The psychology of ghost encounters

Parapsychologist Dr Ciarán O’Keeffe tells us how the mind can affect encounters and a weird experience that even he can’t explain

With over 30 years of experience in the field of parapsychology, Dr O’Keeffe is a leading expert in investigating the paranormal. Now the Associate Head of School for Human & Social Sciences at Bucks New University, Dr O’Keeffe has authored several books on the topic of paranormal investigation and has appeared on TV’s Most Haunted. 

How would you define parapsychology?

Parapsychology is very broad, but the definition would be the scientific research into paranormal phenomena. The problem with that definition is it sounds like it encompasses all paranormal phenomena, so everything from the Loch Ness Monster to alien abduction and ghosts. This is not strictly the case.

Parapsychology is fundamentally interested in studying extrasensory perception (ESP), which covers three areas: telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition; psychokinesis, which is the action of the mind on an object – the classic example is Uri Geller and his spoon bending; and then the third area is after-death communication or survival after death.

This is my area of expertise, and in the world today I would estimate that there’s around 100 or so actual parapsychologists qualified to doctorate level, and out of that number  you’ve then got  a smaller group, maybe about 10-20 per cent, specifically interested in after-death communication and hauntings. 

How would you explain some of the common experiences people have during a ghost investigation, such as a drop in temperature or feeling the presence of a ghost?

When you think about ghost hunting or ghostly experiences, ghost hunting is a whole different kettle of fish to be honest. But actual, spontaneous ghostly experiences when you visit a location… there are a number of different experiences you can have. They are all sensory.

The most common one is the sense of presence. You walk into a room and you think there’s somebody else there with you. The explanations for that could be psychological or environmental. The psychological explanation for that could be down to suggestion. This is an explanation that holds ground for many ghostly experiences. If you walk into a room and we’re specifically told that the room is haunted or that the location is haunted, then suggestion kicks in. It’s kind of a cultural norm for people to think if there is a ghost, they are either going to see it, which is so rare, or they’re going to feel a presence in some way.

There’s an interplay that happens between psychology and the environment, too. Imagine you walk into the same room and there is a temperature drop, which suddenly feels very, very calm. Now, that could be down to simple suggestion again, without anything happening, and the temperature remains consistent.

Being told a place is haunted can give you the experience of feeling as though the temperature is dropping. That can be down to the simple ‘fight or flight’ response. A fearful response to anything can affect your physiology in a particular way. The fearful action to the fact that there might be a ghost in the room is that you want to run. Then, of course, we know physiologically what happens is the blood is redirected into your legs and your body gets ready to run. By doing that, your physiology is changing. The upper part of the body is giving you the perception that your temperature is reduced.

But it can be even simpler than that. You could walk into a room and feel a draft or a drop in temperature, and immediately associate that with a ghost because you’ve been told the room or the location is haunted. Imagine walking into an office and you felt the temperature go down, or a draft – you’d immediately be looking for the window or the air conditioning. You wouldn’t be thinking there’s a ghost. The drop in temperature could simply be a door or window that’s open, but suggestion leads to a misinterpretation of environmental changes.

There are a couple of examples of people having the sense that they are being touched. That could be down to a number of different reasons, such as suggestion, but also electromagnetic fields. Electromagnetic fields can have observable physical effects, producing sound and problems with electronic kits, but it’s actually both natural and man-made. Particular levels can produce the hallucination of a sense of presence, or a tactile sensation.

Infrasound too can play an exacerbating role. Particular levels of infrasound can cause an eye-oscillation effect. It can actually oscillate the eyeball to an extent where you get smearing in the corner of the eye. When you turn around to try and find out what that dark smearing is in your peripheral vision, you look and it’s gone.

Why do you think people are so willing to accept these experiences as paranormal?

The most immediate explanation is hope – hope that there is something in the afterlife. If they are having a ghostly experience, then there’s evidence of that. I have to say, while that might be the case for some people, I don’t think it’s the best explanation for why people have these experiences and believe it’s a ghost. I think it’s a combination of not being aware of natural explanations. The hairs going up on the back of your neck, for example, could be a number of different environmental and psychological reasons. If you’ve got no knowledge of that, a simple explanation would be ghosts. It’s a lot easier to process what has happened to you with one simple answer, especially if you believe in that sort of thing.

There’s another aspect to this. Across the country, there are hundreds if not thousands of people going out ghost hunting, it’s an incredibly popular pastime. I question whether all of those people are interpreting their experiences as a ghost presence in the hope of an afterlife, or actually if it’s some sort of fairground pastime. It’s an exciting, adrenaline-fueled experience – to be in a haunted castle or a haunted prison and think you could potentially have a ghost experience and could meet a ghost tonight.

What would you say are natural explanations for mediums who claim to have contacted spirits?

If you take a single scenario where a medium walks into a haunted location and starts to talk about a name, date and details associated with a person that is historically accurate, there’s a number of different things going on. The medium may have fraudulently conducted previous research and regurgitated the facts as if it’s coming to them paranormally.

The other explanation is they may not be aware that they’ve picked up on that information naturally, as opposed to through prior research. If the location is a National Trust property or English Heritage, for example, where there’s information around the location, they may have processed that information but not be fully aware that they’ve done it. It’s almost a form of cryptomnesia, where it’s gone into their consciousness but they’re not fully aware of it, and they have no memory of how they got the information, passing it off as being paranormal.

Another explanation, depending on their accuracy, could be the result of using simple psychological techniques that we know of that are used by pseudo-psychics. Almost like a detective exercise on the medium’s part, they start to narrow down the information. Simple statements, such as “I’m getting a gentleman here in the corner, not sure if he’s old” – it sounds like a statement but actually had a rising point at the end. It’s encouraging anybody within that room who actually knows the information. Then they’ll extrapolate more: “This is a father or grandfather and I’m getting a name, quite a simple name,” looking at the reaction of people in the room and so on.

People are not concerned about the historical accuracy of it. I’ve been in investigations where mediums have gone, “I’m getting a very aggressive evil man here called Dave in the corner who used to work here as a cleaner, but then something bad happened with the owner of the location.” And that’s it, nothing historically accurate, and then suddenly you walk into another room and there’s people sitting around a Ouija board trying to contact Dave. That’s what I mean – often it doesn’t have to be accurate, it’s down to people’s belief system.

Has there ever been a situation where you’ve thought, “Actually, I’m not quite sure how to explain that”?

There have been a couple of what I call head-scratching moments. There’s an example in a nightclub in Birkenhead. The staff and owners of the nightclub reported that the fire exit doors would open of their own accord. Looking at the video footage and having investigated it, you could see that it appears there’s no way you can push those doors open from the other side. We even had a chair wedged into the fire exit door so it couldn’t open up on its own, but the doors tried to open to the extent that they almost pushed out the chair that was wedged.

At the same location, a group of staff members had been involved in a seance several years prior – a seance they felt kicked off all the phenomena that started in the nightclub, which I’m very sceptical of. But they happened to be at the nightclub the night of our investigation, spontaneously arriving after they heard we were there. Myself and the other investigator said, “While you’re here, would you be interested in replicating that seance just so we can see where people were sat at the table, where the table was, etc.?” I thought that now we had a perfect opportunity to try and replicate circumstances after which this phenomena happened. We can’t replicate the environment, such as humidity levels, air pressure and temperature, but still, in terms of the physical seating at least in a sense of what’s going on [we could replicate it].

I was observing the seance using a thermal imager, which is a way of assessing relative temperature. I have it set to black and white because a drop in temperature goes green, so it’s very easy and quick to see a change. After about 20-30 minutes the staff doing the seance said it didn’t feel as though anything’s happening. What I didn’t tell them was that out of the corners of the room was like a green fog – the temperature was dropping and coming slowly into the room. Over time they began saying that the energy was very strong around them, and during a period of around 20-30 minutes this drop in temperature appeared to surround the seance table.

Then one of the ladies said it felt as though the energy was going away. As she said that it appeared as though the green fog, this drop in temperature, was actually just dissipating. It’s just kind of going away from a central point in the room and then just dissipating out of the room. That’s an odd thing to happen, a head-scratching moment.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 131
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