Monday, 29 July 2013

Floating ghosts?

WallWalking along the street recently I barely noticed the woman in front of me until she did something rather odd. She turned off the street to approach the front door of a house and, at the same time, started to rise! Her feet were concealed by a low wall but, nevertheless, she was definitely rising above the surrounding ground level! Given that the street is flat throughout, this was unlikely, to say the least!

Puzzled, I walked up the the house, where the woman had just entered the front door. The door was well above the level of the street and approached by several steps. Looking around, all the other houses nearby had front doors at ground level and no steps. Why this house was different, I've no idea. And the low wall lining the path which approached the front door neatly concealed the steps until you drew level with the house. The oddest thing of all was that I'd walked along this street many, many times before and never before noticed this oddity.

I can't say I ever thought the woman was really floating in the air, even though it looked like it. But I was certainly mystified! And had I watched the scene in darkness or from a passing vehicle, with no chance of getting a closer look, I may well have concluded that the woman was floating in the air. And, if so, that she was a ghost!

The idea that ghosts float is commonplace in fictional representations in movies and on TV. However, it is rarely reported in real-life ghost cases. In the uncommon real-life cases where ghosts ARE reported to be floating, a close questioning of the witness often reveals something striking - the figure is seldom, if ever, actually seen to float in the air. Usually, the feet are concealed by some intermediate object, like the low wall in my case.

That a ghostly figure might APPEAR to be floating, when it is not, may be due to various factors. Firstly, there is usually no sound of footsteps. But since ghost sightings are seldom accompanied by any sound, this is not unusual. Also, real people do not always produce the sound of footsteps. They may be wearing quiet footwear, like trainers for instance. Secondly, the walking action of the figure may suggest floating, rather than walking. However, how many of us have really studied a range of walking motions so that we can definitely, without sight of the feet, be sure that the action is unusual? Different people walk differently! And some can appear to almost float along if their legs are at least partially concealed. Thirdly, the witness may misjudge what they see if they don't know the height of the ground behind any concealing intermediate object, like the steps behind the wall in my case.

One common factor running through many of the 'floating ghost' reports, then, is that the feet (and in some cases legs) are concealed from the witness. This appears to trigger a special type of visual misperception (a specific variation of the 'partial view' type). When objects are partially concealed, our brains guess what the rest of them looks like, from experience, and sometimes make mistakes. And even familiarity with the scene may not help us avoid these errors, as my case shows.

Do floating ghosts actually exist, outside fiction? I don't know but if anyone has any good, well researched cases where figures are actually seen to be floating above the ground, please let me know. We may have to consign the idea of floating ghosts to the 'no compelling evidence' category, along with clanking chains and invisibility.

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