THE TERRIFYING TRUTH ABOUT GHOSTS
Billions of believers can't be wrong... can they?
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?
DID EINSTEIN’S THEORY MAKE THE EXISTENCE OF GHOSTS POSSIBLE?
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
“I COULDN’T WALK THROUGH THE SHOWER BLOCKS.
“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.”
WHAT DID THE WORLD’S BIGGEST GHOST STUDY PROVE?
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.
CAN MAGNETISM EXPLAIN THE EXISTENCE OF GHOSTS?
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.”
IS SCIENCE TOO NARROW-MINDED ABOUT THE PARANORMAL?
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.”
COULD BILLIONS OF PEOPLE BE WRONG?
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).