Sunday, November 08, 2009

Apparitional Experiences Primer: Characteristics of Apparitions

3. Characteristics of Apparitions

In looking at the various types of apparitions in the previous section, we also got a brief look at some of their characteristics. In this section, we provide a fuller summary of their characteristics, based on previous findings in parapsychology and psychical research (Irwin, 1994, Sect. 8; Roll, 1982, Sect. 2; Tyrrell, 1953/1961, Apparitions, Ch. 2).

The first characteristic naturally deals with physical appearance. Unlike the misty and translucent ghost of classic folklore, many apparitions are described by witnesses as being solid looking and life-like. For example in the "Morton Ghost" case, in which the Despard family repeatedly saw the figure of a spectral widow over the course of several years, Rosina Despard had stated that the figure "...was so solid and life-like that it was often mistaken for a real person" (Morton, 1892, p. 321).3 In a similar fashion, we saw in the crisis case (Section 2) that the woman and her daughter initially took the apparition to be the woman's real father. In the bystander case, the doctor described the image of his late father-in-law as being opaque and life-like.

While appearing solid, some apparitions can apparently exhibit physical or non-physical features. For instance, some appear to cast shadows and reflections. One curious example of an apparition casting a reflection is seen in one woman's personal account of a crisis case, which Feather and Schmicker (2005) present in their book The Gift:

"My mother lived in California and I lived in Wichita, Kansas. At 9:40 A.M. on February 17, I was sitting in my bedroom at my dressing room table, brushing my hair in front of the mirror. Suddenly the room was illuminated with the strangest light, one I can't fully describe. I then felt a rustle of wind across my shoulders, and a faint sound like the brushing of birds' wings. Then I looked in the mirror.

"My mother was standing behind my chair ... She just stood and smiled at me for a full thirty seconds. I finally said, 'Mom!' and rushed for her, but she disappeared, light and all. I was so upset by this that I shook for an hour. When my husband came home for lunch, I told him about it and got myself ready for a phone call that mother was dead ... Sure enough, about one P.M. that same day, the call came that my mother was gone ..." (pp. 261 – 262).

In other cases, apparitions have been seen to appear or disappear in enclosed rooms, and pass through doors and walls (Stevenson, 1982, p. 353; Tyrrell, 1953/1961, pp. 56 – 58). Attempts to touch an apparition have either resulted in the figure apparently eluding the hand to where it is unable to be touched, or the hands or arms simply passing through the figure. An example in which the apparition eludes the witness' hand can be found in the Morton Ghost case, in which Rosina Despard describes her attempts to touch the spectral widow. She noted that, "It was not that there was nothing there to touch, but that she always seemed to be beyond me, and if followed into a corner, simply disappeared" (p. 315). This latter statement may be valuable, in that it offers the hint that any non-physical features of an apparition may perhaps relate to distortions in perception on the part of the witness. If this is so, then it may suggest that, despite looking physical, apparitions may be mental forms, as well. That is, how the witness perceives the apparition may be partly determined by his or her own mental state at the time.

Although they traditionally represent deceased persons, we see in some cases that apparitions can also sometimes represent people who are still living. An example comes from an account given in a study of cases by Dr. Louisa Rhine (1957):

A little old lady came around every Thursday morning selling eggs from door to door and she always stopped at my house. This Thursday I had to go to town and as I was coming up the little road leading to my house I saw the egg lady standing on the porch. I noted that she was wearing a new pink dress and a sort of little bonnet to match. Just as I spied her, she turned to step off the porch and called to her to wait and then she just disappeared.

She never came out my gate, she didn't go anywhere, she just wasn't there. I was not more than 50 feet away when I first saw her and there were no bushes or plants to obstruct my vision. Later in the afternoon a knock sounded on my door and when I responded there stood the little egg lady dressed in pink and with her basket on her arm. I told her I was sorry I was not at home when she called about an hour earlier. She looked very surprised but smiled as she answered, "But this is the first time I have been here today. An hour ago I was just leaving the ranch. I was thinking about you and wondering if you wanted some eggs" (p. 22).

In addition, apparitions of the living may sometimes occur in crisis cases, when the person whose apparition is seen is ill or in an accident, but not faced with the threat of death. We shall also see in the next blog post that there have been a few rare cases in which living people have attempted to intentionally make themselves appear as an apparition to people they know.

Some apparitions may seem to exhibit behavior that suggests that they have some degree of awareness of their surroundings (Tyrrell, 1953/1961, pp. 60 – 66). Dr. Harvey Irwin (1994) offers the illustrative example that if a witness "... moves around the room the apparition's head may be said to have turned to follow these movements" (p. 58). Another interesting example comes from an account by Rosina Despard of an encounter with the spectral widow:

[The widow] crossed the drawing room, and took up her usual position behind the couch in the bow window. My father came in soon after, and I told him she was there. He could not see the figure, but went to where I showed him she was. She then swiftly went round behind him, across the room, out the door, and along the hall, disappearing as usual near the garden door, we both following her (Morton, 1892, p. 317, emphasis added).

This account suggests that, rather than simply passing through him, the spectral widow had moved to intentionally avoid Rosina's father as she exited the room. Rosina additionally noted that the widow would always move to avoid the light, leaving the witnesses unable to tell if she cast a shadow (p. 321). Apparent displays of awareness such as these tie into the issue of whether or not some apparitions are intelligent, an issue we shall discuss a bit more in Section 7.

Although the majority of apparitions have been witnessed by one person, there have been a small number of cases in which an apparition was collectively perceived by more than one witness. As we saw in the crisis and post-mortem cases (Section 2), two individuals may perceive the same apparition at one time. On the other hand, one witness may see the apparition, while another may not; this was apparently the case in the account by Rosina Despard involving her and her father, above.

Some apparitions of the dead tend to be seen in the geographical location where they once lived or worked (as in haunting cases), or around people who knew them in life (as in bystander-type cases). In addition to the Gordy case (Section 2), another example comes from Dianne Arcangel (2005, pp. 18 – 20), who relates a personal account of the experiences that workers at her family's dry cleaning business have had with the ghost of a man named Dyer. Employed with the business for about 30 years, Dyer worked diligently at his spotting board from morning till night, until his sudden death from a heart attack. Not long after, a female co-worker walked in and saw Dyer working behind his spotting board. She smiled and waved at him, and he waved back. The woman turned to put her things down, and when she turned back to him, Dyer was gone. Several other workers who were employed there later on reported similar incidents, and tenants of the apartment that was later built above the business by Arcangel's husband also reported seeing the spectral figure of a man resembling Dyer. Her husband noticed that one particular area of the apartment, located directly over the area of Dyer's spotting board, was constantly cold, even in the summer months. Arcangel says that neither her husband, the later workers, nor the tenants had ever known about Dyer prior to the experiences.

A comparison of four separate survey studies, shown in Table 1, suggests that more (non-haunting) apparitions tend to be of people with close family relation to the witnesses, rather than strangers.4

Table 1. Relationship Between the Apparition and the Witness in Apparition Cases (% Cases)

Values not cited are marked with a dash (-). All values are rounded to the nearest one percent.

In a later survey study, Dr. Haraldsson (1994) stated that nearly half of the figures seen in the 357 apparition cases he gathered were of a relative of the witness. In contrast, 29% of those cases involved the witness seeing the figure of a person unfamiliar to them. Similarly, in reviewing studies that compared apparitions of the dead with those of the living, Dr. Ian Stevenson (1982) had noted that: "No fewer than 78% of apparitions of the dead were perceived by a [witness] to whom the [deceased person] had had strong emotional ties, such as a husband, wife, or fiancé; and among apparitions of the living the percentage of such appearances rose even higher, to 92%" (p. 351).

There is some indication that the farther one gets from a person's time of death, the less frequently that person's apparition appears. In other words, sightings of the apparition of a deceased person tend to decline in frequency with increased time from the person's moment of death. Evidence for this initially surfaced in the late 1880s, when two prominent psychical researchers, Edmund Gurney and Frederic Myers (1888-89), had conducted a survey of early apparition cases they had gathered and published in a two-volume case anthology of psychic experiences entitled Phantasms of the Living (Gurney, Myers, & Podmore, 1886). They observed from these 211 cases that "... the recognised apparitions decrease rapidly in the few days after death, then more slowly; and after about a year's time they become so sporadic that we can no longer include them in a steadily descending line" (Gurney & Myers, 1888-89, p. 427). A similar decline in apparitional sightings was observed by Rosina Despard in the Morton Ghost case. She noted that from 1882 to 1884 she saw the spectral widow "... about half a dozen times" (Morton, 1892, p. 314), and it was also seen by several other members of her family during that time period. It was reportedly seen frequently throughout the year of 1885 (p. 318). By 1887, Rosina noted that "... we have few records; the appearances were less frequent" (p. 321). She added that from 1887 to 1889, the spectral widow was rarely seen, and then: "From 1889 to the present, so far as I know, the figure has not been seen at all" (p. 321).

The appearance of an apparition can sometimes be accompanied by certain kinds of subjective effects, such as feeling sensations of cold, wind, or touch. In the survey of apparition cases described in his classic book Apparitions, psychical researcher G. N. M. Tyrrell (1953/1961) observed that the experience of cold breezes and similar cooling sensations was fairly frequent across witness accounts. For instance, some witnesses gave the following statements: "I ... felt myself grow perfectly cold"; "A cold, shivering feeling came over me"; "The apparition 'laid a cold hand on his cheek'"; "As if a cool wind was blowing about me" (p. 73). Rosina Despard stated that similar cold sensations were sometimes felt in proximity to the spectral widow of the Morton Ghost case (Morton, 1892, p. 325).5

One final characteristic of apparitions is that, aside from being visual, some can be purely auditory, seeming to manifest as sounds reflective of human activity. An example of an auditory apparitional experience can be found in an investigation by Dr. William Roll (1991) of the alleged haunting phenomena witnessed by the tour staff and crew of the Queen Mary cruise ship, now permanently docked in Long Beach, CA. According to accounts by the staff and crew, sounds of loud metal impacts, voices, and rushing water are sometimes heard coming from the lower forward compartments near the ship's bow. However, when the compartments are checked, no one is found to be in the area, nor is there any sign of damage or a leak. To see if these sounds might represent an objective event rather than being purely subjective, Roll attempted to record them by leaving a voice-activated tape recorder overnight in the bow. When retrieved in the morning and played back, it was discovered that "... the tape recorder picked up a strange sequence of noises. You could hear heavy blows of metal, sounds of rushing water and voices, one of which, low pitched and gravelly, was almost intelligible" (p. 58). The recorded sounds were found to be strikingly similar to a description given by the ship's chief engineer, who heard the sounds on several occasions when he was in the bow area with no one else around. In addition, the nature of the sounds seemed consistent with a tragic event occurring early in the Queen Mary's sailing history, when it had been a military transport during World War II. During an evasion maneuver off the coast of Scotland in October of 1942, the bow of Queen Mary had accidentally collided with the British battle cruiser Curaçoa, tearing the smaller cruiser in half and resulting in the deaths of over 300 British sailors.6

Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson (1994) offers another example of an auditory apparition in his second survey of cases, which again seems to reflect the activity of a person:

Shortly after our father died, I came to his house with my brother. We knew that there was nobody in the house, and then we heard the old man at his desk. He was walking around, opened the door, and closed it again. Both of us stopped and listened when we entered, and then I remarked: "I guess there is no doubt who is up there." "No, there is no doubt about it," my brother replied. Both of us went upstairs; no one was there. We had heard this so clearly. He was 85 years old when he died, and he walked slowly, you know, had the typical old man's way of walking (p. 3).

Bryan Williams, University of New Mexico

Annalisa Ventola, CERCAP, Lund University

Mike Wilson, Psi Society


3.) The "Morton Ghost" case, documented by 19-year-old medical student Rosina Despard, is a classic in psychical research in that offers another good example of a haunting apparition. We previously alluded to this case in our second primer (Williams, Ventola, & Wilson, 2008), and refer the reader to that primer for a brief and convenient summary.

4.) Aside from the data of Persinger (1974) and Haraldsson (1988-1989), the results shown in Table 1 were calculated from data presented in Appendix Table 2 of Osis and Haraldsson (1977, p. 218), and the Appendix of Arcangel (2005, p. 284, 291). Cases in which the apparition was of a spiritual, historic, or unidentifiable figure are excluded.

5.) For additional discussion of cold sensations in relation to apparitions and haunt phenomena, see our second primer.

6.) In the late 1980s, Unsolved Mysteries had aired a segment on the alleged haunting of the Queen Mary and the investigation of it by Roll and British psychical researcher Tony Cornell. A two-part streaming video clip of this segment can be found on YouTube – Part 1 and Part 2. A sample of Roll's recording of the unusual sounds in the bow area can be heard in 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.

Gurney, E., & Myers, F. W. H. (1888-89). On apparitions occurring soon after death. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 5, 403 – 485.

Gurney, E., Myers, F. W. H., & Podmore, F. (1886). Phantasms of the Living (2 vols.). London: Trübner.

Haraldsson, E. (1988-1989). Survey of claimed encounters with the dead. Omega: Journal of Death & Dying, 19, 103 – 113.

Haraldsson, E. (1994). Apparitions of the dead: Analysis of a new collection of 357 reports. In E. W. Cook & D. L. Delanoy (Eds.) Research in Parapsychology 1991 (pp. 1 – 6). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

Irwin, H. J. (1994). The phenomenology of parapsychological experiences. In S. Krippner (Ed.) Advances in Parapsychological Research 7 (pp. 10 – 76). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

Morton, R. C. (1892). Record of a haunted house. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 8, 311 – 332.

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.

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.

Roll, W. G. (1982). The changing perspective on life after death. In S. Krippner (Ed.) Advances in Parapsychological Research 3 (pp. 147 – 291). New York: Plenum Press.

Roll, W. G. (1991, May). Journey to the Grey Ghost. Fate, pp. 55 – 61.

Stevenson, I. (1982). The contribution of apparitions to the evidence for survival. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 76, 341 – 358.

Tyrrell, G. N. M. (1953/1961). Science and Psychical Phenomena/Apparitions. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books.


Sharon Day said...

Awesome research and information. It's still really hard to tell whether apparitions and sounds aren't all residual and none of it intelligent. I grew up in a famous haunted Civil War hospital and admittedly I can't say there was any sense of interaction, although sometimes the timing was amazingly coincidental, it appeared to replay itself over and over again and again without any intelligence. It makes me wonder if sound and visual can't be imprinted in the environment and under the right conditions can show us glimpses.

Annalisa Ventola said...

Stay tuned. We'll be discussing that in our 6th or 7th installment of the series.

Anonymous said...

Great information! I was visited by a dead friend over a 2day/night span. He has been dead 11 years from a heart attack. He was able to manifest himself so that he could physically touch or better yet make an impression on my skin. I could "feel" his body weight pressing on me and through VERY slow movements, manouvre around me. I was able to make out physical outline of his body (VERY slow movements) and hence able to communicate through touch. Over time, on day 2 the, I was having a crisis physically (potential hear failure) and the entity communicated through and telepathy my course of action to prevent my impending death!!! He was with me in the ambulance and hospital and even played some practical jokes while I lie on a emergency hospital bed. They were "jokes" because these were exact personality traits when he was alive... he was my best and closet friend from ages 5-39 (when he died). Incredible experience. He left shortly after I received news that my heart and blood were normal.

Anonymous said...

Great information! I was visited by a dead friend over a 2day/night span. He has been dead 11 years from a heart attack. He was able to manifest himself so that he could physically touch or better yet make an impression on my skin. I could "feel" his body weight pressing on me and through VERY slow movements, manouvre around me. I was able to make out physical outline of his body (VERY slow movements) and hence able to communicate through touch. Over time, on day 2 the, I was having a crisis physically (potential hear failure) and the entity communicated through and telepathy my course of action to prevent my impending death!!! He was with me in the ambulance and hospital and even played some practical jokes while I lie on a emergency hospital bed. They were "jokes" because these were exact personality traits when he was alive... he was my best and closet friend from ages 5-39 (when he died). Incredible experience. He left shortly after I received news that my heart and blood were normal.