Thursday, 24 January 2013

What causes hauntings, if not ghosts?

Shadow ghostAsk almost anyone what causes a haunting and they will say a ghost. It comes as quite a surprise, then, to find that there is little, if any, compelling evidence to support this idea. And then the intriguing question arises - if ghosts don't cause hauntings, what does?

So why do I say there is no compelling evidence that ghosts cause hauntings? Firstly, we need to define a haunting. This question is discussed in detail here. The outcome is that a practical definition of a haunting is: a collection of odd, apparently paranormal, events reported at a particular location. That such a haunting is caused by a ghost appears to be pure assumption. Consider the following:

  • ghosts only appear in a minority of hauntings
  • ghosts often appear without any accompanying haunting activity
  • ghosts are never seen doing haunting things (like moving objects or knocking on walls)
  • ghosts do not easily explain hot spots or spookiness factors

So what other possibilities are there to explain hauntings?

There is the recording theory, of course. Of the paranormal theories, this fits the evidence from cases best, though as the linked article says, it is not without problems. So, is there a purely xenonormal theory?

I have examined a few well-known haunted buildings over the years and they all had the characteristic hot spots of haunting activity. And all the hots spots had likely xenonormal explanations. But what was interesting was that the explanations were by no means all the same. On the contrary, the hot spots in any particular haunting usually had a whole range of different xenonormal causes. So how did this collection of seemingly disparate phenomena come to be regarded as one haunting?

Geographic proximity is an obvious factor. Could it be a coincidentally high concentration of unconnected xenonormal hot spots? That's one possibility but I think there's a more likely one. The other obvious linking factor in a haunting is witnesses. Once a place starts to be regarded as haunted, people will tend to view any odd occurrences as part of the haunting.

But how does a place become seen as haunted in the first place? Odd (but explicable) occurrences happen all the time, everywhere (as reported in this blog many times), but only a few places get labelled as haunted. If a location has many spookiness factors, that is likely to increase the likelihood of odd occurrences being taken as paranormal. But, looking at case reports, I think there needs to be a 'trigger' or 'central' event around which the haunting reputation gathers. This particular phenomenon needs to be dramatic and, most importantly, repeatedly reported. I think haunting reputations often centre on one single repeatedly reported phenomenon, like the child crying in one room at Muncaster Castle. After that trigger event, other oddities will inevitably be noticed and added into the haunting.

By coincidence, I came across this recent paper after I wrote the above! It explores essentially the same idea, using the term 'psychological contagion' to cover how belief affects interpretation of unusual (but explicable) events. It suggests that, though odd phenomena may be reported as paranormal when looked for, it is unlikely they will come to be regarded as a haunting. For that, I think we still need to dramatic trigger phenomenon. In many cases I think the trigger phenomenon will be an unusually dramatic and frequently experienced misperception.

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