Things that Go Bump in the Night

3 out of 5 stars
Things that Go Bump in the Night: How to Investigate and Challenge Ghostly Experiences
Emily Peach (London: Aquarian Press, 1991).

'Things That Go Bump In The Night', by Emily PeachA commendatory aside in Hilary Evans’s Seeing Ghosts drew me to this book. What quickly becomes evident is how much Evans’s book owes to it: there are similarities in both format and method, although maybe this is because of the debt that both owe to the SPR material from which they draw their case material.

Peach takes a phenomenological approach, arguing that – to the extent people report them, and those reports share certain characteristics – therefore ghosts ‘exist’. She spends the first third of the book marshalling some classic cases and organising ghosts into five categories, all of which challenge the common notion of ghosts received from fiction and folklore.

This first part, for me, was the most rigorous and compelling. In the second part, on theories, niggles set in. Due to her phenomenological approach, the sceptical theory of misperception does not receive the attention it deserves; and – although she tries to insist otherwise – Peach is obviously partial to what she labels ‘the occult theory’ (‘a hypothesis regarding a subtle environment that underlies the physical’ [p. 115]), which trumps the four other theories she pits against it by consistently explaining all the ‘facts’ about ghosts.

The third section deals with how to investigate cases. It is a little dated, but most of the advice it gives seems sound. Yet now that we are down to practicalities, a host of factors become relevant that were not given consideration in the earlier sections. We are suddenly obliged to consider whether witnesses have been boozing, or if their mental health is not good (p. 133); and urged to consult geological survey maps (p. 147) before citing ghosts as the cause of creaks and bangs.

‘Some intestinal ailments have been linked with telekinesis’ (p. 132), Peach asserts, in a startling aside that calls out for a supporting reference (but in vain). It was the rare lapses like this that made me wonder whether the reasoned voice in which the book is written is entirely Peach’s own. So too does the decision to include the section on investigation. The title of the book promises to ‘challenge’ ghostly experiences, yet this was always going to sit uneasily with the phenomenological approach espoused in the first two thirds.

Nevertheless, this is mostly a compelling and useful book. Second hand copies are cheap and easy to obtain, and are worth seeking out.

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Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the Paranormal

4 out of 5 stars
Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the Paranormal
Hilary Evans (London: John Murray, 2002).

Hilary Evans, Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the ParanormalA well-organised and thoughtful book that bases its analysis on almost 200 cases, which are interspersed throughout the text and incorporated as the argument develops.

Evans builds on the ideas of previous researchers, especially the SPR, but his interpretations take a slightly different trajectory from theirs. Unable to accept that all ghost cases are misperception or coincidence, but agreeing that the mechanism must be some form of hallucination, Evans pushes into the possible causes of these hallucinations, having to account for their veridical content in many cases.

Two hypotheses are offered: (1) super-psi, an as yet unknown ability of the subject of a ghost experience to access information otherwise unknowable; and (2) the extended self, an as yet unknown vehicle by which the object of a ghost experience can influence the subject, in some instances perhaps from a point beyond death.

Evans suggests either hypothesis is adequate to explain the ghost experience, but evidently favours the parsimony of the latter, given the difficulties that arise when we consider the motivation for the percipient’s supposed use of super-psi. In other words: why see ghosts, unless ghosts are there and willing to be seen?

I was surprised by my own doubt concerning Evans’ even-handed and Fortean approach to his case material. The Chaffin case, for example, in which a dead father appears to reveal the location of his revised will is co-opted by Evans as support for his ‘extended self’ hypothesis (p. 104, 237). Yet this case has been satisfactorily resolved by Mary Roach, who has produced evidence that the ‘revised’ will was actually a fake by the dead man’s son, who therefore probably invented the story of the ghost.

Another case (p. 65) similarly bugged me (although I have no explanation). It concerns an investigator who arrives at a location and leaves the door unlocked for a delayed colleague. The householder soon after reports that she sees a ghost; the investigator sees nothing; but then the delayed colleague steps into the house and asks where the ‘other man’ has gone. Evans takes this tale at face value, partly because he is acquainted with the investigator concerned. Me, I was too suspicious not to feel this story too hokey somehow, nor to avoid wondering if the householder and the delayed colleague weren’t in collusion.

Evans seems averse to coincidence. ‘Surely this is stretching chance too far!’ (p. 225), he says, and makes similar remarks elsewhere. But improbable things can and do happen. My own hunch is that coincidence plays an important role in ghost experiences. Evans style of thinking is scientific in the respect that even though he posits currently unknown mechanisms, his are nevertheless mechanistic theories, envisaging a discrete chain of causes in the production of ghost experiences. Personally, I like the weirder option that ghosts are synchronicitous experiences, perhaps beyond causality. This is territory that Evans only begins to confront when considering the implications of his ‘extended self’ hypothesis for the relationship between ghosts and time (p. 265).

On the one hand, then, I found Evans not sceptical enough, whilst on the other, too mechanistic. What I suspect this might mean is that he is probably doing a better than average job of finding a useful middle ground between inflexible scepticism and irrational belief.

The city council’s policy on haunted homes

In October 2013, the social housing magazine Inside Housing ran an article on its website about how social landlords deal with complaints from tenants concerning ghosts and other allegedly paranormal activity. Far from ridiculing such reports, the investigation revealed that:

[S]ocial landlords have frequently contacted exorcists and spiritual mediums, in some cases moved people up the housing list, and even transferred tenants into alternative accommodation to deal with the problem.
(Nick Duxbury, ‘Haunted Houses‘.)

The large majority of councils and housing associations approached by the magazine were unable to respond to an FOI request concerning their policy towards ghosts. Brighton & Hove City Council was among these, so I decided to make a quick, informal call to see what I could find out.

I spoke with someone in the Housing Customer Services Team, who gave a polite and distinct impression that ghosts were not something they had dealt with very frequently (if ever). In response to my question whether the council would investigate such a complaint, I was advised that the service team would probably first ask for evidence that the property was haunted, and then — on the basis of the response — pass on the request to whatever team was equipped to deal with what seemed the underlying issue.

Like many of the landlords cited in the Inside Housing article, the staff member at Brighton & Hove assured me that a complaint of this kind was too serious to be lightly dismissed, but would be addressed in some form, even if this might not entail taking it at face value.

Personally, I felt encouraged by the way that exorcists and mediums were not mentioned during our conversation. (Judging from the contents of the Inside Housing article, housing associations seem more prone to resort to these; councils may be more conscious of having to account for how they spend public money.) But the request to the tenant to provide evidence for the haunting struck me as a little daunting, considering the absence from mainstream science so far of any generally accepted proof.

For a tenant confronted with the task of convincing their landlord that a disturbance is genuine, or for a landlord requiring more substance before deciding on a course of action, an ethical and evidence-led local investigation team (such as ourselves) might prove a useful resource. If you think we could help, contact us.