One of Richard Herrings ‘emergency questions’, in his Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (aka RHLSTP) is:
‘Have you ever seen a Ghost?’
The responses tend to be amusing or, for comedic effect, pointedly short.
In the same way that I like to see whose song list that I most associate with when listening to Desert Island Discs – currently Noel Gallagher and Simon Cowell – I do the same with this question; it’s currently Richard Osman of Pointless (and maybe Two Tribes) fame.
I probably should believe in ghosts, or at least be agnostic on the subject based on the facts that, not only am I a romantic at heart, but I also had a very strange, unexplained ‘ghostly’ experience.
I was staying in a hotel, not an old manor house or haunted mansion, just a regular modern chain hotel. Having had a long day and a long drive, I lay on the bed to have a quick five minute shut eye before turning on my laptop and clearing some e-mails. As I slipped into that half-state, not quite asleep but getting there fast, I heard the familiar sound of a hotel key card in the door lock. I froze, my mind racing. Was I awake, asleep, should I shout or I lie still and pretend to be asleep; and hope that whoever it was, even if they opened the door, would see me and quietly go away?
As the familiar clicking persisted, I presumed that someone had the wrong room and wouldn’t be able to get in, but then again, they could have a duplicate card, but hopefully, if this was the case, once in the room would realise that it was occupied and quietly leave; it’s happened to me before.
The next thing I was aware of was a weight on the bed. Not something dropping, but that of someone sitting down on the other side of the bed; as you would to remove shoes and socks. Now I was definitely awake… and scared. Whoever it was, I presumed male (for some reason) may still be unaware of my presence or worse, may have more sinister intentions. It didn’t occur to me at the time that if I’d stayed still and seen it through that there may have been a ‘happy ending’!
I decided what to do. I wasn’t going to lie there and either be murdered, or assaulted in my bed.
In a split second I mentally prepared myself and, heart racing, I flipped myself over to confront the intruder. I may have shouted.
I jumped out of bed and checked the bathroom.
But now I knew that I had been awake, of sorts, all along.
So in answer to Richard Herring’s question, I’d like to say “No, but I may have sensed one once, which scared the bejesus out of me”… but in reality…‘No’.
Richard Osman’s answer (paraphrased) was ‘No, and I never will because there is no such thing as ghosts’.
When pressed to back up this statement, his rationale was broadly that if there were ghosts, by now there would be such a massive body of evidence that their existence would be irrefutable. Add to this the fact that about 100 billion people have died to date but it seems that reported sightings are very limited and, when they do happen, it’s generally of a child in a Victorian nightshirt at the end of a bed in an old house or an old woman in the mirror. Why not someone modern in a supermarket, at a football match or in The X Factor audience? … and this got me thinking.
He’s right. 100 billion people dead and only a relative handful of sightings and all of a similar nature. Where are all of the others? Why have famous ghosts not been spotted?
Surely if Elvis had been wandering around the earth for the last forty odd years then there’s a high probability that someone would have spotted him, even if we assume that only certain people have the power to see ghosts.
If we buy into the theory that ghosts (or spirits) stay in the vicinity or building where they died then Elvis would be in Gracelands and, by the laws of maths and probability, simply based on visitor numbers alone (circa 23m), surely a psychic would have passed through by now and that sighting would surely make the news?
Even if we stretch believability to the fact that celebrities have a special pass or way of not being seen by the public, which would account for the lack of Elvis sighting, then surely there would be cases of spotting a Sheila from next door in her favourite cafe or the thousands of people that have died in certain areas or cities?
Of course this is a tricky subject as it’s so tied into religious beliefs, so I’ll try and disassociate it in order not to upset anyone (as that is definitely not the intention here). So, there may be a God or other religious deities, and maybe an afterlife, but that does not necessarily mean that there are also ghosts.
I asked a few people to get a spectrum of views.
‘Why is it generally old ladies in white clothing or Victorian children’?
‘That’s because our brain selects images that’s its expecting to see and so if we believe in ghosts, that’s what we see. If in our childhood, maybe via TV and films that this is how ghosts are portrayed then that is what our brain will see. Similarly, a Christian non believer is unlikely to ever think they’ve seen an image of Jesus in their piece of toast and if a believer does, it’s likely to be the familiar image of him with a beard and long hair’. We are susceptible to seeing what we believe to be true and our brains fill in some of the detail from memory.
‘So even if the ghost is Elvis or Sheila from next door, we see them as Victorian boy in a nightshirt?’
‘No, there may be other ghosts but you only see the ones that your brain is looking for. It’s similar to the way that if you’re looking for your wife in a crowd and you think that she’s wearing a red hat, you can be looking right at her but your brain does not process this but keeps missing her, however many times you scan’.
Well, I’m very familiar with Elvis so I’m sure I’d spot him but that theory suggests that I’m definitely not a believer, but that also suggests that psychics would see all of them, all of the time and we’d read stories, literally every day about ghost sightings…but we don’t. The reality is that they only seem to be see when it’s convenient or when no one else is looking (and especially not on TV programmes based on discovering them. Most Haunted anyone?).
One celebrity that we are led to believe contacted us from the other side is Arthur Conan Doyle, most famous for creating Sherlock Homes. Both he and his family were well known spiritualists, so much so that six days after his death the Spiritualist Association rented the Albert Hall for a memorial, where they would hold a séance to contact him. The event was attended by his family and an audience of 6,000.
Lady Conan Doyle, the late writer’s wife, took to the stage alongside members of his family, with a vacant chair on her right reserved for her late husband.
In a scene reminiscent of a modern TV event equivalent, clairvoyant, Mrs. Estelle Roberts, took the stage. She declared five spirits were ‘pushing’ her. She cried out their messages and various people in the audience confirmed their validity. Suddenly Mrs. Roberts looked at Sir Arthur’s empty chair, shouted “He is here!”
Lady Doyle stood up.
Estelle Robert’s reportedly moved as though following a person who was approaching her from across the room. “He is wearing evening clothes”, she murmured and inclined her head as though to listen. After a short pause her head jerked up. She stared at Lady Doyle, shivered, ran over to her and whispered.
Persons nearby claimed that they heard her say “Sir Arthur told me that one of you went into the hut (on the Doyle estate]) this morning. Is that correct?” Lady Doyle, faltering, replied “Why, yes” and then beamed and her eyes opened widely.
Estelle Roberts then said to Lady Doyle “The message is this. Tell Mary (their eldest daughter)…”
‘At this the audience rose in a clamour, and the great organ of the Hall began to peal, the noise drowning out the answer of Mrs Roberts’.
What a surprise! After all of that build up, the organist, hired for the occasion took this as her cue to start playing and drown out the one thing that everyone had come to hear and would supposedly prove the existence of the afterlife, with no pre-arranged cue from family or clairvoyant?
Back to the questions.
‘Why is it that they are often spotted mainly in old buildings?’
‘It’s partly associated with where we expect to see ghosts, based on the media, but also based on the theory that buildings and structures can retain memories of the past and the releasing of these, including spirit sightings, these can be triggered by events. Some people believe that it’s only certain building that have these features and these often have religious associations.’
Right, so we’re meant to believe that our ancestors built certain buildings out of magic stones that would capture activities and release them as memories at a later date. This means that if it was done knowingly then they were building ghost prisons, which would explain why billions are not wandering around outside, but that’s pretty mean and how did they have the knowledge? We’d have that knowledge now wouldn’t we?
Even if that were the case, or that this release happens over time, surely the time lapse between when an old manor house was built and it released its ghosts (from its ‘magic memory stones’) on unsuspecting Victorians is no different to that of thousands of houses now which were built in the housing boom of the industrial revolution or post war years and, on that basis, these houses would be releasing ghosts, almost daily and these are either not being seen or, even unlikelier with today’s media frenzy and desire for fame, being seen and reported.
Of course if we go back to the ‘magic stone’ theory, where only some houses are built like this, then this means that besides being cruel, it was calculated, and if this was the case, people would have known and surely this would also have been reported in the newspapers of the day. Today alongside movies such as Hansel & Gretel – Witch Hunters and Abe Lincoln – Vampire Hunter we’d have Micawber & Swinely: Ghost Prison Builders…but we don’t. Although remember, you heard it here first.
Surely, more likely, similar to religion (in my opinion) it’s a way of explaining the unexplained, to keep the uneducated masses at bay or simply to frighten children and get them to do what we want them to do.
It’s Christmas Eve in the old manor house and Esmerelda’s parents have hidden her presents in the attic.
‘Mother, I’m going to play in the attic before bedtime’
‘No you can’t’
‘Why, you let me every other day mother?’
Well…uhhh, on Christmas eve the spirit of the old lady that died in the house wanders the attic.’
‘Is she nice mother? I’d think I’d like to see her’
‘Nooo, she’s evil. She has long hair and a pale face, wears a long white flowing night dress and kills children if she sees them.’
This maybe how these stories and beliefs start.
‘So why can only certain people see ghosts?’
‘That’s easy, you have to believe’.
Of course, the old Emperor’s new clothes argument. If I can’t see ghosts then it’s simply because I don’t really believe in them and if I did, I would. What an irrefutable argument.
Again this argument falls at the first hurdle, scale. Even those who do believe and can see, don’t see enough for it to be believable.
It’s the same trick that parents try to pull at Christmas.
‘If you don’t believe in Santa he won’t come to our house and you won’t get any presents’.
This is usually what parents tell their children at the time when they are of an age when they do question his existence, usually because older siblings or most likely friends with older siblings are telling them so.
For me it was probably 1974, when I was 10. However, every year since then I have received Christmas presents, ergo… no such thing as Santa Claus.
Finally, we need to turn to the scientific world and the wise words of Professor Brian Cox when he tells us that Ghosts cannot exist as this would break the laws of thermodynamics.
First there are slightly simpler concepts to grasp such as ‘If ghosts can walk through walls then why don’t they fall through floors’?
Good point, although a believer would probably respond along the lines of ‘they can float’, ‘because they can’ or even, as in the case of thermodynamics, ‘because they defy the laws of physics’ or ‘we currently don’t know everything about physics which is why we can’t explain it yet’.
So what is the physics that supposedly dispels the myths of ghosts?
There are four laws of thermodynamics but we will only use two here. Simply put;
First Law. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, it can only change forms.
Second Law. You can never get back all the energy you put in. No engine or refrigerator etc. is 100% efficient (and is usually lost to heat).
If ghosts were formed of energy (as is presumed), they would lose this energy over time because of the second law. If they were moving things about (as they do, especially the poltergeists) they would probably emit light or sound, although modern day ghost hunters would claim that they do and hence spend countless hours trying to capture this on various equipment and then (especially on TV shows) try to convince us that that speck of light is evidence.
TV shows and believers also flock to Haunted Houses, so called as they have regular sightings and therefore multiple hauntings but again physics would make this this impossible since the ghost would lose energy and disappear from existence. Of course theoretically hauntings would be possible if ghosts could draw energy from the environment in order to sustain their existence. Wow!
Maybe more plausible than ‘sucking’ energy from the environment would be a source of energy that they can ‘feed’ from, which would align with the First Law in terms of energy not being created but only ever changing form but would imply that Haunted Houses contained these, which to my knowledge has never been the case.
I have had a vicarious near miss in spending the night in a haunted house though. Having once been a regular viewer of the TV show Most Haunted (where a presenter, clairvoyant and camera crew visited haunted houses to try and capture paranormal activity) I watched a live TV special (although I was at home, not in the audience) which I think it must have been a Valentine’s Day special. In order to decide which couple would get to be filmed for their Valentine’s Night in a haunted house, they had to guess what object was concealed in a box, by drawing it, and whoever came closest would win the prize.
The box was fairly small and I immediately thought of an Apple, partly due to the size of the box but also I presumed that it would have some relevance, in this case love in connection with Adam & Eve. For the same reason I also assumed that the apple would be red. Not a Braeburn apple red, but a deep Snow White poisoned apple red.
The presenters went around the audience and looked at what they had drawn before revealing what was actually in the box and filling air time by asking what they had drawn and why. Finally the box was opened to reveal a deep red coloured apple. They went to a guy in the audience who had drawn an apple (but no mention of colour) and he and his partner were taken off to spend their night in the haunted house. So that could have been me, if I’d been there. I have no idea how I got it right, in fact absolutely right, but I am convinced that it was more guesswork that the supernatural at work.
So whilst the romantic in me would love my answer to Richard Herring to be ‘no, but I’ve felt one, and I have supernatural powers’, the pragmatist in me sides with Professor Brian Cox and Richard Osman on this one, as none of the arguments are convincing enough for me to even be agnostic on the subject. My ghost in the room? Simply my brain playing tricks on me while in my half sleep state, which although unnerving, nothing else.
So like puppies, ghosts are not just for Christmas, they are not even just for Halloween, they are a figment and only exist on TV, in movies like Ghost and Ghostbusters (as well as thousands of others) and in some of our minds.
That said, the subject does make for a great top 10.
My Ghostly Top 10
And of course anything by David Devant and his Spirit Wife (and all the ones that you would have had).
Written by Pete Gilbert – Author of My Old Man’s a Busman and host of the Pop Cricket podcast