(You may also read this on Medium.)
I HAVE BEEN HAUNTED by ghosts since I was a young boy.
When I was four, my family lived in the south of England. Our house — a historic structure some 100 years old — was haunted by an old woman. My mom dubbed her the “White Lady” because she would see a lady in a white dress, outside, looking over the garden.
She seemed to be there to take care of things — to make sure that everything and everyone was fine. It is probably no coincidence that one of my earliest memories from that house was the feeling of someone watching over me even when my parents weren’t around.
One night my mom forgot to tuck me in. She later came into my room and found that someone had already taken care of it. When she asked my dad about it the next morning, he swore that it wasn’t him.
Years passed, and I was haunted in a dream, almost every night.
I was in a field in the country. The sky was dark, but it was not night. The air was still and quiet. I was walking and came upon a long wall. The wall was not tall, but it was high enough that I could not see behind it. I was compelled to walk toward it. As I got closer, I felt a sense of dread. And yet I kept walking. When I reached the edge, a figure in the shape of a man stood up suddenly. I looked at his face and saw … nothing. It was literally empty, hollow, a void. As he reached out to me, I woke up.
Many years later I was living in Colorado. My office was in the basement and so I spent a lot of time down there. It felt strange. Cold. It had an old coal storage room (long since converted into a closet) that would give me chills every time I walked by it, even if it was in the middle of summer.
Almost every day the internet would drop or the TV would stop working for no apparent reason. Once, I got so frustrated that I yelled out to whatever it was to stop messing around. After that, I didn’t have issues with the internet or the TV.
I still got chills every time I went into the basement. There was just something there. But I always wondered if there was something behind it, some explanation, some reason.
THERE IS A TV SERIES called Ghost Adventures which follows this guy Zak and his crew of ghost-hunting misfits. Zak wears a spiked hairdo and tight-fitting shirts with crosses on them. He talks deliberately and seriously, as if every encounter is a matter of life and death. They visit houses, churches, bars, hotels, mental institutions — just about every location that you could imagine might have had a dark past.
There was an episode early on where they visited an old hotel. They are in the basement, filming with their night vision cameras, and everyone looks like possums. As they move from room to room you can see rubble and bricks everywhere, and their voices echo for a bit and then hit the walls with a thud. It seems dark, and cold, and you can feel the tension. Zak is talking slowly and deliberately, narrating the whole thing.
Suddenly, the camera catches movement. One of the guys in his crew yells out, and the camera jumps, almost falls. Zak yells “OH. MY. GOD. HOLY. FUCK. GO!” They all start running, camera bouncing up and down.
Later, they have someone analyze the video for signs of tampering — either to the tape itself or to the scene at the hotel. The analyst rolls the tape and replays it over and over again.
As he plays the tape in slow motion, you can clearly see a brick, flying from one end of the room to the other in almost a straight line. There are no signs of anyone else in the room, no wires … and no way to move this brick.
They rewind, and zoom in, and you see it again. You really feel it — the fear, the awe — and the sense that something else, some force, is there. And it doesn’t mean well.
Ed and Lorraine Warren are perhaps the most famous paranormal investigators and demonologists in the world. They’ve been the subject of many books, TV shows, and films. For some 50 years, they have been hunting and exorcising ghost and demons around the U.S. and the world.
They are best known for their doll, Annabelle. You might imagine Annabelle to be a creepy china doll with eyelids that wink at you when you’re not looking, or a wild-eyed self-powered puppet like Chucky.
But in fact it is a very plain Raggedy-Ann style doll. It is unexpected, and unassuming — which I suppose is what makes it so frightening. It is the kind of thing you would see in child’s room, or an antique shop, and think nothing of it. And yet it wants to kill you.
Ed and Lorraine brought something vital to the business of hunting ghosts and demons: a belief that seemed unshakeable, and stories that would chill anyone to the bone. And a doll.
Over the past few generations, ghost stories have cemented themselves as part of our culture. In large part, it is entertainment — one only needs to look as far as the many ghost stories and films that are produced every year — but over time it has evolved into something else.
A large number of Americans believe in ghosts. As many as half, in fact, according to a YouGov/HuffPost poll. Perhaps even more surprising is that almost 20% say that they have actually seen a ghost. Given that the current population of the US is over 300 million people, that is a lot. Like tens of millions a lot.
There are many ways to explain this, but perhaps the most simple one is that to believe in ghosts it to believe in something beyond this life, something immortal.
Modern humans, unlike most other creatures, are obsessed with the future. We’re always anticipating, planning, hoping, looking forward to things.
If we know the future is indefinite — that there is life after death — then perhaps we can feel better about today.
Fascination with the supernatural can be traced back to the beginning of American society, and the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 are one of the most potent and lasting examples. An entire community appeared to go insane, and many people died, for what today we imagine to be innocent — if not abnormal — behavior on the part of a few wild kids.
At the time though it was disturbing and frightening. To the people of Salem it was clearly triggered by something demonic, something else, which no one could explain. People feared for their lives. But they were also drawn to the drama and the intensity of the situation, which no doubt fed the fire.
Salem is not the only example of witchcraft in the 17th century. In France circa 1634, a priest named Grandier was accused of bewitching and raping a group of nuns. The priest was jailed and tortured, and the nuns subsequently exorcised of their demons. There was little question of his guilt, despite the only evidence being a written pact with the devil, which was later discovered to be penned by one of the nuns.
He was burned alive.
And so here we are today. As Fox Mulder would say: “I want to believe”. And many of us do.
The ghost hunters, like Zak, try to convince us with audio recordings (EVPs, in their parlance), or with video and photos. But mostly they tell us convincing stories, backed by regular folk who have been there, who have seen it. They swear it was real, and their sincerity shows. What choice do we have but to believe them?
And yet for all the examples of ghosts, we have little to show for it, except for the stories. What evidence do we have? What proof? It stretches credulity.
Despite all of this, I think ghosts are real. And they can be proven. But they only exist in our minds.
A NUMBER OF YEARS AGO I watched a French movie named Irreversible. It was a fascinating and intense film which Roger Ebert called “so violent and cruel that most people will find it unwatchable”.
But it was also quite literally nauseating. There were reports that people who saw it in the theater became highly anxious, and in some cases physically ill.
It was a truly visually disturbing film, and yet these reactions were not caused by images.
They were caused by sound.
Infrasound in its most basic form is simply a low-frequency sound below 20 Hz. At high sound pressures we can feel it inside our bodies, like the slamming of a bass drum. At low pressures it is often undetectable.
The filmmakers of Irreversible employed it to trigger a physical, and visceral, reaction to their work.
But often, infrasound is unintentional. A side effect of a machine. Man-made, but invisible. Like a ghost.
In the 1980s, Vic Tandy, an engineer from the U.K., was working at the Warwick Laboratory designing medical devices. There were rumors that the place was haunted, and in fact some folks had quit their jobs there as a result of seeing — and feeling — an apparition. Sightings aside, the place just felt heavy.
Tandy was a practical man, and chalked up the “sightings” to the medical equipment constantly humming in the building, along with the dim lighting, and late nights.
But one evening, he experienced it for himself.
It started with feeling uncomfortable, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. He felt he was being watched. And then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a grey blob. Whenever he turned to look at it, it was gone. As time went on, he began to feel a sense of fear and dread.
Like any normal person he got the fuck out of there.
The next day Tandy was back at the lab. A fencer, he had brought his fencing foil to work on. He clamped it in a vice and noticed that it began vibrating even though nothing was touching it.
After some investigating he discovered that a fan nearby was causing the vibration. When he turned it off, the vibration stopped, and he felt as though a huge weight had been lifted.
Out of curiosity he measured the frequency of the fan. It turned out to be 18.98 Hz, which just so happens to be the exact resonant frequency of the human eye.
He had, in fact, seen nothing at all. His eyeball was simply vibrating like a foil in a vice. The ghost was simply a side effect.
WHEN YOU IMAGINE a haunted house, you probably picture a building with a dark or tumultuous history. A place with a deep history of tumultuous events — and of people in despair and conflict — that they have left an indelible imprint. The history of this place may go back hundreds of years and across many lifetimes.
To that end there is the ‘burial ground’ theory, which was used to great effect in Spielberg’s Poltergeist. Some unsuspecting fool (or greedy corporation) builds a house on top of a long-dead Native American final resting place (or Quaker, for that matter), and all of a sudden spirits are trampling all over the place, trying to burn the house down and kill everyone associated with it.
While it might be dramatic to imagine a haunted house as a conduit for the dead buried beneath it, for the most part we think of a house as a place where something happened. Someone died there, or perhaps a lost spirit became attached to it. And when there is a haunting one of our first instincts is to learn more about it. We might research local records, or look up news articles, or even consult a psychic to try and ‘read’ the home’s history.
But perhaps there is another reason why old houses are haunted.
In 1912, a family only known as ‘H’ moved into a decrepit, run-down house that hadn’t seen a regular occupant in 10 years. The house was built in the 19th century, and still had gas lamps, rather than the electric lights which were now common.
Not long after they moved in, strange things began to happen.
Mrs. H said:
One morning, I heard footsteps in the room over my head. I hurried up the stairs. To my surprise, the room was empty. I passed into the next and then into all the rooms on that floor, and then to the floor above to find that I was the only person in that part of the house. Sometimes after I’ve gone to bed, the noises from the store room are tremendous, as if furniture was being piled against the door, as if china was being moved about, and occasionally a long and fearful sigh or wail.
She was not the only one to experience this. The children became ill and depressed; the servants felt as though someone was following them, and were awakened at night by sounds of furniture being dragged; her husband awoke to a ghostly presence strangling him. This continued for months, tormenting the family, and yet no one could offer any explanation, or solution, or relief.
When Carrie Poppy was 25, she moved into a dilapidated guest house in Los Angeles. After a while she realized that things were not right.
So it started because I went to an occult bookstore. And I was overwhelmed by this negative feeling — but at the time, [what] I would have called a bad spiritual presence. And then later that day when I went home, I felt it again. And I thought, oh, this spirit has followed me home.
At first, she said, it wasn’t physical. But later it escalated:
I would hear this […] whoosh, like as if something was passing by me — maybe the sound of the ocean, you might say. And, yeah, and then just this disquieting feeling that something was there.
Eventually it became unbearable:
Every day, I’d come home. And […] this feeling got so bad. I would sit there in bed at night. I would cry every night. And the feeling on my chest got worse and worse. It was physically painful. So finally, I got on the Internet and I Googled hauntings. And I came upon this forum of ghost hunters. But these were a special kind of ghost hunters.
She called the ghost hunters for help. And help they did — but not in the way she was expecting.
Carrie Poppy and the H family most certainly saw and felt something. Their experiences very real, and their pain was not imagined. But what they didn’t realize — what they only came to find after they had exhausted just about every other avenue of investigation — was that they were being touched by something more frightening than a ghost.
They were being poisoned.
Poison travels in all sorts of vessels — animals, plants, minerals. Many poisons exist in the world, but most declare their presence bluntly: the bright-as-blood berry; the jarring colors of the poison dart frog; the shimmering black and red hourglass of the black widow.
There is one poison, however, that is cunningly clandestine. It has no smell, no taste, no color. It sneaks up on you and it builds and builds until eventually it destroys you. And it has the potential to exist in every home in the industrialized world.
That poison is carbon monoxide.
For Carrie Poppy’s ghost hunters, this was obvious from the start:
They were skeptics. And I was like, OK, smart guys, this is what’s happening to me. And if you have an explanation for me, I would love to hear it. And one of them said, OK, have you heard of carbon monoxide poisoning? And I said, yeah, like, gas poisoning? So carbon monoxide poisoning is when you have a gas leak leaking into your home.
After that she called the gas company. A man answered and said:
it’s a really good thing that you called us tonight because you could have been dead very soon.
Across the modern world, carbon monoxide (CO) is responsible for more than half of fatal poisonings per year. Some 400 people die of carbon monoxide poisoning a year in the United States, and another 20,000 are hospitalized, mostly due to malfunctioning furnaces, water heaters, and other gas appliances.
At low levels of exposure, the effects of CO on the human body tend to be slow, and build over time. This type of exposure fits nicely with many haunted house stories: a family moves in, and at first everything is fine; soon, members of the family — especially those who spend a lot of time in the home — start seeing and hearing things; the family cat or dog dies; kids start to get sick; sightings and physical affects and feelings of dread escalate.
In extreme cases, a family member dies, either directly from the CO, or from an accident. Perhaps someone is “pushed” down the stairs, or otherwise suffers a fall.
The resolution can be anything from a “cleansing” (where, in some cases, all of the windows are opened — which incidentally helps to clear the home of the toxic gas), to the family leaving the home (which of course eases the symptoms immediately), to a coincidental repair of a furnace or air conditioner that had stopped functioning.
But sometimes that is not the end of it. Those most affected may still have vivid dreams, or feel paranoia, or have the sense that they are being watched, or even show evidence of psychosis — even after the CO has disappeared. Sometimes this may be attributed to a “person haunting” or demon possession, or to spirits remaining in the home.
For these persistent hauntings, whatever the catalyst, the root cause may be linked to one thing: belief.
IT IS NOT HARD to imagine that as humans, when we see or hear something, we tend to believe that it is real. After all, we are creatures driven by sight and sound; without it, we are lost. Our senses are about as base and instinctual as anything that drives us.
Don’t believe everything you read has been a maxim for as long as there were things to read. Your instinct as a human when you view something with your eyes is that it must be real (or true), unless you know for a fact that is not. Often your expectations drive your belief, so if you go into it believing that it (the words, the sounds, the sights) are true, then they will appear to be.
On Halloween, 1938, H.G. Wells aired his War of the Worlds radio broadcast. It was made to sound like a series of news bulletins, and some believed it, causing a panic. There is much speculation as to the cause of the panic, but one explanation is that Americans were highly anxious about world events due to the Munich crisis. They were expecting a global catastrophe, and so when presented with an account that felt real, they chose to believe it.
Belief, of course, is also rooted in religion and spirituality. For those of us who believe in God, there is often an afterlife associated with it. Ghosts are just those stuck between this world and the next. Either they’ve lost their way, or are in purgatory — perhaps of their own doing, or by circumstance.
I am extremely desirous therefore to know whether you believe in the existence of ghosts, and that they have a real form, and are a sort of divinities, or only the visionary impressions of a terrified imagination.
He goes on to describe an encounter by the Stoic philosopher Athenodorus who had moved into a cheap, and supposedly haunted, home in Athens. Once he had settled in, he set out to meet this apparition:
When it grew towards evening, [Athenodorus] ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire.
While the first part of the night was uneventful, eventually the ghost made his presence known:
… at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard … He looked up, saw, and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger, like a person who calls another.
What else was this curious philosopher to do except follow the ghost? And so he did:
The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him.
The next day, Athenodorus shared his experience with the local magistrates, and suggested that they dig up the spot which he had so marked:
This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; for the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones, being collected together, were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.
Was this the first, or perhaps most influential, ghost story of our civilization? Whatever the case may be, it is hard to argue that any modern ghost story deviates much from this account. You might say that we’ve been telling the same story since the dawn of modern civilization.
THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS are perhaps one of the most famous and riveting real-life dramas in United States history. While this story is centered around the trials and tribulations of a band of witches, its roots can be found in the supernatural.
… I going well to bed, about the dead of the night felt a great weight upon my breast, and awakening, looked, and it being bright moonlight, did clearly see Bridget Bishop, or her likeness, sitting upon my stomach. And putting my arms off of the bed to free myself from that great oppression, she presently laid hold of my throat and almost choked me. And I had no strength or power in my hands to resist or help myself. And in this condition she held me to almost day.
Fast-forward to Moscow, 2017:
… a woman drifted-off to sleep after playing Pokemon Go on her smartphone. Later that night, she was awoken by a crushing pressure. She opened her eyes and reportedly saw that she was being assaulted by a real-life Pokemon character. Not a person in a Pokemon outfit, an actual Pokemon. Panicking, but unable to speak, she struggled with the creature while her boyfriend slumbered ignorantly beside her.
Both accounts stretch reality. But reality is of little consequence to the mind while it is dreaming. Which is exactly what happened here: the woman assaulted by a Pokemon and the man assaulted by a witch were dreaming. Except that they were also awake.
This phenomenon is also quite real. It is called sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis affects some 3 million Americans. While it is more common in people that have other sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy, it can occur to anyone. It has also been identified in many cultures around the world, which means that it is part of the human experience. For much of our history, it has been associated with witches, ghosts, or other malevolent entities. In Dutch, it is known as nachtmerrie, roughly translated as night-mare.
Often, sleep paralysis manifests itself as a sort of waking dream.
We have all most likely experienced a fleeting moment between being asleep and being awake, where fantasy intrudes into reality. According to Dr. Priyanka Yadav, a sleep specialist at the Somerset Medical Sleep for Life Center in Hillsborough, N.J., these experiences can sometimes be disturbing. In an interview with NBC News, he explains that:
… sleep paralysis occurs when there’s a disconnect between mind and body while people are going in or coming out of REM sleep.
“It seems like you’re paralyzed, which naturally occurs when you’re sleeping,” says Yadav.
“But this somehow happens while you’re awake. It can last from a few seconds to a minute or two and is often associated with hypnagogic hallucinations, things you might see when trying to fall asleep or hypnopompic hallucinations, things you see when you’re trying to wake up.”
Yadav says these “waking dreams” can involve serpents, spiders, intruders, and […] even ghosts, and are often associated with feelings of dread.
You might even say that the fear of sleep paralysis — and the belief that it is caused by some otherworldly creature out to harm us — has become part of our cultural DNA. Should it be any surprise, then, that our immediate reaction to this experience would be to attribute it to an evil spirit?
ALL OF THIS IS to say: while science can explain some of our experience with the supernatural, there is also much that cannot be proven, or even tested. Ghost sightings and other paranormal activity is often only witnessed in person by a single soul, and rarely recorded. Search for “ghost photos” on Google and you’ll be inundated with questionable or fabricated material, none of which can or has been positively verified.
Once can also not understate the power and importance of belief. For may people, this is what guides us; this is our True North. After all, what are we without a purpose? And belief gives us that. It also gives us a deep shared connection with people who would otherwise be strangers. The power and support of community is what keeps us evolving as people, and this should not be discounted.
But with belief also comes blindness, and a conviction that can run counter to reality. Science knows no belief; it is just is. And while we have taught ourselves to be creatures of science, we are first and foremost creatures of belief.
For those of us who attempt to put fact before belief, it is tempting to find and expose the hard truth as a counter to belief. In so doing we affirm our own faith in science as the only means of truth.
But it sometimes comes at the expense of our humanity, as well as our spirituality.
To this I say: we can, and must, follow both of these North Stars. There is room for both science and spirituality, and in fact without one, there cannot be the other. If humans were not constantly seeking answers — seeking a higher purpose — science would not exist. And if science did not exist — or at least our understanding of it — our ability to explore and investigate and learn would be compromised.
And to the believers I say: I believe in you, and your ghosts.
But I will also go all-in on the science. Which means that I will keep seeking an explanation — a reason anchored in the physical and the observable — which sometimes will be found in science, and sometimes I will not.
Yet it will always be in the pursuit of my own belief: that the stories we tell deserve beauty and mystery and spirituality, and truth.