Friday, 23 August 2013

What is a Ghost?

The Brown Lady

Probably one, if not the most famous of all ghost photographs is this one of The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, which was taken by Captain Provand and Indre Shira (two notable London photographers) on the 19th September 1936. Provand and Shira had been commissioned to take photographs of the interior of the Hall for Country Life Magazine. It was as they were finishing up the days shoot that Shira noticed a shape descending the stairs and urged Provand to take photographs. Provand uncapped his lens and took a single frame.

Nothing was really distinguishable at the time, just an amorphous shape descending the stairs but when the pair were developing the plates later, they noticed the image you see above. The photograph was published in Country Life Magazine on 26th December 1936 and in the December issue of Life Magazine. Attempts to prove it a fake have failed, it remains one of the most intriguing ghost photographs ever taken.

The apparition is thought to be that of Lady Dorothy Walpole, sister of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, who died at Raynham Hall of smallpox in 1726.

Prior to this sighting, a famous encounter by Captain Frederick Marryat in 1836, saw the good captain fire a pistol at the apparition as it glided down one of the upper corridors. Just how Lady Walpole fared after this attempt on her 'death' is unknown.

The eminent author - Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, ‘behind every man there stands 30 ghosts, that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.‘

The Earth's population is approximately 7 billion, so there is potential for 210 billion ghosts happily, or unhappily haunting the planet. If Mr. Clarke’s statistics are to be believed, then you would think that we would be falling over phantoms at every turn. The explanation offered by mediums and spiritualists as to why this is not so, is evidently quite simple, we, the uninitiated are not ’tuned-in’ to the spirit plain.

So what is a ghost? I suppose if you were to ask most people, they would probably describe a ghost as a disembodied spirit, cursed for eternity to wonder aimlessly through dark and musty corridors of some spooky old mansion or the like. This may indeed be true, in fact many sightings have been reported in such places.

Ghosts take on many different forms, some are seen as amorphous, whilst others have a distinct shape, many appear quite solid just like you or I. There are even stories where people claim to have engaged ghosts in conversation believing them to be quite real, only to be told later that they have in fact been happily chatting to the dead.

Sceptics are only too quick to dismiss ghosts as figments of an overactive imagination. Many encounters are probably just that but surely it is better to attempt to understand this phenomena rather than just dismiss it as fanciful rubbish, a trick of the light or a vivid dream - etcetera.

The Imprint Theory
Many parapsychologists theorize that powerful emotional psychological scars can be retained in inanimate objects such as wood or stone and when conditions are suitable (whatever suitable conditions may be) are some how triggered and played back. This theory may well account for 'cyclic hauntings,' where an apparition appears to go through a repetitive program before ultimately fading away at the completion of the recording.

If you go along with this theory then imprint hauntings start to make a little more sense. For example; people often report seeing a ghostly figure walk through a wall. Other reports tell of only seeing a ghost from the waist up. On closer inspection of these two examples, is it quite conceivable to conclude that the wall in question at one point did have a door which is now bricked up and no longer in use. So it follows, that a vision of a ghost with the lower part of the body obscured, could have something to do with the topography of the ground in the past compared with the present.

Some researchers theorize imprint hauntings diminish over time, a little like a discharging battery, resulting in a once clear and defined apparition reduced to little more than a diluted amorphous shape or just footsteps in the night. This may account for why we don't see ghosts of cavemen; their batteries are long since exhausted. However, it is argued that the explanation for this degradation in definition is actually nothing to do with the passing of time but a result in variants in atmospheric conditions. It is further speculated that a combination of air temperature, humidity, daylight or night time could have a bearing on the strength and therefore definition of an imprint haunting. Many ghosts are reported during the cold winter months, few during warmer weather; why should this be? In light of this, two people witnessing a ghostly encounter at the same location but at different times of the year and under different atmospheric conditions may well be party to the same apparition but in a diluted state of being. An explanation as to why this should be is still sitting the pending tray.

Do Ghosts Exist?
The question as to whether ghosts exist is as contentious as a belief in a God. Both issues have fuelled many debates over several millennia and will I’m sure fuel many more. If you were to ask men of science that question I would anticipate their response would likely be that science deals in facts, specifics, things have to be measured and quantified, experiments have to be carried out again and again and anything that defies the laws of physics, e.g. passing through solid objects can’t possibly be entertained. They may have a point.

To some the ghost debate can be awkward and is often met with mixed responses. It is interesting to observe the reaction of some people when the subject of ghosts is introduced into conversation and just how some exhibit a reticence when asked if they believe in such things. Their response, I have noticed on occasion is to take the guarded route and respond with a nervous chortle and an off-the-cuff and somewhat dismissive, “Lord no, all in the mind; another drink darling?” I can only assume this reluctance to engage any further in the subject is to avoid appearing foolish in front of one’s peers. I can’t help wondering, if you were to ask of those same people, do you believe in the existence of a God, I’m fairly sure those that do or don't would happily and without any compunction or fear of ridicule answer yes or no, which to be honest confounds me. Just how do you differentiate between the two anomalies, after all, is not God also a supernatural entity with no proof to validate its existence, so why regard ghosts any differently, in fact surely a ghost has more validity than God (that should trigger a few emails). Many millions claim to have seen ghosts throughout history but how many claim to have seen a God?

I like to refer to myself as an open minded sceptic; I know that sounds somewhat contradictory. I will be the first to admit that I have my doubts about the existence of ghosts as the disembodied spirits of dead people, a belief held by many psychic mediums and spiritualists. If pressed, I would have to favour the imprint theory as a possible explanation. Over the years I have investigated many hauntings but have not seen or heard anything that I would describe as supernatural, but then I never expected to. Whether this means I am not ‘in tune’ or ‘psychically aware’ as some might suggest, remains an issue for debate. What I will say is, there have been far too many sightings to just ignore the possibility that such phenomena may exist. Ghosts have been reported globally in every civilization since the beginning of recorded history. Everyone knows someone who has seen a ghost, in fact it is believed that as many as 1 in 7 Britons claim to have witnessed ghostly activity in one shape or another and the chances of seeing a ghost has been calculated as little as 1 in 10. When you consider the odds of winning the lottery are around 1 in 40,000,000; being struck by lightening 1 in 600,000 and being murdered in the UK as 1 in 16000, then there is every chance that you and I may well experience a ghost in our lifetime - sure hope so!

Sleep well.

‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy‘.

- William Shakespeare -


Roland John said...

Arthur C. Clarke was recently proved wrong with his estimate of 30 ghosts per person. I read in National Geographic that there have been approximately 100 billion people living on Earth since the dawn of time.

I don't know how accurate that is or how they came to that conclusion but still, to have 100 billion ghosts living around us is pretty scary!

Willow said...

Thank you for your comment Roland.

I too have difficulty in understanding where the statisticians get their figures from. What I do know is, there are considerably more dead than living, so equally, why do we not encounter a spook at every corner? Maybe it’s just the unfortunate few that don’t make the ‘transition’ from this world to the next, or more likely - leave a ghostly 'imprint' recording.