Thursday, 1 August 2013

How scary are ghosts really?

Shadow ghostI stared around the room nervously. It was still dark outside and quiet. Alone, I recalled what some colleagues of mine had seen in that same room just a few years before - a ghost! I had wanted to see a ghost since I was a kid but suddenly, all alone in the haunted room, I felt unaccountably uncomfortable. It was the end of a ghost vigil and I was helping to pack up. From experience I knew that 'stuff' rarely happened during official vigil sessions. More often it occurred to people, usually on their own, between sessions or before or after the vigil. I had the intense feeling that ghostly 'stuff' was about to happen. I started intently into the silent room. Then nothing happened!

OK, as ghost stories go, that one's pretty lame. However, I was reminded of it while recently considering the factors that make people misperceive ghosts (and other anomalies). There are the triggers, of course, mainly concerned with not seeing an object well enough to recognise it. But there's more to it than that when it comes to seeing ghosts. We all misperceive all the time but most people might only see a ghost once in a lifetime, if that. So, clearly there are other factors involved. And my main suspect is currently emotions, particularly negative ones.

I have said often here that I started seeing ghosts only after I read about how misperception works, which is true. However, I can remember misperceiving other things before that. In particular, I have often 'seen' rare birds that, on closer inspection, were common species (example). As I've also said before, you tend to notice misperceptions that you either would like to see or would not like to see. The rare bird is clearly something I want to see. With ghosts it's more about trepidation. It's not that I'm scared of ghosts. The experience described above is the only time I've ever felt apprehensive about actually seeing one - it's the exception that proves the rule.

No, the fear is not of ghosts but of real ordinary people! Looking at my various ghost experiences, they were nearly all accompanied by a feeling of discomfort to some degree. In several instances I saw a figure apparently watching me from a window. In another incident, I saw a figure standing unnaturally still in vegetation*. Then there was the 'presence' behind me in an alleyway (see here). In all these cases I was alone. It wasn't seeing a ghost that made me uncomfortable. It was seeing an apparently real human behaving in an odd, faintly menacing way, that did that.

Now here's a bit of irony. In all the years that I've visited haunted places, whether on ghost vigils or just visiting, I've never once seen a ghost. While research has shown that places considered 'spooky' attract more reports of weird phenomena, apparently I'm immune to the effect. I see ghosts in entirely mundane, everyday situations. Perhaps it's because I don't feel uncomfortable in spooky places. But other people DO feel uncomfortable in spooky places which may be why they see ghosts there.

I notice many more misperceptions than just human figures. I often see an unfamiliar object as something quite different, at least for a second or so. But, because it is just one mundane object being substituted for another, I don't tend to remember it for long or consider it remarkable**. Just another misperception! It's only when a misperception makes me feel uncomfortable that I wonder if it could be paranormal.

In many ghost sightings people don't know they're watching a ghost at the time. That means that, while they can see the apparition, they actually think they're watching a live person. The figure is often recognized as a ghost only when it does something impossible, like vanishing. Or it may only be later discovered that no one could possibly have been present at that location at the time. But while the 'figure' is in view, it may well still produce a feeling of discomfort by its odd 'behaviour'. If it's a misperception of a tree, for instance, the figure is likely to be strangely still for a human. Or, as in my case, it may simply be the unexpected presence of an unknown figure in a lonely spot that could induce anxiety in a solitary witness.

Ghosts are traditionally thought of as scary. But maybe it works the other way round. Perhaps it's because witness actually thinks they are in the presence of an apparently menacing real human being that they are anxious. I know which would scare me more!

* Have you ever noticed how lots of ghosts in movies and TV dramas are shown standing silent, motionless and menacing? A case of art imitating life!

** I had an example of this the other day. I saw a plank lying beside a road. It seemed an odd place for it to be so I had a closer look. In fact it was an intense shadow cast by the particularly bright summer sun! I was mildly intrigued but hardly uncomfortable!

PS: For those who haven't come across it yet, a link to the song Xenonormal.

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