Apparitions, Ghosts and Hauntings

AIPR Information Sheet: Apparitions, Ghosts and Hauntings

Apparition is a general term for a visual experience in which there appears to be present a person or animal (deceased or living) who is in fact out of sensory range of the witness.

Ghost is a popular term for an apparition of a dead person. Haunting is a popular term for apparitions and other associated phenomena (raps, cold spots, etc.) at a particular locality, generally a building. Reports come from all cultures and ages.

The first major study was the 1894 “Census of Hallucinations”, containing 830 first-hand accounts. In the 1940s, Louisa E. Rhine conducted her own study involving the collection and collation of 8000 case reports (24). Only 10-20% of reports involve apparitions of dead people.

If the apparition appears while the witness is going to sleep, it occurs during the hypnagogic state (25), while waking up, it occurs during the hypnopompic state, and when fully awake it appears in the eidetic state (13).


The core experience is the perception of a visual image, be it a person or an animal, but not a non-living object. It is not considered an ESP experience. It seems “real” and appears and disappears spontaneously. It occurs to a sane person (note that the hallucinations of psychotic persons are mainly auditory, though not all auditory hallucinations indicate psychosis) (21).

The following secondary features are only found in some cases. Sound, touch, feelings or telepathy are associated. It can be seen simultaneously by a group, but often not all persons see it. It can pass through walls, locked doors or strings stretched across the path. It glides rather than walks. Physical activity is witnessed (e.g., banging of doors, or ringing of bells). It moves independently of the witness (12,18,21). Objective data (e.g., temperature measures of supposed cold spots near ghosts, or photographs of ghosts) are rare but viewed with skepticism.

The culture and psychology of the witness can explain some features (e.g., symbolic actions, purpose and facial expressions). The content of modern ghost reports differs from those of the Victorian period, medieval Europe or Classical Greece (9): for example, ghosts wearing chains are rare these days. Visions of the Virgin Mary are common in Catholic countries (4). Evans points to the diversity of entity reports in folklore (8).

Apparitions and hallucinations (both external projections) differ from imagery (perceived internally). Unlike hallucinations, apparitions are said never to indicate psychopathology, and they are considered to convey veridical data (verifiable data that could only be obtained from an external source). In practice, the distinction between an apparition, hallucination and imagery is blurred. Rhine believed there is a continuum between an apparition (seen within sensory range) and an ESP vision (seen outside sensory range) (24). Evans (8) places the apparition in the broader context of the “entity experience”.


Apparitions of the dead (ghosts) are usually associated with a particular building (haunting). Visitations can continue sporadically, over several years. Apparitions of the living or dying are of two types. A crisis apparition is where the witness supposedly sees a figure of another person (often a relative or friend) at another locality. It is seen within 12 hours of the actual time of the traumatic event. An experimental apparition is deliberately produced. For example, a psychic goes “out-of-body” to another location to contact a target, who then sees an apparition, or a shaman sends a tulpa (thought form) to prosecute a sinning tribesperson (17). Evans distinguishes specific entities (e.g., Aunt Agnes), stereotyped (such as the Virgin Mary) and generalised (such as UFO visitors) (8).

Apparitions are most often reported by “fantasy-prone” persons (30), the 4% of the population who are good hypnotic subjects, have vivid imagery skills, and who report a wide range of other psychic experiences.


a) Misperceptions
The report has little merit, being based on distortions of perception (e.g., because of poor light and/or short duration), and on emotional exaggerations. Hoaxes are uncommon, except for ghost photographs.

b) Imagery or Hallucination Hypothesis
The witness, often psychic or a suggestible person, unconsciously generates an apparition (or tulpa, or thought form) as a response to suppressed needs or beliefs. The source of the impressions would be the conscious or unconscious mind of the witness, or more speculatively, archetypal images from the “collective unconscious” (8). An old variant is the model of Gurney (1886) and Tyrrell (1953), now called the super-ESP hypothesis; the apparition is at least partly composed of telepathic data that is then projected out from the mind of the witness. Louisa Rhine found that input of data from outside was unnecessary in all but one of 8000 reports; apparitions were hallucinations created totally within the mind (24).

c) Survival Hypothesis
A “spirit” or “soul” remains at the locality after the death of the material body. The witness is seeing an agent that exists independently of, and generally out of awareness of, the mind of the witness. This model of Myers (1903) has recently been promoted by Gauld (11). A variant is the “survival of fragments” model; apparitions are “lifeless fragments” (i.e., “static images void of consciousness”).

No single theory fits all cases; each case must be examined on its merits – (a) and (b) fit most cases. The evidence for (c) is often anecdotal and based on personal experience; it is difficult to prove scientifically, although Osis has claimed success (21).

Tests using fake ghosts

Misperceptions are very common. Cornell covered himself in a white sheet, and unexpectedly walked across the stage of a packed cinema (5). A show of hands revealed that at least 32% of the audience (size not stated) did not see the “ghost” at all. When members of the audience later volunteered for interviews, their descriptions varied widely. Only three persons of those interviewed accurately described “a figure dressed in a white sheet”.


“Hallucination” was originally defined in terms of psychoses (e.g., schizophrenia and epilepsy). However, it is now evident that normal people also report them (1,10,27). Vitamin deficiency (lack of sunlight) may perhaps be a cause of the high incidence of ghost reports in Iceland (42% of the population; ref. 21). Eidetic imagery is said to occur as the imaginary playmates of up to 10-20% of children (13), but to be much rarer in adults. In one survey (23), 47% of 293 elderly people (mean age 75) reported hallucinations of their deceased spouse; 14% included visual sightings – the other 33% involving feelings, hearing, touching and speaking to the spouse. Professional persons, a happy marriage, and the first 10 years after widowhood were the best predictors of apparitions. In another survey (3), 29% of 150 persons (mean age 77) reported visual hallucinations. About half of the hallucinators had cataracts or poor eyesight, compared to only 18% of the non-hallucinators. Few elderly people tell others about the apparitions through fear of ridicule; this is a matter of health concern.

Ruth’s apparitions

Ruth was persecuted by the apparition of her father who raped her when she was ten (26,27). Ruth learnt to summon and dismiss it, and other apparitions, at will. Ruth (but not the therapist) could see an apparition; both could not see it on a video screen nor hear it on tape. Ruth twice produced apparitions seen by others. When Ruth produced an apparition in front of a screen, her EEG brain electrical pattern showed that the apparition blocked the screen behind it. This test confirmed Ruth’s belief that she was seeing a “real” apparition rather than it being an hysterical hallucination.

Ruth was eidetic, a good hypnotic subject, and very traumatised. Similar apparitions, however, are reported by fantasy-prone persons over-involved in some activity. Dickens was plagued by them as he wrote his novels (14). David-Neel created her own tulpa of a monk after instruction in Tantric Buddhism (16). Hill created apparitions of famous people to help him become a millionaire (15). Estabrooks used auto-suggestion to create a bear apparition; it became so lifelike he at times mistook it for a real bear – it jumped out at him from dark corners (7). “Sitter groups” of non-psychic, non-spiritualistic persons, in the absence of a “spirit control”, have produced raps from a self-created ghost (the Philip experiment, refs 2,22). This ability to create apparitions is a coping mechanism of therapeutic value.

Haunted houses

An imagery/hallucination model applied less well to haunted houses because successive occupants supposedly see and feel the ghost. In part, this may be due to suggestion. Or, perhaps some factor related to the locality, such as an electromagnetic effect, is involved.

Psychic detection of ghosts

Detection of ghosts in haunted houses by psychics is not very effective. In one haunted house (28), one of nine psychics (Eileen Garrett) claimed there was no ghost. Only two picked the same ghost locality as did the residents, and only four chose the same personality. In another house (20), three of six psychics reported the same ghost as the residents, but one of eight controls marginally did (the controls looked at a floor plan, but did not visit the house). In a third house (19), two of four psychics and five of eight skeptics who visited all got similar results. Only two psychics and no skeptics gave the same results as the witnesses. The results probably reflect, at least in part, common preconceptions of what a ghost would look like, or where it would be.

Supernatural assault

Supernatural assault is a descriptive term, with no paranormal connotation, for a person in bed who experiences fear and paralysis (unable to move because of the fear), a “presence” or a dark apparition bending over the bed, a pressure on the chest, and (sometimes) partial suffocation, choking or restricted breathing. The person is awake and accurately perceives the environment (16).

These basic elements are independent of culture; but culture determines how it is described (or withheld). It has been called; “Old Hag” (Newfoundland); “incubus experience”; “psychic attack”; “devil encounter”; and “sleep paralysis”. Apart from hauntings, the experience is a central feature of some poltergeist, near-death (NDE), out-of-body (OBE) and UFO (“men in black”) reports. It is possibly responsible for legends about demons, witches and vampires. Until 1700, the word “nightmare” (from Anglo-Saxon words meaning “night crusher”) had this meaning. Its meaning then shifted to include bad dreams. “Nightmare” today is a general term for any bad dream. The experience, however, is not a dream nor a “night terror” (a sudden awakening with a loud scream).

About 23% of 93 university students, all Newfoundlanders (from an isolated culture) reported the experience. The experience mostly happened once or occasionally. Less common were “runs” of frequent attacks. It is not correlated with medical history except that a narcoleptic person is the most susceptible (16). Narcolepsy is sudden onset of sleep during the daytime, producing paralysis and hypnagogic hallucinations. Hufford describes the psychological state as “sleep paralysis with a type of hypnagogic hallucination”. The pressure on the chest does not suggest a sexual trauma (16) but the experience can cause anxiety and hysteria.

Sensed presences

The person reporting a “presence” feels that a “supernatural influence” or “guardian angel” is at hand. The presence is either seen as an apparition or just felt. It can be vivid or subtle, sustained or transient, and stable or variable. Suedfeld states the experience differs from daydreams, hypnagogic imagery and mirages. There is no evidence of mental breakdown. The experience is probably an adaptive reaction that helps the person cope with an abnormal (hazardous, monotonous, exhausting, uncontrollable or threatening) situation (29). “Abnormal” includes solitary sailors, polar or mountain explorers, and survivors of traumatic episodes such as shipwrecks or air crashes. However, any situation involving, for example, monotony, isolation, low temperatures, strong chilly winds, starvation, exhaustion or life-threatening danger may trigger the experience, as may religious ceremonies (as in Spiritualist “guides”). All these can involve a persistent monotony of physical or social stimuli. Added to this may be the effects of unanticipated stress.


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17) Deleted
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