PSICAN - Paranormal Studies and Inquiry Canada

Ghosts, Hauntings & Related Phenomena

Created: Wednesday, 02 September 2009 18:29
Written by Matthew James Didier

There's been a lot of discussions lately "in the field" about the semantics involved with the studies of ghosts and hauntings. I would use as an example my personal issues with "Three Dot Syndrome/Matrixing/Pareidolia", but I covered that admirably on the blog at... let me use another one... the word debunk.

To debunk something, when you break it down, is to remove the "bunk"... to separate that which is nonsense from that which is true or relevant... which, in itself, is laudable. Many people, however, do not like the word as it's used by arm-chair critics and deniers to simply decry and deny claims of the paranormal. "It's all bunk!" they say, and this is enough to accomplish a proper debunking in their eyes.

Of course, it isn't, but because of their use and interpretation of a good and thorough debunking, they use the word to describe the simple act of labelling something as "bunk" as the proper removal of those elements of a situation that are indeed... well... "bunk".

This feeds nicely into a thought I've recently been bandying about in my head...

The author and PSICAN consultant, John Robert Colombo once said that he, "...believed in ghost stories, not necessarily ghosts."

Sue St Clair countered with the concept that she, "...believed in ghostly phenomena, not necessarily ghost stories." based on the fact that the phenomena remains, but the interpretation of that phenomena by witnesses is always subjected to their personal interpretation.

Can they both be right?

In my eyes, sure. "Ghost Stories" and "Ghost Reports" are realistically, two mutually exclusive entities.

...bear with me.

"Ghost Stories" are usually folkloric in nature. In fact, as a historian, (albeit an amateur one,) I'd say a good "Ghost Story" is an amazing tool for teaching.

Take a young student (or even some older ones,) to a historic site or museum... and tell them "Just The Facts"... nineteen times out of twenty, you'll bore them to almost tears without a little theatre to help augment the telling...

This is where a "Ghost Story" can absolutely come into play...

Take those same students to a historic site or museum... and tell them the folkloric tale... which, I'd remind our "so-called-sceptical" readers can be a "Ghost Story" because, let's face it, the BEST ghost stories start with the story first... and FINISH with the words, "...and since then, the ghost has been seen..." or words to that effect.

Now, a super-double-plus-good historian would then use another true aspect of human nature to help teach history... that bit of human nature we all (hopefully) have is curiosity and the need to learn and unravel the truth and facts from the folklore... in essence, to see if there's any "bunk" to remove from the tales.

So, it would now be up to the historical interpreter or teacher to tell the ghost story, then tell the students why these tales are either "possible", "not probable", or even "not-at-all possible" based on the documented facts of history.

You see, everyone LOVES to be "smarter" than everyone else... or at least, feel they are... and therefore, if you can say, "Here's the popular mythology... and here's the evidence..." it's almost always interesting to most people.

Sure, there will be times when, indeed, there may be a genuine mystery as to why the "Ghost Story" happened/happens... and there's no harm in pointing that out as well, (because, again, people like mysteries...) but it can foster a genuine thirst to know why these things happen... which could take someone through a journey of psychology, sociology, and even spirituality. Provided these pursuits are tempered with the idea that in order to truly "solve" these mysteries, empirical facts must be brought to the fore, (aside from the shrieking faith of non-belief saying it fosters "woo-woo-ism",) it really is honestly not only harmless, but beneficial on many levels in terms of learning and understanding.

Anyway, getting back on track, a "Ghost Story" is more often than not, folkloric... a story handed down from person to person... with occasional witness testimony of "odd things" to bolster the claim of truth.

This differs greatly from a "Ghost Report".

"Ghost Reports" tend to come from people not expecting to run into anything that might be considered "ghostly" in nature... something odd... something "unknown".

Sure, they COULD be at a place with a "Ghost Story" doing a tour or the like... but something happens "to them" - the witness. This is usually seen as "above and beyond" the existing story because when one hears that the "old lighthouse keeper is seen strolling the grounds of his old workplace", the witness usually doesn't truly completely see a connection between that and seeing the lighthouse door open and close seemingly of it's own volition.

Now, with the above example, one could wonder if there was a connection... or if another version of causation is at play... but that's another (several) articles.

Most of the time, the witness is not aware of a "Ghost Story" to try and correlate their "Ghost Report" to.

Granted, over time, they usually will look for one...

Say, for example, they're in their new home. All is well, but then a series of seemingly "ghostly events" start to happen. Initially, the series of events is all that's important... and usually, looking for possible "natural" or "normal" causation to these events. If there isn't apparently one, the witness (as a rule,) will start to work from what is expected from a ghost story... usually a death... perferably a nasty one or a VERY sad one... because, as we all know, that old lighthouse keeper's ghost is ONLY wandering about because he was most likely murdered... that's what the story said, after all. Ergo: Isn't that what THEY'RE ghost needs to have had in place to be haunting?

Could this be true?

I suppose it could be... but it isn't a given. In fact, there are many "Ghost Stories" where the legend of the ghost revolves around someone not wanting to leave a beloved spot... someplace they held more than a little dearly to their heart.

Either way, the "Ghost Story" will end up trumping the "Ghost Report" after a short time... and usually, the former will take wings and become a well-known story and the folkloric circle begins.

The "Events" become synonymous with "The Story".

Is this wrong? Is this a bad situation?

Honestly, not really... no one can tell if it's good, bad, or indifferent. It simply is what it is.

As an investigator, one has to see this...

"I was in my house, alone, watching television, when all of a sudden, the blender in my kitchen went on by itself. I went in to examine and found the stove had been turned on, the blender shut itself off, and that some kitchen utensils like a spatula and things has been moved around."

That's the report... but then...

"We asked the neighbours, and they told us that not the last owners of the house, but the people before them were an elderly couple and when they passed, the house was sold."

...thus the inference that the kitchen activity was caused by the elderly couple.

Again, not "impossible", you could even qualify it, if you subscribe to certain ideas, that it's probable... but realistically, no one could say for certain.

A good investigator must look past the "Ghost Story" and focus on the "Ghost Report" and work from there... and not get too snagged into a singular hypothesis of causation.

Even if you subscribe to the idea that whatever was being experienced was caused by someone who passed over, does this mean it must be the person the neighbours spoke of? Who was there previously? Does the ghost have to love the place they haunt... hate it... be obligated to it for some reason?

Again, speculative... and not really empirically provable with the tools currently available.

In my opinion... and many other's... it's not up to us to "correct" a witness on a hypothesis before being able to provide absolute empirical evidence to show how and why they were mistaken... but by the same token, it's very easy to get mired down hunting for the facts of a folkloric "Ghost Story" without taking a hard look at the "Ghost Report".

One last and very quick example... We do know two very well known Ontario "War of 1812" ghost stories where the folkloric version has the "ghosts" dating from that conflict...

Again, if working from the "reports" and using "likelihoods" rather than simply relying on the folklore, one finds that the ghosts, if indeed we surmise them to be "who they are", are most likely re-enactors... modern folks who passed on wearing "costumes" that match the expectation of someone from the period where a good folkloric tale should emanate from. One of these stories has the soldier in an area that, realistically and historically, it's extremely unlikely a "soldier" in the early nineteenth century would have traipsed through... and, to add more interest to the situation, we know that this soldier's ghost, when spotted by friends of the man who passed away, is described as "him"... the modern fellow... meaning that the popular mythology/folklore has a two-hundred year old ghost... when it's most likely with the proper investigation, a person from "modern times" dressed up.

I could also point out a very famous "Ghost Story" that most afficianados know from Hampton Court... where the pieces of the "Ghost Story" seem to fall snuggly into place... but the historical fact doesn't bear out... See...
...for details. (Scroll down to the sentence that starts with "The next case is far more famous..."

Again, "Ghost Story" and "Folklore" does not truly equal "Ghost Report"... and the two former elements do not match neatly up to the actual history.

So, can you believe in ghostly phenomena and not "Ghost Stories"? Apparently, you can...

Can you believe in "Ghost Stories" and not the actual ghosts? Well, you can... but you're probably going to be more wrong than right on a case-by-case basis in our experience.