Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead

Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead

by Joe Nickell

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Are ghosts real? Are there truly haunted places, only haunted people, or both? And how can we know? Taking neither a credulous nor a dismissive approach, this first-of-its-kind book solves those perplexing mysteries and more—even answering the question of why we care so very much.

Putting aside purely romantic tales, this book examines the actual evidence


Are ghosts real? Are there truly haunted places, only haunted people, or both? And how can we know? Taking neither a credulous nor a dismissive approach, this first-of-its-kind book solves those perplexing mysteries and more—even answering the question of why we care so very much.

Putting aside purely romantic tales, this book examines the actual evidence for ghosts—from eyewitness accounts to mediumistic productions (such as diaphanous forms materializing in dim light), spirit photographs, ghost-detection phenomena, and even CSI-type trace evidence. Offering numerous exciting case studies, this book engages in serious investigation rather than breathless mystifying. Pseudoscience, folk legends, and outright hoaxes are challenged and exposed, while the historical, cultural, and scientific aspects of ghost experiences and haunting reports are carefully explored.

The author—the world's only professional paranormal investigator—brings his skills as a stage magician, private detective, folklorist, and forensic science writer to bear on a topic that demands serious study.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Winner of the 2013 Robert Balles Prize for Critical Thinking!

"This is it—the definitive book on ghosts from a scientific perspective, written by the world's foremost science-based ghost hunter. Nickell is the go-to guy for all things paranormal, and with this book he has once again asserted himself as a fair and careful investigator whose conclusions we can trust."
—Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, and author of The Believing Brain

"In [this] important new book Joe Nickell-the premier skeptical paranormal investigator alive today-explains his expert techniques while presenting various paranormal cases, looking at the actual evidence for the existence of such spirit beings. This is a book that everyone interested in ghostly evidence for the afterlife-believer and skeptic alike-will benefit from reading."
—D. J. Grothe, president, James Randi Educational Foundation

"[Nickell is] the epitome of [a] skeptical investigator...coming to a subject without prejudgment but with an honest desire to find the truth...." 
—Kendrick Frazier, editor, Skeptical Inquirer

"[The Science of Ghosts] will find a home in science and new age collections alike, and considers the actual evidence surrounding psychic contacts with 'the other side… a balanced assessment of the evidence for ghosts and hauntings."
The Bookwatch

"Filled with case studies, this book will interest other fans of ghostly affairs academia."
—Bookviews by Alan Caruba

"This is a well thought out, intelligently written book."
City Book Review

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Prometheus Books
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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Joe Nickell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-585-9

Chapter One


Among humankind's persistent beliefs is the conviction that ghosts, or spirits of the dead, actually may exist, may return to haunt a particular place, or can even be communicated with. Polls show that approximately a third of the American public holds such beliefs, although the number appears to be declining (Moore 2005).

In Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts, R. C. Finucane (1984) observes that, over time, different cultures have had very different beliefs about spirits, and as those changed so did the spirits themselves.

For example, in the Old Testament, the dead could be called up—as "gods ascending out of the earth"—by someone with occult powers. The raised entities might express annoyance with having been thus "disquieted"—as did Samuel when King Saul had the Witch of Endor conjure him forth. He appeared as an "old man ... covered with a mantle" (1 Samuel 28).

What may be "the first record of the classic chain-clanking ghost" (Guiley 2000, 25) has also been "regarded as the first investigated ghost story" (Finucane 2001, 17). It involved a house in Athens (about 1 CE) haunted by the phantom of an emaciated man in fetters. Rattling its chains at night, it supposedly brought disease and death to visitors, and it scared even skeptics who came to mock. Then a stoic philosopher named Athenodorus purchased the house. According to the story, he tried first to ignore the beckoning specter, but finally he followed it into the garden, where it disappeared. The next day he had local officials dig at the site, whereupon—the tale concludes—they discovered the skeleton in rusty chains. Following a proper burial, which appeased the ghost, the haunting ended (Cohen 1984, 39–41; Guiley 2000, 25; Finucane 2001, 17).

Now this hearsay story, related by Roman writer Pliny the Younger (ca. 100 CE) was already a century old when he told it. It had probably been retold many times, like so many folktales. It is what folklorists call a "legend"—that is, a narrative reflecting a folk belief, in this case belief in the reality of ghosts. Indeed it is a subtype called a "proof legend," one that supports a belief with alleged evidence. (In this case skeptics are supposedly discredited by the discovery of bones and chains that confirm the reality of the ghost.) The story is also an example of a "legend trip": a visit, to a site that has a legend about uncanny events there, made to test the legend (Brunvand 1996, 437–40).

In medieval Europe, ghosts were often portrayed—in accordance with Roman Catholic doctrine—as souls suffering in purgatory (a state or place wherein those who have died in God's grace atone for their sins). By 1527, at the latest, such ghosts were reportedly communicating with the living through physical rapping sounds, as happened when the spirit of an expelled French nun tapped out messages to a novice. These supposedly confirmed the reality of purgatory, thus discrediting the skepticism of heretical Protestants. It was also reported that she had seen the devil and had asked that she be absolved from her sins and that her bones be buried in the convent (Finucane 1984, 106–108, 223).

Allegedly paralleling such pious ghosts were evil spirits—devils or demons. The Catholic Church had methods for distinguishing ghosts from demons (and keeping the latter away), but Protestants generally believed that souls of the dead went immediately to heaven or hell and never returned. Therefore, apparitions—if they were not frauds or illusions (inspired, say, by fear or drink)—were likely to be either good angels or demons masquerading as ghosts, not actual spirits of the dead (Finucane 1984, 92–93).

One type of alleged spirit, usually more mischievous than malevolent, was the poltergeist (after the German term for "noisy spirit"). Invariably unseen, poltergeists have since ancient times thrown objects, made noises, engaged in vandalism, or otherwise wreaked havoc. However, the phenomena have typically centered around youngsters, who have sometimes been caught and confessed that they were simply playing pranks on superstitious adults (Nickell 2001, 219).

A skeptical view of evil spirits was offered by English writer Reginald Scot, who was concerned less with the ghost controversy than with a more dangerous consequence of emotional belief in the supernatural, the witch mania. In his The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), Scot devoted only a single chapter to ghosts, but therein he pilloried the beliefs of Catholics and his fellow Protestants alike. He held that only those apparitions and visions that came from God, Christ, or angels were to be considered; devils, he insisted, could not affect humans physically, since they were only spiritual beings.

King James (1566–1625) regarded Scot's views to be heretical and ordered the burning of his book, although copies survived and it became an important work in the next two centuries. Kings James's opinion—that there was a "feareful abounding" of witches and that all ghostly apparitions came from the devil—prevailed for a time (Scot 1584; Summers 1930; Finucane 1984, 93–95).

In Elizabethan culture—as reflected in the plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616)—ghosts began to adapt to England's having made the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism (Finucane 1984, 111–14). The dead continued to have otherworldly, even old-fashioned trappings, yet they were purposeful and part of the psychological situation. For example, in Hamlet (where, states one scholar, "Shakespeare makes by far the fullest use of the belief in ghosts current in his own day" [Moorman 1905]), the ghost of Hamlet's father demands revenge for his foul murder (Benet's 1987, 421).

In the seventeenth century certain religious figures, like Anglican minister Joseph Glanvill (1636–1680), began to collect ghost accounts. This was with the intention of combating materialism (the philosophical doctrine that nothing exists but matter and the effects it produces), using supposed evidence of the supernatural.

One such story was published by Richard Baxter (1615–1691) in his The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits. The story centered on an English servant who robbed and murdered his master, afterward fleeing into the military service in Ireland. However, at night a headless ghost would stand beside his bed and ask, "Wilt thou yet confess?" Eventually he became so depressed that he did confess to his commanding officer (Finucane 1984, 128). (Today a knowledgeable psychologist or neurologist would recognize the incident as a "waking dream," which occurs in the twilight between being fully asleep and awake. Such experiences typically include ghosts, aliens, angels, and the like. An encounter of this type can seem quite real, and the person experiencing it often insists that he or she was not dreaming [Baker and Nickell 1992, 226–27].)

Stories of this type continued to be reported, and to be collected by ghost chroniclers, in succeeding centuries. However, in the Enlightenment (the eighteenth-century European movement that emphasized rational and scientific knowledge), ghost tales increasingly began to be dismissed. They were regarded as representing what today would be termed "anecdotal evidence"—that is, as consisting of mere anecdotes (entertaining little tales) and nothing more. Serious thinkers generally relegated ghost stories to the domain of the ignorant and superstitious.

Most of the "real" Victorian-era ghosts that were the subject of such stories were quite dull, "silent grey ladies"—a marked contrast with some of history's more purposeful ghosts (Finucane 1984, 223). In one famous English haunting of the 1840s, the apparition of a woman (seen under conditions that suggest it was another waking dream) was described as "attired in grayish garments." Indeed, as related in the classic text of the period, The Night-Side of Nature; or, Ghosts and Ghost-Seers by Catherine Crowe (1848, 312, 318), the figure "generally appeared in a shroud"—it having been very common at times to depict ghosts as wearing grave clothes (see Haining 1982, 154, 167, 248; Cohen 1984, 253–254). (Today's Halloween ghosts, so often attired in sheets, may be an extension of this tradition.)

Belief in ghosts began to change in the mid-nineteenth century with the rise of modern spiritualism, a popular movement based on alleged communication with the other world. It began on March 31, 1848 (All Fools' Eve!), at a house in Hydesville, New York, when two schoolgirls, Maggie and Katie Fox, began to seemingly communicate with the ghost of a murdered peddler. Four decades later, the sisters confessed it had all been a trick. They publicly demonstrated how their "spirit rappings" (akin to those of 1527 mentioned earlier) had been produced surreptitiously in response to questions addressed to the invisible spirit. (For more on the Fox sisters and the origins of spiritualism, see chapter 23.) In the intervening years, however, spiritualism had spread like wildfire across the United States and beyond.

Self-styled "mediums" (those who supposedly contacted spirits of the dead for others) conducted dark-room séances wherein they produced a variety of phenomena that supposedly proved the reality of spirits. The Davenport Brothers, for example, were tied up and placed in a "spirit cabinet" with musical instruments that nevertheless were heard playing in the dark, after which the brothers were found still securely tied. They were occasionally caught cheating, however, and late in life one surviving brother confessed to the magician Houdini how they had secretly slipped from, and back into, their bonds to effect their spirit trickery (Nickell 1999).

Other mediums pretended to conjure up spirits who performed by writing on slates, speaking through levitating tin trumpets, causing tables to tilt mysteriously, and performing other wonders. Some mediums persuaded the spirits to "materialize" and appear to credulous sitters, but there were repeated exposés. For instance, in Boston in 1876 a reporter carefully searched the séance room after the alleged materialization of the medium's "spirit guide," whereupon he discovered the woman's accomplice hiding in a recess (Christopher 1970, 175–76).

Spiritualists claimed that a substance called "ectoplasm," which was tangible and produced by the medium's body, could be used by spirits to effect physical phenomena. Like a sort of magical modeling clay, ectoplasm allegedly enabled spirits to fashion an extra limb (or "pseudopod") on the medium, create an artificial larynx to make spirit speech possible, or simply become visible in a photograph. This was faked in a variety of ways, such as by using chiffon or gauze to produce "eerily convincing" effects according to confessed medium M. Lamar Keene in his The Psychic Mafia (1997, 100&ndashh;101). Also used were chewed-up paper, concoctions of soap and gelatin, and so forth (Guiley 2000, 116–17).

Many people tried communicating with spirits through automatic writing (in which, supposedly, an entranced person's hand is guided by the spirits), or by use of a planchette (a moveable device fitted with a pencil that scrawled "spirit" messages), or by using a "talking board" (such as the later Ouija board, which had a planchette-style pointer that moved mysteriously to letters printed on the board in order to answer questions) (Guiley 2000, 291–92, 377). We now know that such activity is produced due to the sitter's "dissociation." In a dissociated state, the consciousness is split so that the individual is able simultaneously to perform one set of functions that he is aware of and another that he is not (Baker 1990, 106–107). Such unconscious muscular activity also explains dowsing, a technique that is sometimes used for attempted spirit communication (Christopher 1970, 132–41; Warren 2003, 169–71).

Spiritualistic "evidence" provoked much investigation. In her book Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life after Death, Deborah Blum (2006) tells how a small band of scientists set out with the intention of proving the reality of the supernatural—ghosts included—and thereby uniting religion and science. In 1882, in London, they founded the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Unfortunately their credulity, even outright gullibility, did not serve them well.

The notorious medium Eusapia Palladino (1854–1918) was able to confound even some of Europe's most distinguished scientists with her spiritualistic effects. She produced a variety of phenomena, such as rapping noises, even though her hands were placed on the séance table and "controlled" by a sitter on each side of her. Skeptical scientists and investigators soon discovered that she used a number of tricks. Since the control of her hands was of her own devising, consisting of each of her hands simply touching the hand of the sitter on either side, by slowly moving her hands close together, she could eventually let one hand do double duty. This gave her a free hand with which to make raps, touch people at the table, move objects, and so on (Christopher 1970, 188–204).

In contrast to the SPR, genuinely skeptical scientists and investigators uncovered many deceptions and self-deceptions. For instance, noted physicist Michael Faraday (1791–1867) conducted table-tipping experiments that proved mediums and amateur spiritualists were actually putting pressure on tabletops, often unconsciously (Blum 2006, 30–21, 67). In 1876, British zoologist Ray Lankester caught the medium Henry Slade faking "spirit" writing on slates. And Houdini (1874–1926), who spent the last years of his life crusading against spiritualistic fraud, routed many phony mediums (Houdini 1924). Some of his work was on behalf of Scientific American magazine, which in the 1920s offered $2,500 to anyone who could produce an "objective psychic manifestation of physical character" (quoted in Brandon 1983, 175). (We will return to the phenomena of spiritualism again and again in this book.)

Beginning in the twentieth century, a major venue for hauntings has been the Hollywood movie, but it had less to do with the supposedly "real" realm of ghosts and more to do with horror, like Cecil B. Demille's The Ghost Breaker (1914), or with comedy/horror, like a 1940 movie of the same title starring Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard (The Ghost Breakers 2007), or Ghost Catchers (1944) (Internet Movie Database 2007).

Among other movies, The Amityville Horror (1979) featured one of the most notorious "haunted" places in the world. Made from the book The Amityville Horror: A True Story, it was anything but true. To various investigators, the tale told by George and Kathy Lutz—that their family had been driven from the house by occult forces—had seemed a questionable hodge-podge of phenomena, part traditional haunting, part poltergeist disturbance, and part demonic possession, including elements that seemed to have been lifted from the movie The Exorcist (1973). Eventually, William Weber, the attorney for the man who had murdered his family in the house, confessed how he and George Lutz had "created this horror story over many bottles of wine that George Lutz was drinking" (quoted in Nickell 1995, 128).


Excerpted from THE SCIENCE OF GHOSTS by JOE NICKELL Copyright © 2012 by Joe Nickell. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Joe Nickell (Amherst, NY) has been called "the modern Sherlock Holmes" and "the real-life Scully" (from The X-Files). He has been on the trail of mysterious creatures and phenomena for four decades. Since 1995 he has been the world's only full-time, professional, science-based paranormal investigator. His careful, often-innovative investigations have won him international respect in a field charged with controversy. He is the author of numerous books, including most recently Tracking the Man-Beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies, and More and Real or Fake? Studies in Authentication and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation. See for more.

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