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Ghosts or Apparitions?

Updated on July 7, 2010


Conduit or just fleas?
Conduit or just fleas?

In our pursuit of defining ghosts we are hampered by their very nature of being indefinable. They slip through our fingers and defy explanation because of the countless explanations humanity has postulated. Definition by way of the scientist or lay person bogs our attempts and confuses the issue because we see validity in all.

Everyone has a story where a deceased friend or relative has allegedly attempted contact. Personal examples include thumps from my mother’s storage closet in her new apartment where she had temporarily stored my father’s ashes. Once removed and put in a prominent place of honour in the living room the thumps stopped, never to resume. Another time my cat Molly was suddenly possessed by a never before witnessed gymnastic fervour whereupon she raced about, leapt up to the entertainment unit and pawed repeatedly at a photo of my brother-in-law whom we had just buried. How to explain or define such occurrences? Is any explanation necessary? Depends on who you talk to.

Poet Lord Byron

Wearing his plaids and cloaks
Wearing his plaids and cloaks



Not surprisingly the scientific community centres the majority of their research within the field of psychology. Freud believed ghosts  of dead loved ones could be explained as “an opposition [by the bereaved] so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of hallucinatory wistful psychosis” (Bennett 147). While the rhetoric has softened somewhat since Freud “by resorting to evasions such as the phrase ‘the sense of a presence’ ...  sometimes the medico-psychological model and its images of abnormality still lie close to the surface” (Bennett 147). The term ‘ghost’ is not encouraged in the scientific realm, instead ‘apparitional experience’ is the more accepted label. ‘Ghost’ suggests that something of a human being survives death whereas ‘apparition’ includes living entities (Wikipedia).

Scientists and sceptics alike have delved into the supernatural world and brought forward many valuable and plausible theories. Electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, emitted by various electrical sources are proposed as one source of haunting. Yet, studies done by Christopher French on the likelihood that EMFs and infrasound were responsible for paranormal feelings “could not conclude ... [they]... played a role” (Marcus). Natural explanations for cold spots, moving objects or unusual sounds are frequently found as culprits in paranormal activity. Sleep disorders, and hypnagogic states can produce visual or auditory hallucinations where we think we are awake, but are susceptible to illusions just prior to waking or dropping off to sleep (Lewis 117). In the waking world  misconstructions of normal objects lead to false perceptions. The poet Byron’s ghost was proved to be nothing more than several cloaks and plaids hanging together (Wikipedia). As science itself grows, so do the explanations for apparitions. On the other side the lay person too has answers, but these answers don’t discount the supernatural quality. Ghosts come in many forms.

Famous Ghost Photos

Tulip Staircase Ghost taken by Rev. Ralph Hardy in Greenwich England in 1966
Tulip Staircase Ghost taken by Rev. Ralph Hardy in Greenwich England in 1966
WWI squadron picture where Freddy Jackson shows up for the picture two days after he died. Top row, fourth from the left.
WWI squadron picture where Freddy Jackson shows up for the picture two days after he died. Top row, fourth from the left.

Experienced Lay Person

General consensus agrees there are three types of ghosts or haunting. The intelligent ghost responds to outside stimuli and exhibits personality. They seem to be attached to particular sites and may offer vocal response which can be recorded. The residual ghost is usually unaware of change in its surrounding and continues to play the same scene repeatedly. The third type of haunting or ghost is labelled demon and even in believers’ circles comes under some debate. The poltergeist falls into a demon subcategory and often centres its attention upon adolescents – perhaps thriving off the chaos of puberty (Johnson TAPS). In all types of haunting the appearance of the ghost is as varied as humanity itself. They can appear as orbs, mists, partially or fully formed figures, transparent, solid, or shadows. The one constant is that they are seen by their researchers as disembodied spirits – not hallucinations.

In recent years science and technology have entered the world of the ghost hunter and while it may be argued by the scientists that the electronic tools being used were not created for ghostly research and therefore subject to dubious readings, it must also be said the hunter of today is attempting a more objective approach. Perhaps a meeting of minds in the distant future is in the offing. Belief one way or another is an experiential thing and can be modified through continued growth on both sides. Change is the only constancy where today’s truth could very well be tomorrow’s fallacy.

So – was feline Molly really a conduit for my late brother-in-law, or did she simply have a flea up her butt? And was my father thumping his displeasure at being banished to the closet, or did a neighbour coincidentally cease his late night hammering the day the urn was moved to a more appropriate location? We’ll probably never know the definitive answers until we see what exists beyond our present senses, and then we’ll no longer need the explanations.

Works Cited

Bennett, Gillian and Bennett, Kate Mary. The Presence of the dead: an empirical study.2000. 3 Oct. 2009<> 

Lewis, James R. The Dream Encyclopedia. Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1995.

Marcus, Adam. “Ghost Lusters: If You Want to See a Spector Badly Enough Will You?” Scientific American. 27 Oct. (2008). 7 Oct. 2009 <>

Johnson, Carl L. and Johnson, Keith E. “The Three Basic Types of Hauntings.”The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS). 7 Oct. 2009 <>

“Apparitional Experience”. Wikipedia. 4 Oct. 2009 <>


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    • E. Nicolson profile imageAUTHOR

      E. Nicolson 

      8 years ago

      Thank you, Ron. I think they have a long way to go before there is an actual 'ghost detector'. The instruments they use seem to point to something anomalous in the vicinity. Whether that's a ghost or something easily explained is up for interpretation I guess.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      This is a very interesting and thought-provoking article. I do wonder upon what basis so-called ghost hunters think that their instruments will detect the presence of ghosts. My own attitude is that such gizmos would no more detect them than would sonar check acidity of, say, soil or a thermometer test for sugar content of a fruit. I do, however, believe there is something substantial to the idea of ghosts.


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