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What is the Nature of Ghosts? Some Alternative Theories

Throughout human history and across cultures there has been one aspect of the paranormal world that has seemingly always been with us, that of ghosts, wraiths, specters, whatever you want to call them. These apparitions have always roamed about the periphery of our understanding, lurking in the shadows and the spooky places of our world to incite wonder, speculation, and of course fear and terror. Yet for all of their pervasiveness throughout the world and their presence upon the landscape of the human psyche, there has always been a profound question lingering, and that is: just what exactly are ghosts? What is their nature and what place do they hold in reality as we know it? The question of just what ghosts are has been contemplated, discussed, and debated for a very long time, but what answers do we really have, and do you think you know the solution? Here are just some of the musings on what these mysterious entities might be.

The most traditional idea, and the one most pervasive among most people, is the idea that ghosts are the spirits of the dead, that the soul has somehow transcended the death of the physical body to continue on to inhabit our realm for reasons unknown. In this view, ghosts are basically us, just living on into the afterlife while tethered to the world of the living for reasons we cannot comprehend. Maybe they are unwilling to “move on,” or maybe it is that some tragedy or unfulfilled goal has fueled some power to linger on the physical plane. When people think of ghosts, this is perhaps the most common vision that many will have, and how most people would probably define them, that they are our lost dead.

One of the interesting conundrums about this particularly prevalent idea, other than the fact there is no proof at all that anything survives us after death, is that there are innumerable religions, faiths, each with ideas on the afterlife as varied as the cultures who believe them. In some there is a form of Heaven or some form of Hell, some new realm away from the we are in now, while in others we are reincarnated or even become one with the universe. There is often little mention, if any, of wandering spirits loitering about Earth and interacting with it, or details on what those spirits should be like. There is also the oddity that despite all of these different ideas on death and the afterlife, regardless of the differences ghostly phenomena are often remarkably similar across the spectrum in many ways, so what are we to make of this? Is there any chance that ghosts are not the spirits of the living at all, and if not what could they be?

One alternative idea to the theory of ghosts as the spirits of the dead involves the concept that these are not independent entities at all, but rather a sort of echo of what once was. Commonly referred to as “residual hauntings,” the basic idea is that for some reason past events have been imprinted upon the building or the landscape and are merely playing back like images on camera film, or sounds on an audiotape, residual memories of a time lost. In this theory, what we see are not spirits in the traditional sense at all, but more like watching a video, with the film being the area around it.

This theory is especially applied to those cases wherein the apparitions seem to mindlessly repeat the same series of actions over and over again, perhaps for all eternity, and do not seem to realize that they are being watched or that they are dead, no more than an image on film “knows” it is being looked at. Why and how these particular past events should have been transplanted onto the landscape, as well as how they are played back, are unknown, but there has been speculation. For instance, it has been postulated that death, pain, suffering, tragedy, and other events involving strong emotions might somehow stain the location, imprint upon it, and cause these incidents to be replayed, and this fits in with hauntings often occurring at places where something terrible has happened. There is also the idea that the composition of the surrounding soil or rocks itself may have some part to play in these residual hauntings. Are ghosts perhaps, at least in some cases, merely history playing back on an endless loop?

Another intriguing theory is that ghosts do not come from the outside world at all, but rather from within. In this line of reasoning, ghosts are not a product of supernatural energy or strange forces of nature, but are rather extensions of the mind reaching out through little understood psychic powers, creating seemingly real constructs projected onto the physical world solely through the power of the subconscious mind. These thought forms are often referred to as tulpas, and can even be generated by people who are not even aware that they are doing it, the forms often appearing to materialize or vanish at will, depending on the mental state of the individual or individuals projecting them.

An interesting historical example of a ghost as a tulpa occurred in the 1960s, when a paranormal researcher by the name of Hanz Holzer was looking into a series of hauntings in the building at 12 Gay Street, in New York City, which involved an apparition most commonly described as a tall gentleman dressed in black formal clothing and with a top hat, black cape, and cane. This phantom was said to walk about the darkened premises and surrounding area at night startling people only to disappear, Holzer would go on to publish the case in his 1966 paranormal book Yankee Ghosts, and this is where things get rather bizarre indeed.

According to an author named Walter B. Gibson, he had lived in that very same building not long before Holzer began his investigation. Gibson claimed that he had been living there in order to do research for an installment for his series of novels starring a Batman-like crime fighter called The Shadow. So absorbed was he in his writing and in envisioning The Shadow roaming about the streets and the premises that he would often even hallucinate his character, who just happened to wield a cane and wear formal evening clothes, a cape, and a top hat. The author likely would have attributed this to pure tiredness and obsession with his character if he had not happened to read Holzer’s book. He was immediately taken aback by the similarities between the ghost and his character, as well as the fact that the sightings were taking place in the exact same place he had lived while writing his novel at around the same time, and he became convinced that what had been seen was an actual projection of his character from his mind, which had somehow been transferred into reality.

Related to the idea of these thought forms materializing into reality from the mind are mental powers running amok in other ways. For instance, it is believed even among many paranormal researchers that some poltergeist infestations could be caused by psychokinetic energy, that is, the mind reaching out to touch the physical world, unleashed to cause disturbances such as moving objects or anomalous noises. As with some cases of tulpas, these outbursts can strike out even without the knowledge of the person producing them, but they usually follow some general tendencies, for instance in most cases, psychokinetic poltergeist activity originates with younger individuals, and is most likely linked to some inner turmoil, stress, or emotional strife. This sort of ghostly activity is typically not confined to any one location, as it is tethered to a person or persons, and it could be a possible explanation of “hauntings” that follow a family from place to place.

Even more outlandish than any of those theories is the idea that ghostly phenomena come from neither our physical or mental worlds, but rather a whole other realm beyond ours entirely. The idea has to do with the concept of multiple dimensions, parallel realities beyond our own that may bump up against ours and may even allow us to travel between them. This idea is dependent on the theory that rather than just one reality or physical universe as we know it, there is “multiverse” of many other, possibly even infinite other universes that all lie side by side with each other, but which are generally imperceptible to us. If this is so, then the reasoning is that inhabitants of these parallel dimension may bleed over into ours or even intentionally break through the mysterious veil that separates us from time to time.

The researcher and author John Keel, as well as UFOlogist Jacques Vallée, were among the first in the paranormal world to suggest the link between multiple dimensions and paranormal phenomena when they theorized that UFOs and their occupants may not be from other faraway planets, but rather from parallel dimensions next to our own, beings that he termed “ultra-terrestrials.” This basic concept would later be expanded to include a possible explanation for all manner of paranormal phenomena, from strange entities, to ghosts, demons, and even cryptids or out of place animals. In this case, these phenomena are proposed as being caused by the denizens of these other universes bursting forth into our own, intentionally or otherwise.

With ghostly phenomena this interdimensional angle could go down a few different ways. It could be that these entities are somehow becoming temporarily entangled with our reality, where they are sighted and even interact with our physical world before vanishing back to their own, which could very well be seen as ghosts or phantoms by witnesses. Or it could be that these are basically those ultra-terrestrials Keel spoke of, dimensional travelers coming to visit us for reasons unknown, but in this case rather than coming down in spaceships or UFOs they are appearing as ghosts, wraiths, and specters. It has even been theorized that aliens, ghosts, and other strange entities might all be basically the same thing, merely appearing differently to different individuals depending on witness expectations. So, if they think they are being abducted by aliens, that is what the entities appear as, whereas in a spooky old house they may appear as ghosts because that is what the witness is keyed up for.

With apparitions of recognizable people or those who have died, this could also be indicative of other parallel dimensions that are nearly identical to ours, but a bit different. One of the theories of the multiverse is that there may very well be countless versions of our own dimension, with many of them almost the same but with some subtle or profound differences. For instance, there could be a reality where you wore a red shirt today instead of blue, where you made different choices, have a different job, or where you don’t even exist. Maybe in one reality a different team won the World Series, the Beatles never broke up, or one where dinosaurs never went extinct. Maybe a person who died in your own universe didn’t die in that one, but yet still inhabits the same place, where they go about life overlaid on this version of reality where they died. It this case, it is speculated, they might sort of overflow into our dimension from time to become visible for short durations or with a somewhat intangible or unearthly quality, only to fade away, making us think we’ve seen someone’s spirit rather than just a version of them from a different timeline.

These have so far been ideas that are far from proven and remain mostly in the realm of conjecture and speculation, so what of other, more scientifically grounded explanations for ghosts? One popular theory in recent times has been that ghosts and similar entities could have their basis in naturally occurring phenomena rather than the supernatural, and that the main culprit could be what are known as ultra-low frequency soundwaves, or infrasound. These are sounds that register just below the threshold of human hearing, but which our bodies sense and are affected by all the same. Infrasound is known to create a wide range of physical and mental effects, including disorientation, dizziness, shortness of breath, faintness, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and nausea, as well as emotional and mental effects including fear, sorrow, panic, and anxiety, and also effects on perception, like both aural and visual hallucinations, and since the one being affected cannot actually hear what is causing the disturbances, it could very well seem like the work of supernatural beings. Infrasound is actually quite common in nature as well, created by all manner of physical forces such as earthquakes, volcanoes, waves crashing upon rocks, wind, rain, and thunder, so perhaps the ghosts are really all in our head, the result of natural forces that we can’t hear.

There is also the idea that our minds can play tricks on our perceptions in other ways as well. One good example would be some studies that show that electrical stimulation of certain areas of the brain can create a profound sense of other entities nearby or of “shadow people” lurking about taunting us. There was once interesting case illustrating this in action that was published in the journal Nature, which was carried out by researchers from University Hospital in Geneva, Switzerland, and described the case of an epilepsy patient who witnessed a separate entity in the room with her when a region of the brain known as the temporoparietal junction was stimulated.

The woman apparently perceived this shadow figure as a very real autonomous entity separate from herself, rather than just a hallucination, and she often complained that the entity would touch her or embrace her. In some experiments this shadow person was described as interfering with her tasks, such as trying to pull cards out of her hands or distracting her in other ways. This strange phenomenon likely has to do with a crossing of the wires in this part of the brain, which distinguishes oneself from others, and one researcher in the study would say of the patient and the study:

Electrical stimulation repeatedly produced a feeling of the presence of another person in her extra-personal space, a shadow who did not speak or move, and whose position beneath her back was identical to her own. The strange sensation that somebody is nearby when no one is actually present has been described by psychiatric and neurological patients, as well as by healthy subjects. Our findings may be a step towards understanding the mechanisms behind psychiatric manifestations such as paranoia, persecution and alien control.

Similarly, ghostly phenomena could be the result of a range of optical illusions or hallucinations that emerge for a myriad of reasons. Psychological circumstances, stress, sleep deprivation, sleep paralysis, hypnagogia, or when a person is in a dream-like state halfway between sleep and waking, schizophrenia, drugs, side effects of medication, these can all combine with trigger visual cues such as a spooky locale to perhaps produce the perception of paranormal phenomena. The phenomenon known as pareidolia, wherein the human brain tries to make sense of random patterns by giving them a recognizable identity, could also play a role, in that something half glimpsed in one’s peripheral vision could be misconstrued as something more supernatural in nature. Combined with an over active imagination, visual cues, and an expectation to see something strange, all of these things could possibly contribute to experiences of ghostly phenomena when in fact there is nothing really there at all. Is it possible that ghosts are just all in our head?

In the end it is perhaps impossible to explain the full range of ghostly phenomena with any one of these factors. Ghosts seem to be an area of the paranormal that is a lot more varied, nuanced, and complicated than it may at first seem, to the extent that to call something a “ghost” might be considered akin to calling a “dog” a “vertebrate.” The permutations and possible descriptions are vast. There are many factors at play here, all equally strange and all intertwined to the point that they may never be unraveled. What we can be sure of is that people since time unremembered have experienced ghostly phenomena, beyond the scope of mere tall tales and hoaxes, and something truly odd is going on, whatever that may be.