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It's fun to pretend
Icon ghost.svg
Fails from the crypt
In addition to still- and video cameras, amateur "ghostologists" use various other glitch-prone equipment — such as electromagnetic field (EMF) meters — to supposedly detect the energy from ghosts. They breathlessly report "high readings" and "significant spikes" on EMF devices and other equipment. Alas, these ghost buffs are invariably non-scientists, who know little about their devices and what they're really recording, and they do not use scientific protocols and controls. They seem to think that if you use high-tech equipment, they're performing science — but they're actually engaging in pseudoscience. None of the varied instruments they use are designed for ghost detection. There is no scientific evidence that ghosts exist — let alone that they emit electromagnetic radiation or have other detectable properties.
Joe Nickell, Adventures In Paranormal Investigation[1]

Ghosts are generally defined as "The spirit of a dead person, especially one believed to appear in bodily likeness to living persons or to haunt former habitats."[2] There are two problems with this definition:

  1. Besides ghostly people, there are also ghostly ships (e.g. Flying Dutchman), ghostly planes, a ghostly double decker[3] and enough ghostly pets to open an SPCGA.[4] Some even thought the spooky but natural weather phenomenon of St. Elmo's fire [5] were nature spirits or supernatural omens,[6] however the only truly scary thing was a 1980s film of the same name.
  2. Ghosts are nearly always the product of apophenia (seeing a pattern that in reality doesn't exist)

You die, you're gone. But, your passing may haunt those you leave behind and cause them imaginary experiences of your coming back to… who knows what?

Ghost stories, on the other hand, are a wonderful source of entertainment — but if you decide to make one, be truthful and don't claim it's "based on a true story."[7]

There's also a a whole industry devoted to making a fast buck off gullible TV viewers.

Types of hauntings[edit]

A photograph of some "ghosts"

Ghostbusters claim there are two main kinds of ghostly hauntings; residual and intelligent.[8] A residual spook is unaware that it's dead, apparently, and will pass through a room, or wash ghostly dishes, without interacting with any living people in the vicinity. An intelligent ghost is the one that makes it into the movies, because they're the ones that know they are dead and are pissed off. This results in them chasing Pac-ManWikipedia's W.svg around a maze poltergeist activity, strange houses in Amityville and Freddie Kruger. In either case, almost all ghostly apparitions are "seen" wearing clothing, which may suggest that your clothes have a soul and that they will die when you do.[9]

Ghost stories[edit]

Especially around Halloween, newspapers, television and the internets are flooded with supposedly factual ghost stories told from the point of view that ghosts are scary, no conventional explanation for them is likely, and witnesses couldn't possibly be exaggerating or embroidering their accounts. Supporting testimony from scientific-sounding experts can make them seem all the more convincing. In truth, ghost stories are a form of largely formulaic storytelling that historians speculate evolved as a way of dealing with deep-rooted fears of death and dying, possibly inspired by cultural memories of 14th century Black Plague victims wrapped in white sheets. Many of the credulous "true tales" and "eyewitness reports" being published and passed around today are merely modern-day versions of traditional supernatural folklore that has been with us for hundreds of years.[10]

Stone Tape theory[edit]

Somehow even weirder is the Stone Tape theory, put forth by archaeologist turned-parapsychologist Thomas Charles Lethbridge, which surmises that ghost phenomena are recordings of traumatic experiences held in rocks instead of being actual entities. No, seriously.

Scientific explanations[edit]

A photograph of a "ghost" haunting Independence Hall, which is definitely not a camera flash. [citation NOT needed]

There is nothing to explain, since there are no consistently observable phenomena to investigate. Hell, even if there was evidence, there isn't really anything that can be used to experiment on such phenomena. Evidence assembled for the existence of ghosts is largely ad hoc, anecdotal and difficult (or impossible) to duplicate or investigate further.

Explanations of ghosts supposedly dodging physical laws (like being semi-transparent or able to pass through walls) date back to Cambridge Platonist Henry Moore in the 17th century who suggested that souls (and therefore ghosts) are essentially four-dimensional beings, an idea that Johann Karl Friedrich Zöllner promoted in the 19th century.[11]

Using Edwin Abbott Abbott's Flatland as his foundation, Carl Sagan in the print version of Cosmos stated:

"If a fourth-dimension creature existed it could, in our three-dimensional universe, appear and dematerialize at will, change shape remarkably, pluck us out of locked rooms, and make us appear from nowhere."
—Carl Sagan. Cosmos pg 219

The problem is that most ghost lovers go the easier 'doesn't follow physical laws' route and call it a day. In reality they (though they don't realize it) mean 'doesn't follow three dimensional physical laws'.

Apophenia (seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data) in conjunction with strong emotions can explain many ghost sightings. This combination was used by Carl Sagan to explain the Martian canals seen by Percival Lowell:

"There is no doubt that the Mars canals of Percival Lowell were of intelligent origin. The only question is which side of the telescope the intelligence was on. Where we have strong emotions, we're liable to fool ourselves."
—Carl Sagan. Cosmos

Distorted shadows, reflections by not-immediately-obvious fixtures (or the flash of the camera itself), out-of-focus objects (the bug on a lens theory has been used to explain many ghost images in video tapes), and even particularities of the equipment itself coupled to the desire to believe can explain many ghost sightings and even videos of ghosts.

Another explanation used by some is that ghosts are emotional imprints on spacetime, and not the spirits of the dead. This would explain why in most reports, they cannot be touched, and are often seen repeating an event from their life.

Other possible explanations include hallucinations due to a mental disorder or disease. Another probable explanation could involve the effects of sleep paralysis, especially as many sufferers experience the sensation of being held down by something, sometimes accompanied by terrifying hallucinations.

Belief in ghosts may also come from the refusal to accept the finality of one's own mortality and the possible absence of an afterlife, as well as the inability to cope with the loss of a loved one. Ghosts are, effectively, the "eternal spirit" of someone who has passed from the earthly realm and not finally lodged in heaven (nor hell).

St. Elmo's fire[edit]

Spooky lights!

St. Elmo's fire (not that oneWikipedia's W.svg) )may look ghostly to some people but it is a natural weather phenomenon with a scientific explanation. And one thing it isn't is fire.

Like lightning, St. Elmo's fire is plasma or ionized air that emits a glow.However, it results not from movement of charged particles from a cloud to the ground but rather it's a corona discharge, caused by an imbalance in electrical charges. This imbalance is between the air and an object around it, and as a tapered surface will discharge at a lower voltage level, it occurs most often on the top of a steeple, mast or plane wing.[12]

In a nutshell[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Adventures In Paranormal Investigation, Chapter 3 (12:00), audiobook version.
  2. Free Dictionary's definition
  3. Well, they've seen it, so it must be true.
  4. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Ghostly Animals
  5. What is St. Elmo's Fire? HowStuffWorks
  6. Andrew Gregory The Presocratics and the Supernatural: Magic, Philosophy and Science in Early Greece
  7. See Based On A Great Big Lie on TV Tropes for more details. WARNING: TV Tropes will ruin your life.
  8. Archive copy at the Wayback Machine
  9. Even Lyall Watson in the woo-tastic Supernature is forced to concede: "While I am prepared in principle to concede the possible existence of an astral body, I cannot bring myself to believe in astral shoes and shirts and hats."
  10. Goldstein, Grider, Thomas Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore Utah State University Press
  11. Pickover, Cliff (2001)Surfing Through Hyperspace Oxford University Press pg 123
  12. Weather Elements: The Fire of St. Elmo