Bil­lions of be­liev­ers can't be wrong... can they?

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Some­thing stopped me half­way in. It was like hit­ting an imag­i­nary brick wall. The hairs on ev­ery inch of my body prick­led. I’d never go back. Ever.”

Tom Parsons isn’t the first noc­tur­nal visi­tor to be spooked around th­ese parts. Nor, even as a for­mer army of­fi­cer with the bull-like physique of an NRL prop, is he the first fully grown man to suf­fer a se­ri­ous bout of the hee­bie-jee­bies, ei­ther.

Manly Quar­an­tine Sta­tion, nes­tled among bush­land on Syd­ney’s North Head, is re­puted to be one of Aus­tralia’s most haunted places. The infamous shower block, scene of 600-plus mi­grant deaths from 1832 right up to 1984 – and Tom’s freak out – is hailed as its most ghost-rid­dled build­ing.

It’s the pres­ence of th­ese sup­posed spec­tres, rang­ing from a small play­ful Jewish boy to a strict hos­pi­tal ma­tron, that draw thou­sands of vis­i­tors a year to the Sta­tion’s ghost tours, con­ducted un­der the cloak of dark­ness five nights a week.

For those who take phan­tom-hunt­ing more se­ri­ously, Para­nor­mal In­ves­ti­ga­tion Nights are held on se­lected evenings, where the pub­lic can work along­side ‘pro­fes­sional’ para­nor­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tors, us­ing spe­cialised equip­ment such as EMF (elec­tro­mag­netic field) me­ters and in­frared cam­eras.

Here’s the kicker. Tom isn’t a nutjob. He has a uni­ver­sity de­gree. He’s fa­mil­iar with the works of all of his­tory’s great thinkers. He reck­ons hu­mans are the only ad­vanced civil­i­sa­tion in the uni­verse. Yet Tom be­lieves in the ex­is­tence of ghosts, with­out ques­tion, and will take oath on his chil­drens’ lives that his ex­pe­ri­ence at the Quar­an­tine Sta­tion was real, not a fig­ment of his imag­i­na­tion.

What, then, makes Tom and 50% of all Aus­tralians – plus bil­lions of peo­ple world­wide – pas­sion­ate be­liev­ers, de­spite sci­ence not be­ing able to pro­duce any ev­i­dence that ghosts ex­ist? Is a large chunk of hu­man­ity de­luded, mis­tak­ing ghosts for nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena or tricks of the brain (see page 15)? Or is sci­ence it­self just nar­row-minded, too dog­matic to en­ter­tain the para­nor­mal?


Ghosts are as old as hu­man­ity it­self, ap­pear­ing in ma­jor folk­lores across all con­ti­nents. They’re ref­er­enced in the early Me­sopotamian re­li­gions of an­cient Egypt, and the clas­si­cal Greek works of Homer. The an­cient Ro­mans thought ghosts could be used to ex­act re­venge on en­e­mies. In medieval times, knights were some­times chal­lenged to duel against ghost knights, who would dis­ap­pear when de­feated.

But it was the Vic­to­ri­ans who re­ally em­braced ghosts, spark­ing a boom in ghost-re­lated lit­er­a­ture (e.g. Charles Dick­ens’ A Christ­mas Carol) and spirit pho­tog­ra­phy, whereby pho­tog­ra­phers used tricks to de­pict peo­ple with ghostly im­ages of their dead love ones.

You could ar­gue that we’re now in the mid­dle of an­other ghost re­nais­sance, as ghost-hunt­ing TV shows such as Ghost Hunters, The Dead Files and Hunt­ing: Aus­tralia boost view­ing fig­ures across satel­lite net­works.

The for­mat of th­ese shows fol­lows a fa­mil­iar pat­tern. A team of ghost hunters visit a sup­pos­edly haunted place at night. They set up a rig of spe­cialised equip­ment, usu­ally in­clud­ing EMF me­ters, Geiger coun­ters, mo­tion sen­sors and in­frared cam­eras (see page 16). The ac­tion is recorded from a first-per­son per­spec­tive, through a jerky, green night-vi­sion lens. Strange sounds are heard. Weird anom­alies are found when the video is re­played. Things gen­er­ally go bump in the night. Th­ese shows have also spawned a cot­tage in­dus­try of am­a­teur ghost sleuths, stak­ing out old hospi­tals, aban­doned men­tal in­sti­tu­tions and ceme­ter­ies for their su­per­nat­u­ral quarry.

In the ab­sence of solid sci­en­tific ev­i­dence for ghosts, ghost de­tec­tives and their fol­low­ers of­ten turn to one of mod­ern sci­ence’s gods, Al­bert Ein­stein, for pa­tron­age. In his 2007 book Ghosthunters, ghost re­searcher John Kachuba uses an ar­gu­ment made by many of his peers.

“Ein­stein proved that all the en­ergy of the uni­verse is con­stant and that it can nei­ther be cre­ated nor de­stroyed... so what hap­pens to that en­ergy when we die? If it can­not be de­stroyed, it must then, ac­cord­ing to Dr. Ein­stein, be trans­formed into an­other form of en­ergy. What is that new en­ergy? Could we call that new cre­ation a ghost?”

This goes some way to ex­plain­ing why EMF me­ters are so pop­u­lar with ghost hunters; they mea­sure lo­calised changes in elec­tri­cal fields. And if Ein­stein is right, say the pro-ghost brigade, and the elec­tric­ity that was in our bod­ies when we were alive doesn’t van­ish upon death, then couldn’t EMF ma­chines de­tect this en­ergy, which could pos­si­bly be the en­ergy of the de­ceased? No is the re­sound­ing an­swer from main­stream sci­ence.

“Many ghost hunters say they can de­tect the elec­tric fields cre­ated by ghosts,” says the deputy ed­i­tor of Skep­ti­cal In­quirer, Ben­jamin Rad­ford. “And while it’s true that the meta­bolic pro­cesses of hu­mans and other or­gan­isms ac­tu­ally do gen­er­ate very low-level elec­tri­cal cur­rents, th­ese are no longer gen­er­ated once the


“Ein­stein proved that all the en­ergy of the uni­verse is con­stant and that it can nei­ther be cre­ated nor de­stroyed... so what hap­pens to that en­ergy when we die?” John kachuba, ghost re­searcher

or­gan­ism dies. Be­cause the source of the en­ergy stops, the elec­tri­cal cur­rent stops — just as a light bulb turns off when you switch off the elec­tric­ity run­ning to it.”


Squat­ting proudly on the leafy banks of the River Thames up­stream of cen­tral Lon­don, Hamp­ton Court is an un­for­get­table sight. The cur­rent in­car­na­tion of the palace was con­structed in the early 16th cen­tury, and be­came the seat of King Henry VII.

For ghost be­liev­ers, it’s some­what of a Mecca, hous­ing three fa­mous ghosts. Th­ese in­clude Henry’s fifth wife Cather­ine Howard, whose ap­pari­tion can some­times sup­pos­edly be heard scream­ing through the build­ing’s cor­ri­dors.

It’s the Palace’s haunted rep­u­ta­tion that led to it stag­ing one of the big­gest ghost stud­ies ever un­der­taken, led by ghost scep­tic Dr Richard Wiseman from the UK’S Uni­ver­sity of Hert­ford­shire. Vol­un­teers were walked around the build­ing and asked to note any un­usual ex­pe­ri­ences, in­clud­ing hear­ing foot­steps, feel­ing cold or de­tect­ing a ‘pres­ence’ in the room. The re­sults were, on the sur­face of things, star­tling: the sub­jects did in fact record a high num­ber of strange sen­sa­tions, clus­tered around the ar­eas fa­mous for be­ing haunted. (It’s worth not­ing that po­ten­tial can­di­dates had to re­veal if they had prior knowl­edge of th­ese haunted sec­tions,

“Peo­ple have con­sis­tent ex­pe­ri­ences in con­sis­tent places. But this is driven by vis­ual fac­tors mainly, and per­haps some other en­vi­ron­men­tal cues.” Dr richard wise man, Uni­ver­sity of hert­ford­shire

and this was fac­tored into the find­ings). “Haunt­ings ex­ist, in the sense that places ex­ist where peo­ple re­li­ably have un­usual ex­pe­ri­ences,” says Dr Wiseman. “The ex­is­tence of ghosts is a way of ex­plain­ing th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences.”

Does this mean that ghosts are real? Is this the first time sci­ence has ac­knowl­edged phan­toms aren’t the stuff of Scooby-doo cartoons and Ghost­busters re­makes?

“Peo­ple do have con­sis­tent ex­pe­ri­ences in con­sis­tent places,” says Wiseman. “But I think that this is driven by vis­ual fac­tors mainly, and per­haps some other en­vi­ron­men­tal cues.”

The sci­en­tist con­cluded that peo­ple are af­fected by their en­vi­ron­ment, such as sub­tle draughts and changes in air tem­per­a­ture – and any­thing that adds to the gen­eral “spook­i­ness” of their sur­round­ings. And those that took part in Wiseman’s study who be­lieved in ghosts re­ported more creepy ex­pe­ri­ences than dis­be­liev­ers.


The woman agreed to the ex­per­i­ment, but now she wishes she hadn’t. She’s en­closed in­side the dank 230-yearold vault, en­gulfed by dark­ness. The ceil­ing is low and claus­tro­pho­bic. An­cient bricks are crum­bling from the walls. The cold­ness snaps against her. Her only com­pany is a video cam­era that will record what she sees, hears and feels.

“Al­most im­me­di­ately she re­ported hear­ing breath­ing from a corner of the

room, which was get­ting louder,” says Dr Richard Wiseman. “She thought she saw a flash of some sort of light in the corner, but didn’t want to look back.”

The woman was in tears af­ter her ex­pe­ri­ence in­side the South Bridge Vaults, one of the most haunted parts of Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle, and known as a para­nor­mal hotspot.

Dr Wiseman used Scot­land’s most fa­mous cas­tle for an­other one of his huge ghost ex­per­i­ments. While con­clud­ing that vol­un­teers were re­act­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal clues, Wiseman and his col­leagues be­lieve they iden­ti­fied a link be­tween mag­netic fields and ghostly sight­ings. At both Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle and Hamp­ton Court, dis­tur­bances in the lo­cal mag­netic field were high­est in the ar­eas that vol­un­teers re­ported ghost ex­pe­ri­ences, and lower in the ones that didn’t.

Wiseman’s re­searchers ad­mit­ted the vari­a­tions in mag­netic field were tiny – around 100 times less than you’d get from sit­ting a me­tre away from your TV – but th­ese were enough to have an ef­fect on hu­man phys­i­ol­ogy and per­cep­tion. Th­ese re­sults ap­pear to con­firm other pre­vi­ous stud­ies which showed that elec­tro­mag­netic fields ap­plied to the tem­po­ral lobes of a per­son’s brain can re­sult in phys­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences, such as be­ing touched, or meta­phys­i­cal ones like feel­ing closer to God.

“When the shapes of th­ese mag­netic fields are re­pro­duced in the lab­o­ra­tory and gen­er­ated across the brains of vol­un­teers, ‘the sensed pres­ence’, fear, and other ex­pe­ri­ences are re­ported,” says Dr Michael Persinger, of the Lau­ren­tian Uni­ver­sity, On­tario, Canada. “When we mea­sure houses where per­va­sive haunts oc­cur, the place where the oc­cu­pants find they can sleep has the most con­sis­tent and nor­mal field strengths. The high-den­sity haunt ar­eas, usu­ally not more than about one or two me­tres in di­am­e­ter, are very elec­tro­mag­net­i­cally noisy. A likely ex­pla­na­tion is that the ‘ghost’ com­po­nent is pri­mar­ily de­rived from the di­rect ef­fects of the stim­u­la­tion of the nat­u­ral phys­i­cal events upon the ob­server’s brain. How­ever, sci­ence is the pur­suit of the un­known. There may be stim­uli present we still have to mea­sure.”


Ru­pert Shel­drake be­gan his sci­en­tific ca­reer as a cell bi­ol­o­gist at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity in the 1960s, but grad­u­ally found him­self drawn to the field of para­psy­chol­ogy: the study of para­nor­mal and psy­chic phe­nom­ena such as telepa­thy, clair­voy­ance and rein­car­na­tion. Th­ese days, he spends most of his work­ing life writ­ing books on his favourite topic, and earn­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for a gifted, of­ten dry-wit­ted pub­lic speaker.

Three years ago, Shel­drake pro­voked up­roar in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity with a con­tro­ver­sial speech at a TED con­fer­ence in Lon­don, based largely on con­cepts from his 2012 book The Sci­ence Delu­sion. In his talk, Shel­drake chal­lenged what he terms the “10 dog­mas of sci­ence”.

“It [sci­ence] is a be­lief sys­tem which has now been spread to the en­tire world. But there’s a con­flict in the heart of sci­ence be­tween sci­ence as a method of in­quiry based on rea­son, ev­i­dence, hy­poth­e­sis and col­lec­tive in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and sci­ence as a be­lief sys­tem or a world view. And un­for­tu­nately the world view as­pect of sci­ence has come to in­hibit and con­strict the free in­quiry which is the lifeblood of the sci­en­tific en­deav­our.”

Shel­drake is open-minded about ghosts and haunt­ings, and his com­ments would have struck a chord with the small band of sci­en­tists and re­searchers who be­lieve in ghosts – or at least think the sci­ence should be work­ing harder to prove/dis­prove their ex­is­tence, es­pe­cially since sur­veys show large num­bers of the gen­eral pub­lic are broad-minded. A 2014 poll by the Syfy chan­nel found that 70% of Aus­tralians claim they’ve had an ex­pe­ri­ence with the “ex­tra­or­di­nary”. One fifth say they’ve en­coun­tered a ghost or spir­i­tual en­tity.

“Most main­stream sci­en­tists say, ‘why are you in­ter­ested in all this? We all know it’s rub­bish,’” says Christo­pher French, pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Gold­smiths Uni­ver­sity. “Well, I don’t think that’s a prop­erly open-minded sci­en­tific at­ti­tude. Nowa­days the study of telepa­thy, past lives, ghosts and ESP has been left a much weaker field. Scep­tics like my­self will of­ten point out that there’s been sys­tem­atic re­search in para­psy­chol­ogy for well over a cen­tury, and so far the wider sci­en­tific com­mu­nity is not con­vinced. But they [be­liev­ers] would counter that if you look at the com­bined ef­forts of all this para­psy­cho­log­i­cal re­search, it comes to the equiv­a­lent per­son hours of around two weeks – and that’s a valid point. It re­ally is.”

Terry Cor­nell, vice-pres­i­dent of the So­ci­ety for Psy­chi­cal Re­search, is also crit­i­cal of sci­ence’s ap­proach to

“Sci­en­tists can switch lights on and off, but can they switch the ghosts on and off? No they can’t.” Terry cor­nell, So­ci­ety for psy­chic al re­search

ghosts, point­ing out that the same ap­pari­tions tend to re­visit the same sites, some­thing not ex­plained by the mag­netic wave the­ory.

“I’m not go­ing to say they haven’t got the an­swers, but th­ese ex­per­i­ments seem to be one-offs,” says Cor­nell. “We need more re­peat­able an­swers. Sci­en­tists can switch lights on and off, but can they switch the ghosts on and off? No they can’t.”


Day­light hours might be length­en­ing, but in Syd­ney the or­gan­is­ers of the Quar­an­tine Sta­tion’s ghost tours are ex­pect­ing no let up in ticket sales, par­tic­u­larly as Hal­loween ap­proaches on Oc­to­ber 31st. The ghost en­thu­si­asts sign­ing up here and other ‘haunted’ ex­pe­ri­ences at sites across Aus­tralia are un­fazed by the sci­en­tific world­view on ghosts. For them, the weight of anec­do­tal ev­i­dence – from friends and rel­a­tives, books, doc­u­men­taries, in­ter­net videos and pho­tos – is enough to sug­gest that ghosts are real, one of life’s en­dur­ing mys­ter­ies.

Colin Wil­son, vice-pres­i­dent of the Ghost Club for the past 25 years, the world’s oldest or­gan­i­sa­tion as­so­ci­ated with psy­chic re­search has had nu­mer­ous en­coun­ters with phan­toms, all of them pos­i­tive.

He says: “I never cease to be amazed by the gall of sci­en­tists who de­clare they have now proved the non-ex­is­tence of spir­its or the soul or sec­ond sight or telepa­thy when thou­sands of or­di­nary peo­ple can con­tra­dict them from their own ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“In haunted houses, the place where the oc­cu­pants find they can sleep has the most con­sis­tent and nor­mal elec­tro­mag­netic field strengths.” Dr michael per singer, Lau­rent ian uni­ver­sity

ELEC­TRIC SHOCK ‘The Brown Lady of Rayn­ham Hall’, pub­lished in the UK in 1936, is con­sid­ered the most fa­mous ever ghost photo. Be­liev­ers says spec­tres like this are the left­over elec­tri­cal en­ergy of dead peo­ple.

Nor­mal photo Ghost photo CHAM­BER OF HOR­ROR Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle’s South Bridge Vault 9 is re­puted to be haunted. Be­liev­ers in­sist the bot­tom im­age, pub­lished by the BBC in 2003, re­veals a ghostly ap­pari­tion.

SCARY STUDY Dr Richard Wiseman (below) con­ducted one of the world’s big­gest ghost stud­ies at two haunted Bri­tish sites: Hamp­ton Court Palace and Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle (see right).

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