Since the most ancient times, people have believed in ghosts, or spirits of the dead. Haunted places are a mainstay of folklore, and today so-called ghost hunters are using often-sophisticated equipment in claiming that ghosts are the real (or at least surreal) McCoy. Yet their work appears more mystical than scientific, and it begs the question: Is there really a “life energy,” as many postulate, capable of surviving death? If not, then how do we explain the various experiences and phenomena associated with ghosts?
The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead [Prometheus Books, $18] is the book I wanted so much to have as a young investigator that at last I had to write it myself–more than four decades later.
Here is a small sample of that book–a selection of nine pictures and brief accompanying texts to help us decide, from a scientific approach, whether there really are haunted places–or only haunted people.
1. Mackenzie House (Toronto, Canada)
For more than ten years this historic home of Canadian rebel-statesman William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861) experienced various ghostly shenanigans, including mysterious footsteps on the stairs, eerie piano music, and the vivid apparition of a man in a frock coat.
This was my first haunted-house investigation, conducted in 1972. I soon discovered that 40 inches beyond the stairway was an office building with an iron staircase against the wall nearest Mackenzie House. There, a late-night cleanup crew and members of the building superintendent’s family served as unintentional “ghosts,” their noisy footsteps being heard in Mackenzie House in the quiet of late evenings. The ghostly piano music similarly wafted from next door, from the super’s family quarters. As to the apparition, it was experienced by the Mackenzie caretaker’s wife when she awoke to see the figure of a man standing over her bed. Her description of the event tallies with a common “waking dream,” a simple hallucination that occurs in the state between being fully asleep and awake.
2. Clement Hall (University of Tennessee at Martin)
One of West Tennessee’s most popular ghost tales is the legend of a young female student who committed suicide in the campus’ oldest dormitory. Myriad spooky occurrences there seem to confirm the haunting.
However, investigating with the Campus Freethinkers Society, I found the ghostly phenomena to be unconvincing. For example, a woman staffer who had seen a flickering shadow attributed it to a failing light bulb. And an administrator who once perceived a shadowy movement in the attic volunteered, “It could have been my imagination,” even admitting he had embellished the story over the years. Significantly, the housing director insists that the reputed suicide never occurred. The tale’s cluster of folkloric motifs (or narrative elements) prompted an Internet search which revealed that similar stories of a dorm resident haunting the place of suicide are found on campuses nationwide. This suggests it is a “migratory legend,” the narrative lore of college folk.
3. Salzburg Castle (Austria)
In The International Directory of Haunted Places (2000), by Dennis William Hauck, is a purported “ghost” photo made in 1986 by an American tourist who found the incident life-transforming. It shows a white strand of what ghost hunters call “energy” or “spirit ectoplasm” as a supposed explanation for some unexplained white shapes in photographs.
In fact, the camera’s flash may rebound from anything that gets in front of the lens. Jewelry, hair, insects, a wandering fingertip–all may produce ghostly effects. (Common ghost hunters’ “orbs” are due to particles of dust or tiny droplets of moisture in the air.) I made the photo shown here at the same site in Salzburg Castle where the tourist made her curious photo. The “ghost” pictured is only the camera’s wrist strap!)
4. Castillo de San Marcos (St. Augustine, Florida)
This, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States, is reportedly home to various spirits of the dead, none more romantic than those of Señora Dolores Marti, wife of Colonel Garcia Marti, and her lover, Captain Manuel Abela. Furious at his wife’s affair, he reportedly chained the pair to a dungeon wall where they were entombed alive. The tomb was rediscovered, the storytellers claim (though they disagree as to when), with bones supposedly verifying both the story and the accompanying “eerie feeling” some visitors experience.
As I learned on a visit to the fortress, however, it never had a dungeon per se, and the raconteurs’ “dungeon” was actually a small room that had been part of the powder magazine; proving too humid for storing gunpowder, it had been sealed off. The bones reportedly discovered therein (in 1832) were probably animal, while the story of the colonel entombing the lovers is only a fable, and the “eerie feeling” some experience isattributable to the power of suggestion coupled with the ambiance of the place. Staffer John Cipriani, who has spent the night there on occasion, assured me, “There aren’t any ghosts.”
5. Alcatraz (San Francisco Bay)
An island fortress turned into a military prison, then a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz is a name synonymous with incarceration. But if it is true that “stone walls do not a prison make” (as seventeenth-century English poet Richard Lovelace wrote), we must especially wonder why ghosts of the once-imprisoned don’t finally escape. In fact, of the former inmates now said to be ghosts few actually died at the prison. They include Al Capone and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud (who never kept birds at Alcatraz, the famous movie notwithstanding).
Like other mystery-mongering ghost tales, those about Alcatraz are rife with such unattributable constructions as “it is said that,” “is said to,” and “some say that”–evidence that claims of ghostly happenings there are largely products of folklore. Claims that ghosts have been detected at Alcatraz–using such silly devices as dowsing rods and Geiger counters–are nonsense wrapped in pseudoscience. And certain reported “unearthly screams” may be nothing more than the cries of seagulls.
6. Fox Cottage Site (at the former village of Hydesville, New York)
Only the excavated foundation stones now remain, but this was the site of the birthplace of modern Spiritualism. There, in 1848, a pair of schoolgirls, Maggie and Katie Fox, claimed to be communicating with the departed spirit of a murdered peddler. Mysterious rapping sounds–ostensibly from the ghost (who rapped once for no, twice for yes)–answered questions to reveal that his body had been secretly buried in the cellar. Subsequent digging produced only animal bones, yet the girls were soon communicating with other obliging spirits, and Spiritualism spread around the world.
Significantly, the date of the first spirit rappings was March 31–All Fools Eve! Forty years later the Fox Sisters publicly confessed it had all been a trick. Even though the sisters demonstrated to a New York music hall audience how they hadproduced the rappings (by slipping their feet from their shoes and snapping their toes), greatnumbers of the faithful refused to believe them. In 1904 it was claimed the peddler’s skeleton had at last been discovered in the cottage’s cellar. However, my investigation at the site revealed that the supposed “false wall” was only part of an earlier, smaller foundation. As to the skeleton, a 1909 article told how a resident had put some old bones in the cellar “as a practical joke.”
7. Myrtles Plantation (Louisiana bayou)
Actively promoted by its owners as one of the most haunted places in America, The Myrtles combines romantic ambiance with the story of a murderous slave, Chloe, to send chills down the spines of visitors and overnight guests. Various phenomena are reported, and TV’s Ghost Hunters filmed an eerie event in the plantation’s slave shack. A lamp glided eerily across a table behind the show’s stars, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson.
Actually, the slave “Chloe” is fictitious, and the tale of her murders is not folklore but fakelore. Strange phenomena at the site can be explained without invoking the supernatural, as I learned by spending a night investigating there (courtesy of the Discovery Channel). For example, a mysteriously swinging door proved simply to be hung off center, and banging sounds at night were attributable to a loose shutter. The “slave shack” is of recent vintage and never held a slave. As to the lamp, it was clearly being pulled by its cord. Television Week noted that the cord apparently extended “from behind the table to Mr. Wilson’s hand” while his partner suggested Wilson might have accidentally snagged the cord with his foot.
8. House of Blood (Atlanta, Georgia)
On September 8, 1987, at the home of an elderly couple, blood allegedly flowed from the walls and sprang up from the floor “like a fountain.” Called to the scene, police took color crime-scene photos but soon abandoned the case, determining no crime had occurred. In time, claims were exaggerated and the event attributed to a prankster spirit called a poltergeist.
In 1991, however, I obtained special access to the police file on the cold case, courtesy of the homicide commander. The photographs indicated to me that the blood had not manifested itself in the manner claimed, so I submitted the photos to a forensic blood-pattern analyst. She reported that the blood had been squirted onto the walls and floor, discrediting the witnesses’ statements and supporting further evidence of a hoax. Said one police investigator, “Some adults will act like children just to get attention.”
9. Golden Lamb Inn (Lebanon, Ohio)
Ohio’s oldest operating inn has hosted ten presidents, as well as notables like Mark Twain, although Charles Dickens refused to stay there on learning it was “a temperance hotel,” one that did not serve alcohol. Today, it has a different designation: haunted hotel. Reportedly, the ghost of a little girl is the source of eerie hijinks there, including tilting pictures on the wall of a museum room named for her, “Sarah’s Room.”
I was able to stay at the hotel in 2002, after lecturing at the University of Cincinnati. Checking in quite late, I discussed the haunting with the night clerk, who told me a secret. She found the housekeeping staff so superstitious and credulous that she couldn’t resist slipping upstairs some nights to “turn the pictures” and “mess with” their minds. I slept well that night, having laid to rest another “ghost.”
By Joe Nickell