Popular Delusions IV: Hauntings

John Knott, the owner of Quadrille, a fabric and wall coverings company based in Manhattan, expected surprises when he bought a weekend home in the country, an 1839 Greek Revival house in Kinderhook in Columbia County, N.Y. Inconveniences were bound to crop up — a leaky roof, problematic plumbing, boiler issues. But he was not expecting ghosts.

—Kathryn Matthews, “This Old House Has Ghosts“. The New York Times, 13 October 2006.

Aside from belief in God and the associated religious trappings, one of the more widespread superstitions of society is the idea that spirits of the dead can return to haunt their former places of residence. A 2005 Harris poll found that 40% of Americans believe in ghosts, which would constitute tens of millions of people if this result was valid. (Incidentally, notice the number of people who believe in God according to this poll as compared to the same number from another Harris poll two years earlier.)

Reading the Times article, I noticed a significant attribute that the overwhelming majority of ghost stories have in common. See if you notice it as well:

A French guest was roused from a deep slumber at dawn — despite wearing earplugs — by repeated rapping noises on his bedroom door, though no one had knocked.

A visitor staying in an upstairs bedroom awoke to a startling vision of African slaves working in fields.

…a close friend, the New York florist Helena Lehane, cut a visit short after being beset by torturous nightmares; her screams — described by Mr. Knott as bloodcurdling — sent everyone running into her room.

Then a guest, Bill Placke, a banker from Summit, N.J., was dozing off in the guest bedroom, lying next to his sleeping wife, he said, when a smiling skeletal apparition robed in a white gown and ruffled collar appeared at the foot of his bed. It bobbed toward him, then vanished.

The majority of ghost sightings took place in people who were either asleep or drifting at the edge of sleep. These are the very conditions most suited for sleep paralysis. During REM sleep, though the brain is active, the body is paralyzed, an adaptation that prevents us from physically acting out our dreams. However, sometimes the mind becomes partially awakened while the body is still paralyzed and in its dream state, leaving a person with the frightening feeling of being fully conscious but unable to move or speak. More significantly, sleep paralysis is frequently accompanied by vivid hallucinations and the strong sense of a presence in the room. Sleep paralysis is a universal human phenomenon and has given rise to numerous cultural superstitions blaming demons or witches for its occurrence. In modern times, it has also inspired tales of alien abduction, as old myths are given a pseudoscientific slant, and it is very likely responsible for many ghost stories as well. It is not hard to see how a person in a twilight state between waking and sleep, experiencing the sensation of a looming presence, might come to believe that they have experienced a ghostly visitation – especially if that sensation is accompanied by vivid auditory or visual hallucinations produced by a brain still dreaming while awake. Cultural conditioning and expectation also plays a role; an experience that might have been shrugged off as no more than a nightmare in other circumstances, when it occurs in a supposedly haunted house or in a region famed for its spooks, will soon become further “evidence” for the existence of ghosts.

There is another relevant phenomenon that may explain a considerable number of ghost stories: infrasound. This is sound waves with frequencies below 20 hertz, too low-pitched for the human ear to perceive. Nevertheless, though we cannot consciously hear infrasound, it seems to have a subconscious effect on us. The linked article concerns a study undertaken at a concert in which some pieces of music were laced with inaudible infrasound. A substantial percentage of people hearing these pieces reported chills and feelings of anxiety, uneasiness and fear, as compared to the control group. Infrasound can occur both naturally and artificially, produced by phenomena such as ocean waves, wind and earthquakes, as well as by human artifacts vibrating at the appropriate frequency. It is quite possible that vibrations in old houses, caused by wind and weather or by the house itself creaking and settling, may generate infrasonic waves that can explain at least some reports of hauntings.

As with many popular delusions, however, the belief in ghosts lacks not just external evidence but internal coherence as well. For one thing, if hauntings can happen, why does everyone who dies not become a ghost? Why is every hospital, nursing home and old house not crowded with noisy poltergeists? Even if we restrict the list of potential ghosts to people who died violently or with unfinished business, the number of potential ghosts should scarcely decline. There have been millions of violent deaths throughout human history, after all, and probably the majority of people who die have unfinished business of some sort – death not generally being an event one can schedule. (The Times article quotes a home buyer who found that her allegedly haunted house was the site of at least two murders in its two-hundred-year-plus history. This breathless statistic seems less impressive, however, when one considers that most old houses have had people die in them.) If hauntings can really happen, we living humans should be outnumbered by the dead.

Another relevant question is this: Those who believe in ghosts often say that a restless spirit can remain for decades or even centuries, rattling its chains or giving people chills or doing whatever else it is a ghost does in its spare time. But any manifestation that has a physical effect on the world – even if the claimed effect is no more than moving air molecules – requires an expenditure of energy. This is the second law of thermodynamics, a basic physical principle. Living humans get the energy which we use to affect things in the world from the consumption of food. Ghosts are not known for eating, however, so where do they get their energy from? What is the power source that permits them to remain in the world for such long periods of time? Ghosts, it would appear, are doubly improbable: not only does the idea itself lack logical coherence, but any actual ghost would have to be a perpetual motion machine!

And on a related note, what is the substance that composes a ghost? In other words, what is a ghost made of? Everything that exists is either matter or energy, but neither is a suitable candidate for a spirit. If it is matter, then that means that ghosts, in some sense, have bodies like ours, and could theoretically be killed (again?) by the disruption of that material structure. But if it is energy, the prospects seem even poorer. For one thing, this would make haunting impossible, because energy does not stay in one place; it is always in motion, propagating from place to place at the speed of light. Rather than remaining to haunt the house of its death, any ghost in this circumstance would soon either be absorbed by nearby objects and cease to exist, or would be speeding off into interstellar space at 186,000 miles per second.

True believers may mock me for attempting to apply the laws of physics to ghost stories, asserting that ghosts are pure “spirit” or some other such thing not subject to the principles upon which the rest of the universe runs. Such comments betray a profound isolation from reality. These beliefs are relics of a superstitious past, and fail to accord with everything we have learned in the last few hundred years about the way the universe works. Talk of “spirit” is just the old wine of superstition and magic poured into new bottles of vaguely scientific jargon. (Here is one typical example of the genre, an alleged explanation of ghosts that really just consists of randomly selected scientific terms pasted together in a meaningless hodgepodge.) As with many popular delusions, these beliefs have stayed the same while the world has moved on around them. They may still be valuable for a brief and entertaining jolt of thrills, but we should cease pretending that they have anything at all to do with the real world.

This seems a good place to debunk a related conceit; the self-proclaimed “ghost hunters” who spend countless hours poring over recorded white noise until they happen to hear a snatch of static (or a stray radio broadcast) that sounds a little like a voice, or who claim to detect spirits in photographs that are really just optical flaws in the camera or light reflected from dust or precipitation. This activity has all the value and relevance to reality of claiming that there really are dragons and crabs and sailing ships in the clouds: it speaks volumes about the human mind’s ability to find patterns in noise, but says nothing at all about what exists in the external world.

In closing, and lest I forget: Happy Halloween, everybody! May you walk with confidence in the knowledge that there is nothing in the night more fearful than our own imaginations.

Other posts in this series:

ISIS Is Bleeding Human History
Why Atheism Is a Force for Good
TV Review: Cosmos, Episode 13
Prayer Can’t Fight Ebola
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://nes-ramblings.blogspot.com/ Nes

    There’s also hypnagogia to consider. I had what I believe to be such an experience once, though I didn’t know what it was until just recently. I had figured it was some kind of brain quirk though, long ago.

  • Christopher

    I’ve had similair weird experiences.

    For example, there was one evening in which I was pulling an all-nighter on a paper due the next day; I decided to take a short break and lie on the couch, when I saw what appeared to be Imps (like those out of “Doom”) leaping at me. I started hacking at them with a battle axe (which miraculously materialized in my hands), taking off their limbs and heads. I then heard some loud roar behind me – I turned to meet it, and saw nothing.

    The bodies of the fallen Imps disappeared, as did the axe I used to slay them. Right there I knew I needed sleep…

  • TK

    “…there is nothing in the night more fearful than our own imaginations.”

    Oh yeah? You must not have deluxe cable service – Peter Popoff Ministries is still on the air…

  • Mikidu

    I nearly saw a ghost once, but the more I looked, the more it wasn’t there! (With apologies to A. A. Milne).

  • http://nes-ramblings.blogspot.com/ Nes

    Heh, not to hijack Ebon’s post or anything, but Christopher reminds me of another experience I had when I was very little.

  • Alex Weaver

    I’ve experienced, with some frequency, one of the hypnogogic symptoms mentioned, namely dozing off and suddenly fully awakening with a sensation akin to falling. Not so much the others.

    I’m curious; is there a known relationship between these hallucinatory experiences and the symptoms schizophrenia (something in the brain that’s stuck in the “on” position in schizophrenics even during waking ours, so to speak, or some such)?

  • CalUWxBill

    Wierd things happen with a lack of sleep. I hear you Christopher on those all-nighter papers. I do that on pretty much every paper I ever complete. I’ve never had strong hallucinations. But I’ve seen some spots and patterns in my vision, but nothing too concrete of sorts. I think in a sense, our bodies try to produce needed REM sleep, when we try to stay awake too long.

  • Christopher

    I hear you Nes: all kinds of crazy hallucinatory experiences can happen when one’s mind isn’t functioning properly. Perhaps this is how superstitions regarding ghosts and goblins started in the first place…

  • andrea

    I also think seeing “ghosts” fulfills some of the same desires that religion does. It makes the viewer “special” in that they can see something that no one else can and gets them attention.

  • Chris

    I’ve had that falling sensation a couple times too. It’s pretty scary, but I immediately realized it wasn’t real – for one thing, I could feel that I was still in contact with the bed the whole time.

    But I wonder how many people experience the exact same sensation and think it *is* real, because they don’t know how often the brain does weird things when asleep or almost asleep? Or, if not real, produced by an entity outside themselves (ghost, demon, alien, whatever)?

  • Alex Weaver

    May you walk with confidence in the knowledge that there is nothing in the night more fearful than our own imaginations.

    Just noticed this. I’m guessing you mean “fearsome”, and as for the rest…heh, with my imagination ghosts might be an improvement. x.x

  • http://www.oppositegeorge.com Joe Pregadio

    Ebonmuse, you’re article’s been challenged at oppositegeorge.com.

  • Gimodon

    Hey one other problem Ive thought of about ghosts is if they can walk through solid objects why dont they fall through the ground?

  • Sceptic-Swede

    The fact that ghosts cant be explained by the laws of physics is truly a strong point. Whenever iwe discussed this with ghostbelievers they explain it with the “supernatural” aspect of ghosts. However, if this actually is the case, then it wouldnt explain how ghosts are being able to manifest themselves in our “natural” world. There must be some aspect of a ghost that is “natural” otherwise we woldnt be able to se it or feel it. And that aspect should, if ghosts really exists, be possible to measure and explain. This is the same reason why i found ghosthunters to be so amusing. They claim that they are going after a supernatural being, but they are using cameras,microphones, nightvisiondevices (All very natural equipment)etc,etc, to do this.If they where serious with this, they would have to admitt that ghosts are a thing of nature, and that it can be measured and classified. And also, to draw the conclusion that there probably is no such things as ghosts, when they for the thousend time or so, fails to actually catch a ghost.Not instantly explaing the lack of evidence as something attributed to the “supernatural” nature of ghosts. In this sence, i can actually more understand someone who is going after ghosts with holywater, garlic and crucifixes.They have clearly left every ambition to explain anything in the terms of natural science, and have completely entered the area of religion/superstition, where ghosts belong.(By the way, i love ghosts stories.)

  • Eric

    I’ve experienced sleep paralysis a long as I can remember. but only just three or four times a year. I have this dream where I am running and the air turns to syrup. I lean so far forward into the air to keep running and grip the ground with my fingers to keep making progress while everything behind me becomes dark and everything in front becomes light. I then understand that I am awake and immobile and I feel like I am floating. soon I stir and throw off the blankets and fall asleep again.

    I also have regular hypnogogic experiences, at least twice a week.

  • Jim Speiser

    Hypnogogic experiences tend to be more numerous in early childhood. Here’s a wierd one for ya: I vividly remember being about four years old, asleep in my bed one night. There was this floor lamp next to the head of my bed. It was kind of old-fashioned, looked like it was from the 1930′s, dark green, with gold fleur-de-lis at the top. I awoke in the middle of the night, to catch my lamp at the FOOT of my bed; it then immediately sprouted “cartoon feet” and dashed back to the head of my bed where it belonged, as if I had “surprised it” by waking up suddenly.

    Now comes the wierd part. (!) Decades later, my wife began to describe the exact same thing happening to her: a floor lamp dashed back to its proper place in her bedroom when she was very young. I asked her to describe the lamp. It sounded the same in every aspect.

    Submitted for its anecdotal value only. Happy Halloween.

  • Doy

    I once dreamed I was sleeping and then woke up to a terrible world. My real wakening was so soft I still believed in the dream when I really woke up. But after a short time I discovered the real real world again. It’s kind of scary when it is almost totally dark and it takes a long time to find out where you really are.

  • Charles William Gordon Harmon

    Unbelievable, I mean to say, I am not a religious churchgoer though I was born and baptised an Episcopal. Just because one is an atheist(which never bothered me)I find it hard to believe that you dont have some type of spiritual belief. Do you really think we are just here and then we just die, and you cant even explain what that is about?. Do Athiests think science explains all things?, hmmm. Is it really that bizarre to an athiest to think we may have something like a soul/aura?. I am at a loss to understand the articles “write-off” concerning the possibility of ghosts. If athiests dont have some type of spirituality, I have to say, it saddens me. I feel almost sorry for you athiests.

  • Charles William Gordon Harmon

    I want to add that the idea of sleep paralysis/hypnogogic experiences is an antiquated, freudian psychological explanantion which doesnt quite explain the problem. I suggest you read two books, the first is: “The terror that comes in the night” by David J. Hufford(univ.of Penn.press), the second is: “Thirty years among the dead” by Dr.Carl A. Wickland,MD.(Health Research books,WA.99347). These are two thoroughly researched and well written books which may enlighten those who dismiss certain para-normal experiences as “sleep paralysis” likely due to these experiences cause the person was in a bed. I find the hynogogic explanations absurd. I suggest that the atheist whom wrote the article should try to find a first-person to interview instaed of heresay lumping of “ghost stories” to fit with their non-believer agenda. Wow… I almost sound like some kind of christian zealot. I am nothing at all like a religious zealot..or even person. I am politically a Socialist, member of the Green party, and I never go to church or even pray.

  • OMGF

    Mr. Harmon,

    Just because one is an atheist(which never bothered me)I find it hard to believe that you dont have some type of spiritual belief.

    Define spiritual.

    Do you really think we are just here and then we just die, and you cant even explain what that is about?

    Yes. Can you explain what this is all about?

    Do Athiests think science explains all things?

    Science explains natural phenomena. Science is quite good at explaining these things. Science is the best known way of explaining the world around us.

    Is it really that bizarre to an athiest to think we may have something like a soul/aura?

    Due to the lack of evidence of souls or aurae, as well as the evidence that points away from such things, yes, it is hard to believe that such things exist.

    I am at a loss to understand the articles “write-off” concerning the possibility of ghosts.

    Without evidence for ghosts, there’s no reason to entertain the notion that they exist.

    If athiests dont have some type of spirituality, I have to say, it saddens me. I feel almost sorry for you athiests.

    That’s rather condescending of you. You think it’s better to believe in a god that doesn’t exist because it somehow makes you feel good, than it is to have a rational, reality-based view of the world?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism Ebonmuse


    Just because one is an atheist(which never bothered me)I find it hard to believe that you dont have some type of spiritual belief.

    Atheists do have a sense of spirituality. What we do not have is an unevidenced belief in supernatural entities, ghosts, gods or otherwise. Nor do we believe that belief in such entities is necessary to make life meaningful or worth living.

    Do you really think we are just here and then we just die, and you cant even explain what that is about?

    We are here and then we die, yes. I don’t understand the second half of your question.

    Do Athiests think science explains all things?, hmmm. Is it really that bizarre to an athiest to think we may have something like a soul/aura?

    I believe science has the ability to explain all things that can be explained. Belief in a soul or any other supernatural basis for personality is not supported by evidence.

    I want to add that the idea of sleep paralysis/hypnogogic experiences is an antiquated, freudian psychological explanantion which doesnt quite explain the problem.

    Sleep paralysis is neither “antiquated”, nor Freudian (I don’t even know where you got that one from). It is a well-documented neurological phenomenon which, in concert with ordinary human tendencies to exaggerate and misremember details, I find more than adequate to account for claims of ghostly experiences. You also didn’t mention my article’s discussion of infrasound.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    I seem to have left some dead links when I abandoned the old blog.

    I should point out that the version of the wiki page I was using is this one. It seems to have changed substantially since then.

    Very briefly, in the link in the first comment I talked about feeling a hand gripping my head and pulling me under the bed (yes, through the roughly 1 inch space between the headboard and mattress…), I then had a dream involving goblins or something, then, as I was waking, I felt the hand shove me back into bed. The other link compared some of the symptoms of a hypnagogic experience with that experience. The one that still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end is this one: “Involuntary movements (sometimes the feeling of sliding off the bed or even up walls)” [emphasis in original.]

    In the link for the second comment I talked about seeing little neon-colored glow-in-the-dark dinosaurs that bit me — and it hurt!

    Both of those events happened roughly 20 years ago and I still remember them pretty clearly.

    I was going to respond to Charles, but OMGF had hit most of my points, then after refreshing the page I see that Ebon has stolen the rest. Oh well!

  • Alex Weaver

    I am at a loss to understand the articles “write-off” concerning the possibility of ghosts.

    A bit late, but this might explain a few things.