheldor
Kenneth Bacheldor was a retired engineer who attempted to recreate the table tipping phenomena of Victorian seances: and seems to have succeeded. He established protocols to prevent cheating, and, to prevent the notion that “it cannot happen” allowed one person to be a “joker” who was allowed to cheat. After a while tables began to move, some of which were hard for two people to move normally. And the phenomenon began to respond to requests from the sitters. Overall the phenomena reported seem hard to explain as fakery, self deception or unconscious muscular action: making a 60 pound table dance on two legs is hard to do unconsciously. Again the procedure had to be repeated and ritualised. Perhaps significantly the sitters only had success when they moved away from trying hard and started relaxing and joking,

Summoning Ghosts of the Civil War

An intriguing experiment involving the reenactment of events from the battle of Antietam resulted in recording of anomalous sounds and some investigators felt they were being gently touched. The results were suggestive of the presence of spirits but are perhaps more consistent with the idea that a spirit was almost created. The experimenters preferred to explain the results in terms of Morphic Resonance, an equally controversial concept.

Alexandra David-Neel
Alexandra David Neel was an intrepid explorer who experimented with creating a thought form, an artificial spirit, using techniques learned from Tibetan Lamas. She initially decided to create a jolly friendly monk and succeeded. But then the monk took on a life of its own and started to change to something more malevolent. When other people began to see it. She decided it was time to reabsorb it. And the thought form resisted. It was harder to absorb it than to create it. The episode is described in her book With mystics and magicians in Tibet along with other strange experiences.

This seems to be the most successful recorded effort at creating a spirit. The entity was seen by others and began to act independently. The lesson the Lamas learned from such experiments is that the world is illusion. It would seem however it is, like time, a very persistent illusion

The Wrap

The examples shown here suggest that some hauntings can be created by percipient expectations, and that a major component of the creation process is repetition of certain actions, for example telling stories to tourists, reenacting events from the Civil War, or holding seances. Prior experiences resulting from mundane causes such as Marsh Gas could serve as trigger events which later expectations could transform first into genuine paranormal phenomena and then into newly created spirits.

Although strictly out of scope here, the anomalous experiences John Keel described as The Phenomenon, and waves of Phantom Clowns could also be explained by this process.

And this theory could explain why the Spirit world bothers with us. We are their nursery, their womb, the place baby spirits are created and grow to maturity.

Further Reading

 The Mackenzie Poltergeist.

The Niddry St Vaults

Mary Kings Close

Soundscape and the Culture of War on an American Civil War Battlefield: An Ethnography of Communication with Past Presences John G. Sabol Paranthropology Volume 3 Number 2 April 2012

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