Have you ever seen a ghost? Lots of people have, or at least, they think they have seen something that might have been a ghost. Reality TV shows about haunted houses and such always show camera shots with strange, fuzzy patches in places that are assumed to be ghosts or at least some kind of supernatural or paranormal activity.
But what is a ghost?
The people who report seeing the ghost of someone they know, or a loved one that has passed on, say that the person looked perfectly normal, just as they had appeared in life. Sometimes, the realization that the apparation was a ghost is often not realized until after the apparition has vanished. Other times, someone will see the apparition of a loved one and not find out until later that the loved one had recently died. Occasionally, children will see loved ones standing by their beds in the middle of the night, only to be told the next morning that the person had died during the night.
These sightings usually aren’t frightening at the time, only causing concern afterward when the realization of what has happened has set in. Sometimes, the sighting can be comforting, as though the deceased wishes to reassure the loved one’s remaining that he or she is all right and the ones left behind are not to grieve.
Sometimes, the apparition is not seen, but perceived through other senses. A person might feel the touch of a ghostly hand or an embrace from an unseen person. Or just a sensation of moving into a warm spot in the room. Other times, the ghostly presence is heard, as a voice, or a laugh, or banging or tapping noises or even bits of music that doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. If the deceased person had a distinctive laugh, or played a musical instrument, or had a hobby that made a distinctive sound, such as the clicking of knitting needles or the banging of pots and pans in the kitchen. Some of the most memorable signs of a ghostly presence is a distinctive smell, like roses, the scent of an aftershave or the aroma of cookies baking in the oven. Or, the less pleasant but unmistakable smell of alcohol or some other food with a strong aroma like sauerkraut.
If these sensations are connected in some way with the deceased, they can be as comforting as a visual presence.
So, what are ghosts? The usual definition is that they are the souls of departed persons who have shed the material body but who still have an ‘etheric’ or energy body that retains conscious awareness and can go here or there at will. This is the view of the various spiritualist movements that have been popular since the 1800s. Spiritualist ‘mediums’ would hold ‘seances’ in which the ghosts of departed loved ones would be summoned and manifested in some way by the powers of the medium so that their loved ones could either see or hear them or receive some kind of unmistakable evidence of their presence.
This practice was, of course, rife with fraud and abuse. Even if the departed person was, as was claimed, present and aware of what was going on, persuading him or her to make their presence known to a ‘sitter’ was a very uncertain business. The departed might not have wanted to appear at the medium’s summons. He or she might have ‘gone on’ to the spirit realm and might not want to have anything more to do with the earth plane. And there is the unfortunate but undeniable fact that the departed spirit wanted nothing more to do with the loved one so anxious for contact.
This presented a delemma to the medium. After all, the sitter had usually paid money to communicate with their dear departed and fully expected to get their money’s worth. And a medium’s reputation was often on the line. If the medium failed to produce the desired manifestation, then he or she would not be able to attract other paying customers or charge as much money for the ones they did get. So, if the spirits refused to cooperate, the medium would have to fake it, usually by employing many of the slight of hand tricks that stage magicians use.
But there were other theories about ghosts. When a house, for example, or other place was reputed to be haunted, people inhabiting such places would see strange phenomena that seemed to be ghost-like but had no connection to any known person. Strange knocking sounds, creaking doorways, apparitions of hazy figures, strange voices, etc. are often reported in haunted places.
The first theory, of course, is suggestion. People often go to haunted places expecting to see ghosts. They are familiar with what other people have experienced and will tend to experience the same things, interpreting often ordinary phenomena as evidence of a ghost. However, it is often the experiences of people who didn’t know about the reputation for being haunted and, thus, were not expecting to see or hear anything unusual that are the most compelling. And the reports of people who were actually physically terrorized by the apparitions are chilling.
But there is another theory of hauntings. And that is that the atmosphere of a place can be so affected by the strong emotions following some tragic event that a trace of the energy remains at the location for a time, like an impression on an old photographic plate, and that certain sensitive people can detect it. The ‘astral imprint’ of a person who died suddenly in a house, particularly if that death was due to some horrifying and tragic circumstances might be strong enough to remain in a place for many years.
The actual soul or spirit of the person might be long departed but the astral imprint of the horrifying event, like a bit of old movie footage might replay over and over until finally the energy is dissipated or somehow neutralized. Some cultures will even build small shrines to saints or other spiritual powers in places where a tragic death occurred and say prayers to somehow dissipate the hurtful energy that might still remain.