YOU WANT TO BELIEVE
IKNOW THAT GHOSTS have wandered on earth.” So says the tormented hero Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and he’s not alone: Even for the most grounded among us, there’s something irresistible about haunted houses and vengeful spirits. Sometimes, hoping for a spectral sighting (or, like Heathcliff, dreading one) is enough for us to conjure a wraith.
Thanks to campfire tales and multimillion-dollar horror flicks, spooky notions can infiltrate our subconscious even without any real-life supernatural encounters. Nearly half of Americans think ghosts are real, according to market research company YouGov (bloodsucking vampires scored a measly 13 percent). That preconception primes our minds to run wild whenever we hear a creaky floorboard or feel a sudden chill. “Believers are a lot more likely to report anomalous sensations, and they’re also more likely to conclude that those sensations indicate a ghostly presence,” says Chris French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London as well as a selfdescribed “wet blanket” skeptic.
We have such a tendency because the human mind is highly suggestible, French says. We’ve evolved to take cues from the outside world to escape threats like an animal chasing us, so a well-placed hint can make us see things that aren’t there. In the 1990s, psychologists at the University of Illinois at Springfield gave the same tour of the century-old and long-closed Lincoln Square Theater to two groups of people, telling only one cohort that they were investigating a haunting; sure enough, the visitors who were informed of the excursion’s specifics were far more likely to report intense emotions and strange occurrences. This mental quirk is so powerful that it can deceive us even in real time: In another study, conducted by Goldsmiths’ French, participants were much more likely to report witnessing a key bending of its own accord if someone standing next to them mentioned they had seen the eerie incident happen too.
Our preconceptions can also cause us to find supernatural evidence in garbled noise or blurred images. French says this phenomenon, called pareidolia, can explain many supposed recordings of phantom voices. If a ghost hunter or psychic instructs you to listen for a certain phrase, then your brain (which loves identifying patterns) tries as hard as it can to create those exact words from various bits of random sound.