Monday, November 23, 2009

Apparitional Experiences Primer: Apparitions in the Laboratory

5. Experiments with Apparitions in the Laboratory

Perhaps the ideal way to experiment with a ghost would be to bring it into the laboratory, where its physical and psychological aspects could be studied under controlled conditions. While it is clearly not possible to do so, some parapsychologists have attempted the next best thing: to artificially produce an apparition that can be experienced by a witness in the lab. To do that, parapsychologists have made use of a custom-built chamber called a psychomanteum.

The psychomanteum (Greek for "theater of the mind") is a darkened room that is designed to induce apparition-like experiences through the process of scrying (gazing into a reflective surface). Its origins derive from Greek mythology, in which people would often journey to special locations (such as the oracle at Delphi) to hold audience with the gods through visions seen in reflective pools of oil or water. Sometimes, they would also see images of their deceased ancestors within those reflective visions. Dr. Raymond Moody (1992; Moody & Perry, 1993), a psychiatrist with a deep interest in Greek history, adopted the idea and created his own modern-day version of the psychomanteum in the early 1990s as a technique for bereavement and grief counseling.

Dr. Moody's technique generally proceeded as follows: The witness would first be asked to select a deceased friend or relative with whom they wished to have a visionary reunion in the psychomanteum. Prior to the actual session, extensive discussion was held between the witness and Dr. Moody about the deceased person, their relationship with the witness, and the witness' motivations for wanting to have a reunion with that person. The witness shared photographs and objects that had once belonged to the deceased person, and discussed their significance to help them remember and reconnect with that person. Towards dusk, the witness was shown into the psychomanteum, and was instructed to relax in a comfortable chair while gazing passively into a large mirror hanging on the wall a few feet across from the chair, which was angled upward to reflect the darkness. After some time had passed, the witness was brought out of the psychomanteum and discussion was held about what he or she had experienced while mirror-gazing. According to Dr. Moody (1992), about half of the people who underwent his psychomanteum technique reported seeing apparitions of the dead in the mirror.

Other researchers using the psychomanteum have had varying degrees of success in producing reunion experiences. Drs. Dean Radin and Jannine Rebman (1996) report that just over half (four, or 57%) of the seven witnesses who spent time in their electronically-monitored psychomanteum had sensed the presence of a deceased person. They found that variables in the surrounding environment (e.g., magnetic fields, radiation, and temperature) that they had monitored during the witnesses' experiences were significantly related to changes in the witnesses' physiology (e.g., heart rate, skin temperature, and brain waves), suggesting that some apparitional experiences may result from complex interactions between mind-body states and physical variables in the surrounding environment.

Dianne Arcangel (1997) had a strong degree of success, with 58 of her 68 participants (85%) having a reunion experience. Fifty-five of them reported a visual apparition as part of their experience. Dr. Arthur Hastings and his associates at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in California had 27 people participate in their psychomanteum study (Hastings et al., 2002). Of these, 13 (48%) described a reunion experience, which mostly came in the form of a mental conversation they had with the deceased person, which some witnesses said was akin to telepathy. Although none of the witnesses had reported seeing a full-blown apparition of the deceased person in the mirror, they did see a variety of visual images, including lights, dark human-like figures, animals, flowers, landscapes, and faces. An account by one of the witnesses illustrates the kinds of images seen:

Feeling deep grief at the beginning; black robed figures coming toward me; black spinning ball with trailing energy moving clockwise in mirror; unidentified faces in the mirror; energy streaming out of mirror into space in front of me. A foot (light skin then changed to dark skin). Hand and faint formulations of a human (?) shape (Hastings et al., 2002, p. 217).

The effects of a reunion experience upon a person's grief is illustrated by an account given by one witness who sought contact with his sister, who had died nearly three decades earlier:

Yes, I did sense her presence – a body state more than anything, though a couple of times it seems like I heard her voice. I got the message that I have been holding this experience of her pain, my resentment that she had to suffer so much, and my sadness that she is gone for 27 years. Though I have worked in therapy around the grief issue, I didn't know that the resentment was so strong (p. 218).

In sensing her presence, the witness further stated that he had had the impression of his sister holding him as he experienced sadness over her loss. Generally, Dr. Hastings and his associates found that the witnesses showed significant reductions in their grief following their time in the psychomanteum, as compared to before.

Dr. William Roll (2004) held a series of psychomanteum workshops with 41 people who sought a reunion with deceased friends and relatives. Using an approach similar to Dr. Moody's, Dr. Roll helped the people through their grief by discussing their deceased relatives and friends and handling their objects before having each person sit in a psychomanteum facility built into the basement of his home. Despite only nine of the 41 people (22%) experiencing a reunion, the workshops seemed to help the people reduce their grief and unresolved feelings toward the deceased person, consistent with the findings of Dr. Hastings and his associates. Dr. Roll found that people who previously reported having a survival-related experience (such as an apparition or a near-death experience) tended to report strong reunion experiences.

Devin Terhune and Matthew Smith (2006) used the psychomanteum to explore the effects of suggestion on the occurrence of apparitional experiences. They randomly assigned 40 people into one of two groups: a suggestion group and a non-suggestion group. The suggestion group was told that they could experience anomalous sensations (including seeing an apparition) while in the psychomanteum, while the non-suggestion group was told that they might only experience unusual bodily sensations or perceptual distortions while gazing into the mirror. The suggestion group was later found to report significantly more visual and auditory apparitions in the psychomanteum than the non-suggestion group, possibly indicating that the experience of an apparition may be influenced by such things as suggestion and rumor. In a similar fashion, some people may be more likely to report haunt experiences in a particular location when told beforehand that the location is supposedly haunted (Lange & Houran, 1997).

Bryan Williams, University of New Mexico

Annalisa Ventola, CERCAP, Lund University

Mike Wilson, Psi Society


Arcangel, D. (1997). Investigating the relationship between the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and facilitated reunion experiences. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 91, 82 – 95.

Hastings, A., Hutton, M., Braud, W., Bennett, C., Berk, I., Boynton, T., Dawn, C., Ferguson, E., Goldman, A., Greene, E., Hewett, M., Lind, V., McLellan, K., & Steinbach-Humphrey, S. (2002). Psychomanteum research: Experiences and effects on bereavement. Omega: Journal of Death & Dying, 45, 211 – 228.

Lange, R., & Houran, J. (1997). Context-induced paranormal experiences: Support for Houran and Lange's model of haunting phenomena. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 84, 1455 – 1458.

Moody, R. A. (1992). Family reunions: Visionary encounters with the departed in a modern-day psychomanteum. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 11, 83 – 121.

Moody, R., with Perry, P. (1993). Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones. New York: Villard Books.

Radin, D. I., & Rebman, J. M. (1996). Are phantasms fact or fantasy? A preliminary investigation of apparitions evoked in the laboratory. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 61, 65 – 87.

Roll, W. G. (1994). Are ghosts really poltergeists? Proceedings of Presented Papers: The Parapsychological Association 37th Annual Convention (pp. 347 – 351). Durham, NC: Parapsychological Association, Inc.

Terhune, D. B., & Smith, M. D. (2006). The induction of anomalous experiences in a mirror-gazing facility: Suggestion, cognitive perceptual personality traits and phenomenological state effects. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 194, 415 – 421.


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Claudio Pisani MD

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