Collective Paranormal Experiences – noticing ghosts together

In my earlier post, I discussed the need to examine paranormal experiences from a social perspective. This post is the first of three which will discuss the findings from my doctoral research, exploring social interaction and paranormal events in the context of paranormal groups. In this first section, I would like to discuss how paranormal events become noticed by more than one person, and as such become part of a wider group experience.

The findings from my doctoral research are based upon a research method called Conversation Analysis. This allows the detailed analysis of interaction – most usually conversation – with a focus on the discovery of processes and patterns within everyday conversation. For the purpose of my research I was keen to use this method to examine the interaction between individuals as they take part in paranormal investigations, and more specifically when they report an experience taking place. As such, I adopted this method to examine video data of groups having experiences. One of the advantages of this approach is it provides the opportunity to break down social interaction (such as conversation, actions, movements) by transcribing the activities taking place. It provides an in-depth insight into what people do and when.

I trawled through over one hundred hours of video data to find cases when paranormal groups reported an experience taking place, and then transcribed what was going on, moment by moment. It provided a fascinating perspective into what happens during a paranormal event between the people that are experiencing it. As I did this, I started to notice patterns in the way that unusual events were noticed and shared.

What is that?

As I examined the transcripts of data, a regular word emerged each time an experience was noticed – “that”. This was particularly prevalent when an unusual event occurred in the external environment, such as a sound or vision (‘feelings’ are slighting different and I will examine these in a later blog). And “that” was always posed as a question. For example, in one instance a scratching noise can be heard, as this happens the group look towards a space in the room and one of them says, “what was that?”. In another example, a popping sound is heard, and the first reaction to the sound is “what’s that?”. Sometimes the reaction to an event would be upgraded, demonstrating shock and surprise at the encounter, “what the hell is that?” and “what the fuck is that?” to name a couple of instances.

Whilst initially the posing of a “that” question seems fairly mundane it is interesting to thatnote the choice of the word ‘that’ rather than a description of the event taking place. Individuals did not say “did you see a ghost standing in the corner”, “did you hear a breath”, “did you hear a man speaking”, at least in the first instance of noticing and announcing this to the group. This is interesting because ‘that’ carries with it certain characteristics. Firstly, it is a demonstrative (i.e. we use it to demonstrate certain things in the environment – i.e. look at that flower). Secondly, it is also an ambiguous term unless accompanied by the thing we are describing. As such, by leaving ‘that’ on its own we invite others to discover what ‘that’ might be with us. Thirdly, and leading on from this point, ‘that’ in certain contexts is a special type of demonstrative because it has the potential to imply transgressive qualities to an event. Think for instance about what you might say if you saw something quite disgusting on the floor, your reaction may be “urghh, what is that?”. It is often used then to point out things in the environment that are unexpected or unusual in form.

In the context of paranormal groups, a “that” question following an event in the environment does a number of things. It communicates to the group that someone has noticed something in the environment, that it may be unusual or transgressive in nature, and by posing the question invites others to discover what it may be. This is important in our understanding of paranormal events because it indicates that individuals do not immediately identify an experience and then communicate this to others, but invite the discovery of these events collectively. By using the term ‘that’ the event, regardless of what it might be, is also poised from the beginning as having potentially unusual characteristics. Therefore, from the first noticing of an event the group are invited to discover it’s unusual potential.

The “that” question appears to be an important starting point in the formation of collective paranormal experiences. As I examine further in the paper “The transgressive that: Making the world uncanny”, this is not only evident in ghostly encounters but collective UFO sightings also. In the next blog, I will go further to discuss how a group progress from ‘that’ to identifying an event as paranormal in nature. Until then I encourage you to listen out for “that” questions when you next watch a paranormal show or see a collective experience taking place – you will notice just how frequent they are. A warning though, as I have found in my own research, once you notice “that” it is difficult not to, in some respects it quite literally haunts you…

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Collective Paranormal Experiences

There are numerous explanations and theories regarding why paranormal experiences occur, and what they may be. Believers in the supernatural may argue that experiences are evidence of the existence of ghosts and the otherworldly. Skeptics, on the other hand, may explain such phenomena away as the result of environmental and psychological influences, perhaps even fraud or simply the ‘need’ to believe in something. Regardless of these debates, paranormal experiences are still a prevalent part of our human and indeed, social, experience.

Over the last six years my interest has been in the ‘social’ element of such experiences. It all started with an encounter of my own, and a subsequent interest in understanding collective experiences:

When I was a student I took part in paranormal investigations as part of a local group in Aberdeen. During one investigation we were spending the night in the local Tolbooth (an old Scottish jail). We had split into teams to investigate the building and I was sat with a fellow investigator in one of the old cells – the rest of the team were located in other parts of the building. I vividly remember that we were sitting eating some biscuits that we had bought on the investigation to keep us going through the night. We were taking a break – by this point it was in the early hours of the morning – and not actively ‘looking’ for anything. As we sat there, I started to notice what looked like a shape standing in the doorway to the other room. At first I thought it was just my imagination, and although I could see it, I was aware that it was not like seeing it with my eyes – almost like a vision overlaying reality. This ‘vision’ became clearer to the point where I could see a man standing in the doorway, dressed in old, quite ragged looking clothing. The experience was not at all scary, and did not even feel particularly real. My initial thought was that I was just tired. That was until my fellow investigator said, “can you see that?”. I proceeded to ask her what she could see, and her reply astounded me, “it looks like a man standing in the doorway”. I replied, “yes”, and asked her what she could see. Between us we both described exactly the same figure. After a short while the vision seemed to dissipate and we were both left puzzled by the encounter. Had we both just seen a ghost? Or somehow shared the exact same vision between us? 

I have had a number of paranormal experiences, I guess one of the reasons that I became interested in researching this area. Looking back I am fairly sure that many of these could be explained by rational causes, however, this one always fascinated me. It also became a significant experience for me because I had shared it with someone else, and therefore it felt more ‘real’.

As I continued my research in this area and started my doctoral research it became clear that social confirmation of paranormal experiences is an important component in our understanding of them. Collective experiences have formed part of our spiritual and social history for a long time, and even in this modern day we seek confirmation of such encounters together – consider for instance the significant rise of paranormal and ghost hunting groups. Given the nature of paranormal experiences, and the ontological questions that surround them, collective experiences also provide an affirmation to such events. If more than one person is involved in experiencing the ghost, it has the potential to negate the psychological component – i.e. “it was not just my imagination, because Sue saw it too”. This is not to say that having a collective experience proves the existence of ghosts, and the argument for environmental or collective psychological influences still remains. However, investigating how we come to see and understand paranormal events together can offer some interesting insights into the ways that the paranormal is experienced.

In my thesis, I address collective experiences in the context of paranormal groups. I appreciate, however, that this is a fairly chunky piece of bed time reading and as such over the next few blogs posts my aim is to explain these findings. In doing so, I will discuss how we come to notice paranormal events, discover them and ‘feel’ them collectively.

 

Mountain ghosts: otherworldly encounters in high places

Recently I summited Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, standing at 5895m. It was an extraordinary experience (which I write more about here), and whilst I did have some more unusual moments on my climb these were more of the reflective and awe inspiring kind triggered by the immense beauty of the place. In my research I have, however, come across stories of ghostly encounters on mountains around the world and always found this a fascinating topic. From my own experiences walking Munros around Scotland it also does not surprise me. There have been more than a few occasions when whilst walking I have thought my walking companion was beside me, only to turn around and find that they have stopped a while back to take a photo. Indeed during an earlier training walk for Kilimanjaro this year, we got lost on a mountain called Ben Chonzie after the weather closed in. This resulted in us descending the wrong side of the mountain to then have to climb up it again before we could find our way home. The cloud level was very low, the rain had drawn in and needless to say after many hours of walking by this point we were all a bit miserable. On the way back up the mountain (for the second time!) there were a number of occasions when I thought I could hear another pair of footsteps right beside me. However, when I turned around they would seem to stop and I would notice that my husband and mother-in-law were a distance behind me. I remember thinking at the time that it was a little eerie, and the misty surroundings and lashing rain did not help with this lingering thought…

I am fairly sure that my own experiences have most likely been a mixture of the weather conditions, feeling pretty exhausted or the environment. It is after all easy to hear things you would maybe not pay attention to if the weather was lovely and you could enjoy the view (such as, for instance, the echoes of my own or others footsteps). However, my experiences are not stand alone and many others have reported unusual encounters in the higher places of the world. Here are just a few of these stories:

Mount Everest, Nepal

The world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, is considered the ultimate survival everestchallenge. Standing at 8848m, it attracts hundreds of climbers each year determined to stand at the highest place on earth. Mount Everest, however, has a darker side claiming over 250 lives many of whom have succumbed to altitude sickness or been the unfortunate victims of an avalanche. Due to the height of Everest and difficulty navigating its landscape many of the bodies remain on the mountain leading it to become known as the highest graveyard on earth or ‘rainbow ridge (or valley)’ due to the colourful down jackets worn by fallen climbers. It is perhaps not surprising then, that mountaineers have reported ghostly encounters in such a place. In 2004, Sherpa Pemba Dorji reported seeing dark shadows at the summit of Everest during his speed ascent. In his account he says:

“When I paused at a mound of rocks I saw some spirits in the form of black shadows coming towards me, stretching their hands and begging for something to eat. I think those were the spirits of the many mountaineers killed during and after their ascent of Mount Everest. The bodies of many of those who died are still on the mountain and one climber who died from an accidental fall is still hanging from a rope.”

In an earlier expedition in 1975, climbers Dougal Haston and Doug Scott described how they felt the presence of a third climber with them after they encountered trouble just below the summit. Spending the night in a snow hole, with no food and limited oxygen, they report how this third climber comforted them and talked them through their ordeal.

K2, China-Pakistan Border

The summit of K2 stands at 8611m. Although smaller than Everest it is considered to be K2one the hardest challenges a climber can face and the ‘Holy Grail of mountaineering’. It is also considered to be a much more perilous ascent, with 23% of attempts on K2 resulting in death (compared to 4% on Everest). Perhaps one of the most interesting ghost stories from K2 was reported in 1992 when Thor Kieser and Scott Fisher attempted the climb. Six years earlier during a particularly bad summer, which saw 13 deaths on the mountain, a British female climber called Julie Tullis died after a bad fall. She passed away from frost bite and her injuries at Camp IV. As Thor and Scott were waiting at Base Camp six years later their quiet was interrupted by a radio call that said, “Camp IV to Base Camp, do you read, over?”. The pair were alone on the mountain and the call was made by a British women.

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, USA

Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina gets its name from the rock formations that make up its peak, resembling the head of a bearded old man laying down to 681px-Grandfather_Mountain_NCsleep. Tourists to the area regularly visit the mountain and trek along its trails. It is reported, however, that during these visits a number of people have come across the hiker of an old man who seems out of place. Unlike other hikers he wears old workers clothes, an old army rucksack and carries a long walking stick. He also never acknowledges anyone’s greeting, quickly moving past them and then disappearing further up the trail. Nobody knows who the ghostly hiker is, and whilst some suggest that he is the spirit of a hiker who became lost and died on the mountain, others suggest that he is simply the spirit of an old man who loved the mountain so much that he has returned to continue enjoying it after his death.

Ben Macdui, Scotland

A little closer to home for me, ‘The Big Grey Man’ of Ben Macdui is a fairly well-known ghost story from the Cairngorm mountain region. There have been numerous reports since the late 1800’s of a mysterious and sinister figure that haunts the mountain and surrounding area. During his climb in 1892 Professor Norman Collie reported how he felt as if he had been stalked by an unseen presence that followed him down from the summit of Ben Macdui. Whilst he did not see the figure he could hear its large footsteps and had the feeling that it was a menacing creature. He vowed not to return to the mountain alone again and concluded that there was “something very queer about the top of Ben Macdui”. Others have reported similarly strange encounters on the peak with regular stories of climbers being overcome by a poignant feeling of dread and fear, and the impression of a malevolent presence nearby. Another tale tells of a man who had come face-to-face with a large brown creature staring at him through his tent as he slept at the summit. Terrified he froze, until the creature moved away, and he watched it descend down the mountain. He described the creature as about twenty foot tall. A similar creature has been seen by others up until as recently as the 1990’s, and some claim that these creatures are guarding the land around the mountain chasing away those that dare to trespass. More stories of ‘The Big Grey Man’ can be found here…

Ben-macdui-from-carn-liath

It is perhaps not surprising that mountains are home to ghostly encounters. From my own experiences hiking I can appreciate the often surreal and harsh surroundings that open up the possibilities of something supernatural or otherworldly. I am sure that many of these encounters can be explained away by the effects of the environment, or psychological causes – the ‘sensed-presence effect’ is particularly relevant to some of the encounters mentioned. For those peaks that inhabit the ‘death zone’ and where oxygen is deprived these considerations are perhaps even more likely. However, what interests me from these stories is the variety of encounters that are reported and the different interpretations assigned to them. There is the comforting ghost that accompanied the two Everest climbers, the ‘lost’ ghosts reported on both K2 and Everest, the sinister presence protecting its land on Ben Macdui and the ghost who simply loves the mountain in North Carolina. Whether we walk with ghosts or not on mountains these accounts provide an interesting insight into the way that we see and experience these magnificent landscapes.

Ghosts exist…what now?

This week I came across the Sir Noface documentary currently touring America. Led by Chad Calek, a well-known paranormal investigator and filmmaker, the documentary claims to provide definitive proof of ghosts – in the form of a full apparition appearing on camera. As always I remain sceptical of this claim, particularly following the commercialised manner in which it appears to be being presented to the public – sell out tours including a range of ticket packages, a documentary film which I am sure will come with a price tag, merchandise etc. Surely, one would assume, if you had dedicated your life to paranormal research and you truly believe you have finally found proof of ghosts you would share far and wide? Open up the footage to further analysis? Invite other researchers and scientists along to discuss the merit and implications of such a find? Furthermore, the recent claim by Most Haunted to have captured a ghost on camera – which looks suspiciously like a poor attempt at a video overlay of Stuart accompanied by some pretty terrible acting – has left a sour taste for such claims. I do, however, like to remain open-minded and I can’t help but feel curious both about the footage itself, and why it is being revealed the way that it is…

It did get me thinking though – what if it was real? What if after all these years someone finally did have unequivocal evidence that ghosts exist? In the world of paranormal research we are often pre-occupied with the question – “do ghosts exist?”. However, we rarely stop to think what would happen if they do, and I think it is worth some thought.

So let’s pretend for a moment that proof is finally presented that ghosts, that is spirits of the dead, are real. What might it mean for…ghosthome

Our day-to-day lives…what if that bump in the night could actually be a ghost? Or you potentially share your home with a phantom lodger? Would you suddenly feel more self conscious having a shower or walking around in your undies? Perhaps we would think more about the history of our homes when we buy them and along with questions about woodworm and damp spots, we might also ask if it is haunted.

Research…at current paranormal research is considered to be at the fringes of an ‘acceptable’ research topic. However, I imagine this would change. Perhaps University departments such as the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes (CSAPP) at the University of Northampton, Anomalous Experience Research Unit (AERU) at the University of York or the Koestler Unit at the University of Edinburgh would become popular research centres. The potential for funding would likely increase and as such new centres of research, courses in the paranormal and research projects may emerge. And new questions may be on the agenda. Instead of investigating if such phenomena exists, we might be considering what ghosts are? What their existence means? How can we study/ understand them further?

Religion and belief…what would it mean for religion? I imagine for some that proof of ghosts would be considered proof of a soul, and therefore an afterlife. As in most cases, the existence of ghosts would likely be interpreted in different ways by different faiths and I guess others would use it to solidify their own belief systems. Some may deny the evidence, and others may set up new religious groups based on it.

Business…in previous posts I have discussed the commercialisation of ghosts. Part of the draw to forms of ghost tourism is the ‘possibility’ of ghosts and the desire to be enchanted by such experiences. However, what if the ‘possibility’ is taken away? Would the business of ghosts lose the intrigue that makes its so appealing? Would the prospect that we are potentially living with ghosts on a daily basis take a way from the desire to go ‘seeking’ them? Or on the other hand would it encourage the commercialisation of ghosts further – perhaps mediums and psychics would feel justified, and ghost hunts would be more popular because the experiences are suddenly more authentic. I also wonder if there may be ethical implications…I can imagine groups being set up to protect the rights of ghosts, or certifications being required to be a genuinely haunted location or for working in the field.

Death…and what might it mean for our inevitability? Would it alleviate our fear of death to know that something exists beyond? And how would I feel if I thought my loved ones might be ghosts? I guess to some extent this may raise more questions. When I spoke to my husband about this he said it might be quite good as being a ghost you could possibly travel around the world visiting places you could not in life – and I guess that would be pretty cool. At the same time, what if you or a loved one was trapped, as we often perceive ghosts to be. This must be a lonely existence and actually the thought of this is potentially more upsetting than not knowing at all (I notice a new film is soon coming out exploring this issue from the ghosts perspective – A Ghost Story).

I am sure there would be plenty more questions and implications of ghosts existing, but after considering this possibility briefly one certainty is that it seems to raise more questions than answers.  And maybe this makes the need to question proof all the more important and perhaps if, one day, proof really is established we should consider how such evidence is introduced to the world…

 

Nice view, two bathrooms…and a ghost!

I have lived in a few properties over the years that I considered to have spooky goings on. Indeed those earlier experiences were probably partly responsible for my interest in studying the supernatural. However, I never considered the possibility of a resident ghost being a marketing tool for selling my home – indeed I would have thought quite the opposite!

Recently, a few news articles have caught my eye though and it appears that there is currently a boom in ‘spooky’ real estate. Consider for instance the “Haunted Hill House” in Mineral Wells, Texas. Evidently in need of a few repairs and on at the price of $99,900 it is marketed as having 5 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms (1 sealed for unknown reasons) and nine resident ghosts. The property is also sold as a thriving ghost tour business hosting paranormal investigations for $400 a night, and operating as a paranormal research centre. The owners claim to have tried to renovate the property but faced difficulties due to ‘supernatural complications’. Likewise, in October 2016 (rather appropriately) the reputedly haunted “The Cage” residence in Essex, UK, went up for sale. Even the estate agent claimed to have captured paranormal activity with one of the photos from the property featuring its very own orb. The Cage is a well-known haunted location in England, with a dark history of imprisoning Ursula Kemp accused of being a witch before being hung for her alleged crimes in 1582. The property was marketed as either a residence (for those brave enough!) or a popular paranormal business. If, lg_8e8cd7-ClownMotel_Bethanyhowever, a haunted house is not quite enough for you then why not double up on the phobia potential and purchase America’s ‘Most Haunted’ Clown Motel? As of July 2017, the notorious clown motel, not only filled with thousands of clowns but located next to a cemetery in Nevada, was put up for sale for $900,000 (the only stipulation being that any buyer must keep all of the clowns…).

Indeed a number of properties have started to appear on the market with their very own ghosts – Carbisdale Castle with ‘Betty’ the ghost, the ghost of Bela Lugosi (the 1930’s Count Dracula) in his Hollywood home, or Darnick Tower which has various ghosts haunting the grounds. Ghosts it seems have become a popular selling point…particularly it seems if the property in question requires a bit of work!

The move towards marketing ghosts or hauntings to sell a house is an interesting development. In the three examples mentioned earlier, the properties were not only being sold as a residency but also for their business potential – further demonstrating the commercialisation of ghosts in our modern society. A haunted house traditionally would have been considered a concerning feature, and as demonstrated by the infamous ‘Ghostbusters’ ruling in 1991 deter potential buyers. In this particular case, a New York Court officially ruled a house as ‘haunted’ after a seller was taken to court for not declaring the property as haunted at the time of the sale. Whilst it could not be proven that a ghost inhabited the property the previous owner had perpetuated rumours that the house was haunted. It was only after the buyer had put a considerable down payment on the property that he found out its reputation – this led to a court case ruling in the buyers favour. Since this case some states in America now require sellers to declare if a property is allegedly haunted – or at least if you have publicly acknowledged it as haunted. As discussed on Realtor failure to do so could result in grounds for the buyer to sue.

house-for-sale-sign.jpg

Given the current trend for haunted house sales, however, it seems like keeping your ‘ghosts in the closet’ is not only a poor legal decision but also potentially a poor sales decision! To hell with it, instead of the smell of freshly baked bread to lure your buyers in, why not crack out the Ouija Board and leave a few windows open to ensure the odd cold spot lingers. In fact I think I won’t bother with replacing the old doors and creaky floor boards in our house if we put it up for sale, instead I’ll find a ghost and let them do the selling for me…