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.

Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide

4 out of 5 stars
Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide
John Fraser (Stroud: The History Press, 2010).

John Fraser, Ghost Hunting: a Survivor's GuideThis is a highly readable portrait of present-day, rational ghost-hunting by an author who is a prominent member of both The Ghost Club and The Society for Psychical Research – and I’ve heard him give talks also at ASSAP events (The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena).

Fraser has evidently been in the thick of ghost-hunting for years, and shares the benefit of his wide experience. In essence, what this book offers, apart from a history of the subject and much practical advice on how to approach and organise the investigation of ghosts, is a sustained meditation on what the activity of ghost-hunting might actually amount to.

I was surprised, and a little disturbed at first, by his liberalism. Where circumstances ethically allow, Fraser is not averse to the use of Ouija boards (p. 110), self-proclaimed ‘psychics’ (p. 128) and other pseudo-scientific assets whilst investigating a case. He is not dismissive of historical research into sites (p. 140) – as opposed to concentrating exclusively on current phenomena – nor does he regard commercial ‘ghost tourism’ (p. 51) as necessarily all bad.

I received my training from ASSAP, where all of these were presented as big no-noes, but Fraser’s reasoning behind not ignoring them entirely is based on what is surely a realistic assessment of what ghost-hunting can be expected to achieve. ‘Ghost hunters,’ he writes, ‘should not really be trying to be Newton or Einstein – providers of a whole new science of the supernatural. This is not our strength and we would look silly trying to do it’ (p. 183).

On the site of an alleged ‘haunting’, Fraser suggests, it is highly unlikely that sufficient controls could ever be in place for us to prove the paranormal. By the end of the book I had decided that I quite admired the author’s disinclination to fool himself that the strongest motivation for ghost-hunting lies in the challenge of establishing adequate scientific protocols, rather than in our personal desire to confront our preoccupations with what might happen to us after death, and in the emotional, visceral reaction that arises in response to the ‘spookiness’ of allegedly haunted sites.

Fraser’s book is a practical guide to making ghost-hunting as rational as it can be, yet without losing what makes it so emotionally engaging.