What is a Ghost?
by Jayne Harris
"One should accept Ghosts very much as one accepts fire - an equally mysterious phenomenon. What is fire? It is an event rather than a living creature"
A word that we've all heard, countless times. But do we stop to consider what is meant by it? I mean really.
There have been various theories across the globe, and throughout the generations surrounding what exactly we are seeing, hearing and perceiving when we encounter something we simply refer to as a 'Ghost". Ghosts have been reported by people from all walks of life, and from all countries across the world. These experiences do not seem reliant upon level of intellect, education or religous belief. In short, 'ghosts' don't seem to mind who they appear to. But are they even appearing at all, or is it more likely that they are simply projections of our own consciousness. And if this is the case, why do certain locations gain reputations for being haunted, if these manifestations simply exist in the mind of the witness?
One theory which has gained acceptance over the years came from Sir Oliver Lodge, a respected scientist and member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Sir Oliver put forward the notion that ghosts were simply 'records of events'. He suggested that strong emotions could be recorded in the fabric of physical matter and that ghosts were simply the 'personification of tragic moments in time'. In 1925 Lodge published a book entitled Man and the Universe.
What follows is an excerpt:
"There may be a room in a huanted house wherein is the scene of a ghastly representation o some long past tragedy. On the psychometric hypothesis, the original tragedy has been literally photographed on its material surroundings, nay, even on the ether itself".
Paranormal enthusiasts will now recognise this theory as the Stone Tape theory. Lodge later published a book entitled
Phantom Walls (1929) in which he suggests that "the spiritual world is the reality and this life is only a temporary episode".
A very interesting concept and one which for all we know may be quite accurate.
In 1911 Sir William Barrett a leading figure in the SPR published a list of 4 theories, and even given the advancement of technology and scientific study into the paranormal, these remain today as the 4 most commonly referred to explanations, in some form or another.
1. The popular view that the apparition belongs to the external world like ordinary matter and would be there whether the
percipient was present or not.
2. That the phantom was projected from the mind of the percipient and was, therefore, a hallucination. Not a baseless one, but
created by telepathic impact from the mind of a deceased person. This theory seems the most plausible.
3. That the phantom was due merely to expectancy and telepathically transferred from one living mind to another.
4. That some subtle phyical influence is left in the building or locality that affects certain brains and creates the hallucination.
So it's clear that to the academic minds at the SPR, ghosts and spirit manifestations are simply hallucinations. But that's not to say they don't exist, but that they exist only because we exist. That the very prescence of a ghost or spirit, is dependant on the presence of a living person. So if this were an empty world with no living human life at all, then there would also be no ghosts or spirits present either. To me, this sounds a little bit too much like the 'if a tree falls in a forest and no-one hears it, does it make a sound?" type scenario.
However, throughout the early part of the 20th century it became very much the accepted explanation for sightings of apparitions. The general concensus amongst intellectuals was that apparitions of the dead were most frequently caused by telepathy from the dead. So basically the idea that when we die, our consciousness, our mind, lives on in the infinite ether. As it lives on, it's memories and thoughts reverberate around the physical world sometimes impacting on the mind of a living person. When this happens, a person gains knowledge they would not ordinarily know (names, dates, causes of death etc). This would be a very good explanation of the powers of psychic meidumship, but this theory goes further than that, in stating that not only can the disembodied mind transmit thoughts and information, but that it can also telepathically transfer images and likenesses of its former self, which then manifest.
If this were proven, which of course it is highly unlikely it ever will be, then it would provide an understandable explanation for both ghosts and spirits. For residual haunts and intelligent ones. I am close to accepting the telepathic transference theory myself if truth be told, but part of me genuinely does not want to settle on one hypothesis, in favour of preserving the mystery.
For some people, a ghost is a very real thing, especially if what they believe they have seen is a deceaed loved one. The belief is that the person remains with them in this life, watching over them and maybe even protecting them. This would indicate that far from believing these ghosts exist simply as a projection of someones character , some people believe that we continue on past this physical life, into the non physical, and yet retain our physical appearance...even our clothes! How often is a ghost seen naked? The whole clothes argument does add weight to the previously mentioned telepathy theory also. The mind of the deceased would not wish to project an image of themselves completely naked, well maybe in some cases they would, but generally speaking they would project memories and thoughts of themselves as they looked in day to day life.
What doesn't necessarily make sense is when we have cases of multiple witnesses all seeing the same thing at the same time. Unless of course we assume that multiple subconscious minds can be connected to by a single non physical mind.
In the middle of the 20th century a theory began to emerge which suggested that ghosts were "molecules of light'. In a 1965 article entitled "Ghosts - Fact or Fantasy?" Hans Holzer, one of Americas most high profile ghost hunters, discussed the theory.
"Spirits of the dead exist in a sort of half-dimension. They exist as 'flows' of molecules that travel the same wavelengths as light. Thus, theorists claim that light will 'blot out' or 'overwhelm' the less intense ghost molecules".
Could this be where we get our ideas about conducting paranormal investigations in darkness from?There are many witnesses across the world who have seen apparitions in broad daylight, so this theory about the light molecules that make up a ghost being 'less intense' or 'overwhelmed' by light doesn't fully stack up it seems, although it could well be that there is some basis in logic here.
As is always the case when looking to explain what is currently, the unexplainable, we find ourselves going in circles, revisiting the same questions, and ultimately not finding an answer.
Going back to the quote by Robert Graves at the top of the page, should we all simply be accepting that ghosts 'happen' rather than 'exist'?
To read more articles by Jayne Harris visit the 'Publications' page