Ghostly Goodnights

March 22, 2010

For a USA Today feature, “More hotels across the USA embrace their ghost stories” (February 26, 2010), I was interviewed by reporter Gary Stoller to provide some balance. The article gives only anecdotal evidence for ghosts—which means that it has no scientific value. However, I think readers may be interested in the most likely explanations for some of the reported “paranormal experiences,” based on my forty-plus years as a paranormal investigator.

Apparitions. Typically, spectral images are glimpsed momentarily and then vanish when the percipient looks away for a moment. This phenomenon seems to involve a mental image that wells up from the unconscious and is superimposed for an instant upon the visual scene—a trick of the mind somewhat similar in its effect to a camera’s double exposure. This is more likely to happen with an individual who is imaginative and is in an altered state of consciousness—for example, is daydreaming, or is tired, performing some routine chore, or concentrating on an activity such as reading. For example, one man told USA Today how he was alone in a Minneapolis Marriott room, sitting on the bed using his laptop, when he glimpsed a tall man dressed in a long coat and fedora; “I did a double-take, and he was gone,” the man explained, describing a typical apparitional experience.

Ghosts at the Bedside. This is a very common experience in which someone sees an apparition while lying abed. It occurs in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep and is known as a waking dream. (It is also responsible for many reports of angels, demons, extraterrestrials, and other entities—depending on the percipient’s cultural and psychological expectations.) For instance, the man who saw the apparition in his Marriott room later “awakened to see the same ghostly character wearing clothing from a bygone era staring at him from the foot of the bed.” This is a classic description of an encounter—not with a ghost but a waking dream. Similarly, a woman, staying at the Hilton in Savannah, awoke to a variety of auditory and visual experiences, including a “small, childlike arm and hand” that reached to sweep her hair from her face before vanishing. Another woman, staying at the Heathman Hotel in Portland, was awakened about three in the morning by “a lady sitting in a chair crying.” Books relating “true ghost encounters” are filled with similar experiences.

Ghostly Attack. Sometimes the non-physical entities get decidedly physical—or so it seems. The man who twice encountered the fedora-wearing ghost says that, between encounters, he was pushed against a wall. This occurred when he “stood up for a drink” (says reporter Stoller). Even if the man had not been drinking alcohol, he could have failed to gain his balance on standing and have misinterpreted the cause—especially once he had begun to think of ghosts. A common experience that occurs in the interface between being asleep and awake is caused by the body still being in the sleep mode. This can result in the person being unable to move, a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. A typical instance was reported by a woman staying at the Crescent in Eureka Springs (which no doubt helps prompt ghost encounters by billing itself “America’s Most Haunted Resort Hotel”). She said “a great force of intense pressure” immobilized her body and began to suffocate her—typical effects of sleep paralysis.

Cold Spots, Etc. Imagination can cause many spine-tingling sensations—rather literally. Reports of “cold spots,” of being followed on stairs, and other sensations reported to USA Today may be subjective rather than objective occurrences. The power of suggestion is surely behind many alleged paranormal experiences, “cold chills” among them. Of course there may be other, quite real but more mundane explanations, such as temperature fluctuations which can occur throughout a building due to simple physical causes. In my experience, few physicists report ghostly cold spots.

Other Encounters. Some people have intense, repeated ghost experiences, reminding us of the adage, “There are no haunted places, only haunted people.” Some are very haunted indeed and may even be identifiable as having a fantasy-prone personality. Such persons are sane and normal, but have rich fantasy experiences. Certainly, some encounters have less to do with a given hotel than with the person having the experience. Consider, for instance, an airline pilot who reports (says Stoller) various experiences “in numerous rooms in old hotels worldwide.” Still other seemingly ghostly shenanigans may be attributed to human pranksters. Over the years, I have caught some these red-handed. (See my “Catching Ghosts,” Skeptical Briefs 18:2, June 2008, 4–6.) I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the “sheets found tied in knots” at the Crescent in San Antonio can be attributed to entities not of another world but of this. (For more on ghosts and hauntings see my “Haunted Inns,” Skeptical Inquirer 24:5, Sept./Oct. 20000, 17–21; and “Ghost Hunters,” Skeptical Inquirer 20:15, Sept./Oct., 2006, 23–26.)