ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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I've seen a ghost! Or have I? Have you ever seen a ghost? How would you know if you've seen a ghost? Could you have you seen a ghost and not realised it? This article attempts to answer these surprisingly complex questions.

NOTE: If you wish to have a ghost sighting or haunting investigated, please go here.

How do you know if you've seen a ghost?

This may seem an odd question. How can someone miss seeing a ghost! But how would you recognise a ghost? Some people think they've seen a ghost when they haven't. Others probably have seen a ghost and never realised it. What are the best signs that you've seen a ghost?

Possible sign of a ghost Is it a ghost? Alternative natural explanations
A figure wearing old fashioned clothes Unlikely Actor, re-enactor, fancy dress, fashion, etc
Transparent figure Unlikely In photos probably a long exposure; in real life may be hallucination
Figure seen in haunted location Maybe Unless the location is secure it could be an ordinary person
Figure that behaves strangely Unlikely Could be someone behaving strangely!
Figure does something impossible* Maybe Misperception, hallucination
Figure that 'should not be there' Maybe Someone who has arrived unexpectedly
Unexpected figure seen in photo Unlikely Faces / figures are often seen in random patterns
Orb No Photographic artifact (see here)

*vanishes, walks through wall, part of figure missing, seen by only one person in a group, etc

Most ghosts are reported to look like solid, normal people. Very few transparent apparitions have been seen, despite the common depiction of ghosts on TV and in films like that. So how do people know they've seen a real life ghost?

The most common reason people say they've seen a ghost is if they know the figure 'should not be there'. If the witness is in a locked building, for instance, and they see someone. Another common way of recognising a ghost is if it vanishes or walks into a wall or does some other 'impossible' thing. Or maybe they only see part of a human figure. Some people may think they've seen a ghost just because they see someone in 'period' costume. Ghosts have only been reported in period costume since the early twentieth century which makes this an unreliable sign.

Ghosts are often reported to be indifferent to their witnesses. This explains the 'figure that behaves strangely' above. However, on its own this would not necessarily mean that it was a ghost. It may be a real person who was deaf or blind or simply inattentive, for instance.

It is often assumed that ghosts cause haunting phenomena. However, only a minority of cases of hauntings include apparition sightings. Furthermore, ghosts are not seen actually producing haunt phenomena, like knocking on walls or moving objects. It is therefore possible, considering the evidence, that ghosts are just one of a number of possible symptom of hauntings, rather than their cause. This only seems odd if you start with the idea that 'ghosts are spirits' rather than examining actual cases without preconception.

In all these cases above there are alternative natural explanations for all these sightings. If two or more 'signs' combine in one sighting, it obviously reinforces the possibility that it is indeed a ghost that you have seen.

What IS a ghost?

The common definition of a ghost is a 'returning spirit' but the evidence from real ghost cases does not support this idea. A more useful definition of a ghost, based on actual case reports, would be:

a ghost is 'a figure of a human, or animal, that cannot be physically present'

The phrase 'physically present' here means present as a conventional, ordinary human or animal (it is not a reference to 'spirits').

If a witness has good reason to think that they should be alone, for instance, then seeing a figure might well make them think it is a ghost. Seeing a particular individual, who could not possibly be present, would be another good example. If the figure did something 'impossible', like walking through a wall, then it would tend to support the idea that it could not be physically present either. So, this definition covers all the strongest indicators of a ghost.

Have you seen a ghost?

Given that ghosts generally appear normal, they may often be missed. Unless we know they 'cannot be physically present' then we might never suspect such figures are ghosts. If you walk along a crowded street there might be several ghosts present but you would never suspect it. Many people only realise they have seen a ghost after the event, when they realise there was some reason why the figure could or should not have been there. So we may all have seen ghosts but simply never knew about it.

The best way of deciding if you have seen a ghost is to consider what factors may have made it 'impossible' for the figure you saw to have been physically present. The list above includes just the most obvious but it is by no means exhaustive. For more on ghosts go here. Ghost sightings may have many different causes including misperception, near sleep experiences and coincidence.

© Maurice Townsend 2008, 2011