Shadow People: Hat Man and the Hooded Figure. Image Source: Paranormal People Presents.
For the most part, skeptics pretty much dismiss the findings of ghost hunters and psychics. But skeptics and non-skeptics alike acknowledge certain phenomena as verifiable aspects of human perception, even if they disagree on the sources of those aspects. Shadow People are great examples; in German, they are called Shattenwesen.
Image © Jason Jam. Image Source: Dr. Fong's House of Mysteries.
First off, a recap on how far we've gotten in this Countdown to Hallowe'en regarding skeptics and their investigations of ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. Most modern ghost hunting shows are a type of Reality TV, with equally bad acting, but the additional prop of night vision cameras.
There is a special brand of ghost hunter who dismisses other ghost hunters with a real tone of authority. This is the low tech ghost hunter who nonetheless claims to be more 'scientific.' I actually love it when technology loses some of its automatically-assumed scientific cachet and when low tech solutions are considered to have more street cred.
From Live Science:
While one doesn't need to be a scientist to search for ghosts, the pair (like most ghost hunters) could benefit greatly from a little critical thinking. They claim to be skeptics but are very credulous and seem to have no real understanding of scientific methods or real investigation. (Audiences don't seem to wonder why these "expert" ghost hunters always fail: Even after two seasons and over ten years of research, they still have yet to prove that ghosts exist!) ...
When it comes to searching for ghosts, you'd think that only the most reliable methods would be used in an attempt to get solid evidence for something as mysterious and elusive as a spirit. Yet in ghost hunting, often the less scientific the methods and equipment, the more likely a researcher is to find "evidence" for ghosts.
Ghost hunters use a variety of creative—and dubious—methods to detect their quarry's presence, including psychics. Psychics not only claim to locate ghosts but also to communicate with the spirits, who unfortunately don't provide any useful or verifiable information from the afterlife [see a séance].
Virtually all ghost hunter groups claim to be scientific, and most give that appearance because they use high-tech scientific equipment such as Geiger counters, Electromagnetic Field (EMF) detectors, ion detectors, and infrared cameras [and sensitive microphones]. Yet the equipment is only as scientific as the person using it; you may own the world's most sophisticated thermometer, but if you are using it as a barometer, your measurements are worthless.
Just as using a calculator doesn't make you a mathematician, using a scientific instrument doesn't make you a scientist. ...
In 2003, while I was investigating a haunted house in Buffalo, New York, the owner of the house asked me what equipment I planned to use. He had glanced in my duffel bag, which contained two cameras, a tape recorder, notebooks, a tape measure, a flashlight, and a few other items. Perhaps he was expecting to see a Negative Ionizer Ghost Containment backpack like the kind Bill Murray wore in Ghostbusters.
An EMF meter is among the most common devices used by ghost hunters today. I spoke to Tom Cook, of TomsGadgets.com, a British purveyor of "scientific" paranormal kits for the enterprising (and gullible) investigator. Starter kits begin at £105 (US$180) and reach up to £500 (US$850) for a custom ghost-hunting kit. (Negative Ionizer Ghost Containment packs were not listed.)
I asked Cook what, exactly, the scientific rationale was behind the equipment he sold.
"At a haunted location," Cook said, "strong, erratic fluctuating EMFs are commonly found. It seems these energy fields have some definite connection to the presence of ghosts. The exact nature of that connection is still a mystery. However, the anomalous fields are easy to find. Whenever you locate one, a ghost might be present.... any erratic EMF fluctuations you may detect may indicate ghostly activity."
In the final analysis, Cook admitted, "there exists no device that can conclusively detect ghosts."
The uncomfortable reality that ghost hunters carefully avoid—the elephant in the tiny, haunted room—is of course that no one has ever shown that any of this equipment actually detects ghosts.
The supposed links between ghosts and electromagnetic fields, low temperatures, radiation, odd photographic images, and so on are based on nothing more than guesses, unproven theories, and wild conjecture. If a device could reliably determine the presence or absence of ghosts, then by definition, ghosts would be proven to exist. I own an EMF meter, but since it's useless for ghost investigations—it finds not spirits but red herrings—I use it in my lectures and seminars as an example of pseudoscience. The most important tools in this or any investigation are a questioning mind and a solid understanding of scientific principles.
The ghost hunters' anti-scientific illogic is clear: if one area of a home is colder than another, that may indicate a ghost; if an EMF meter detects a field, that too may be a ghost; if dowsing rods cross, that might be a ghost. Just about any "anomaly," anything that anyone considers odd for any reason, from an undetermined sound to a "bad feeling" to a blurry photo, can be (and has been) considered evidence of ghosts. ...
The whole idea of ghosts runs into trouble as soon as a little logic is applied.
There's not even agreement on what ghosts are—or might be. A common claim is that ghosts are spirits of the dead who have been wronged or murdered. Let's inject some real-world statistics into that assumption and see what we get.
If murder victims whose killings remains unsolved are truly destined to walk the earth and haunt the living, then we should expect to encounter ghosts nearly everywhere. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly a quarter of all homicides remains unsolved each year. (In fact, fewer homicides are solved now than in the past; in 1976, 79 percent of homicides were cleared, down to 64 percent in 2002.) There are about 30,000 homicides in America each year.
Using the most recent numbers, that's about 11,000 unsolved murders per year, and 110,000 over the course of only ten years, and probably well over million over the course of the twentieth century in America alone. ...
And why aren't they helping to bring their killers to justice, with so many crimes unsolved? Why would they hang out in scary mansions instead of directing police to evidence that would avenge their murders?
For that matter, why are ghosts seen wearing clothing? It's one thing to suggest that a person's spirit has a soul that can be seen after death; but do shoes, coats, hats, and belts also have souls? Logically, ghosts should appear naked. The fact that they don't suggests that people's ideas of what ghosts are—and what they look like—are strongly influenced by social and cultural expectations. (For an excellent discussion of this, see R[onald] Finucane's book "Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead & Cultural Transformation.")
If ghosts exist, why are we no closer to finding out what they really are, after so much research?
The evidence for ghosts is no better today than it was a year ago, a decade ago, or a century ago. Ultimately, ghost hunting is not about the evidence (if it was, the search would have been abandoned long ago). Instead, it's about having fun with friends, telling ghost stories, and the enjoyment of pretending you are searching the edge of the unknown.
Sleep paralysis, mentioned above, is often associated with reports of Shadow People. Usually they appear in bedrooms when a sleeper has awoken. They stand there, malevolently regarding the sleeper at the side or foot of the bed. Sometimes they are menacing; sometimes they press down on the sleeper in an aggressive, horrific fashion. Skeptics view this event as a type of waking hallucination that can occur during sleep paralysis (see the Wiki article here). It occurs when a sleeper is falling asleep or has partly woken so that the conscious part of their brain is on, while the unconscious part of their brain has not shut off yet. These are called hypnogogic or hypnopompic states. The result is utterly terrifying. There is a sense of being unable to move - of being paralyzed - while the conscious mind frantically tries to take control of an unconscious body. The hallucinations, actually a waking dream since part of the brain is still in REM sleep, look incredibly real, and may even be tangible. It is normally a very rare occurrence and has been related to migraine headaches.Many people report physical changes in haunted places, especially a feeling of a presence accompanied by temperature drop and hearing unaccountable sounds. They are not imagining things. Most hauntings occur in old buildings, which tend to be drafty. Scientists who have investigated haunted places account for both the temperature changes and the sounds by finding physical sources of the drafts, such as empty spaces behind walls or currents set in motion by low frequency sound waves (infrasound) produced by such mundane objects as extraction fans. Some think that electromagnetic fields are inducing the haunting experience.
Some ghost experiences may be attributed to sleep paralysis. For example, the description given by Geoff Hutchison, a miner turned medium, is typical of sleep paralysis. He says he had his first paranormal experience while he was in the Army during the 1960s when he saw a figure: "It was just a man with a big black coat and a big wide-brimmed hat. He just stood there bent over me. I couldn't move my arms or legs and had to lie there."
As I note in my entries on poltergeists and haunted houses:
Even if I provided plausible physical explanations for a million poltergeists [or ghosts] in a million different places at a million different times, there is always the possibility that the next one that pops up will be the real thing. So, those who believe in poltergeists, ghosts, and haunted houses can always take refuge in the fact that nobody ever has enough information to debunk every ghost story, and even if they did, the next one might prove the debunkers wrong!
As a skeptic, all I can say with confidence is that when one considers the requirements for a ghost story to be true, the most reasonable position is that there is a naturalistic explanation for all these stories, but we often do not or cannot have all the details necessary to provide that explanation. We must rely on anecdotal evidence, which is always incomplete and selective, and which is often passed on by interested, inexperienced, superstitious parties who are ignorant of basic physical laws. Thus, there will always be stories like the "Bell Witch" story that attract much attention, especially when made into movies, that will lead many people to think that maybe there is something to this one, even if all the other ghost stories are false. The "Bell Witch" is alleged to be "a sinister entity that tormented a family on Tennessee’s frontier between the years of 1817 and 1821."* The likelihood that we don't have all the evidence in this case is proportionate to the number of years that have passed since the events allegedly took place.
If one is selective enough, one can confirm just about any hypothesis.
An Old Hag hallucination in sleep paralysis. Image Source: Amazinger.
The hallucinations that accompany sleep paralysis often involve two archetypal figures who have worked their way into oral tradition and pop culture, the Hat Man and the Shrouded Figure, or a variant, the Old Hag (think - the disappearing hitchhiker, Freddie of Nightmare on Elm Street fame, and the Creeper in Jeepers Creepers, or the Old Hag in Newfoundland folklore). Sometimes the hallucinations involve a whole room full of Shadow People, which is even worse. You can see a typical image of that here. Skeptics have explained reports of alien abductions with sleep paralysis.
And here's where things go off the off ramp - again. Some people who witness Shadow People do not think they're ghosts or aliens or sleep-induced waking hallucinations. Rather, they think they are people from other dimensions or time travellers - perhaps the people living in dimensions which are composed of Dark Matter. From About.com:
Q: One theory is that shadow people are not really ghosts in the traditional sense, but that they are living interdimensional beings or even time travelers. What are your thoughts?Why believe the skeptics, conspiracy theorists, alien abduction people or ghost hunters, when you can turn to quantum physics and quantum consciousness? Fear makes a strange bedfellow.
Jason: The physicists I posed this question to got quite a chuckle out of it, but the hundreds of people I polled felt interdimensional beings is the most logical explanation. This would explain the behavior of the vast number of shadow people reports of an entity that simply seems to be walking from Point A to Point B, completely oblivious to things like people and walls. Maybe shadow people are simply images of interdimensional beings that are bleeding through into our realm.
Astral projection is another similar explanation. Maybe these entities are what we can see of a person’s astral form. Shadow people being time travelers doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. It doesn’t hold with the many scientific time travel theories out there. But who knows?
Hat Man. Image Source: Amanda Aquino via Shadows.
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