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  • Ghost Universals and Human Universals June 27, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback


    Let’s say that your neighbour meets a ghost. What will they typically see/hear/experience other than a human form: a floater, strange clanking, glowing body parts, missing body parts? We might guess one or the other from this list, but there is no need to guess. There are statistics out there (or data amenable to statistics) that will help answer the question. Over the last hundred and fifty years there have, in fact, been various attempts to mine data-sets of paranormal experiences including the Victorian Census of Hallucinations (another post another day), the Rhine survey and the Hong Kong student survey. Some things feature repeatedly in these surveys including: family connections in visions and telepathy; information on death; importance of conviction (go figure!) etc etc. But a crucial one is ‘abnormal features of perception’: strange sensory impressions found in the paranormal experiences of varied cultures ‘that are probably universal and related to physiological processes’. I list these here because I find them worthwhile as something that Tibetans, Aborigines and the good folk of Oregon have in common. The only one that seems out of place to me (a middle class Briton) is ‘sickly or deformed image’, though perhaps a beheaded Tudor noblewoman walking in an English country home would fit into that category?

    Abnormal walking or floating

    Abnormal sound

    Disappearance of image

    Glowing image

    Insubstantial image

    Partial body

    Sickly or deformed image

    White or black clothes

    I’ve put them here in alphabetical order. But how would these order in terms of frequency in a large sample from North Carolina? Take a moment, give some kind of estimate and then click away to see how close you come. The article in question is James McClenon, ‘Content Analysis of an Anomalous Memorate Collection: Testing Hypotheses Regarding Universal Features’,  Sociology of Religion 61 (20001), 155-169. Behind this innocent exercise is a deadly serious debate. If you ask a historian, a sociologist (yah, boo, sucks), an anthropologist, a psychologist or even a folklorist about paranormal phenomena they will typically assume that the phenomena in question are culturally determined: that is they are breast-fed us by our own social setting and that this is filtered through more or less hysterical personalities; ‘aaargh I see a ghost etc’. However, in the last generation there has been an increasingly interesting minority opinion on this question, which is still skeptical about these phenomena, but rejects a monolithic cultural explanation. Proponents of this minority opinion would argue that some paranormal phenomena are biologically determined: and that they are present in all human societies in similar forms because they are part of human hardwiring. The most common example given is the ‘remarkable’ uniformity of near death experiences in different cultures: bright light, met by dead friends and family members, the endless tedium of meadows and flowers (pray the jjust departed don’t have hay fever)… In some ways, though, the best example is David Hufford’s The terror that comes in the night, an examination of sleep paralysis with a convincing physiological explanation (or at least convincing pointers for a physiological explanation). These ‘abnormal features of perception’ might be another.

    Other academic articles or books favouring a physiological explanation for the paranormal: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com And if anyone is interested I’d love to find a physiological explanation for being pixy led.

    27/June 2014: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books would be my first choice to take me through this question. She used to teach a biology class on the senses and these are some of her preferred sources for explaining ghosts: there is some real treasure here. The first she describes as ‘brilliant’. (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7), (8), (9), (10) and (11). As to sick ghosts (see my comments above) Chris has a strong opinion. The sickly image of a ghost is actually rather common. It usually involves a certain paleness of countenance, a corpse-like lividity, or an appearance of sickness in a normally healthy person. For example: Sib,—In the latter part of the summer of ’78, between half-past three and four in the morning, I was leisurely walking home from the house of a sick friend. A middle-aged woman, apparently a nurse, was slowly following, going in the same direction. We crossed Tavistock-square together, and emerged simultaneously into Tavistock-place. The streets and square were deserted, the morning bright and calm, my health excellent, nor did I suffer from anxiety or fatigue. The following scene was now enacted:—A man suddenly appeared, striding up Tavistock-place, coming towards me, and going in a direction opposite to mine. When first seen he was standing exactly in front of my own door. Young, and ghastly pale, he was dressed in evening clothes, evidently made by a foreign tailor. Tall and slim, he walked with long, measured strides, noiselessly, without a sound. A tall white hat, covered thickly with black crape, and an eye-glass, completed the costume of this strange form. The moonbeams, falling on the corpse-like features, revealed a face well known to me that of a friend and relative. The sole and only other person in the street, beyond myself and this being, was the woman already alluded to. She stopped abruptly, as if spellbound, then, rushing towards the man, she gazed intently and with horror unmistakable on his face, which was now upturned towards the heavens, and smiling ghastly. In her strange contemplation she indulged but during very few seconds, and with extraordinary and unexpected speed for one of her age and weight, she ran away with a shriek and yells terrific. This woman never have I seen or heard of since, and but for her presence I could have explained the incident, called it, say, subjection of the mental powers to the domination of physical reflex action, and the man’s presence would have been termed a false impression on the retina. A week after the above event news of this very friend’s death reached me. It had occurred on the morning in question. From the family I ascertained that, according to the rites of the Greek Church, and to the custom of the country he had resided in, he was buried in his evening clothes, made abroad by a foreign tailor, and strange to say hewore galoshes or india rubber shoes over his boots, according also to the custom of the country he died in; these deaden completely the sound of the heaviest footstep. I never had seen my friend wear an eyeglass. He did so, however, whilst abroad, and began the practice some months before his death. When in England he lived in Tavistock-place, and occupied my rooms during my absence.—I am, Sir, yours very truly, Armand Leslie Light Vol. 1 Issue 1, 1881, p. 342