“Ghosts of the Queen Mary”: A Nickell-iferous Review

October 23, 2014

Published September 16, 2014—in time for pre-Halloween promotion—is the book Ghosts of the Queen Mary, by Brian Clune with Bob Davis, hosts of a radio show called Planet Paranormal Presents, and with an introduction by Christopher Fleming, former co-host of a TV show called Dead Famous which involved the late “psychic” Peter James. James, we are told, incessantly roamed the historic RMS Queen Mary, docked at Long Beach, California, and was “responsible for discovering the many ghosts that inhabit the ship” (p. 139)—“at least six hundred spirits” by James’ count (66). That’s a lot of ghosts, but before one contacts the Guinness World Records folk, we should point out that the book provides no scientific evidence of existing spirits of the dead. Science, in fact, has never authenticated a single ghost.

I twice prowled the Queen Mary in 1979, once on July 8, and at length during an overnight stay, December 9–10. I encountered nothing of a paranormal nature. Some people, I conclude, have gone aboard without bringing along their critical thinking faculty, and some have been hustled by the power of suggestion put forth by “psychics” like Peter James. Others have been victims of more elaborate deceptions. When the ship was operated as an attraction by Disney Corporation (1988–1992), a room was rigged so that “ghosts” related to a certain tale “would reappear” (62–63, 92). Again, a later Ghosts and Legends tour created special effects to enhance a tale involving a spirit in the pool area who supposedly left wet footprints, such having been manufactured “to fool tour guests” (77–88). And then there is “one of the most enduring tales” about bed covers in one room being “pulled down to uncover wary guests while they sleep.” As it happens, “this last tale was the catalyst for the controversy involving the crew members of the show Ghost Hunters and an employee of the ship, all of whom accused the other of fraud when the show caught what it thought was the covers moving” (91).

Tricks aside, what passes for genuine evidence in the book is really negative evidence. For example, soon after the ship first arrived at Long Beach, December 9, 1967, there came stories from workers preparing her for dry dock who could not explain how their tools “would disappear only to turn up somewhere else on the ship and in areas where their owner had never been” (65). But to draw an explanation—ghosts!—from a lack of knowledge is simply a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance. Indeed, other more reasonable explanations existed: for example, unattended tools may have been borrowed by other workers needing them, or perhaps some workers played pranks on others.

The word anomaly is used to indicate other unidentified phenomena, such as “a light anomaly” in a photo (75) that appears to be only a lens flare caused by a nearby bright light. While ghost hunters like to refer to themselves as “investigators,” they are really anomaly hunters instead, frequently claiming something is “unknown,” “unexplained,” or the like. Imagine if a police detective told us he’d amassed hundreds of unsolved murder cases which he then attributed to the Homicide Gremlin! Frequently some poor-quality photo is exhibited with a caption inviting one to imagine: “a possible shadow figure” (72), “a possible shadow person” (86), “a possible apparition” (93, 113), and so on. More negative evidence.

Other phenomena presented as mysterious include apparitions seen by overnight residents of the floating hotel. One lady awoke to see the ghostly “figure of a man in a dark suit and wearing a hat!” She knew this “was not a live person but a ghost, as I have seen spirits before” (117). Another woke up to see an “apparition . . . of a captain” (128). These are obviously the simple hallucinatory experiences that occur in the state between being fully asleep and fully awake, commonly called “waking dreams.” Still another example was related by a woman who awoke “and saw a middle-aged woman and two men standing over the bed staring back at me.” She added, “This wasn’t the first time I had woken up to find spirits staring down at me” (129).

Of course, some see ghostly figures during awake activity, but even so, those tend to occur during some other altered states of consciousness, such as being tired, daydreaming, performing routine chores, or the like. As is so common elsewhere, Queen Mary eyewitnesses often tell of “seeing strange figures out of the corner of their eyes” (65), or again something unknown that “can be seen in one’s peripheral vision” (69). Actually, the illusion that something is moving in the peripheral vision is common, and either that perception or a different stimulus (say a noise or feeling) might trigger a mental image. In imaginative individuals this might be superimposed on the visual scene—sort of a mental version of a photographic double exposure—to create a seemingly apparitional event. (See “Haunted Queen Mary,” in my Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007, 179–180).

Like other silly ghost books, this one is poorly referenced, unindexed, scattered throughout with words like “feeling” and such phrases as “it is believed that,” “it is said that,” “many people believe that,” “People have claimed that,” “There are many tales of,” and so on and on. If you want ignorance and superstition—presented with smugness and ballyhoo—this is a book for you.