In 1881, Sarah Winchester, the widow of famous gun maker Oliver Winchester, became convinced that she needed protection from the evil spirits of all the people killed by Winchester rifles. A psychic advised her to continually add rooms to her San Jose, California, mansion to confuse any ghosts that may try to find her. (It’s not clear why ghosts, which can supposedly move through walls, would be confused by the rooms, but anyway…) She did so for nearly forty years, adding over 100 rooms and staircases, until her death in 1922. After Sarah’s death, her own ghost was said to haunt the halls of her mazelike home. Today the mansion remains a popular tourist attraction, a bizarre monument to superstition and paranoia.
2) The Amityville Horror
On November 13, 1974, six members of an Amityville, New York, family were killed by one of the family’s sons, Ronald Jr. (“Butch”) DeFeo. In his legal defense, DeFeo claimed that demonic forces in the home drove him to kill. The new owner of the home at 112 Ocean Avenue later claimed a variety of ghostly phenomena, and the story was later further fictionalized into a best-selling novel and horror film. Yet the supernatural events were never verified, and DeFeo’s lawyer admitted that the story was a hoax.
The San Francisco Bay’s resident rock, and perhaps the most famous prison island in the world, Alcatraz has captured the public’s imagination in many films and books. The prison, a cold, dank hellhole, saw many murders, riots, and suicides during its twenty-nine years of service. Along the way it spawned tales of inexplicable sounds, cell doors closing on their own, disembodied screams, and scary apparitions.
4) The White House
The Washington, D.C., home of America’s presidents has surely seen untold tragedy through the centuries, from being burned down in 1814 by British troops to several assassinations and attempted assassinations. Among the White House’s spooky stories include the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd, dabbled in the occult and held séances in the White House. Other reputed ghosts include Andrew Jackson, Dolley Madison, and Abigail Adams, though they are rarely seen today.
Though less well-known than the other haunted places, the Fox Sisters cottage is perhaps the most important haunted house of all, since the phenomena here in many ways set the standard for later hauntings and even launched a religion. In 1848 Hydesville, in Western New York, two young sisters named Maggie and Katie Fox began communicating with the ghost of a murdered peddler. The sisters, in a sort of crude séance, would ask questions of the spirit, who would answer back with mysterious knocks or raps. Many people, including their mother, were amazed at what seemed to be genuine contact with the dead. Both sisters eventually admitted that they had actually faked the sounds—there had been no murdered peddler, it had all been a prank. The women even demonstrated how they had done it. But by then the belief had taken on a life of its own as a religion called Spiritualism, which is still practiced today.
One of the most popular sites on the Web for discussions of ghosts, haunted houses, and spooky things is Ghostvillage.com. The founder, Jeff Belanger, has built a cottage industry of ghosts, having written several books on the topic. I interviewed Belanger about his site and his (thus-far fruitless) search for ghosts.
Benjamin Radford: How did you get the idea for Ghostvillage?
Jeff Belanger: Before starting Ghostvillage, I was writing for and editing a newspaper in northern Fairfield County, Connecticut. Around Halloween, the media seeks out the ghostly stories and we were no different. I had the chance to interview Ed and Lorraine Warren (two ghost hunters and authors who originally rose to prominence after the Amityville case in 1975). This was back in 1997, in the early days of the Internet. That article was on our newspaper’s Web site and generated more hits than all of the other pages combined. Sadly, the newspaper went out of business and the Web site faded away. That year I was asked to research and write a documentary film on Dudleytown, Connecticut’s infamous “ghost” town. I really got into this project, interviewing people who claimed they saw things in the woods, had been slapped by an invisible hand, and so one. I also explored an alleged “curse” placed on the Dudley family and interviewed people who live at the edge of Dudleytown who claimed there is nothing going on in the woods at all. The more people I spoke with, the more I wanted to examine every angle.
To make a long story short, the documentary never received funding. So I had this research and the interview with the Warrens. In 1999, I also wanted to teach myself HTML, so I built a little six-page Web site and named it Ghostvillage.com, partially based on Dudleytown, and because I wanted to create an online community where we could explore every angle of this subject—the believers, the skeptics, the religiously inclined, even the atheists. Back in 1999 I placed a line of text on our homepage that said, “Tell us about your ghost experiences,” and the site grew from there.
BR: What in your background drew you to this subject? Have you always been interested in ghosts?
JB: I grew up in an old New England town called Newtown, Connecticut, and from a young age I had friends who claimed their centuries-old houses were haunted. I was completely intrigued by their claims. So we would have sleepovers in some of these houses and break out the Ouija board and have our little ghost hunts around the building. I’ve been interested in the many different facets of the ghost experience ever since.
BR: Do you think that ghosts exist? What do you think they are?
JB: Yes, I think ghosts exist. I have this gut feeling that won’t go away. Plus I’ve had the opportunity to interview many hundreds of people about their experiences, and thousands of others have emailed me with their own personal accounts. I just can’t believe that they’re all crazy or lying. There’s a word for ghost in every language, there’s an understanding of the concept in every culture, and I find the collective eyewitness evidence overwhelming in support of the existence of ghosts.
BR: So what do you think they are?
Well, that’s the million dollar question. One theory is that ghosts are a type of psychic impression left on a location. For some reason, some people are able to tune into these place memories and get a glimpse of the past. Another theory is that ghosts are a type of thought projection by the living—the idea is that some people can cause bumps or move objects with their mind, maybe even project some kind of vision, or hologram, if you will, that other people can see. There’s also the traditional discarnate soul theory (i.e., an intelligent, interactive sentient being who was once a living person but died in physical form, yet their consciousness survives and is hanging around for a myriad of different reasons). And finally, there’s the theory that ghosts are simply a hallucination of the witness (a witness who may be on drugs, overtired, or suffering from some kind of mental debilitation). With the many people I’ve interviewed about their ghost experiences, I’ve heard of many examples that could fall in each of these categories. Some “ghosts” are simply a hallucination. I have no doubt of that. But I don’t believe every case can fall into that category. It’s those other three categories that keep me driven to learn more.
BR: If researchers have such widely different ideas about what ghosts are, how will they prove ghosts exist?
JB: I can’t speak for all researchers; I can only speak for myself. I’m not out to prove that ghosts exist. I believe they do, I’ve seen evidence to support this idea, and I’m happy to publish and discuss all of that evidence. My hope is that people look at the evidence objectively and decide for themselves.
BR: Do you consider yourself a ghost hunter, or a ghost researcher?
JB: Those are just labels, I don’t get hung up on them. I’m a writer and researcher, and I often go looking for ghosts. When I’m working on a book or article that involves interviewing someone about their alleged paranormal experience, I usually introduce myself as a writer working on a story. Ghost hunter, ghost researcher—you can even call me a skeptic if you like.
BR: What insights into ghost hunters/investigators did you get from meeting them and writing your books?
JB: Up until the early parts of the twentieth century, one didn’t need a Ph.D. nor tons of academic training to be a scientist or scholar. Then something happened along the way where it was socially acceptable for only certain types of people to pursue any kind of academic studies. The field of paranormal investigations has never been seriously considered or studied by the academic or scientific community—and nature abhors a vacuum. Enter the ghost investigators.
I think we all have a drive to learn something new and to try and leave some kind of mark behind. With ghost investigating, people can be white-collar workers or even plumbers by day, and pursue a field of study at night and on weekends. There’s no way to possibly categorize all ghost hunters, but I do appreciate anyone who asks questions of the world around them and seeks their own answers. Some investigators are very esoteric and take a psychic approach to the investigation, while others are only interested in the numbers their slew of instruments give off in an alleged haunted location. Others try to combine the scientific and the spiritual. I’ve met ghost hunters who are police officers, firemen, psychologists, Ph.D.s, housewives, doctors, ministers, plumbers, and software engineers. These are folks who are out to find proof, even if that proof is only for themselves.
BR: And yet that proof remains elusive. There are dozens of ghost investigation groups out there with thousands of members, and people have been searching for evidence of ghosts for decades or more. As yet, ghosts remain unproven, and investigators can’t even agree on what they are. How do you explain that? Judged solely by results, ghost hunters seem to have failed spectacularly at even proving that what they study actually exists.
JB: I disagree that ghosts remain unproven. I’ve spoken with hundreds and received emails from thousands more who had the existence of ghosts proved to them. They had the experience, and now they believe.
Again, I can’t speak for all ghost investigators, but my objective is to document and discuss my findings surrounding this experience. I’m interested in the history, the eyewitness testimony, and any other evidence that may be left behind. I know I’m not the only person who approaches the research in this way.
BR: As you know, I approach the topic of ghosts and hauntings from a skeptical, scientific perspective. I take ghosts seriously and make a genuine effort to explain and understand the phenomenon. How are skeptics such as myself viewed within the ghost enthusiast community?
JB: There are many ghost investigation groups who count skeptics among their members. These are people who don’t believe in ghosts at all who go along during investigations and try to point out everything they can that can explain phenomena reported in a location. They’re also present to review any evidence that may be collected. Skeptics are an important part of the research and discussion. When you bring a skeptic along, it stops you from going into a situation operating under the assumption that any given thing must be a ghost.
The problem is that some self-proclaimed skeptics aren’t really skeptics at all. Some skeptics are actually atheists who are subscribing to a rigid belief system complete with dogmas and ritual. These folks are not constructive to the furthering of any cause whatsoever. An atheist claims to know exactly what happens after we die, even though they have never died before. This group of people is also operating under the assumption that science is finished—that today we know everything there is to know about the universe. This is a ridiculous position to take, of course, because science makes discoveries all of the time that makes old ideas moot. There was a time when science said the world is flat, and that the Earth is the center of the universe. Not that long ago, science believed the speed of light to be a constant, but we learned that incredible gravitational forces (like the forces around a black hole) can bend light and slow it down as it passes by. When someone says, “Ghosts can’t exist, because the idea is against the law of physics,” that’s really not a good argument. It would do us all well to review the definition of “skeptic.” We should all have some degree of skepticism.
BR: I’d agree with that, which is why I think it’s important to actually investigate these things. But I don’t know of any skeptics or scientists who say that science knows everything. After all, one of the defining characteristics of science is that it is open to revision when better evidence comes along. I think that if ghosts exist, science will be the best way to prove them—not psychics or eyewitness accounts, but hard science.
JB: You’re correct. No one actually says we know everything, but some of the comments being said by people who claim to be skeptics operate under that assumption (i.e., “Ghosts can’t exist because it’s against the law of physics.” It’s against our current understanding of physics—there are certainly some interesting developments in quantum physics that may change some of these views. New theories and proofs enter science on a regular basis and render old ideas moot.)
BR: Do you think that TV shows like Ghost Hunters, Ghost Whisperer, Medium, etc. are good or bad for ghost hunters?
JB: Anything that brings the subject of the supernatural into the mainstream is a good thing to some degree. These television shows allow people to stand around the water cooler at work and say things like, “Hey, did you see Medium last night? Boy, was that weird, but you know what? Something like that happened to me once…” The more regular people talk about this subject, the more we can take it out of the realm of the bizarre. We’re all going to die one day and need to come to grips with that. Ghosts offer us the opportunity to explore our own mortality and spirituality.
I would hope that audiences can remember that television programs exist for one reason only: to sell commercial time. That’s it. Most people are smart enough to ask their own questions, and they will quickly figure out where science fiction ends and a serious study begins.
BR: I have noted that “The evidence for ghosts is no better today than it was a year ago, a decade ago, or a century ago.” Do you agree?
JB: No, I disagree that the evidence is no better than it was. First, society has diversified its beliefs and its idea of spirituality. A century ago, it was a lot more difficult to discuss the topic of ghosts in the mainstream without serious ridicule. Today, ghosts are in the mainstream, which allows us to collect data more quickly after an event happens. For example, it wasn’t too long ago that people hardly ever talked about their ghost encounters for fear of ridicule. Today, there are radio and television talk shows, Internet sites like mine, and books and magazines where people can discuss the vivid details of their experiences shortly after it happens. I’ve received many e-mails and phone calls over the years that begin with, “This just happened a few minutes ago…” This removes the “fuzzy memory” part of the equation.
Also, we have more advanced environmental monitoring equipment today than ever before. If objects are moving in a location, then we should be able to monitor some change in the environment. I know of one organization in the UK that is measuring every corner of a room for electromagnetic activity in an allegedly haunted location in Muncaster Castle. Researchers are finding correlations between electromagnetic field fluctuations and ghostly activity. Now, is it possible that these fluctuations are causing the brains of the witnesses to see something that may not be there? Sure. But we won’t find out for sure unless we keep exploring these theories and see them through to their conclusions.
BR: I don’t understand; how has the evidence for ghosts improved? Do you mean that because the number of ghost reports has gone up with the Internet and public acceptance, that is somehow good evidence for ghosts? How are a dozen ghost stories any better evidence than one ghost story?
JB: Our understanding of psychology and human behavior has greatly improved in the last century. We’re able to better quantify perception and experiences. We also understand that human memory can be trusted when it comes to profound and/or traumatic experiences. I also believe that a dozen ghost experiences are easily better than just one because the greater number of documented experiences shows that this event isn’t just a fluke. In the case for anything, a dozen credible eyewitnesses are better than one.
BR: If you think that the evidence for ghosts has improved, what are some facts that we know about ghosts now that we didn’t know about them a hundred years ago?
JB: The theories have evolved and improved. Because we can monitor the environment, we’re seeing correlations between electromagnetic fields and temperature and this experience. Because we understand human behavior and psychology better, we know the role perception and memory can play in the experience.
BR: So do you think that ghosts will be scientifically proven to exist one day?
JB: Ghosts (in the sense of the discarnate soul) won’t be scientifically proven any time soon because some people have rigid belief systems that won’t allow them to accept it—kind of like if some group within the scientific community came forward tomorrow and said, “Hey, you know what? We miscalculated. Two plus two is actually six.” Even if they went over the math with you hundreds of times, people just wouldn’t accept it.
BR: So the existence of ghosts comes down to belief instead of evidence? Are you saying that there’s good scientific evidence for ghosts, but the problem is that those with rigid belief systems reject it?
JB: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. There’s good scientific evidence for ghosts, but the problem is that those with rigid belief systems reject it.
BR: Do you think that it will always come down to controversial and ambiguous evidence like sightings and orbs?
JB: I’ll grant you orbs are and probably will continue to be ambiguous (at best), but I disagree that eyewitness sightings are ambiguous. Witnesses perceive the ghost event as real. It changes their lives in many cases. If I produced a witness who claims to have just seen the ghost of his grandmother who died many years ago, and this person could pass a lie detector test, could pass a drug test, and a psychological screening, there are plenty of people who still wouldn’t believe them even though they weren’t present at the time of the witness’s sighting.
BR: Of all the places you’ve been, what two or three are you most certain are haunted?
JB: My definition of a haunting is this: similar unexplained phenomena that has been experienced by multiple witnesses over a period of time. It also helps quite a bit if said witnesses have nothing to gain financially by the ghosts. I’m always leery of pub owners who start telling me ghost stories…
I have many favorites, but two that stand out are the Tower of London—a place with great history, some gruesome executions, and ghostly legends in every corner. I believe it’s haunted because of all of the stories that come in about it. I’ve interviewed some of the people who live and work in the tower—these are military officers, and many had some kind of unexplained event occur to them. One sergeant I spoke to in passing said his first night in his new quarters, he laid down to go to bed when he watched a teddy bear he’d had since childhood float out off the shelf it was on to the middle of the room, and then drop to the floor.
The other location I’m sure is haunted is Gettysburg. I have heard accounts come in from every corner of the battlefields and even from some of the buildings in town. Whether it’s an understanding of the history of the battle that triggers something in visitors or if the carnage of 51,000 dead or wounded men left a permanent mark, I’m not sure. But I do know that people have many sightings in this location.
For more on Belanger and Ghostvillage, visit www.ghostvillage.com.
One thing that ghosts, Bigfoot, and UFOs have in common is a lack of hard evidence for their existence. Many people report seeing these phenomena, though sightings are essentially stories, not proof.
According to many “ghost experts,” just about anyone can find evidence of ghosts using a device found in nearly every home: a camera. Ghost stories and sightings are fine, but what can we make of images claimed to be actual photographs of dead spirits? A few years ago an exhibition of spirit photography was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Several of the pictures on display were created by Boston photographer William H. Mumler, who first claimed to have captured ghosts on film. Mumler produced many “spirit photographs” in the latter half of the 1800s, depicting faint, ghostly images in otherwise normal portraits. This caused a sensation and convinced many people with his seemingly excellent proof of ghosts. Yet there was more to Mumler’s photographic proof of life after death than met the eye; he was exposed as a hoaxer when some of the “ghosts” he had photographed were seen very much alive, living and working in Boston. In the process of his work, Mumler had simply stumbled across a crude method of double exposure, and hatched a plan to make a fortune with his fakes. Thus, ghost photography began as an unseemly blend of photographic error and outright hoax.
The clear images of ghosts and dead souls depicted by Mumler are long gone. Despite dramatically improved optical equipment and cameras over the past century, most “ghost photos” fall into two categories: 1) hazy, indistinct shapes that can be interpreted as a human form; and 2) “mysterious” glowing white blobs called orbs. Both can be easily (and accidentally) created by photographic error, and the latter are by far the most common. Books, television shows, and Web sites about ghosts often include photographs of orbs that investigators (or just ordinary people) find scary, amazing, or simply puzzling. Orb photos are essentially Rorschach cards, though the forms are usually white and round instead of black and blobby. The interpretations of both, however, reveal much about how the viewer sees the world. Orbs may take a variety of forms. There is not one blanket cause for all orbs; many things can create the phenomena, including insects and dust close to the camera lens.
In a series of experiments, I was able to create orb photos under a wide range of circumstances. Orbs can be found in the most un-spooky of settings, and are actually fairly common in daily, amateur photography. They are usually only noticed when a person is actively looking for them as evidence of ghosts.
The easiest way to create an orb image is to take a flash photograph outdoors on a rainy night. The flash will reflect off the individual droplets and appear as white, floating orbs (the effect is most pronounced in a light rain, though even a little moisture in the air can create mysterious orbs). As researcher Joe Nickell notes in his book Camera Clues, unnoticed shiny surfaces are also common sources of orbs. (As well, flashes reflecting camera straps can produce other ghostly photo effects.)
During one investigation I conducted several years ago at Fort George (“Canada’s most haunted place,” in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), I examined a large, wooden soldiers’ barracks where ghosts and orbs had been reported. I took several flash photographs of the area, and I noticed that the building (essentially a barn-like structure) was quite dusty. As a television crew interviewed some ghost hunters, I noticed one orb, photographed it, and wondered what it might be.
It hovered about chest-high and did not move at all, suggesting that it was not an insect nor a dust particle; instead it seemed supernaturally suspended in the air. It was several feet away from the nearest post, wall, or other visible means of support. The phenomenon was very strange. I showed the image to one of the ghost hunters, who seemed pleased that I had captured what was obviously a ghost orb.
Not content to simply declare my orb a sure sign of the supernatural, a fellow investigator and I searched even harder for a solution. Sure enough, closer investigation revealed that the orb was in fact a tiny piece of dust or lint that clung to the remnants of a spider web. It was a very unusual place for a web, and had I not traced the long, nearly-invisible line to its arachnid anchor, I would have rejected a web as an explanation. But it was a very long strand and just far enough away from the walkway that all but the tallest passersby would not walk through it. The dust mote was very difficult to see, and only apparent when a dark color appeared behind it for contrast, or when caught in a flash photograph. Had an amateur ghost-hunter spent a few minutes taking flash photos of that room at night, the dust would likely have appeared as an orb–and its true cause almost certainly overlooked as an explanation.
Orbs seem otherworldly because they are almost always invisible to the naked eye and go unnoticed until the photo is examined, later revealing the presence of a ghostly, unnatural, glowing object, sometimes appearing over or around an unsuspecting person. To those unaware of scientific and optical explanations, it is no wonder that orbs spook people (as Mumler’s photos did 120 years ago). Most ghost investigators will admit that at least some orb photos are of ordinary phenomena. Still, they insist, there must be some orbs that defy rational explanation. None have yet been found. Of course it’s possible that ghosts and spirits do exist and can be photographed. But if so, where’s the proof? And why do images of ghosts look exactly like images of photographic errors?
Ghost enthusiasts are satisfied with hazy images and orbs, but this will never convince skeptics and scientists. So what would be good photographic proof of ghosts? An authentic photograph of anyone born before the invention of photography would be a good start: Benjamin Franklin, William Shakespeare, or any of thousands of other people for whom we have a good record of their likeness but no photograph. Just one such photo would be more convincing than a thousand glowing blobs. Unfortunately, all the ghost photos offered so far are indistinguishable from intentional fakes and optical mistakes.