Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Anomalous Experiences Primer: Types of Apparitions

Apparitional Experiences: A Primer on Parapsychological Research and Perspectives

Part 2. Types of Apparitions

Although the two terms are often used synonymously, it is useful to initially define what we mean by “apparition.” The term apparition, from the Latin word apparere (meaning “to show oneself”), may be formally defined as:

An experience, usually visual but sometimes in other sense-modalities, in which there appears to be present a person or animal (deceased or living) ... who/which is in fact out of the sensory range of the [witness]” (Thalbourne, 2003).

In other words, it is the experience of the presence of a person or animal – living or dead – that is not actually there, which seems to occur primarily through sight, but at times can seem to occur through the other senses (sound, smell, taste, and touch). This term is a bit broader than the more popular term ghost (from the German word geist for “mind” or “spirit”), which refers to the apparition of a deceased person, usually in connection with a haunting. Although we will use both terms throughout this primer, we shall primarily use the term apparition, given its broader meaning.

There are actually several known types of apparitions that have been documented by psychical researchers and parapsychologists since the late 19th century.1 They include: crisis apparitions, post-mortem apparitions, deathbed visions, haunting apparitions, and apparitions of the bystander-type. In addition to describing each one below, we provide an illustrative case example of each to help the reader better grasp what each entails.

Crisis: As implied by its name, a crisis apparition appears to a witness at a time when the person whose apparition is seen is experiencing a state of crisis, whether it is an accident, an illness, or even the threat of death. A good example of a crisis apparition case is given by Dr. Sally Rhine Feather and author Michael Schmicker (2005) in their book The Gift:

A woman and her fifteen-year-old daughter had recently moved to California from their previous home in Washington D.C., where they had left the woman’s father very ill. One day not long after moving, they entered the dining room, and to the woman’s great surprise, there stood her father. “Why Dad, when did you get here?” she exclaimed.

At that point, her daughter turned around to look, and she, too, saw the figure of her grandfather, his hand upraised in a gesture of greeting or perhaps blessing, but he slowly faded away, and they both suddenly realized that he was not really in California in their house. Shortly afterward, they received the news that he had died (p. 254).

In addition to representing a crisis apparition, this case has three other interesting aspects to it. First, it is case where the apparition was collectively perceived, meaning that it was witnessed by more than one person. Second, the apparition was apparently so real looking to the woman that she actually mistook it for her real father at first. This goes against the folklore-based view that apparitions are often only misty, translucent outlines. Third, the apparition of the man seemed to acknowledge the presence of his daughter and granddaughter, suggesting that it had some degree of intelligent awareness. We shall discuss these aspects a bit more in future installments of this primer.

Post-mortem: As implied by its name, a post-mortem apparition appears after a person’s death, anywhere from several hours to several years after. As an example, we briefly recount a case documented by survival researcher Dianne Arcangel (2005, pp. 70 – 72):

About four months after her son Tommy had been tragically murdered, a woman was out walking Tommy’s dog in the daytime and they were passing by the parking lot where Tommy had kept his Jeep when the dog began barking and pulling on the leash. Looking up, the woman saw a young man standing in a blue outfit about 30 feet away, although she could not see him clearly because she was not wearing her glasses. When finally put them on, she recognized Tommy standing there on the sidewalk and smiling at her, wearing a blue outfit he had bought but never got to wear before he died. She immediately called out to him, and she and the dog began running toward him. But then, the image of Tommy seemed to slowly turn around and glide away, his feet being about an inch off the pavement. Despite how fast they ran, the woman and the dog could not catch up to him, even after pursuing him for three blocks. Then, the woman’s sight of her son was abruptly obstructed by some passing schoolgirls, and when she looked up again, the figure of Tommy was gone.

This case has two other interesting aspects to it. Similar to the crisis case, the apparition in this case was apparently witnessed not only by the woman, but also by the dog. It also seemed to suggest an optical effect, as the woman needed her glasses to see the apparition clearly.

Deathbed Vision: Near the moment of death, some terminally ill and dying patients have described seeing images of people and places that seem to relate to an afterlife existence, images known as deathbed visions. Reports of such visions have been recorded since the 19th century (Rogo, 1978), and are still occasionally reported today among healthcare and hospice workers (e.g., Arcangel, 2005, pp. 110, 116 – 120).

Among the images described by patients are apparitions of deceased friends and relatives. In the 1970s, Drs. Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson (1977) had surveyed and interviewed 877 medical doctors and nurses in India and the United States, whose patients had reported seeing deathbed apparitions. In one of the 418 cases they documented, a nurse recounts the deathbed vision related to her by an intelligent 76-year-old female patient who had suffered a heart attack:

[The patient’s] consciousness was very, very clear – no sedation, no hallucinogenic history. She was cheerful and confident that she would recover and return to her daughter who badly needed her at home. Suddenly she stretched out her arms and, smiling, called out to me. “Can’t you see Charlie [her dead husband] there with outstretched arms? I’m wondering why I haven’t ‘gone home’ before.” Describing the vision she said, “What a beautiful place with all the flowers and music. Don’t you hear it? Oh, girls, don’t you see Charlie?” She said he was waiting for her. I feel she definitely saw her husband (pp. 80 – 81).

During her experience, the woman had a feeling of peace and serenity reportedly come over her. She remained oriented to her surroundings, and was able to talk with the nurse and the family at her bedside during the vision.

This case has two aspects to it that are consistent with other cases of deathbed visions. First, as indicated in the narrative, the woman was not medicated or sedated at the time of her vision, indicating that it was not a drug-induced hallucination. Similarly, most of the patients in other cases were not found to be medicated, sedated, running a high fever, or in a delirium at the time of their vision (Osis, 1975; Osis & Haraldsson, 1977, pp. 70 – 73), arguing against a medical-related hallucination as the cause for their vision. Second, the apparition seen by the woman was that of a close relative (her husband). Similarly, a majority of the patients (90%) in other cases had seen close relatives (Osis & Haraldsson, 1977, p. 64). We’ll return to this second finding in the next installment.

Many patients regard the deathbed apparitions they see as “take-away” figures, meaning that the apparition seemed to appear for the purpose of greeting, inviting, or leading the patient to the afterlife. This apparent purpose of the apparition was noted in nearly two-thirds (65%) of the cases documented by Osis and Haraldsson (1977, pp. 65 – 67). Reflecting on her experience as a hospice chaplain, Dianne Arcangel (2005) openly states: “I have never sat with a dying patient who was not in the accompaniment of an apparition as their time grew near. No one ever dies alone” (p. 120, her italics).

Haunting: As many paranormal enthusiasts are probably all too aware, most of the apparitions seen at allegedly haunted sites do not take the form of the classic ghost of folklore, instead appearing as shadowy forms, floating lights, and hazy mist-like clouds. It seems that, in most cases, these kinds of apparitions are more likely to have a geophysical and/or psychological explanation (for reviews, see Persinger, 1974, Pt. II; Persinger & Koren, 2001; Roll & Persinger, 2001), and are less likely to be indicators of survival. However, there have been a few rare cases in which apparently well-defined apparitions of deceased human individuals have been repeatedly seen over time in the places where they once lived or worked. One such case is the “Gordy” case, initially investigated in the late 1980s by Dr. William Roll (in Roll & Persinger, 2001, p. 160), which we briefly summarize here:

Soon after moving to a new home with her family, a little girl named Heidi Wyrick had met a man in her neighborhood named “Con,” who invited her to play on a swing. When Heidi asked for permission to do so, her mother asked about Con and Heidi described him as “having blood all over.” Concerned that Con may be a kidnapper or a child molester, Heidi’s parents had the neighborhood searched for the man, but were unable to find him. A short time later, Heidi began speaking of regularly meeting with another man in the neighborhood named “Mr. Gordy” to play on the swing, and her parents figure that Con and Mr. Gordy are the girl’s imaginary playmates. Eventually they discover that an elderly gentleman named James Gordy, as well as a man named “Lon,” had actually lived in the neighborhood many years back, and that Lon had lost his hand in a machinery accident. The descriptions that Heidi gave of the two men were later found to closely match photographs of them (she was also able to correctly pick them out of a random collection of old photos), and Roll could find no normal way in which Heidi could have learned about them prior to her family’s discovery of their identities.2

The Gordy case seems to contain a possible parapsychological component, in that it suggests that Heidi was able to somehow psychically perceive the apparitions of people who had once lived in her local surroundings. How might we come to better understand this? We’ll briefly look at some possible theories in a later installment of this primer.

Bystander-Type: It turns out that apparitions may not only be associated with a haunted location; in rare cases, they may be associated with a person. Rather than being seen in the place where they once lived or worked, some apparitions have been witnessed in close proximity to people who once knew them in life. Dr. Louisa Rhine (1957) had coined the term bystander-type case to label these kinds of cases, noting that, “...these cases are suggestive of the haunting cases, the main difference, however, being that in these the link is a person rather than a geographical location” (p. 39).

An example of an apparition of the bystander-type comes from a study by the late Dr. Ian Stevenson (1995), in which he had interviewed a medical doctor who had once witnessed such apparition while keeping vigil at the bedside of his mother-in-law, who was very ill, in a coma, and near death. According to the doctor:

I was standing by her bed and no one else was in the room. She had an agonal inspiration, and at that moment I had a very clear picture of G. C. [her late husband] standing across from me with his arms outstretched, and he said, “Flora, I’ve been waiting for you.”

I did not really have to look to see that my mother-in-law had died, but the physician in me pushed me to verify that (p. 362).

The doctor stated that the figure he saw of his late father-in-law was “...quite opaque, as he would have seen him in life” (p. 362). He was only able to see the figure from the waist up, but believed that the surrounding furniture had blocked his vision of the rest. Prior to his encounter, the doctor believed that he had only been able to see his father-in-law only once or twice while his father-in-law was still alive, but he was familiar with his father-in-law’s appearance from family photos. However, he had not expected to see his father-in-law at the time of his mother-in-law’s passing, stating that, “I was surprised but comforted by what I saw” (p. 363).

In this case, the doctor was able to see the apparition of a man in close proximity to the man’s dying wife, and thus the doctor was acting as a third person “bystander” witness (hence the term). One might notice that this case seems similar to a deathbed vision, but we should point out that it cannot be classified as one in the strictest sense because the mother-in-law was comatose and did not herself perceive the apparition of her deceased husband.

The case has three other interesting aspects to it. First, as in the crisis case, the apparition that the doctor saw appeared solid. Second, as in the deathbed case, the apparition he saw was of a relative in his family. Third, the doctor reportedly heard the apparition speak, suggesting it had some degree of intelligence. We’ll look more at these aspects in future installments.

Bryan Williams, University of New Mexico
Annalisa Ventola, CERCAP, Lund University
Mike Wilson, Psi Society


1.) For some readers unfamiliar with the history of parapsychology, the distinction between “psychical research” and “parapsychology” may be a bit unclear. Parapsychology actually owes its roots to psychical research, which began in 1882 when a group of scholars associated with Cambridge University in England had formed the Society for Psychical Research, which was devoted to the serious study of various psychic phenomena, including telepathy, clairvoyance, psychometry, mediumship, and hauntings. Parapsychology arrived on the scene in the 1930s when Dr. J. B. Rhine and his colleagues had formed the Duke University Parapsychology Laboratory in order to study psychic phenomena via controlled experimental work. A few recent books offering some accessible overviews of the history of parapsychology and psychical research for the interested reader are those by Dr. John Beloff (1993), Deborah Blum (2006), and Stacy Horn (2009). In addition, a useful list of additional print and Internet sources has recently been compiled by Dr. Carlos Alvarado (2009).

2.) In the early 1990s, the popular television show Unsolved Mysteries had aired a segment that profiled this case and Roll’s investigation of it. A two-part streaming video clip of this segment can be found on YouTube – Part 1 and Part 2.


Arcangel, D. (2005). Afterlife Encounters: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Experiences. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company.

Feather, S. R., & Schmicker, M. (2005). The Gift: ESP, the Extraordinary Experiences of Ordinary People. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Osis, K. (1975, Summer). What did the dying see? Theta, No. 45, 1 – 3.

Osis, K., & Haraldsson, E. (1977). At the Hour of Death. New York: Avon Books.

Persinger, M. A. (1974). The Paranormal (2 vols.). New York: M.S.S. Information Corporation.

Persinger, M. A., & Koren, S. A. (2001). Predicting the characteristics of haunt phenomena from geomagnetic factors and brain sensitivity: Evidence from field and experimental studies. In J. Houran & R. Lange (Eds.) Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (pp. 179 – 194). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

Rhine, L. E. (1957). Hallucinatory psi experiences II. The initiative of the percipient in hallucinations of the living, the dying, and the dead. Journal of Parapsychology, 21, 13 – 46.

Rogo, D. S. (1978, January-February). Research on deathbed experiences: Some contemporary and historical perspectives. Parapsychology Review, 9, 20 – 27.

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, Inc.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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