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MAKING GHOSTS

Posted by TomHodden on November 19, 2010 at 4:01 PM

  People have always assumed some strange things about me. Ever since I was at school I have not bothered to hide the fact I like horror and science fiction, fantasy and comics. What struck me as strange was that people seemed to think I had no idea where the line between fiction and reality was. I thought Sylvester McCoy was an underrated Doctor Who (I mean, come on folks, the moment he ponders causality over a cup of tea in Greasy Spoon? A kids show has no right being that smart.) but that does not mean I believed in UFOs and men from other galaxies. If people were going to assume that, they could at least have based it on the fact the X-Files was making Sci-Fi popular (Millennium was better, but never mind) or Close Encounters (a brilliant film close to the allegations). Amazingly enough I did not think Star Trek was a documentary. I was under no illusions that the guy from I Claudius had somehow travelled into the distant future to hunt aliens with Whoopie Goldberg who was sending records of their journey to a magic box in my living room. I must admit, the fact that at least some of the people who made the accusations that I believed the freaky stuff happened to have no capability for telling the difference between a character in Eastenders and the actor who happened to play them (“Dirty Den would never kill a man! He is so nice on TV!”;) and ignored the troubling fact I could name the writers and directors of my favourite shows, while they have no idea who writes or makes their shows. Yet I thought it was “real”. Great.

 

  Sometime after puberty people stop judging by TV show, and start judging by belief, and all of a sudden something very strange happened. All of a sudden the same people started making the same snide comments and assuming I am silly for not believing in all those same things. I don't believe in ghosts, UFOs, or a lot of other things. My beliefs and faith are in strictly abject ideals such as hope for peace, the basic goodness of man, fairness and freedom for the majority, responsibility, and so forth. For more defined ideas, like a god, the spirit of nature, fad diets and crystal healing, I wont dismiss them out of hand, but I will need convincing. Convincing that the claim is correct in practice (it works) and principle (it works how it says it works). Ghosts and aliens are no different to that principle. Now, I should clear something up before you get the wrong idea. I don't always assume that anybody who claims to have seen, heard or felt a ghost is telling porkies. Far from it, I have had a few strange experiences myself. I do not however assume that what I saw was the soul of a dead person. I don't know what it was, or how it works, and to claim I did would be irresponsible of me. I like to think that one day science will have an understanding of the laws of physics far wider than we can see now, as we are familiar with concepts far beyond the ken of our ancestors, and I thoroughly dislike it when I am told “science does not know all”. No, it doesn't or science would be meaningless and would grind to a halt. But that does not mean you can fill in the blanks with what ever you think “everybody knows”, or pass moral judgements about what I do or do not believe. If you have your own subjective belief you are welcome to it, but I ask you don't try and convince me it is an objective truth. For me truth is what I can and can not see proven, not what is true for you.

 

   There is an element I should also address of those who, for what ever reason, believe that science should bend to their beliefs and that unless I accept their world view I am closed minded and a stooge of the corrupt world we live in. Many of these are well intentioned individuals who perceive a danger with fluoride, cows milk, vaccines, modern medicine in general or they truly are convinced that crystal healing, ancient remedies, filtered water or wheat grass is an effective cure for their ailments and that if only doctors would listen to them lives can be saved. These are good folks who are willing to have an adult discussion and take an objective look at the benefits or flaws in their idea, some don't understand how controlled testing works, or think the truth is being kept in secret by corporations or the government, or somebody else. Either way it is a personal thing and they have a different idea, so no big deal. If any of you feel this way about ghosts, I'm sorry, the article that follows is in no way intended as an insult to you and I have no intentions to upset your feelings. You friend, are a person who has looked at the evidence and reached a different conclusion. Please do not mistake my view of you, for my view of those who are genuinely closed minded. Who will not look at real evidence as they have already decided what is true, and will stick to that ideal blindly and hate anybody who does not share it. Nor should you be mistaken for those who are “anti” something because it is “anti”. Who would rather believe in organic farms not because of the convincing evidence that it improves the produce or is less risky to environment but because it is a counter culture to Big Agriculture or Processed Meat, or Toxic Chemicals. Who believe cows milk and vaccines and medicine and politics and anything else is tainted and corrupt because they simply are. These people annoy me because they tend to assume I am closed minded, and refuse to have a discussion. They wish to dictate what is, and what is not real, and often have no understanding of how to prove their views or how to persuade others of their stance, because they have no interest in the science or the reasoning. You are either with them, or you are against them, and although it is clearly their right to believe as they want, they will call others closed minded or sheep following the herd to their doom with out thinking. Now to me, if I just accepted their truth with out question I would be a sheep and I would be closed minded. You friend are not that person, if you have read this far with out threatening to kill me you are willing to accept we are both open minded, and although we may not convince each other of our points of view, we are open to the opportunity to be persuaded, should a convincing argument be made.

 

  So you may be asking the obvious question by now; if I do not believe a ghost is real, in the sense that the dead walk the world of the living, why am I typing this rather rambling piece? Well, like I said, I have had some spooky experiences, and I would like to share my thoughts on the ingredients that produce a haunting. Now, I am no scientist, and I am not claiming to know what a ghost is. Think of this more as an examination of some, but by no means all, of the symptoms of a haunting. I am wary of discussing some aspects, so I'm going to state them now, at the beginning so they don't feel like a cheap rug pull at the end: Friend, we have to face the fact that some people, for good natured reasons or not, tell lies. I know how that feels and I don't want you to think “Oh, so any ghost he can't explain is a lie?” No, of course not. But some are. And it is a possibility we must face. Taking a reference point that is fairly likely to be recognised by a lot of people, I was discussing the Bell Witch with a friend. And she asked, “Well, if it isn't true, how do you explain the guy describing how THIS happened?” The answer being: If the story is not true, and we only have the guys word that happened, it is fairly likely that it didn't happen. Same with the Amityville Horror, if we only have one persons word that he saw strange footprints, and other aspects of the story have been shown to be lies, we can't trust the footprints were there to be seen. Sorry, it's a hard truth, but sometimes people make things up. I do not choose those two cases out of hand, bith have good reasons to be considered from a sceptical stance, and I recommend a look here: http://skeptoid.com/episode_guide.php?cat=7.

 

   Another aspect that must be considered is assumed wisdom. When people see a UFO, or even hear the phrase we think “spaceship” or “alien”. We have no reason to do so, it is an Unidentified Flying Object. If it was an alien space vessel, it would be identified. To assume an outlandish identity for the object despite having no way of knowing what it is seems strange to me. It may be possible that the object is indeed a spaceship, but surely we would have to discount a lot of other possibilities first. It is the same with ghosts. There is a certain willingness to interpret some illusions or experiences as contact with a ghost because it is ingrained in our culture, and it offers a comforting answer to one of the big questions we can never prove. If ghosts are real then there must be something after life. Even some of the pseudo science answers like “psychic imprints on the fabrics of building” or “echoes of distant time” are deliberately vague on details because they are nice ideas masquerading as a theory. How those echoes work, or what form the “psychic energy” takes is never explained, but again, if that is a personal subjective belief it is no less wacky than most. We assume that if an idea is old, and shared by a lot of people, this negates the need to prove it because “everybody knows it”, and yes, everybody knows what a ghost is. If it looks like a ghost, feels like a ghost, and scares us senseless like a ghost we find it hard not to assume the obvious answer is wrong. Or at least not while we are standing there frozen with terror, our hearts trying to escape our ribs, and adrenaline surging through us like hot wax. Seconds or hours later cool heads may prevail, but right then, in that moment, we don't want to think. Our instincts are driving us, not our minds, and primordial mechanics kick in.

 

  Ah yes, the primordial mechanics. I have no idea if it is the right term, and for gods sake don't go looking for it in a text book. This is purely subjective stuff folks, so take it with a pinch of salt. Humans are complex, and it took us a long time to get this way. We thrived because we evolved, and even the simplest stuff we don't want to think about evolved for a reason. Children crying when they wake up or are in pain evolved to draw the attention of protective family members around a vulnerable infant. Our senses evolved so that unhealthy stuff like bad meat or, erm, bodily functions that are not sanitary , smell bad to us. We feel nervous in the dark, because we know dangers can lurk in the shadows. We have a lot of our genetic ancestry in our DNA, and it lingers in the programming of our minds, the fight or flight instinct being the most obvious example. My personal feeling that in my own case one of those lingering instincts that has etched itself to my mind is a real glass half empty kind of instinct. I am a rational guy, but I am a total wuss, a supreme Big Girls Blouse. I am pretty damned sure that the back breaking potential of cracks in paving slabs is a myth, but I still avoid them. Put me in a dark, shadow filled graveyard, lurking with that unsettling atmosphere and the looming gothic graves, and that instinct will sense faint movements and stirring branches and err on the side of caution. If there is a chance of a threat it will assume there is a threat and make me terrified. You know the crawling feeling on your spine. The same one you had as a kid when you thought the monster was under your bed. Maybe that is a good example, you lay alone, you have a big open space beneath you, or next to your wardrobe. The shadows are too dark to see, so some part of your brain thinks: Woah, a predator could hide there. Then it thinks more and gets you ready just in case there IS a predator there. Maybe that is why so many kids worry about the unseen creature in their room, it's a primordial instinct bubbling away in our DNA.

 

   The next factor to consider is expectation. Ever noticed how you never pay attention to a particular type of car until you are considering buying one, then you notice each and every one you pass. You are thinking about it, so your sub-concious flags it up. The same thing happens to me when I am going somewhere reputed to be haunted. My mind picks out the little details that might be a ghost, because it is looking for them. All the stuff it wouldn't normally notice. And if it sees anything suspicious it is more willing to interpret it as a footstep, a groan or a wisp of breathe on the back of my neck. It works retroactively too. We may not be aware we are doing it, but when we think back to events, to remember them, we include in the context stuff we learned later. “Well at the time we just saw this blinding flash before the crash, but I know now it was the other car with its beams on full.” Our mind does it now. We see a vague shape we can't interpret, and if we know the house is meant to be haunted, or find out later it was haunted, and somewhere in our mind we have a shape we can put on the shapeless shadow. Our minds don't like to have gaps they don't fill, and if there is an explanation to hand, in the right circumstances old stories about what somebody thought they saw will fit. There was a time at primary school when kids in my class thought there was a fox living in the bottom of the playing field. Some were sure, beyond any doubt, they had seen it. And they could describe it in absolute detail, down to the rabid jaws. It was just the ginger tomcat from the house next door, but they saw an orange blur, and their minds filled in the gaps. Because somebody said “fox”, they saw a fox. People saw more UFOs when the X-Files were at the top of their popularity, and we are all more open to being scared once we have seen horror films.

But what are these strange signs we pick up on? It doesn't matter how sensitive we are if there is nothing to sense. So what physical effects can cause ghostly apparitions?

 

   Well, some of these may sound like old hat, but that is because they have been noted on many occasions. Flickering lights, shadows, vegetation moving in the corner of your eye and other hackneyed disturbances of the air or surroundings can cause indistinct shapes that our mind tries to seek out patterns or meanings in (simulacra). It is why we see faces in rocks, trees, or the surface of the moon or Mars. There is a comparable effect with sound, pareidolia, where the body tries to make sense of random sounds as voices. This episode of the Skeptoid podcast features some fine examples while discussing the idea of backwards talking. As I mentioned, if you are expecting there to be a ghost near by,or if you are aware of the idea of a ghostly legend, your mind may well use that to make sense of the odd sounds from the wind, or it may hear pipes and floorboards settling as footsteps or groans.

 

   But it is not just the sounds we can hear. Sounds we can't hear, called Infrasound, of certain frequencies can have some unusual effects. Around the 17Hz range, our bodies interpret the sound in some very strange ways. Also check out these links: richardwiseman.com and this bbc news article on Organ Music. It can give you a spooky or unsettling or even religious feeling in different uses, from the pipes on old organs that dont seem to make a useful note, to the infamous “brown noise” experiments . With such powerful effects giving you heebie jeebies for no reason you can put your finger on, air movements from fans, or even from an old window or a draft, could certainly add to the sensation of a haunting. There are even some reports of industrial fans causing people to have the uncomfortable feeling of being watched, and vague shadows forming in the corner of their eyes.

 

   Temperature is another factor. We are so used to hearing that ghosts make a cold spot that television hunters have taken to waving infra red thermometers around to find cold spots in a room. Not that the IRTs work like that. They are great for measuring the temperature of a point on a wall, but in the middle of a room? There would be nothing to bounce the IR light back. Sometimes I watch “Most Haunted” and ponder if the ghost hunters ever read the damned instructions. Of course, the better question is if the cold spots are there because of a ghost, or if we are more open to an idea of a ghost because of a sudden chill that raises our heckles and gives us goosebumps. We all have those feelings as though somebody walked over our grave. We all know that it can put us on edge. Add it to the other threads described above and it becomes a tapestry that could very easily be described as a ghost.

Categories: Truth is Stranger than Fiction? A romp through my twisted mind.....

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1 Comment

Reply Shaun Hammel
12:28 PM on November 21, 2010 
This is one fine article right here. Should be required reading for every current and potential ghost hunter/believer on our wonderful, wacky planet. One thing I'm not so sure about however is the connection between patently unprovable events like ghost haunts and more grounded in reality claims of poisonous products produced by Big Business and the Power Machine. I don't think Tom and I would see completely eye to eye here, because I'm of a certain cynical strain, and view most people as not only easily corruptible, but more than willing to be consciously corrupted: tools. When big money is involved, the playing field shifts dramatically. But essentially he is right: we must be more open to persuasion of other perspectives and arguments, and examine our own prejudices and ideas we cling to for cherished or holier-than-thou reasons.

The single most important idea behind this article I think is that our brains are considerably more vast and empty than we are prepared to understand, believe, handle. Our brains are miniature models of the universe. And most of the universe is simply-- empty. Nothing. Nada. And because of this, yeah, maybe truth is stranger than fiction after all. And certainly scarier.