By Vexen Crabtree 2014
Fake ghost stories and tales of imaginary make-belief have a tendency to become true. The suggestibility of many people means that they actively seek out confirming experiences for even the most improbable stories. Many fictional ghosts have grown up a community of believers1, even if the original intentions were to tell an obviously fictional story and no-one ever set out to create a sensation. Colin Wilson's television series in the 1970s, 'Leap in the Dark', traced the history of a haunting - recounted by Stan Gooch:
“A writer, Frank Smythe, deliberately put round an entirely fictitious story that a particular place was haunted by a particular ghost. No one, apart from Smythe and his team, knew that the story was fictitious. A while later the researchers were flooded with reports from people claiming to have sighted the ghost in question. In this case, then, we have sightings of a ghost which arose simply on the basis of the public suggestion that there was a ghost to be seen.”
In 1996, amateur photographer Tony O'Rahilly took photos of the Town Hall of Wem as it burned down. His photos contained many shots of the fire, and of the increasingly derelict-looking building. One photo, which became famous, shows a ghostly young girl in a bonnet and a belt, almost glowing white, amidst the stark black-and-white scene. She was calmly stood inside the building. The photo, amid growing interest from the public, was examined by a series of experts and critics, including the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP). The ASSAP thought it was a simulacrum - falling rubble and dust which, to our eyes, happened to look like a picture of a person. This comes about because our brains are hard-wired to constantly seek anything which might be a human or animal figure, which visually can be very convincing to us. But one morning, the Wem ghost photo was surprisingly solved.
“An alert reader named Brian Lear, a seventy-seven-year-old grandfather, noticed that the girl pictured in the postcard (see figure 3) bore a strong resemblance to the famous ghost girl and alerted the Star [newspaper]. In the May 17 article, the newspaper showed details from O'Rahilly's photo and the postcard and agreed with Lear that the resemblance was "striking" (Neal 2010). Striking may be an understatement. Rarely does such a clear explanation for a ghost photo come to light. [...] The two girls are indeed the same photographic image: the one superimposed on the fire photograph by O'Rahilly via a double exposure.”
Since Tony O'Rahilly's fraud was discovered, what has happened? Well, in typical fashion, people have gone on believing in the ghost anyway! Back stories have been told in order to explain who the girl was. She now even has a name, Jane Chum, and in the stories she died in a fire in the town in 1677 that she herself caused. So people report that they see her carrying a candlestick (Karl 2007). It seems that people so wish to believe in ghosts, and see them, that it is almost impossible to make them believe otherwise even when their ghost is exposed as the result of a forgery! If people can embrace a forgery so stubbornly, then it casts a poor light on all stories of ghosts - beings which always seem to appear in poorly-lit places when people are sleepy or stressed. Their reality is one of psychology and mistake, rather than of substance. It is no wonder that skeptics come to have a low view of the gullible masses!
For more on ghosts and spirits, see Ghosts, Physical Properties and Ghostly Clothes: A Skeptical Investigation. Contents:
Everything about ghosts - from their mystical and unclear communications, their appearance to individuals alone, their frequenting of dark, odd, scary, lonely or old places, their half-seen and half-heard nature, all require large amounts of personal and subjective interpretation in order to create the experience. Ghosts seem to appear in all the circumstances in which our minds are at their least logical, least clear, and least sensible. This is not the hallmark of a murky spiritual world 'just beyond reach' - it is the hallmark of a phenomenon that comes from the quirky psychological of the living rather than the strange attempts of the recently dead to somehow appear - complete with clothes - and to try most ineffectually to tell us things. Every scientific investigation has found the idea of ghosts to be impossible, and every solved case has turned out to have utterly mundane origins, mostly in Human confusion, hallucination and other thinking errors, but unfortunately many so-called ghost photos and stories have turned out to be simple exaggerations, pranks and frauds. All it takes is suggestion, and a ghost story can become real: to prove this, multiple times sceptics have invented ghost stories and spread them: it is only a matter of time before the invented ghosts get reported to them by people who think they've seen them4. The occurrence of ghosts in hallucinations can give believers the most convincing experiences, and, other coincidences (such as dreaming of someone and finding out that they're dead) are only akin with the laws of chance. Try to think of how many more times we dream of those we know and they turn out not to have recently died! The problem is, these more mundane experiences are easily forgotten, where the occasional coincidence is so dramatic we remember it, and build false theories upon them. There is no afterlife, there is no soul, there are no spirits wandering around occasionally making themselves visible: there are no ghosts.”
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Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Published by Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, NY, USA. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly.
(2007) The Origins of Psychic Phenomena: Poltergeists, Incubi, Succubi, and the Unconscious Mind. Originally published 1984 as "Creatures from Inner Space". Current version published by Rider & Company, London, UK. My references are to the original publication. The edition linked to here is published by Inner Traditions 2007; information retrieved from Amazon UK on 2007 Dec 14. A hardback book. Book Review.