Irish-American Witchcraft: Is It a Haunting or Fairies?

Irish-American Witchcraft: Is It a Haunting or Fairies? May 17, 2016

I was reminded recently by a meme that was going around¹ about a common question people often ask me. I teach an assortment of classes around my area on topics relating to the Good People and land spirits, and one question that comes up fairly often is how to tell the difference between a haunting involving human ghosts and the presence of Otherworldly spirits, aka fairies. Some signs of supernatural presence are the same between both types of spirits, for example a feeling of being watched or certain types of smells with no obvious sources. There are other indicators though that are unique to one or the other, and these can be used to help decide what is actually going on in a situation, which can be very helpful in deciding how to deal with it. You don’t necessarily need to be sensitive or able to directly see these beings; for people who cannot see spirits or otherwise sense them there are practical “real world” ways to differentiate between the two types of presence.

a photograph of a hallway with a shadowy figure at the end of it
Ghosts in the Hall (modified) /

Rachel Titiriga

an illustration of two elves dancing in a shoemaker's shop
“The elves and the shoemaker” 1915 (public domain)

As always the first thing you want to do is look for the most obvious and likely explanation to rule out the mundane causes. Applying Occam’s Razor is the best way to start; to paraphrase: “the simplest explanation is usually the right one.” If you hear laughter or music, is there a possible real world source nearby? If electronics are glitching is there something objectively wrong with them? Start with those obvious sorts of explanations. However to go from there to an Arthur Conan Doyle quote (apropos enough since he was quite the believer in fairies himself) “when you’ve eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

So this then is a rough guideline of some ways that I recommend people tell the difference between a haunting and the presence of Otherworldly beings. Different people may have their own suggestions or opinions, but I have found over the years that these are usually fairly accurate.

Signs of ghosts:

  1. Electronics glitching – ghosts and electronics don’t get along well, and ghosts being around can have strange effects on electrical things, including them suddenly malfunctioning, tvs and radios changing channels, and unexplained static.
  2. Batteries draining – possibly related to the first point, but ghosts are known to drain batteries, in theory because they take the energy to use to influence our world in other ways.
  3. Sudden drops in temperature – much like the batteries draining, the idea is that they are somehow using the ambient energy to manifest other things.
  4. Things moving – objects moving slightly, sliding, or falling without any obvious reason. Ghosts can affect the physical world to some degree and this includes the force needed to move an object. This can also manifest as lights turning on and off.
  5. Scratches – ghosts aren’t the only spirits who can do this, some negative spirits can as well, but in my experience fairies don’t make a habit of it (although they can do it, its just less common), so I’m including it as a way to differentiate them from each other.
  6. Feeling a gentle touch – often described as cobweb like or a sensation like being brushed by hair. Much as ghosts can move objects they are able to touch people, usually lightly.
  7. Dogs barking at things you can’t see – dogs seem to be rather sensitive to ghosts and reactive to them. Some paranormal investigators use dogs as a way to detect the presence of spirits.

Signs of the Other Crowd being around:

  1. Unexplained, sourceless laughter, talking, or music – one indication that the Fey are around is hearing laughter or voices that seem to have no discernible source. If you hear music with no source it will be music unlike anything heard on earth. You can sometimes hear voices speaking when ghosts are present but with the Fey its usually the sound of conversations, often in an indecipherable language.
  2. Disapearing objects – the Fey are fond of stealing items; unlike ghosts who just move them, the Fey outright take them, sometimes for a short amount of time, sometimes for months or years. Car keys are the most common item taken, but jewelry is close second. They will usually disappear from plain view then reappear at some point in a different place.
  3. Motion from the corner of your eye – people who can’t See fairies can sometimes perceive them as a movement out of the corner of their eyes, while ghosts (in my experience) tend to be seen more often by people who can’t usually see spirits as dark shadows or partial apparitions. Of course the Fey can also choose to show themselves if they choose to even to someone who normally couldn’t see them.
  4. Elf-locks – waking up with matted hair, with no logical reason for it to be this way. Also applies to animals. This is more common if you’ve annoyed or offended them but nonetheless is a sign of their presence unique to them.
a ring of mushrooms around the base of a tree
Fairy ring of Clitocybe nebularis (“Clouded Agaric”) photographed near Buchenberg in the Allgäu by Josimda – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
  1. The presence of a ‘fairy ring’ – a ring of mushrooms or darker green grass has long been believed to indicate the presence of fairies. I’d note that entering an active fairy ring is considered dangerous, as it can radically alter our sense of time and a night dancing with the Fey can translate to anywhere between 7 and a hundred years passing in our world. Usually though when we see a fairy ring growing in our yard or the woods, it only means They have been there, not that they are actually there dancing at that moment.
  2. Chores being done or things being put away – an old sign of fairy presence was household chores being done while the  family slept, or items being put away. The Fey generally known to prefer neatness, and some of them, especially house spirits, like to keep our homes and yards in order. Any helpful Otherworldly spirit can indicate its presence by aiding with anything around the home from minor things like to more major ones, that will keep things running more smoothly.
  3. Your cat freaking out for no reason – ah, cats. Cats in my experience could not care less about ghosts, but the Fey folk…well that goes one of two ways. Either the cat seems to enjoy their presence or the cat is flat out terrified of them. Either way, cats acting unusually freaked out² can be an indicator of the Other Crowd being around.


  1. If you are curious it was a meme about ways to tell if fairies were present. I’d share it here but it was rather silly, and very twee. And we all know how I feel about twee. (back)
  2. We are talking about cats here though so use your judgment as to what qualifies as a cat being “unusually freaked out.” (back)

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