“Science itself does not always know why a thing is so.” – God’s World: A Treatise on Spiritualism (T. W. Stead. 1919)
Ghosts, they’re everywhere! From the pages of the Bible to the old building down the street, people have been reporting hauntings for thousands of years. Every family has a ghost story or two, as does every town. They’ve even spawned a multimillion-dollar industry in the form of books, movies and television. Whether we see them as a fantastical source of entertainment, or as dark messengers from an unseen world, one thing’s entirely certain: ghosts are here to stay.
If you’ve ever made even a cursory visit to any of those online ghost sites, however, you would’ve noticed that there’s an even darker side to the stories of hauntings: Trolls! Hundreds of people – maybe even thousands – have taken it upon themselves to declare – because they claim they’ve never seen or experienced anything “paranormal” themselves – that the rest of us are just plain, bat-shit crazy.
It’s not that online trolling’s a particularly novel – or selective – pursuit, it’s just that when it comes to ghosts, there’s a whole new gaggle of people claiming to be flying the flags of science in protest. It’s not just the shivering teenager whose hole-ridden, thesis-like comments have been attached to every online claim, either. There’s a wide-array of people that feel compelled to remind us that ghosts and haunting aren’t real. Under this banner of “science,” these manic commenters usually say something to the effect that the person making the claim should be put into an asylum for making things up. It’s unfortunate then, for these flag-of-science-wielding hecklers that the scientific community completely disagrees with them. Science and ghosts might not sound like they should go together, but great discoveries have always been fuelled by curiosity of the unexplained.
It’s actually been shown that the more educated a person is, the more likely it is that they’ll believe in ghosts. Say what? It’s true. A study conducted at the University of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma City University found that 23% of college freshmen believed in the paranormal versus 31% of seniors. Graduate students, on the other hand, had a belief rate of 34%. What makes the study even more interesting, though, is that the higher-educated students were more likely to be “uncertain” of their belief in ghosts, versus those believing absolutely that spirits weren’t real. The study concluded that, “As people attain higher college education levels, the likelihood of believing in paranormal dimensions increases.”
This isn’t to say that the scientific community at large believes in actual ghosts just because they’re educated. It’s actually quite the contrary. There have been multiple studies trying to prove that hauntings may have a more “logical” explanation than just being your dead aunt. On the surface, that might sound like unwelcome news for the hard believer, but it actually isn’t. What it means is that the scientific community acknowledges that people are having these experiences. Many of them just aren’t ready to buy-in to the belief that ghosts are the spirits of the dead, that’s all.
Several decades ago, an engineer named Vic Tandy had been working in a lab that was rumored to be haunted. One night, when he was working alone, Tandy was overcome by fear and suddenly felt like someone was watching him. He claims to have then seen a grey-colored apparition out of the corner of his eye. When he turned to look at it directly, however, it completely vanished. Initially, Tandy was frightened, but he began to look at alternative explanations for the sighting. Eventually, he discovered that a fan was indirectly responsible for creating a 19-hertz sound wave in the room. Humans can only hear sound waves at 20 hertz or higher, but can actually sense vibrations as low as 7. Tandy found that when the sound wave was removed that the “haunting” seemed to stop. He was later able to detect the same 19-hertz frequency at a reputedly haunted pub in Coventry, as well.
Another interesting experiment involved British acoustic scientist Dr. Richard Lord of the National Physical Laboratory and his partner Professor Wiseman who was a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire. Together, they conducted a controlled experiment on 750 people attending a concert. Where the low-hertz infrasound had been hidden inside pieces of music, 22% of the subjects admitted to having had “unusual” experiences as a result. While it’s unclear as to whether or not the theatre was already reported haunted, these results are definitely interesting. Of course, a true believer might counter this by saying that the sound waves could have made the subjects more aware of what was already there. It would be a fair argument too. As any scientist worth their salt already knows, cause and correlation aren’t even close to being the same thing.
Another interesting area of study is that of near-death experiences. During a near-death experience, the person typically meets with deceased love ones and sometimes what they believe to be higher beings. Most importantly, however, the person believes to have actually left their body during the incident.
Long believed to be the near-death pillar of scientific explanation, Psychologist Susan Blackmore’s theories put forth in her 1993 book Dying to Live have since been disproven. Blackmore had concluded that it was the dying brain, and a lack of oxygen to said brain, that created the near-death experience. Many have pointed out, however, that in many cases the brain was still receiving oxygen. In some instances, brain imaging even revealed that the brain was not functioning in the necessary areas needed for the experience to have occurred completely in the mind. Sometimes, the brain has been shown to function long after death’s been pronounced as she believed. For the same reasons, though, this may be irrelevant, as well.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Eban Alexander – a Harvard graduate – became a believer when he had a near-death experience himself. He claimed that this occurred while he was in a coma for seven days. He later wrote the book Proof of Heaven in which he shares his experiences. Alexander said he encountered a “beautiful woman riding a giant butterfly” who acted as a type of guide. Later, he found out that he had a biological sister who had previously passed away. Alexander had no way of knowing this as he was adopted. When he saw her picture for the first time, he was surprised to see that it was the woman who he’d seen on the butterfly. While the account does sound a little mushroom-induced, if there is a whole unseen, unknowable world out there, then who am I to judge?
Sam Parnia, a New York City doctor, wrote Erasing Death after hearing multiple patients’ claim that they had near-death experiences, as well. What made Dr. Parnia a true believer were the stories of patients saying they had left their bodies. On many occasions, these individuals returned with knowledge that they shouldn’t have possessed. This often included physical details existing outside of the room their bodies had been in. If true, then these accounts suggest that the conscious mind can somehow exist outside of the body, possibly even beyond death.
Of course, a ghost is a difficult thing to define or measure. Many claim that a ghost’s the actual energy of a person, which has left their body at death. This has never been proven, though, despite the ease in which this could be measured. On the other hand, there have been experiments that have tried to create ghosts – in poltergeist form – in the past. The Philip and Skippy Experiments being the two most famous ones. Successful replication of these results, however, has met with limited success.
There is also a “body of evidence,” in the form of recorded disembodied voices and unexplained images scattered across the internet. Unless reputable scientists ever capture anything in a controlled environment, however, it’s unlikely that any of these will ever be taken seriously. Even a hundred years ago, fraudsters were already doctoring-up evidence. With modern technology, any real proof would be incredibly hard to spot.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, one thing’s for certain, people have been having paranormal experiences since the beginning of recorded history. Someday, science will figure it all out. Until then, however, we’ll have to continue our love affair with the haunted realms of the dark with complete uncertainty. We’ll do so with either a hearty helping of faith or a strong dose of skepticism. Thankfully, the scientific community at large has finally acknowledged that these experiences themselves really are taking place. As for the others? Well, trolls will be trolls.