Ghosts, Hauntings & Related Phenomena

Written by John Robert Columbo
When Matthew James Didier asked me to speak this evening, I said yes right away, for the reason that I have a great deal of respect for him and his sister Jennifer.

As well, I said yes because there were a few ideas I want to formulate for myself to communicate with you.

But first I want to draw attention to the work of Matthew and Jennifer. Their contributions have received less attention than it deserves. With their friends, they host events like this and turn them into good-natured successes. With their friends, they maintain the well-designed website. Above all, with their friends, they keep their spirits up!

Indeed, they have set a high standard for contributions to a field of endeavour that is notoriously lax in standards.

Now, I have two books in the works. One is called The Midnight Hour and it will appear in March of 2004. The other is called True Canadian Ghost Stories and it will be published next month by Key Porter Books. I wish I had a copy here to show you, but in scheduling it the publisher overlooked the Halloween market. This fact means that I do not have copies to present to Matthew and Jennifer.

However, I have here in my hand a printout of the preliminary pages, and these include the dedication page. Let me share the dedication with you. It reads as follows:


To Matthew James Didier & Jennifer Krutilla
Who care for the ghosts among us

I mean it. Thanks Matthew, thanks Jennifer.

Now to work.

I call this talk Ghosts: Research, Investigation, and Ethics.

Ghosts is a word that needs no definition or description here and now. Everyone here knows what a ghost is, what a spirit is. As well, everyone here knows about wraiths, poltergeists, phantoms, spectres, crisis apparations, forerunners, ectoplasm, etc. Everyone here knows that the word poltergeist is derived from the German for "noisy ghost." A poltergeist is an unseen spirit known by its bad works--floorboards that creak, doors that open and close on their own, writings on walls, mysterious fires, etc.

Perhaps not everyone knows that the etymology of the English word ghost. I learned that it is derived from the German word for "rage" or "anger." One does not have to read or hear many ghost stories to realize that most of these are stories about rage, anger, fear, worry, anguish, distress, apprehension, and death.

There are some ghost stories that are about guardian or protective spirits, guardian angels, let us say. The spirits seem benign. But the majority are hauntings that are malign. There is menace there; sometimes mindless, motiveless malignancy.

Whatever. I want to review some of my thoughts about the field of inquiry. I will not tell ghost stories because there are people here who tell them better than I do. Instead, I want to examine some of the conditions--and preconditions--behind ghosts and spirts.

Ghost-hunters and ghost-hunting is an activity of amateurs. There are no minimum standards or maximum qualifications except for a healthy dose of enthusiasm. By "ghost-hunters" we can include all of the following: amateurs who enjoy dabbling in the field; journalists who regularly write about Halloween spooks; psychics and mediums and channellers who perform on cue; wiccans and shamans who believe they follow age-old practices; and spiritualists and occultists who hold specific views on the inhabitants of invisible realms. I have not included those exorcists who are priests of the Anglican or Catholic persuasion because they are not amateur but professionals who follow time-honoured, hallowed rites.

The best known ghost-hunter of modern times was Harry Price. An Englishman with no professional qualifications of any sort, except that he was an amateur photographer, magician, and book collector, he managed to donate his collection of 20,000 books on psychical research to the University of London, so he basked in its shadow if not in its light. He never met a journalist he failed to charm. Using the verb of the day, he "boomed" all his activities. He leased an old rectory named Borley Rectory, near Sudbury in Essex, and when he left the property it was known as "the most haunted house in England," the Amityville Horror of its day. After his death in 1948, some of Price's priceless deceptions (at Borley and elsewhere) came to light.

Ghost-hunting is harmless when there is no deception involved. There is usually deception involved--withholding evidence, "booming" the effects, etc.

So much for ghosts and ghost-hunting. I wish to distinguish between research and investigation, between researcher and investigator.

Research is a discipline with standards that may be measured. Journalists, lawyers, scientists, scholars, and authors may function as researchers. Basically, they gather together disparate materials and present their findings in a balanced fashion.

A good instance of research going bad is the one advanced by Charles Fort in this syllogism:

Ambrose Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1914.
Ambrose Small disappeared in Toronto in 1919.
Therefore, somebody is collecting Ambroses.

Would that it was this easy! Dedication and talent with larger interests at stake produce good researchers. I will name the two researchers who did more than anyone else to create the notion of the "ghost story." Every enthusiast for the spirit world should be familiar with them: Andrew Lang and Elliott O'Donnell.

Andrew Lang was a Scottish scholar and litterature who argued with Max Miller that folklore created mythology, not the other way round. He travelled the British Isles and from the folk collected its fairy tales. He is fondly remembered for the so-called "coloured" collections of stories, mostly notably The Blue Fairy Book in 1889.

Elliott O'Donnell, an Anglo-Irish journalist, visited haunted castles and country homes throughout Britain in order to research and publish a series of collections that span half a century--from Some Haunted Houses (1908) to Trees of Ghostly Dread (1958), a great title that!

The tradition of Lang and O'Donnell is continued by Peter Underwood of the Ghost Club in London. He refers to this work as "no common task." Indeed, that is the title of his memoirs: No Common Task: The Autobiography of a Ghost-hunter.

In brief, the function of the researcher is to accumulate, select, evaluate and present the tales and stories withholding no extenuating circumstances--without evaluation or interpretation. Researchers are generally to be found in the study, in the stacks or carrols of the library, or before the computer screen, rather than in the field.

The researcher collects "ghost stories" and there are two types of them, both of them "told as true": the first-hand story and the second-hand story. The first type I term the "memorate" because it is told or written in the first-person and it has a standard form and a considered content. It records the effect on one person of a paranormal event or experience--in short, a mysterious episode. The second type is the "told-to" story--a second-hand story, couched in the words of the journalist who interviews the witness or recounts the tradition. Whether first-hand or second-hand, the tales that are told are of the supernatural or the paranormal variety. Since they are largely subjective accounts, proof and evidence are scarce.

So much for research. Investigation has standards that are scientific. The investigator works within the confines of a field of study, be it psychiatry, psychology, social work, folklore, ethnology, sociology, anthropology, statistics, chemistry, physics, etc. When one thinks of the field of investigation, one thinks immediately of Buffalo-based CSICOPS--the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal--not that it always rises to the level of science, not that it always conducts investigations!

The earliest investigators were members of the Society for Psychical Research, both the mother society in Britain and the American SPR, its transatlantic offshoot. These members were scientists, not spiritualists (who had their own groups, churches, colleges, and schools). William James, the eminent psychologist and proponent of Pragmatism, was at different times president of both the British and the American SPRs. Canada's leading psychical investigator is the late R.S. Lambert, author of Exploring the Supernatural in 1955.

The two Societies thrive today, with membership mainly limited to the professional class, but a new emphasis was registered in the field. The earliest investigators called themselves Psychical Researchers (although Psychical Investigators would be a better word for them). They were concerned with "psychic" qualities.

The field was redefined as parapsychology with the advent in 1927 of the work of J.B. Rhine at Duke University. Rhine and his co-workers described themselves as parapsychologists, not psychical researchers or investigators. No longer was the object of study "the psyche"; not it was a field or a force described as "beyond" science, beyond, that is, present-day science. Parapsychologists are with us today. Stephen Jay Gould writes in his essays about the various magisteria: the magisterium of science, the magisterium of religion, and so on. He might as well have spoken about the magisterium of psychical or parapsychological realities. Canada's leading parapsychologists are the Owenses. Iris M. Owen reported on the Philip experiments in psychokinesis in Toronto, and her husband, the late A.R.G. Owen, who died in Calgary earlier this year, was the recognized authority on the poltergeist and the author of Psychic Mysteries of Canada. I admire the couple and their achievement inordinately.

It is easy to distinguish a psychical researcher from a parapsychologist. The former studied mediumship in the last century in seances; the latter in the present century studies "wild talents" in laboratories using random-number generators and other such electronic gear. A leading explorer in the scientific field of anomalous experiences is Michael Persinger, a research psychologist at Laurentian University in Sudbury. He is identified with the "god machine" which, as Susan Blackmore and others have attested, is able to simulate at will the "entity" experience.

We have briefly considered such terms as ghosts, ghost-hunters, ghost stories, researcher and investigator, psychical researcher and parapsychological investigator.

The last term I want to examine is ethics. This is a difficult word to define. The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson defined it by distinguishing the meaning of the word with respect to two related words. These words are morality and ideology. Erikson saw the three terms as defininng stages in human development: childhood, youth, maturity. Morality is characteristic of childhood. The child divides people into good and bad, acts as well. Good people do good things. Bad people do bad things. Bad things are done by bad people. Good things are done by good people. Morality is childish, bipolar, codified, and simplistic. The "fixed" religions have a moralistic front to them.

Ideology is characteristic of youth. The adolescent divides people into those who hold the right views and those who hold the wrong views. If you come from one social class or cultural group or age group, you hold the right views; another class or group or age, the wrong views. Ideology is adolescent and based on the misuse of rhetoric and stereotyped thought. Political correctness is the result of ideological thinking.

Ethics is characteristic of the third stage, that of maturity. The mature person does not divide people or acts into good and bad, into right and wrong, but weighs each person or each act, considers its components and its essential nature. Ethics is individualistic, essentialistic, and based on the balance of common sense, reason and wisdom.

It is possible to approach ghost-hunting, psychical reseach, and parapsychology using this three-fold division.

Childish moralists say that something is all right or all wrong. On the one hand, fundamentalist Christians dismiss the supernatural out of hand as "the work of the devil." Psychics and mediums, on the other hand, embrace all of its reported functions fully and define them as the productions of the unconscious, the subconscious, the archetypes, or "the divine plan."

Adolescent ideologues take a stiff stand. On one hand, they found sects and cults like Mormonism and Scientology which interpret the invisible world in one way and one correct way only. On the other hand, they establish organizations like CSICOP, a home for debunkers and sceptics as well as well-informed scientists, and as likely as not dismiss psychical or parapsychological claims as illusion or fraud. The yea-sayers value belief and personal testimony; the nay-sayers, evidence of whatever kind, not necessarily common sense.

Mature ethical people--not ethicists, who are spokespeople for ethical considerations--take no stand pro or con for the reason that entrenched positions are counter-productive and conducive to what Freud called "reaction formation." Instead, they examine each case with care and concern for the witness or the victim.

Mature ghost-hunters, researchers, and investigators are often deficient in fellow feeling. I am currently researching and investigating a case of a haunting of a condition or situation that has brought pain and suffering to the members of a well-established family in Richmond Hill. I could discuss the sporadic phenomena that has been reported, but people are suffering all the while. I am eliciting the help of a psychiatric social worker and proceeding with care and caution. The Richmond Hill case may never be written up. Ethics are involved.

If it were a UFO abduction case, rather than a case of a haunting, and if Budd Hopkins, the New York-based abstract artist, the world's first and leading "abductionist," were in charge, he would interview all and sundry, hypnotize the willing witnesses, plumb for bio-genetic co-efficients, publicize the case at MUFON conferences, and discuss it on television. He would act like Mr. Proteus: Dr. Hopkins the physician; the Rev. Mr. Hopkins the pastor; therapist Hopkins the care-giver; author Hopkins the writer of bestselling books; and scientist Hopkins who seems to be adding to the abundance of human knowledge. It makes for great copy, but it is hard to believe that anyone is helped.

I want to leave you with the words that mean the most to me. They may mean the most to you, too, but they need to be pondered and savoured. They come from an address or sermon delivered by the late Northrop Frye, the renowned literary critic who was also a Professor of English at Victoria College, Toronto, and an ordained minister of the United Church minister. His words go like this:

The knowledge that you can have is inexhaustible, and what is inexhaustible is benevolent. The knowledge that you cannot have is of the riddles of birth and death, of our future destiny and the purposes of God. Here there is no knowledge, but illusions that restrict freedom and limit hope. Accept the mystery behind knowledge. It is not darkness but shadow.

Northrop Frye, address, Metropolitan United Church, Toronto, April 10, 1988
John Robert Colombo

13 October 2003: Notes for a Talk Sponsored by the Toronto Ghosts and Hauntings Society prior to Halloween at Spadina House, 19 October 2003 at 8:00 p.m.

By John Robert Colombo
The Toronto Ghosts and Hauntings Research Society wish to thank John Robert Colombo not only for being our site's consultant since before day one but for assisting us on many levels... including sending us these notes and allowing us to post them here for our readers to have a look through. Thanks again to John Robert Colombo.