These days, we all know what paranormal research means. But where did it all come from? Is there an evolutionary process involved? I hope this article will answer those questions.
History of Paranormal Research
People have been researching the paranormal since the beginning of time, even if they didn’t know they were at the time. The belief in ghosts as the souls of the departed is related to the concept of animism, which in its most basic form is the belief in a “soul” or “life energy” that is present in most religions. Nineteenth century anthropologist James Frazer explains in “The Golden Bough” that souls were seen as “the creature within that animated the body”. Another widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they were composed of a misty or subtle material. Many speculate that this may stem from ancient cultures who observed person’s breath, which upon exhaling in colder climates appears visibly as a white mist. In many historical accounts, ghosts were thought to be deceased persons looking for vengeance, or imprisoned on earth for bad things they did during life. Most cultures have ghost stories in their mythologies. Many stories from the Middle Ages and the Romantic era rely on the macabre and the fantastic, and ghosts are a major theme in literature from those eras.
Ghost stories date back to ancient times, and can be found in many different cultures. One of the earliest known ghost “sightings” took place in Athens, Greece. Pliny the Younger (c. 63 – 113 AD) described it in a letter to Licinius Sura: Athenodoros Cananites (c. 74 BC – 7 AD), a Stoic philosopher, decided to rent a large, Athenian house, to investigate widespread rumors that it was haunted. Athenodoros staked out at the house that night, and, sure enough, a disheveled, aged spectre, bound at feet and hands with rattling chains, eventually “appeared”. The spirit then beckoned for Athenodoros to follow him; Athenodoros complied, but the ghost soon vanished. The philosopher marked the spot where the old man had disappeared, and, on the next day, advised the magistrates to dig there. The man’s shackled bones were reportedly uncovered three years later. After a proper burial, the hauntings ceased. It can be seen that a number of accounts of ghosts around the world seem to follow this theme of a ghost looking for a proper burial or to right some action in their life where they wronged, or were wronged before they can rest.
Edison believed that the “soul” was made up of what he called “life units”. These microscopic particles or life units could rearrange into any form. They retained full memory, personality and were indestructible. Edison’s machine would detect these life units in the environment and allow living individuals to communicate with the dead. He put many years of hard work into his new creation, but sadly, he died before it was finished. Some people thought Edison was crazy. Others thought that he was onto something bigger than any of his other inventions. They believed that if he had a little more time, we might all today be living in a very different world.
Attempts to apply modern scientific or investigative standards to the study of apparitional experiences began with the work of Edmund Gurney, Frederick William Henry Myers and Frank Podmore (1886), who were leading figures in the early years of the Society for Psychical Research. Their motive, as with most of the early work of the Society, was to provide evidence for human survival after death. For this reason they had a particular interest in what are known as ‘crisis cases’. These are cases in which a person has a quasi-perceptual experience of someone at a distance at the time of that person’s death or other crisis. If the temporal coincidence of the crisis and the distant apparitional experience cannot be explained by any conventional means, then the presumption is made that some as yet unknown form of communication, such as telepathy (a term coined by Myers), has taken place.
A notable later discussion of apparitional experiences was that of G.N.M. Tyrrell (1943). Tyrrell accepted the hallucinatory character of the experience, pointing out that it is virtually unknown for firsthand accounts to claim that apparitional figures leave any of the normal physical effects, such as footprints in snow, which one would expect of a real person. However, Tyrrell develops the idea that the apparition may be a way for the unconscious part of the mind to bring to consciousness information that has been paranormally acquired – in crisis cases, for example. He introduces an evocative metaphor of a mental ‘stage-carpenter’, behind the scenes in the unconscious part of the mind, and constructing the quasi-perceptual experience that eventually appears on the stage of consciousness, so that it embodies paranormal information in a symbolic way, a person drowning at a distance appearing soaked in water, for example.
The study and discussion of apparitions took a different turn in the 1970s, with the work of Celia Green and Charles McCreery (1975). They were not primarily interested in the question of whether apparitions could shed any light on the existence or otherwise of telepathy, or in the survival question; instead they were concerned to analyze a large number of cases with a view to providing a taxonomy of the different types of experience, viewed simply as a type of anomalous perceptual experience or hallucination.
Subjects of apparitional experiences are by no means always frightened by the experience; indeed they may find them soothing or reassuring at times of crisis or ongoing stress in their lives.
Spontaneous apparitional experiences tend to happen in humdrum or everyday surroundings, and under conditions of low central nervous system arousal, most often in the subject’s own home – while doing housework, for example. By contrast, subjects who visit reputedly haunted locations in hopes of ‘seeing a ghost’ are more often than not disappointed.
Apparitions tend to be reported as appearing solid and not transparent; indeed they may be as realistic in a variety of ways as to deceive the percipient as to their hallucinatory nature; in some cases the subject only achieves insight after the experience has ended It is unusual for an apparitional figure to engage in any verbal interaction with the percipient; this is consistent with the finding that the majority of such experiences only involve one sense (most commonly the visual).