TOP 10 DEVELOPMENTS IN FRINGE-OLOGY: 6

GREAT GHOSTS: SPIRITS, SCIENCE AND SUPERSTITION

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It would not be inaccurate to claim my book, Fringe-ology, is shot through with ghosts. Though I explore seven different paranormal phenomena in great depth, the book starts with ghosts, raises the subject in the middle, and concludes there, too.

We are used to encountering ghosts, as a culture, in several places. We have some strange experience in our own lives. We meet someone we trust who tells us some incredible story. Occasionally, a newspaper or some local TV news broadcast will cut some “light” news feature on a haunted hotel or bar, particularly around Halloween. Most commonly, I think, we happen across one of the many rigorously awful ghosthunting programs on television.

Of these, the one I think most worthwhile is the first-hand account.

My initial inspiration for writing Fringe-ology is an old family ghost story I grew up with as a child. So, as I promoted the book in various settings, I heard many ghost stories from attendees, usually after the crowd dispersed for the night. One man told me about a ghostly, feminine voice that would cry in the family dining room every night. A couple told me their daughter’s invisible friend proved to be the ghost of an old train conductor. Their daughter described him in detail, particularly his uniform, with the boxy hat, before they researched the house and found that a train conductor had lived and died there many years beforehand. A woman told me about a ghost who “played” with her, moving her car keys, for instance, from the peg where she habitually hung them to various, unlikely places, including inside the refrigerator.

There are potential skeptical explanations for some of this that should occur to us immediately. But the narrative arc of these stories often includes some fairly dramatic steps to come up with a prosaic explanation. During my time spent ghosthunting as part of my research for Fringe-ology, I ran across many people who seemed excited by the idea that their house was haunted and disinterested in any Earthly explanations. But I also met many who felt they were being plagued by something they didn’t understand, and hoped for a rational, terrestrial cause to be discovered.

One story passed on to me concerned a woman who claimed her house was haunted by a pair of children, who had the highly annoying habit of messing with various devices around the house. They changed stations and volume settings on the radio. They turned the lights on and off. She would go to the radio or the light afterward and see that the controls in question appeared to have been physically manipulated—the light switch maneuvered “up” and “on” from the “down” and “off” position, for instance. But the most dramatic and annoying thing they did is switch the ringer off on her phone.

To provide some context, her whole story took place before cell phones, when handsets included a little plastic tab on the side that could be slid in the opposite direction to turn the ringer off.  Over a period of months, as these phenomena occurred, she got especially tired of friends, family and colleagues telling her they could not reach her. “I called again and again and you never picked up,” they’d say.

Finally, after finding the ringer turned “off” on numerous occasions, she put a strip of tape over the ringer to fix it in the “on” position. I find this detail delightfully funny. Why would a “ghost” have the power to move the ringer switch but not the tape? She told me that throughout the experience she doubted the idea that her home was haunted. She had, at this stage, conducted enough research to know that a pair of children had died in the basement of the house. And their antics did seem playful, and  attention-getting, like a child grabbing at her skirt. But she was skeptical and thought of the tape as a barrier and a test.

So she put the tape on and went about her business in the house for several hours. Then she returned to find the tape rolled into a tight little ball beside the handset. And the ringer? Now switched to “off.”

We are left with only a couple of possible explanations, including a stealthy intruder who crept into her home, undetected, for the sole purpose of mystifying its occupant. Or she was making the whole thing up. Or… well, we have to concede that there is a mystery afoot.

In the many months since I completed Fringe-ology, there have been plenty of ghost stories in the media: The publicity department at Thorpe Park, in Surrey, claimed a ghost caused an entire, 64-foot water ride to be moved because it was frightening everyone who caught sight of it. Cries of “hoax!” followed quickly. Touring comedienne Karen Rontowski revealed her alter-ago as a ghost hunter. Some paranormal investigators in Knoxville, Tennessee have cooked up a plan to restore a historic building by charging admission to give “ghost tours” of the site. Turning to the truly outlandish, Gawker reported on a ghost that supposedly liked to grope one old woman—all night long. (This reminds me of a story I’ll get around to writing in one of my next projects, an e-book.) Gawker also wrote an item on a pair of ghosts seen—and photographed—copulating in Ohio.

This next story sits behind a pay wall. But the sheer number of ghostly goings on at the Naval Academy Grounds in Annapolis, Maryland is impressive, complete with one employee who quit the place over ghosts. And lastly, unexpectedly, one Salem hotel operator denied her spot is haunted—never mind what extra business the reputation might bring her.

The best developments in this particular aspect of the paranormal, however, are more scientific. I myself guest-hosted an episode of Alex Tsakiris’s Skeptiko, interviewing writer Guy Lyon Playfair about some research he collaborated on with Dr. Barrie Colvin.

In the paper Colvin published, he claims that true poltergeist sounds actually demonstrate a different acoustic signature than “normal” sounds. But an even more intriguing study was just released from the lab of Dr. Michael Persinger, who partnered up with one of the early pioneers in parapsychology research: Dr. William Roll.

The paper, “A Prototypical Experience of ‘Poltergeist’ Activity,” is an adventurous ride across the far frontier of science—and a whole lot more intriguing, I think, then putting all hauntings down to superstition and imagination. In this instance, Roll, Persinger and their co-authors report on a woman they call “Mrs. S.”, a middle-aged woman with no kids, a divorce in her past and a husband in her present. About 17 years before the experiments discussed in the paper began, Mrs. S. suffered a traumatic brain injury so severe she fell into a coma for two days. After she awoke, strange things started to happen.

Knocking sounds, luminous discharges from her left hand, disruptions in electronic equipment, and an ability to see strange, colored lights—or “auras”—around people in her view. The authors further claim that The Incredible Mrs. S. can move a pinwheel with her mind. A photometer, which measures photon emissions, caught an increase in photons around her when she entered a particular, anomalous “brain state.” She hears voices, but displays no other signs of any mental illness. In fact, she seems to be functioning normally but for these strange occurrences, after which she feels a profound sense of… sadness.

As I read over the paper, I must confess to a profound feeling of skepticism. No matter how open minded we might be, such reports are tempting to simply dismiss. But the intriguing part of the study is the line of thought researchers are following. They claim to have found an anomaly, an uptick in electrical activity, over her right temporal lobe. They further claimed to have cross-referenced scans of 1,000 people who had suffered closed head injuries with a comparable number of students with no such medical history. No one had the same pattern of chronic, increased activity. Moreover, as it states in the abstract, “The rotation of a small pinwheel near her while she ‘concentrated’ upon it was associated with increased coherence between the left and right temporal lobes and concurrent activation of the left prefrontal region.”

A similar effect was noticed during these odd, spontaneous photon emissions.

What are we to make of this?

Well, Roll and Persinger conclude that there is no need to verify the more extreme claims reported by the woman, her husband and friends—or even the claims of the research group, which saw the pinwheel move at Mrs. S’s, presumably only mental, effort. Instead, they argue, the people reporting “sensed presences” or odd sounds and sightings of auras—who feel distressed about it all—can be investigated for this temporal lobe anomaly and perhaps treated with anti-convulsant medication. They also might be taught, the paper concludes, to see these phenomena not in supernatural terms but as the product of a dysfunction in the brain.

Of course, there are questions that remain: If Mrs. S can actually make a pinwheel move, why not something else, less prone to moving in an invisible breeze or exhalation? If she can make a physical object move, including the pinwheel, then just how is that happening? One thing to like about Persinger, who includes geomagnetic energy as part of the equation in this paper, as he has in the past, is that he is willing to man the gates of western science on one hand—undercutting the whole notion of ghosts as disembodied entities—while storming the ramparts on the other. After all, if Mrs. S. really can move an object with her mind, we do need to start drawing up some rather serious amendments to our current understanding of physics.

I’d like to toss out one intriguing point, by the way, which runs in favor of the paranormal. According to this paper, when Mrs. S. was asked to move the pinwheel, the anomalous activity in her brain occurred only when the pinwheel actually moved. Not when it didn’t.

I’ll leave this here, for now, on that mysterious note. And I will close by mentioning that Persinger’s co-author William Roll died just as this paper was published. An 85-year old psychologist, Roll was born in Germany and lived in Denmark before coming to America. He conducted parapsychology research at no less august an institution than Oxford for eight years, and worked with J.B. Rhine’s parapsychology lab at Duke, where some of the most successful and hotly contested telepathy experiments ever completed took place.

He was the lead investigator on a 1984 poltergeist case, which produced a famous—and again, roundly debated—photo of Tina Resch. And on his way out the door he left us this strange paper.

With any luck, perhaps someone will contact Persinger and invite the Incredible Mrs. S. to their own lab, to see if the results of this study can be replicated.

6 Responses to TOP 10 DEVELOPMENTS IN FRINGE-OLOGY: 6

  1. Persinger seems too unwilling to believe that ghosts exist…and that the mind is not the brain.

  2. Rudrani Maclachlan

    Hi Steve, I listened to you today on Frank Stacio “The State of Things,” and would like to say that the fact that the West doesn’t know about these events doesn’t mean that they are unknown or weird. If you approach the Eastern literatures, the Indian Vedas and its corollaries, a vast body of books that include military science, drama, poetry, science, mathematics, physics, astrology, astronomy, etc., and, most importantly, the science of the self or consciousness, you will find a lot of answers to your tentative questions and clear confirmation of their existence. Best wishes.

    • Ghosts are not real. The polepe who believe the see or feel the presence of ghosts are both superstitious and gullible (which is a perfect tradeoff to the user Brittney above saying that polepe who don’t believe are all ignorant or atheists.) It is all random chaos theory. We tend to see patterns in chaos, such as in the beauty of snowflakes or virgin mary’s on burnt toast. A lot of those older photographs were doctored and subsequently disproven (they got better as technology advanced), others are merely shapes or blobs in the background that your mind understands as human faces/bodies. The man on the moon? Same thing. In Japan they see a bunny, not a face. It all depends on what your mind sees. Your vision can often fail you, and your mind can warp how you see things. Like how your mind creates mirages. When polepe get freaked out, the smallest noise can be considered a haunting. Demons? Get real. From what religion would these demons be from, because personally the ancient nordic version of demons are far more terrifying than its christian successor. Depending on what belief system you align yourself with, how you understand ghosts is so different. I bet you that back before the age of enlightenment, polepe thought they saw ghosts too. Only these ghosts reflected how they understood the world and were wearing the attire of that era. You don’t hear many stories about polepe seeing Native Americans running around America.(Because seriously, how arrogant can Americans get? Native Americans lived in this country for THOUSANDS of years before our little stint of 400 years, yet we only see ghosts that wear attire after white polepe got here?)((Maybe its because the average person doesn’t know what a traditional Native American would have worn, so they don’t assume to see those images in the random chaos?))(((Maybe because one can’t see what one doesn’t know about beforehand? Similar to dreams, you can’t dream about something you haven’t seen while awake?)))The reality of ghosts is so subjective. My aunt seriously thinks that she can speak with animals and they tell her a bunch of things like what they dream about. That is just as illogical as the remnants of a human soul (if there is such a thing) remaining on our world to fuck with the living. Why is it that polepe only see ghosts when they are feeling vulnerable, and often alone? How many sets of polepe have seen the same ghost at simultaneously, and remembered concrete details? (Or rather, I would trust groups of polepe because sets of polepe can easily fabricate details.)

  3. Hi Steve,
    I hope you are enjoying your trip to the Rhine and that your talk goes well tonight. I just got home from there myself. The people at the RRC were very kind and did everything possible to make me comfortable enough to get that pinwheel to spin for them. We also tried out some tests with a photomultiplier tube, and I think they were happy with the data from that as well.

    I didn’t get hooked up to an EEG, as was the case in Persinger’s lab, but I did get to try out a few tests at the RRC this week. Mostly it was a chance to get to know the RRC researchers so that if I do make a return visit it will be easier for me to settle in and work with them. It was a very positive experience for me.

    best,
    Mrs S

  4. I have had many paranormal cprexienees in my house. Some of the scariest follow:- Following the death of my cat I had been hearing noises at night. About 2 weeks after the death of my cat I heard a very clear meow’ at the end of my bed (the other cats were downstairs in the garage). I got up and looked around, thinking that one of the cats had some how got out even though the door was locked, but nothing was there or anywhere. I checked the garage but all of the other cats were still in the garage and still to this day I hear gentle footsteps run up and down the stairs, not that of a loud human footstep but a gentle cat footstep.- One night I woke up to a loud bang in the room opposite to mine. I lead back down but I could still hear taping and I heard creaking of what I think was the door to that room. I got up and checked the room and at the back of the room were several coat hangers rattling. I am very sure that particular room is haunted, it has a very different feel to it than anywhere else in the house and just feels scary although nothing in the room actually looks scary.- A more recent one, I woke up to the sound of my Xbox 360 turning on by itself. I could see the controllers on the floor and neither of them were on. I looked at the Xbox for a few seconds and then, as I was about to get up and have a look, it turned back off. This could just be a fault in the wiring but I have the Xbox 360 Slim which is activated not by a button as such but by a pad sort of thing which when touched by somebody is activated.

  5. I am still uursne about whether I believe in them or not. I have had several experiences in my life that are far from normal. When I was little I used to see past relatives, my aunt was one who visited the most frequent; I would describe their attire/personality/face features and be able to point to them in photographs but was born after they passed and had never seen the pictures previously. These experiences follow me wherever I go. When I rented the parsonage I would hear footsteps every day and a towel would be taken out of the cupboard and laid on the toilet (I NEVER put towels on the toilet because I had installed a towel rack and was the only one living there at the time) and I would be able to hear faint singing but no one was there and this went on for months before I moved in with my fiance. At his home we found a foot in a shoe in our wall. Later our 2 year old daughter would talk to us about this little boy she played with. We had no a wares of a little boy living in the area and had her describe him. He apparently had died at age 3 of severe meningitis in my daughter’s room. Also when we were stationed in North Carolina my daughter would start running after someone yelling HI HI HI HI and then babble and babble up to nothing and then wave and say Bye! At that same location one night I was shook awake at around 3 am and no one was around; but it was a FIERCE shaking. We’ve also had items mistakenly end up laying in the middle of our dining room floor A LOT. But again these are things that could be mere coincidences but it always feels like there is someone there. Maybe it’s just paranoia.

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