4. Experiments with Apparitions in Spontaneous Cases and Field Research
As a way to gain better insight into their possible nature, some parapsychologists and psychical researchers have attempted to experiment with apparitions in a number of different ways. We take a look at some of the more interesting ways in this section.
One of the earliest ways came in the form a quasi-experimental effort made by the correspondents of some psychical researchers, and could be seen as a way to informally explore the folklore-based notion of apparitions as spirits leaving the body upon death. In many respects, it was a form of early survival research done with living persons.
In general, the effort consisted of people attempting to willfully make themselves appear as a spectral figure to an unsuspecting friend in a distant place; in other words, it is an intentional effort by a person to produce an apparition of him or herself that can be seen by others. One of the most detailed accounts of such an effort was given in 1886 by the Rev. Clarence Godfrey, an acquaintance of the prominent psychical researcher Frank Podmore. In a letter to Podmore, Rev. Godfrey wrote of his effort:
Retiring at 10.45 (on the 15th November 1886), I determined to appear, if possible, to a friend, and accordingly I set myself to work with all the volitional and determinative energy which I possess, to stand at the foot of her bed. I need not say that I never dropped the slightest hint beforehand as to my intention, such as could mar the experiment, nor had I mentioned the subject to her ... I endevoured to translate myself, spiritually, into her room, and to attract her attention, as it were, while standing there. My effort was sustained for perhaps eight minutes, after which I felt tired and was soon asleep (in Myers, 1903, Vol. I, p. 688).
Around 3:40 A.M., Rev. Godfrey suddenly awoke from a dream in which he had seemingly been successful in appearing to his friend. The next day, November 16, he directly received an account from his friend of what she had experienced, which she wrote down as follows:
Yesterday – viz., the morning of November 16th, 1886 – about half past three o'clock, I woke up with a start and an idea that some one had come into the room. I heard a curious sound, but fancied it might be the birds in the ivy outside. Next I experienced a strange, restless longing to leave the room and go downstairs. This feeling became so overpowering that at last I rose and lit a candle, and went down, thinking if I could get some soda-water it might have a quieting effect. On returning to my room I saw Mr. Godfrey standing under the large window on the staircase. He was dressed in his usual style, and with an expression on his face that I have noticed when he has been looking very earnestly at anything. He stood there, and I held up the candle and gazed at him for three or four seconds in utter amazement, and then, as I passed up the staircase, he disappeared. The impression left on my mind was so vivid that I fully intended waking a friend who occupied the same room as myself, but remembering that I should only be laughed at as romantic and imaginative, refrained from doing so.
I was not frightened at the appearance of Mr. Godfrey, but felt much excited, and could not sleep afterwards (p. 689).
Podmore then added:
On the 21st of the same month (says Mr. Podmore) I heard a full account of the incident given above from Mr. Godfrey, and on the day following from Mrs. --- [Godfrey's friend]. Mrs. --- told me that the figure appeared quite distinct and life-like at first, though she could not remember to have noticed more than the upper part of the body. As she looked it grew more and more shadowy, and finally faded away. Mrs. ---, it should be added, told me that she had previously seen two phantasmal figures, representing a parent whom she had recently lost (p. 689).
Rev. Godfrey made two more attempts to appear to his friend, one successful, and one not. In relating her account of the successful attempt, his friend "... states that she was awakened by hearing a voice cry, 'Wake,' and by feeling a hand rest on the left side of her head. She then saw stooping over her a figure which she recognised as Mr. Godfrey's" (p. 689).
Another way that researchers have experimented with apparitions has been to bring psychics and mediums to an allegedly haunted location to see if they could sense an apparition in the areas where it has been seen (haunt areas), as compared to other areas within the location where no apparition has been reported (control areas). This particular method of experimentation was initially developed and applied by the late Dr. Gertrude Schmeidler (1966), and for that reason, we shall adopt the phrase "Schmeidler's method" as a shorthand term.
To illustrate, Schmeidler's method generally proceeds as follows: After interviewing the witnesses living or working in the haunted location, the researcher asks each of the witnesses who reported seeing a ghost to fill out a checklist. On this checklist is a series of words that could potentially describe the ghost's actions or personality. The witness circles those words that seem to closely match the ghost, and crosses out those that do not match the ghost at all. Then, the researcher gives each witness a floor plan of the haunted location and asks them to mark the areas where they had seen the ghost (the haunt areas). Once this process is completed, the witnesses' checklists and floor plans are stored in a secure place for safekeeping.
Not long afterward, the researcher brings a group of psychics/mediums to the haunted location at a time when the witnesses are not there. Handing each psychic and medium a blank checklist and floor plan, the researcher asks them to tour the location one by one, sensing for ghosts or anything else unusual. If a psychic or medium receives an impression in a certain area of the location, they are asked to mark that area on the floor plan. If this impression seems to relate to the ghost's actions or personality, they are asked to circle the related words on the checklist. After all of the psychics and mediums had completed their tour, their floor plans and checklists are also stored in a secure place. Then, on another day, the researcher brings in a group of skeptics and has them do the same thing, instead asking them to guess on the checklist what the ghost's actions or personality must be like, and to mark any areas on the floor plan that just seemed "spooky" or "weird" to them.
To see if the responses of the psychics and mediums matched those of the witnesses to a degree beyond that expected by chance, Dr. Schmeidler compared them by adapting and applying the methods of statistical analysis commonly used in laboratory experiments on psychic phenomena. A statistically significant result would suggest that the psychics and mediums were somehow able to sense the haunt areas where the witnesses had previously experienced a ghost (the floor plan test), as well as accurately describe the ghost (the checklist test).
Naturally, one must also consider the possibility that the psychics and mediums, rather than sensing a ghost, may have been responding on the floor plan test to cues embedded in the surroundings of the haunt areas. For instance, a haunt area may contain dark hallways or spooky-looking corners that could give the impression that it would be the place where one might find a ghost. Similarly, on the checklist test, the psychics and mediums could have responded based on the stereotypical notions about a ghost that come from imagination, folklore, and superstition. To see if cues or stereotypes could have factored into the results, Dr. Schmeidler also compared the floor plan and checklist responses of the skeptics with those of the witnesses to see if they showed any significant matches as a control comparison.
Human behavior is known to be variable; we all behave differently from each other and patterns occurring in our behavior can often be difficult to spot for that reason. To get around this, psychologists often employ a method known as meta-analysis when evaluating their experiments on behavior. For simplicity, we might look at meta-analysis as being a method of statistically combining the results of many behavioral studies grouped together in order to look for an overall pattern across all their results, rather than looking at each study result individually. Psychic phenomena turns out to be no exception when it comes to variability in behavior, and so parapsychologists also often make use of meta-analysis when evaluating the data they have collected over the years.
To examine the overall pattern of performance on the floor plan and checklist tests by the psychics/mediums and the skeptics, Dr. Michaeleen Maher (1999), who had once been a student of Dr. Schmeidler, conducted a meta-analysis on five field studies of reputed hauntings conducted from 1975 to 1997 that utilized Schmeidler's method. The results of Dr. Maher's meta-analysis indicated that, across the five studies, the floor plan and checklist responses of the psychics/mediums tended to match those of the witnesses to a statistically significant degree, suggesting that they were generally successful in locating the haunt areas where witnesses had previously seen a ghost, as well as accurately describing the ghost they saw. In contrast, the floor plan responses of the skeptics did not significantly match those of the witnesses, suggesting that they were generally unsuccessful in locating the haunt areas. However, there was a slight tendency for skeptics' responses on the checklist test to show some correspondence with the witnesses' responses, offering a weak hint that the description of the ghost may have been at least partially derived from imaginative, folklore, and superstitious stereotypes. In sum, the overall results suggest that the psychics and mediums may have been responding to something at the haunt sites within the location, whether ghost or otherwise.
Finally, some researchers have attempted quasi-experiments with apparitions during field studies in order to possibly learn more about their physical composition. One example comes from a field investigation by Drs. Dean Radin and William Roll (1994) of haunt reports coming from the owners and patrons of a popular Kentucky music hall. During their investigation, a psychic had sensed a rather strong ghost in the basement of the music hall. Upon following her down to the basement, Radin and Roll were able to place a Geiger counter (which measures radiation levels) both "inside" and "outside" the supposed ghost after the psychic was able to corner it in one area of the room. On two occasions, when placed inside the ghost, the Geiger counter sounded an alarm, detecting the presence of radiation. On two other occasions, when taken out of the ghost as a control comparison, the Geiger counter remained silent. Then, before Radin and Roll could do the test again, a photographer snapped a photo of the room, which (according to the psychic) the ghost had not liked and caused it to disappear into the wall. This intriguing quasi-experiment offers the hint that some ghosts may be radioactive.
Bryan Williams, University of New Mexico
Annalisa Ventola, CERCAP, Lund University
Mike Wilson, Psi Society
Maher, M. C. (1999). Riding the waves in search of the particles: A modern study of ghosts and apparitions. Journal of Parapsychology, 63, 47 – 80.
Myers, F. W. H. (1903). Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (2 Vols.). London: Longmans, Green, & Company. (Reprinted as a condensed volume in 2001 by Hampton Roads Publishing Company.)
Radin, D. I., & Roll, W. G. (1994). A radioactive ghost in a music hall. Proceedings of Presented Papers: The Parapsychological Association 37th Annual Convention (pp. 337 – 346). Durham, NC: Parapsychological Association, Inc.
Schmeidler, G. R. (1966). Quantitative investigation of a "haunted house." Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 60, 137 – 149.