Sunday, June 20, 2010
Have scientists found proof that ghosts exist?
Professor David Fontana took a deep breath and opened a side-door into the mechanic’s workshop. He peeked inside but could see virtually nothing through the murky gloom.
“Well, here goes,” he mumbled as he stepped into the workshop.
An icy chill rippled slowly down his spine. He looked up, momentarily startled by what he saw. A small piece of engine casing appeared to be levitating a few feet in front of his nose. It tilted slightly to the side and then flew directly towards him. He ducked aside as it whizzed past his head and smashed into the wall behind him.
“There you are,” said John Matthews, the workshop owner, “He’s welcoming you.”
As their eyes adjusted to the gloom, it was obvious that Pete, as the poltergeist had been affectionately dubbed, had been up to his tricks again. The floor was littered with stones and small coins. The normally well-organised shelves had been piled high with randomly selected engine parts, boxes of stationery, and bits of paper. A child’s teddy bear lay in the corner.
“Watch this,” said John as he gently threw a small stone into a corner. Moments later, the stone came flying back at him. It hadn’t bounced, it seemed to disappear into the wall and then re-materialise in mid-air as it flew back at them.
“And this,” said John as he tossed a penny into the corner. A two pence piece came flying back.
Over the following two years, the poltergeist was exhaustively investigated by Professor David Fontana, a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. He became convinced that the so-called ‘Cardiff Poltergeist Case’ was a genuine haunting.
Unlike most hauntings, which seem to involve angry or malevolent spirits, Pete was playful and only occasionally mischievous. In fact, everyone involved in the case became convinced that Pete was the ghost of a seven-year-old child who had been killed by a car near to the haunted workshop.
The family grew so fond of Pete that they adopted him as a part of their family and refused to have him exorcised or chased away by psychic mediums.
“There was no malice in him at all,” says Professor Fontana. “The family felt privileged to be in his presence. They saw him as evidence of an afterlife. He changed their whole outlook on life.
“It was most definitely not a hoax.”
It is fashionable in certain circles to dismiss hauntings such as the Cardiff Poltergeist Case as either pranks or delusions. But new scientific research to be published in the respected Journal of the Society for Psychical Research suggests that at least some hauntings may be genuine.
These startling conclusions have been drawn by Dr Barrie Colvin, a scientist who has spent the past five years analysing the knocks, raps and bangs produced by poltergeists. Dr Colvin used some of the most advanced acoustic technology available to ‘fingerprint’ the ghostly sounds. He has discovered that they are fundamentally different to the normal sounds produced by people, animals, or indeed anything in our physical world. They are, for the want of a better term, ‘ghostly’.
“The sounds produced by ‘ghosts’ during hauntings are paranormal,” says Dr Colvin. “Their acoustic waveforms are completely different. I can’t find a conventional explanation for my results at all. Nor can any of the other scientists who’ve reviewed my work. To be honest, we’re all completely stumped. We did not expect to find these results.”
“I do not believe in life after death. I believe that most things labeled as ‘paranormal’ are simply delusions, hoaxes or the result of drunkenness or drug-taking. Having said that, my results show that at least one part of the paranormal, which relates to the noises produced by ghosts and poltergeists, appears to be true. They are most definitely not human or natural.”
When Dr Colvin’s results are published later this month, they are expected to re-ignite the debate over the origins of ghosts and poltergeists. Some researchers claim that ghosts are either spirits of the dead or result from the violent release of pent-up psychic energy, usually by adolescent girls.
Many more researchers, of course, say that ghosts and poltergeists do not exist. They are either hoaxes perpetrated by attention seekers or simply spooky stories that become exaggerated with every re-telling.
Professor Chris French, a parapsychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, and editor of The Skeptic magazine, says he has yet to hear of a single convincing haunting.
“Just because we cannot explain these phenomena does not mean that ghosts are the souls of the dead or even that something paranormal is occurring,” says Professor French.
“It’s very difficult to investigate hauntings in a scientific manner. They often rely on eyewitness testimony, which can be unreliable. They also tend to be investigated by people with an agenda. They want to see ghosts in action - or at least something paranormal - so that’s what they tend to see. When you add all these factors together, you have to be sceptical. I certainly wouldn’t bet my house on the existence of ghosts or poltergeists. But then again, I might be wrong.”
Professor French points to famous hoaxes such as the Amityville Horror to dispute not only the Cardiff case, but hauntings in general. So does this mean that poltergeists are pure hokum? It seems unlikely.
To my mind, Professor French’s arguments are entirely reasonable and logical but there are simply too many recorded poltergeist cases for all of them to be dismissed out of hand. A great many have been investigated by diligent researchers and the results suggest that ghosts may indeed be a real phenomena.
A good example is the Enfield Poltergeist, a haunting every bit as perplexing as the Cardiff case investigated by Professor Fontana in the mid-1990s. The Enfield Poltergeist turned the lives of Peggy Hodgson and her four children upside down. It first manifested as a mysterious invisible force that began by hurling toys, plates and cutlery around their home. Books and pictures would inexplicably fly across the room. Objects miraculously appeared and disappeared before the eyes of terrified onlookers. Strange knocking sounds were heard inside walls. And on several occasions, Peggy’s 12-year-old daughter Janet appeared to be ‘possessed’ by the poltergeist.
The strange events were exhaustively investigated by the respected paranormal researchers Guy Lyon Playfair and Maurice Grosse and was documented in the book This House is Haunted. And perhaps uniquely, the extraordinary events were witnessed by police officers and a BBC journalist.
On one occasion, a sitting room chair was seen to levitate off the carpet and move slowly across the room.
"It came off the floor nearly half an inch,” said WPC Carolyn Heeps, one of the Metropolitan Police officers sent to investigate the haunting. “I saw it slide off to the right about four feet before it came to rest.”
Guy Lyon Playfair and Maurice Grosse spent 14 months investigating the case before coming to the conclusion that a genuine poltergeist was haunting the family home. They themselves witnessed a range of inexplicable phenomena such as boxes flying across rooms, ornaments floating in mid-air, and books mysteriously appearing and disappearing. All told, hundreds of different phenomena were witnessed by over 30 people.
Of course, if there were only a handful of cases like the Enfield and Cardiff hauntings, sceptics could dismiss them as aberrations. But ghosts may be more common than previously thought.
Two years ago, Alan Murdie, at the behest of the Society of Psychical Research, began an exhaustive census of hauntings reported across the UK. He discovered that around 260 new hauntings are reported in Britain each year. This is in addition to the thousands of ghosts witnessed in traditionally haunted locations such as castles and dungeons. Around half of these newly reported ghosts involved violent and persistent poltergeists. In 43 percent of cases, a ghostly apparition was seen by observers.
It is no doubt possible to dismiss many of these cases as mere bunkum. But what of those witnessed by staunchly level-headed observers? Anwar Rashid’s experience at Clifton Hall, Nottinghamshire, is a case in point. Mr. Rashid, a millionaire businessman, bought the 52 room hall in 2006 as a family home. But they had barely moved in when they began to hear mysterious voices whispering inside the walls of their ancient house.
“There was a knock on the wall,” he said. “We heard a voice asking, ‘Hello, is anyone there?’ We were like the family in Nicole Kidman’s film The Others.”
“Two minutes later we heard the man's voice again. I got up to have a look but the doors were locked and the windows were closed.'
During the eight months that the family lived at Clifton Hall, Mr. Rashid said they were haunted by mysterious figures and found unexplained blood stains on bedclothes.
“I fell for its beauty,” said Mr. Rashid. “But behind the facade it is haunted. The ghosts didn't want us to be there and we could not fight them because we couldn't see them."
It eventually came to light that tunnels in the grounds had been used by Satanists and, according to legend, a woman dressed in white committed suicide by jumping from an upstairs window. At that point, Mr. Rashid decided to flee the property with his family and hand they keys back to the bank.
Nor were Mr. Rashid’s experiences at Clifton Hall unique. Darren Brookes, whose firm Sovereign Security guarded the hall for five years, said some of his staff “refused point-blank” to work there. They reported sightings such as a monk walking through the grounds and a ghostly woman stalking through the graveyard. On other occasions, security guards saw chairs moving as if they were being rocked by an invisible hand.
“I've often put officers who know absolutely nothing about the house in there - and after a night on duty they have quit,” said Mr. Brookes.
For me, these cases are not just anecdotes, they bear a striking resemblance to a poltergeist that haunted my mother when she was a teenager working at Belvoir Castle in Rutland. Soon after starting work at the castle, a poltergeist – who spoke only French – attached itself to her. On one occasion she was walking down one of the long corridors when all of the ornaments on a cabinet mysteriously levitated into the air and smashed themselves on the opposite wall. From then on, the poltergeist made her life a terrifying ordeal.
Crockery would unexpectedly fly from shelves and footsteps would follow her along corridors. And on occasion, ghostly voice could be heard cursing in French from an empty room. She left the castle the following morning.
Not all ghosts are evil and malevolent, as the Cardiff case shows. Many appear to be confused souls condemned to walk the earth as a form of purgatory. Others want to help the living. Hospitals up and down the land are testaments to this. Many have stories of resident ghosts, usually of doctors or nurses who periodically return to help the sick and dying.
A good example is the ghost that patrolled the corridors of the now defunct Mothers Hospital in Hackney, east London. Here, drowsy nurses complained of feeling a startling tap on the shoulder. According to legend, a nurse who was bottle-feeding a newborn baby dozed off and slumped forward in her sleep, smothering the baby. In a fit of remorse, she killed herself and was condemned to walk the wards, tapping young nurses on the shoulder to keep them awake.
These cases, and the thousands like them, are leading some researchers to conclude that ghosts really are the souls of the dead. To test this theory, Dr Colvin will soon start recording and fingerprinting the sounds ostensibly made by spirits during séances using state-of-the-art equipment.
If these sounds also prove to be unearthly, then it will provide even stronger evidence that ghosts and spirits really do exist. And if these ‘spirits’ should then prove capable of answering questions and acting with intelligence, then his work may finally prove that they really are the souls of the dead.
“I genuinely do not know what we’ll discover,” says Dr Colvin. “We’re in uncharted waters. That’s the beauty of science.”