“Ghosts seem to know as little about themselves as we do, so that, if we are to discover anything, we must make haste, before we become ghosts ourselves” – Andrew Lang
I’ve taken a break from ghost hunting shows. Used to regard them as a guilty pleasure and watched them with my 10-year-old, who never failed to point out that for all the footage recorded they never seemed to actually catch anything on camera of any significance or record an electronic voice phenomenon that didn’t have to be subtitled. Out of the mouths of babes. One can still enjoy them for their sheer entertainment value, and as long as you aren’t expecting earth-shattering answers to existential questions, the breathless “ghost-bro” wandering around in a ruined asylum with the lights off and jumping at shadows makes for some solid unreality television, if that aesthetic appeals to you. And despite the trademark smugness and air of intellectual superiority that surrounds the ever-so-modern, professional skeptic, the paranormal oeuvre remains surprisingly popular across a range of media.
Its not that I disagree with many skeptical observations about a wide range of anomalistic phenomena, or the state of the “science”, it simply seems disingenuous to denigrate others for “superstition”, when if you dig deep enough into any of our troubled psyches, there is maze of belief, ego, desire, and wishful thinking. Skepticism idolizes science, and by extension scientists, many of whom would never go to the rhetorical extremes they are credited with, particularly when they recognize they are human (given a few don’t) and what they have in their arsenal is an effective methodology given a narrow set of circumstances in a largely mysterious universe. Consequently, one of the favorite whipping boys of the skeptical and scientistic is the apparent mish-mash of theoretical perspectives routinely brought to bear by paranormal enthusiasts, particularly when it comes to explaining what a ghost is and why they are using all that fancy gadgetry, which you got to admit makes them look a little bit like the guys and gals from Ghostbusters, as if that wasn’t enough of a reason. And I’m loathe to openly admit a skeptic has a point (it just encourages them), but you’ve got your demonologists, Stone Tape people, modern Spiritualists, psychics, electromagnetically-obsessed and a cast of numerous other theoretical camps that approach ghosts from a variety of technical (as in technique) perspectives based on their foundational theory or theories about what ghosts are.
Now, I like to try theories on for size, just like pants. Does this theory make me look fat? This lead me to explore a theory of ghosts that had it’s heyday in the late 1800’s, but isn’t talked about much anymore – that is, that ghosts (as well as a number of other paranormal phenomena), may just be “the dreams of the dead”. Hold on cowpoke, you’re probably saying, that makes no sense whatsoever. Bear with me. While there are exceptions, most theories regarding ghosts are variations on the persistence of consciousness after death. Personally, my consciousness barely persists while I’m alive, but what is life except convincing people otherwise. Assuming the persistence of consciousness in some form after the mortal flesh has checked out, is pretty essential for most religions, and is equally important if you want to ascribe some sort of agency to our spectral friends. And we need to assign agency to ghosts if we expect to talk to them, explain why they’re moving things about, interact, or chase them to the ends of the earth.
There is, as always, a logical fallacy here. Why assume, if consciousness persists after death, that the manifestation of ghosts in the cheap seats of reality where we live, are actually representations of that consciousness. Would it not be equally valid to assume that if consciousness persist, so to do dreams, or the unconscious. Six thousand years of interactions with ghosts, which we’ve been recording ever since it turned out all you needed was a stick and clay and could thus grab a little piece of immortality, and the vast majority of such encounters have a dreamlike quality. Striking terror in the hearts of mortal men might seem entertaining for a while, but should consciousness persist beyond death, there have got to more interesting things to do. So, if we predicate our notion of ghosts with the idea that consciousness persists beyond death, why not assume that the unconscious similarly abides? Makes you wonder if there are ghost psychiatrists. “Doc, I’m having trouble with this whole death thing…”. Poet Frederick William Henry Myers (1843-1901), and a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research, seems to have been the guy who really fleshed out this theory.
We are, indeed, always uncertain as to the degree of the deceased person’s active participation in post-mortem phantasms—as to the relation of such manifestations to the central current of his continuing individuality. But it is in dealing with these persistent pictures of a bygone earth-scene that this perplexity reaches its climax. They may, as I have already said, be the mere dreams of the dead—affording no true indication of the point which the deceased person’s knowledge or emotion has really reached (Myers, 1903, p384).
In short, Myers was suggesting, based on mountains of data collected under the august auspices of the Society for Psychical Research, that when examining any given haunting, it was exceedingly hard to determine how active the involvement of a conscious spirit might be, given the quality of said encounters, and often inchoate nature of ghostly behavior. Furthermore, he maintained that often locality was more significant than personality when it came to the presence of a phantasm.
In Phantasms of the Living there were cases which suggested that during life, or at the hour of death, it was sometimes a local rather than a personal cause which induced or determined the apparition of the dying man. And in post-mortem cases—as our evidence has shown—this feature is still more prominent. To me it seems that it may well be only as an exceptional thing that any post-mortem phantom is recognized by any survivor. If once it is admitted that phantasms may be in some way conditioned or attracted by that form of assemblage of influences which we term locality, it is plain that we transitory tenants of the earth’s surface can have no claim to appropriate all the memories which may act upon the departed. If apparitions be the dreams of the dead, they will dream of affairs of their own in which we have no share. And if (as both Mr. Podmore and I hold) these phantoms are to be regarded as the reflections of some external mind, then I maintain—in opposition to him—that they do at least prima facie resemble dreams of the dead rather than dreams of the living (Myers, 1890, p332-333).
Myer’s contemporaries were toying with the idea that there was some sort of telepathic externalization from the living that resulted in the manifestation of ghosts, a sort of “it’s all in your head, but your head can do some remarkable things” kind of theory. Frank Podmore (1856-1910), whom Myers contrasted himself with was also a member of the Society for Psychical Research, but tended towards more naturalistic explanations for strange phenomena, and evinced some disdain towards the popular spiritualism of the time.
It must be admitted that the suggested extension of telepathic action goes somewhat beyond the facts already established. To discern, however, in such narratives as these proofs of post-mortem agency involves two assumptions, for either of which we have even less scientific warrant: the survival after death of some form of consciousness, and the affection by this consciousness of the minds of persons still living. Clearly we should not be justified in importing these assumptions to explain phenomena which are capable of another and less dubious interpretation. For we know no reason why the dreams of the living should be less potent to inspire these vague and unsubstantial visions than the imagined dreams of the dead (Podmore, 1897, p334-335).
Other folks hopped on the “dead and dreaming” bandwagon, pointing out that dead people, should they still be conscious, were likely to be preoccupied with matters more important than loitering about the earth scaring people, but then started tacking on all sorts of fascinating, but dubious corollaries.
A study of these and similar incidents seems to conﬁrm the view that hauntings are often the effects of intensive thinking—“dreams” we may call them—of past experiences: this would account for their intermittent character, as the normal consciousness of the departed is probably occupied with their present conditions. But we see that this hypothesis alone is not a, sufﬁcient explanation in all cases. We have to admit the possibility of some local effect on space; some invasion by some element of the ego’s consciousness which may affect the meta-ethereal environment and be registered by the psychic organs of the percipients, or may cause some more physical effect, may, in short, produce a materialization (Dallas, 1922, p263-264).
The assumption that the dead have more to do than lurk in the shadows of your bedroom and answer stupid questions has fallen by the wayside these days, but it certainly would explain the surreal nature of how they interact with the living, akin to holding a conversation with someone who talks in their sleep.
It is probable, as was thought by Myers, that in such cases the agent is not present in anything like the fullness of his personality — is not aware of the effects which he is producing in our world. It may be that these phenomena are the dreams of the dead, or are produced in a dream-like and unreasoning state, such as it is natural to expect would be a spirit’s condition after the wrench of death (Hill, 1911, p122-123).
If you’re going to examine a theory of ghosts, you’ve got to take it to its logical extreme. If consciousness persists, why shouldn’t unconsciousness? Unless you’re all into that enlightenment upon death thing. Seems unlikely. If you were dumb in life, why wouldn’t you be dumb in death? Stands to reason that the dead dream of life, and perhaps it simply erupts into our existence as an afterthought, so to speak. Maybe the dead are more like the living than we give them credit for. As Jack Henry Abbott once said, “When they talk of ghosts of the dead who wander in the night with things still undone in life, they approximate my subjective experience of this life”.
Hill, John Arthur, 1872-. New Evidences In Psychical Research: a Record of Investigations, With Selected Examples of Recent S.P.R. Results. London: W. Rider & son, ltd., 1911.
Lang, Andrew, 1844-1912. Cock Lane and Common-sense. New ed. London: Longmans, Green, 1894.
Myers, Frederic William Henry, 1843-1901. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. London: Longmans, Green, 1903.
Myers, Frederic William Henry, 1843-1901. “A Defence of Phantasms of the Dead”. Society for Psychical Research (Great Britain). Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research v6. London: Society for Psychical Research, 1890.
Podmore, Frank, 1856-1910. Studies in Psychical Research. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1897.
Dallas, H.A. “A Study of Hauntings”. Occult Review: [a Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Investigation of Supernormal Phenomena and the Study of Psychological Problems] v35. London: W. Rider and son, limited, 1922.