What IS a ghost?
The 'debate', such as it is, about the nature of ghosts tends to revolve around the idea of 'spirits'. This is, of course, the traditional view of ghosts maintained by the culture. Paranormal researcher's attitude to ghosts tends to be determined by whether they believe in spirits or not. Those that do not sometimes dismiss ghosts as mere delusion.
So, what has ASSAP discovered after a quarter of a century of investigation? Firstly, the vast majority of witnesses have appeared credible and not obviously subject to delusions. Some cases have resulted in mundane explanations. This, coupled with the first observation, implies that witnesses have not been deluded but been faced with unfamiliar situations and wondered if the paranormal might offer an explanation.
Many cases have ended up with at least some elements unexplained. There are two possible conclusions from this - (1) that there were mundane explanations that eluded the investigators or (2) that the paranormal was involved. There were few, if any, cases where 'spirits' were the most obvious and compelling explanation.
A third explanation
In recent years a third possible explanation has come to our notice. It might be that hauntings are a completely real experience, though neither spirits nor anything mundane. Some hauntings might, for instance, be magnetically stimulated hallucinations (a newly discovered phenomenon). Or they could be caused by other environmental factors, such as infrasound. Some preliminary research suggests that these possibilities should be taken seriously. Indeed, there may be other possibilities that no one has yet thought of. New thinking can pay dividends in paranormal research.
Types of ghost
The most 'familiar' kind, or type, of ghost is the 'recording' or 'residual' haunting. Such ghosts are generally described as 'like a recording', where the same thing (noises, object movement, apparitions) will occur in the same place repeatedly on different occasions.
Another well-known kind of ghost is the poltergeist. This is a haunting where physical activity is the most prominent component. In some cases, whatever is responsible can even react to people or events in the case (unlike in 'recordings').
Another important type of ghost is the crisis apparition. These are described in the right-hand column.
Some people claim there are other types of ghost, such as those that interact with people. Some people claim that shadow ghosts are a different type too. Typically, such shadow ghosts are a kind of 'corner of the eye' phenomenon. Despite such 'new' ghost types, there is a good case for keeping things simple and sticking with the main three types mentioned above.
There are also alternative classification systems clearly based on the 'spirit' theory of hauntings, such as 'earthbounds' or 'elementals'. However, if you take the scientific approach, theories must be supported by compelling evidence. ASSAP's investigations have not produced any convincing evidence that ghosts are spirits.
Different ghost, same explanation?
In their classic book 'Poltergeists', Gauld and Cornell showed that the 'symptoms' of hauntings (recording type) and poltergeists overlapped noticeably. So, are they all different aspects of the same phenomenon? Poltergeist phenomena differ noticeably from recordings in that they generally follow a particular person rather than always appearing in a particular location. Crisis apparitions are also person-centred (see right) so they, too, may well require a different explanation to recordings.
ASSAP has studied hundreds of recording-type hauntings over the years - indeed it is easily our biggest body of evidence. While similar symptoms recur in different cases, they frequently have differing, mundane explanations. This leads researchers to wonder whether there may be multiple, different explanations for cases of recording hauntings. Different hauntings may appear similar but have different explanations, just as UFO sightings have many differing causes.
Once you accept the idea that the 'ghost,' as a single entity or concept, is mostly just a cultural idea, rather than something based on solid evidence, understanding hauntings can become less problematic.
How do you know it's even a ghost?
Everyone knows what a ghost looks like. The trouble is that even paranormal researchers disagree with each other on this subject. So how do you know if you've seen a ghost? See here for answers.
© Maurice Townsend 2008
No type of ghost shows up the danger of classifying them all as one phenomenon as much as crisis apparitions. Instead of being stuck to a single place, crisis apparitions occur to particular people. Both the witness and time is crucial while the place is immaterial.
A crisis apparition is usually someone known to the witness (unlike other hauntings). They appear at a time of crisis in the life of the person appearing, eg, a life threatening incident or at the time of death itself.
Given the striking difference between crisis apparitions and more general hauntings, is there any reason to think the two have the same explanation? The only real link is that both are ghosts. However, the concept of a ghost is an artificial one. Just because we humans call all apparitions ghosts, it does not follow that they are the same. It is only the idea that all ghosts are 'spirits' (which is a cultural, rather than scientific or philosophical, idea) that makes us link crisis apparitions to other types of haunting. Once you put that idea aside, if only for the sake of argument, it is clear that there may be a completely different mechanism behind crisis apparitions (maybe coincidence, perhaps even telepathy).
Strangely, in its quarter of a century of investigating, ASSAP has come across few, if any, cases of crisis apparitions. And yet there are many in the literature from earlier times. Are crisis apparitions really dying out? Or has their prevalence just been exaggerated in the literature? If anyone has ever experienced a crisis apparition, we'd love to hear from you.
Is it really a ghost?
Why, when people hear unusual noises in their house do they ever consider that it might be a ghost? There are many reasons for odd noises; plumbing, creaky floorboards, badly stacked objects falling over, heating systems, etc (see misperception). So why do people consider the paranormal, which is one of the least likely explanations? It is, no doubt, the never-ending diet of ghosts (always presented as 'spirits') being produced by the media.