Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Temperature in Haunting Experiences: A Basic Primer for Paranormal Enthusiasts (Part 1)

Among the various kinds of subjective perceptual experiences that one may report having in a reputedly haunted house, one of the most common may be sensing a noticeable change (typically a drop) in the ambient background temperature within the space of a room (Coghlan, 1998 – 1999; Osis, 1982; Roll & Persinger, 2001; Roll et al., 1996; Turner, 1970). These apparent “cold spots” may occur spontaneously and only be a fleeting feeling, or they may be persistent over time, seeming to be a characteristic part of the haunted locale and perhaps adding to its mystique.
In a related manner, some sightings of apparitions or ghosts have been accompanied by sudden feelings of cold. In his classic book Apparitions, psychical researcher G. N. M. Tyrrell (1953/1961) had noticed a fair degree of consistency across the reports of witnesses who had such feelings, with some stating that it was like, “...a jug of cold water poured on the nape of my neck,” or “...as if the blood was like ice in my veins,” or “...a cold, shivering feeling came over me” (p. 73). Other witnesses gave statements suggesting that the cold sensation had emanated from the apparition itself: “As the figure passed we distinctly felt a cold air,” or “Her kiss was like a waft of cold air upon my cheek” (p. 73).
A good illustrative example within the annals of psychical research of how cold sensations play into apparitional and haunting phenomena can be found in the “Morton Ghost” case, documented and reported by 19-year-old medical student Rosina C. Despard (Morton, 1892).1 From about 1882 to 1889, the Despard family repeatedly saw the apparition of a woman dressed in a widow’s outfit that would wander through their house in a specific, repetitive pattern.2 Some of the family also occasionally heard footsteps, and on one such occasion, the footsteps seemed to be pacing up and down the second-floor landing. This drew the attention of Rosina’s three sisters and two family maids, who emerged from their rooms with lit candles in their hands to see who was causing the ruckus. As the unseen footsteps passed them, they reported feeling “‘a cold wind,’ though their candles were not blown out” (p. 320). This suggests that the wind may have been a subjective feeling, and not a physical breeze. On another occasion, when Rosina’s sister Edith, her mother, and a maid heard footsteps pass close by them on the landing, they suddenly felt an “icy shiver” (p. 325). Edith herself had an encounter with the spectral widow on another night, while she was singing in the drawing room. She stopped in the middle of her song when she suddenly “...felt a cold, icy shiver, and I saw the figure bend over me, as if to turn over the pages of my song” (p. 325).
Are all such cold sensations during apparitional and haunting phenomena purely in the mind of the witnesses (as the candle example in the Morton case suggests), or do some have an actual physical basis in the environment? To find out, some parapsychologists have taken temperature measurements during field investigations of haunted locations to see if they differ much from control locations where no ghosts or haunt phenomena have been reported. In a similar fashion, many amateur enthusiasts have taken readings with thermometers as part of their attempts to search for spirits in ostensibly haunted locations (Coghlan, 1998 – 1999).
To help guide them along in their efforts, we are providing at Public Parapsychology another basic primer – another “crash course,” if you will – that may be useful in conducting their haunt investigations. Over the next few days, we will give a brief overview of what parapsychologists have learned so far about temperature in relation to haunting experiences, and provide some useful tips on how to properly collect and interpret temperature readings during field investigations. This primer can be used along with our previous one on magnetic fields (Williams, Ventola, & Wilson, 2007), which it is meant to supplement.
- Bryan Williams, University of New Mexico
- Annalisa Ventola, Public Parapsychology
- Mike Wilson, Psi Society
1. For reasons of anonymity, Rosina Despard had reported the case under the pseudonym “Miss R. C. Morton,” hence its name. Since the house at the center of the case was located in Cheltenham, England, it also came to known by some as the “Cheltenham Ghost” case. The details of the case were independently verified by the prominent psychical researcher Frederic W. H. Myers, who stated that, with one minor exception (an elderly man couldn’t recall one event that had happened 6 years before), he “...found no discrepancy in the independent testimonies” (Morton, 1892, p. 311). Incidentally, Rosina Despard went on to become a practicing physician in forensic medicine, which was quite an achievement for a woman in the 1880s.
2. The Morton ghost’s pattern of movement would begin on the second floor of the Despard home, usually after Rosina would hear someone at her bedroom door. Upon opening it, she would see the ghostly widow walking down the landing hallway towards the stairs. The figure would then descend to the ground floor and enter the drawing room, standing at the window on the far side for a time. Then it would exit the room and head for a passage leading to the garden, where it would regularly vanish. On rare occasions, when other people or objects were in its way, the apparition would either simply pass through them, or would make slight deviations in its path to avoid them (Morton, 1892, p. 317, 321). Attempts by Rosina to corner the apparition were unsuccessful, as it would simply disappear (p. 322). Although it initially appeared “...so solid and life-like that it was often mistaken for a real person,” according to Rosina (p. 321), the spectral widow seemed to gradually fade with time, and had completely vanished by 1889. Inquiries by the Despard family suggested that the apparition may have represented the second wife of a previous occupant of the house.
Coghlan, A. (1998 – 1999). Midnight watch. New Scientist, 160, 42 – 45.

Morton, R. C. (1892). Record of a haunted house. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 8, 311 – 332.
Osis, K. (1982). New equipment for ASPR research on apparitions. ASPR Newsletter, 8, p. 1.
Roll, W. G., & Persinger, M. A. (2001). Investigations of poltergeists and haunts: A review and interpretation. In J. Houran & R. Lange (Eds.) Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (pp. 123 – 163). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.
Roll, W. G., Sheehan, L. C., Persinger, M. A., & Glass, A. Y. (1996). The haunting of White Ranch. Proceedings of Presented Papers: The Parapsychological Association 39th Annual Convention (pp. 279 – 294). Durham, NC: Parapsychological Association, Inc.
Turner, K. H. (1970). A South Yorkshire haunt. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 45, 325 – 353.
Tyrrell, G. N. M. (1953/1961). Science and Psychical Phenomena/Apparitions. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books.

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