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Where have all the Ghosts Gone?

PSI’s Dave Wood asks that infrequently posed question: where have all the apparitions gone?

PSI’s book, Haunted Swindon: A Census of Hauntings, led to an article submitted to the Society for Psychical Research’s Paranormal Review magazine. Whilst it would not be appropriate to publish the article here, some key findings can be shared.

Few surveys or censuses are completed these days about the nature of ‘ghosts’ and ‘hauntings’. The major censuses – Phantasms of the Living and a Census of Hallucinations – of the Victorian period concentrated on the prevalent haunting feature of the time: apparitions. In the 1970s Green and McCreery concluded that the vast majority of haunting cases involved apparitions. In her book Parapsychology in 2005 Jane Henry stated that the other studies have drawn similar conclusions. Certainly the traditional ghost account or story almost always involved an apparition of a dead (or living) person (animal or object). So why is the experience of so many modern day paranormal investigators so different?  

Various paranormal investigators and researchers have, anecdotally, commented that haunting cases of the last decade seem to involve fewer apparitions than those of the past. A haunting case today seems more likely to report cold spots, light anomalies, strange noises and feelings rather than a full-on sighting of a ghost.

The Haunted Swindon Census found that over 50 years more than 80% of haunting cases involved at least one apparition. But comparing this to haunting cases over the last 10 years this number dropped, staggeringly, to around 30% involving an apparition seen. The figures may well be unrepresentative, but the findings seem to ring true with the experience of so many researchers today. But why?

It is almost impossible to conclusively say. Perceptions of hauntings involve so many factors, and very few of these are really understood.

One theory that has been advanced is that of the role of the media.

Some rational theorists have concluded that our interpretation of ambiguous events as hauntings is driven by our perception of what a haunting ‘should be’ – after all, no-one is born with the knowledge of what a haunting is: we learn it from our environment - often the media.

For more than a century, until recent times, most paranormal media – from TV programmes to stories, and films – seemed to involve a ghost apparition. The last 10 years has seen a renaissance in the paranormal media, coinciding with the rise of ‘reality television’.

Immensely popular ghost-related reality TV shows show viewers very few apparitions – one could only guess why that would be! Indeed in the latest PSI Journal Nicky Sewell and Malcolm Gould found that, in one paranormal TV show, only 5% of experiences related to some form of apparition. To take the place of the traditional ‘ghost’, these shows have showed the public that haunting symptoms include light anomalies, strange noises, feelings and the like.

Is the decrease in apparitions simply down to the sharp change how TV shows tell people that a ‘haunting’ is present? We might never know, but it food for thought.