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What Are Ghosts: A Tri-Philosophical Discussion

By the author of Anatomy of a Ghost: A Guide to Analyzing the Dead

I attended a speaking event one evening with a Parapsychologist. I remember distinctly that a woman in the audience asked him if ghosts were the souls of a dead people. He hedged from admitting that bold statement. Then the woman became combative, basically halting the presentation so that she could pepper the speaker with questions. She believed ghosts were the souls of the dead and why wouldn’t he confirm that? Why? Why? Why wouldn’t he just say it? It amazed me just how emotionally invested she was in the belief, that if anyone dissented, especially if a subject matter expert on the subject disagreed, that she would get that upset.

As rude as she was, I wondered if she hadn’t lost someone close to her. When this happens this question becomes far less academic, and far more personal. Because if ghosts exist (A), and they’re the soul of a dead person (B), then my loved one might come back to me as a ghost (C). And there you have the spiritual ABC’s. People often believe in this premise simply because they want so strongly to believe.

I was taking a course in Psychology, while working on my latest degree. The professor had all of the students stand up and introduce themselves, tell the class what your major was and a little about yourself etc. I was one of only three older adults in a large class of essentially teenagers. When my turn came I did the requisite, “hi, I’m Robin and I’m studying…and in my spare time I’m a ghost hunter.” You would have thought I had said my made my living pole dancing, by the sea of shocked and disgusted faces I had looking back at me. One young man was even so bold as to announce to the class that there is “no such thing as ghosts.” Old, slow, and now apparently a freak as well, I didn’t find my classmates overly friendly throughout the rest of the course. (However, the professor, was fascinated and we would often converse about our experiences.) I learned more than just psychology in that course. I learned to pick and choose carefully who I told about my passion.

I share these two stories to demonstrate either extreme of the spectrum, between those are completely closed to the idea that anything paranormal could ever be real versus those who so vehemently wish to believe that ghosts are proof that we survive death that they resist any other theories.

For the true skeptics the question of the paranormal is absurd, because there are no such things as ghosts. Not surprisingly, most staunch non-believers never have a paranormal experience, because they’re vehemently closed to the very idea. I’ve often attributed this to the sheep-goat theory.

Very briefly, Professor of Psychology at City University of New York, Gertrude Schmeidler first coined the phrase in 1942. She was trying to explain the disparity in psi test results between people who believed in psi (formerly extra-sensory perception or ESP) or were at least open to the idea versus those who denied the very possibility of psi. The subjects that believed in psi she called sheep. The sheep, when given an ESP card test tended to score statistically above chance by a significant margin. Goats, who said they did not believe in psi tended to score statistically below the level of chance, again by a significant margin.

When it comes to belief in the paranormal adamant non-believers (goats) of psychic experiences rarely have such an experience. They deny or block their otherwise natural psi abilities. I’m talking about psychic abilities now because researchers have suggested that when someone experiences something paranormal they’re actually experiencing it via their sixth sense – their psi ability which parapsychology researchers believe we all possess to some degree or another. Thus if you see an apparition of a woman in white, you’re not actually seeing it with your eyes, but with your mind. This helps explain the anomaly where not everyone in a group sees a ghost, but only one or two do.

This also accounts for the fact that children, especially small children, appear to have more experiences with the paranormal than older adults. I.e. that imaginary friend may be more than simply imaginary. Children have psychic experiences because they haven’t yet been conditioned to the idea that they can’t have them. (Also, it is believed that psi abilities are stronger in the young, and decrease as we age.) Thus young Caiden in Chapter Five playing Peek-a-boo with his grandfather is not uncommon - despite the fact that Grandpa is deceased.

One learned psychologist, a skeptic, suggested that ghosts existed only in one place, a person’s mind. He speculated that we made up ghosts to fill a need within ourselves. In one of his cases he met with a young married couple who felt their house was haunted. The wife kept seeing a child apparition in the home. It turned out the young woman was desirous of having children of her own, and when she became pregnant the child apparition disappeared. Poof. How neat and tidy is that explanation?

Of course psychologists have also suggested that when we get caught and punished for a crime, it’s because we wanted to be caught. Hence, when I get stopped by a cop and handed a very expensive speeding ticket I make sure to always thank him for fulfilling my unspoken need. (By the way it hasn’t escaped my notice that I got far more warnings when I was in my twenties, and far more tickets when I was in my forties, despite my vast pole dancing fame.)

I digress. Back to the learned psychologist that suggested that ghosts were purely a figment of our imagination created to fill a need. I have met people that want so very much to have an experience that they grasp at anything and everything as evidence. Whether they just crave the thrill or have lost a loved one with whom they wish to connect. But while this may be true in some cases, I disagree that it’s true in all cases. Just as I don’t honestly need another speeding ticket, not all of my clients desire a haunting. The sometimes panicked voices I’ve heard on the phone imploring me to, “please come as soon as you can. I’m afraid to stay in my own house!” These are people, not seeking attention, but relief.

For many Christians a ghost is a demon. All souls get dispersed of course, upon death, and either take the escalator up or down, you either get household goods or women’s lingerie depending on your proclivities. Hence anything of a paranormal nature gets labeled as evil. I once had such a person request membership in the group. He made it through two investigations before having a major melt down. I felt bad for him. How could you have that belief system and ever knowingly walk into a building that you believe was haunted? It would have to be terrifying.

Ghosts may also be a series of misinterpretations of natural phenomenon. One of my investigators, Maya, often recalls moving into a new house, where when the wood floors made a crazy popping sound every time the temperature changed. It took a couple of sleepless nights before she and her husband figured out that it was the floors and not an interloper in their house. The banging of pipes, loose windows that rattle, things that fall over because of gravity and not a ghost, all these can be labeled a ghost. I have a haunted house theory which suggests a snow ball effect. Many people, once they think a building is haunted, henceforward believe that everything that happens is because of the ghost. And of course each new bit of evidence gets weighed in with the old as the mound of misinterpretation mounts. I once had a woman ask me to do an investigation because she’d seen an orb in a picture, and a small child in the home would walk up to the staircase and put his hands out like he wanted to be carried up the stairs. Now that’s a mole hill and not a mound of evidence. Of course she started the conversation by telling me when such and such family member passed. So I guessed we were talking about a combination of soul of the dead guy and misinterpretation.

So what is a ghost?

a) A figment of our imagination

b) A figment of our imagination created by our imagination to fulfill a need

c) The soul of a dead guy who somehow became earthbound

d) A demon

e) Misinterpretation of natural phenomenon

f) Other

Let’s consider F for a moment. In my own studies, readings and writings, I’ve found a strong correlation between what the ancients believed about ghosts, (in particular the Egyptians who as we all know made the afterlife their main area of focus) what parapsychologists suggest about ghosts, and what those in the magical studies propose a ghost to be. It was a revelation I had one day, that these three disparate groups, while labeling them with different names, were essentially all saying the same thing. After more than a decade of study, debate and writing I found that while the terms vary greatly, the ideas at their basest elements were very similar.

The Dead of Egypt

No one can deny that one of the most supernaturally predisposed culture was that of the ancient Egyptians with their elaborate traditions of mummification and their monolithic pyramids filled with treasure built to shelter the pharaohs in their never ending afterlife.

For the Egyptian’s no human was merely physical, but consisted of several elements. Each human had a body or physical presence as well as a shadow, a double, a soul, a heart, a spirit, a name, a power and a spiritual body. After death the shadow departed, and could only be brought back with a mystical ceremony. There were subtleties to the different entities that are hard to describe with our western terms such as soul.

The double or ka (the double or image or character) of the deceased lived with the body in the tomb, or didn’t if ceremonies were not performed properly. So it was the ka that was the immortal dweller of the tomb, and was believed to be the one to inhabit the statue of the deceased. A statue closely resembling the deceased was thoughtfully left for that purpose. So important to keeping the double satisfied that special priests, called priests of the ka were called in to minister to the ka, and there was a special room of the tomb set aside for the ka, called the house of the ka (3).

It was the ka, who if not properly maintained became a wandering spirit after death. Apparently the ka had an insatiable appetite and needed to be fed with offerings of meat and drink. Should the offerings not be performed, the ka might depart the tomb in search of food. Apparently the ka did not have a refined palette and would consume any dung or filthy water it came across.

The ba (or soul) resided in heaven with Osiris or Ra. It was capable of returning to the tomb at will, however, and could also partake of the offerings of food and drink that were left for the ka. It could assume a material or semi-material form sometimes.

At times the ba and ka might become united, into a being that was called the Akh or khu or akhu, which was an enlightened being. Earlier Egyptians believed that only Pharaoh could achieve this union, but later interpretations declared that people of higher moral character could as well. To become an akh or enlightened spirit one must be judged just. These souls were allowed to live among the gods or among the pole stars which never set. However, the akh spirit could interact with the living as well, and it was the akh that returned as an unhappy spirit to harass the living. If proper burial rites had been neglected or if someone close to the akh had sinned against him or her, then the akh could return briefly to the Earth to seek restitution.

Notice the disparity between the ka and the ba. The ka, while sharing some of the characteristics of the deceased, served more as a kind of caricature of the deceased. It really didn’t exhibit sound critical thinking skills, choosing to drink fetid water and eat poo. The ba, which did go to a type of heaven, could come back briefly only to redress issues, and then had to return. Most ancient cultures believed that the soul of a person departed to some other plane of existence after death, especially if the burial rites were performed properly.

Magical Disciplines

Students of the magical disciplines are taught as well that a human is an entity comprised of several elements or levels.

Physical Level

On the lowest level is our physical being. The body is the densest and lowest of the levels of existence. We perceive it with our five senses: sight, smell, hearing, touching or tasting, although I wouldn’t suggest you start licking people, nor eating poo for that matter. (And you thought you’d get no sage advice from reading this book!)

Etheric Level

The etheric level is our life force, that energy that animates the clay of our bodies. Often associated with the breath, it is also the organ of subtle energies. It is our aura the mediums often talk about, that energy that surrounds us and emanates from us. The etheric plane is limited to time and space as the body in the physical plane. Entities in the etheric plane are tied to the body while the body lives and cannot have an independent existence outside the physical body, but occupy the same space and are the same shape as the body. Sometimes the etheric body can be spotted by those sensitive and/or trained in the art. When they do appear, away from the body, they look like gray shadowy figures in the form of the person they represent.

Astral Level

At this level is our concrete consciousness. It is the realm of our dreams, our imagination, our creativity, but also our ordinary mental activity. This level of existence is bound to space and time, but not limited by them. Everything that exists on the physical plane, every rock, tree, frog or person has a corresponding astral body as well. But the astral level is more malleable. The power of willful thinking can reshape the astral body, though it eventually returns to its natural appearance. Now this is starkly in line with some quantum theories, which suggest that the mind and willful consciousness can shape reality, or our perceptions of reality.

Mental Level

This is the level of abstract consciousness, a dimension which is both timeless and space less. Such fundamentals such as the laws of math and the fundamental pattern of the cosmos exist on this level. For a human, this level is where our fundamental and immortal pattern of ourselves exists. One this plane one can view the past and also view possible futures. The building material in the mental plane is fluid and changeable; shaped by mental will.

Spiritual Level

This is the level of primal unity, from which everything in the universe emanates and to which they return. At this level is our monad or spiritual body, which sheds its individuality to become one with the universe, the transcendent core of the self.

In order to keep this brief we will content ourselves with a quick discussion of the etheric level. The etheric level being the closest to the physical level, it is a level of existence that is limited by time and space. It is close to the material world, matter, and can affect matter. The energy of the etheric realm can be focused and directed and shaped for that matter by conscious will. They can also be focused or diffused by different methods. When in concentration these energies can take on almost a physical solidity. They can be felt, for example, by the nerve endings of human skin. Hence the hair raising heebie jeebies we sometimes feel when in a haunted location. They may coalesce into a visible shape that appears solid or nearly solid. They can exert energy on matter, affect physical objects, and appear to have mass and inertia. When diffused, however, the energies become intangible and difficult to detect.

Magical teachings also talk about the three levels of death. The first of course being the death of the physical body, separating the etheric body and the attached other levels. Slower deaths can cause a gradual separation of the etheric body from the physical that last weeks or even months. Abrupt or violent death causes an abrupt separation and confusion. The second death normally takes from one to three days, before the etheric body disintegrates allowing the other levels to disperse. It can be delayed however, depending on the strength of the etheric body and the attitude of the dying person. The third death involves the disintegration of the etheric body and the release of the astral body to the astral plane.

The etheric body is mortal and weak. Sunlight causes further disintegration. Often within three days the etheric body will decay, the astral body will separate from it and return to the astral plane. Now the etheric body is a shell without real intelligence (think ka again) but with a desire towards preserving itself. It is a ghost, in effect. Sometimes it will remain near its physical remains, where it tries to glean energy for survival from the body that housed it and fed it in the past. Other times it will return to a favored place, attempting to reassert itself, and gleaning energy from the people that now live in the space – trying to prolong its existence. Eventually it disintegrates fully.

This may seem a bit extraordinary to someone not of the magical sphere. However, studies of Near Death Experiences indicate a similar progression. When a person dies, the etheric body, like the ka, is separated permanently from the physical body. In accounts of Near Death Experiences (NDE’s), one of the first things reported by respondents is seeing their body from another location. They almost always report looking down at their lifeless bodies from somewhere near the ceiling. What’s even more remarkable is that many of them accurately recall events that were going on around them when they were clinically dead (I.e. they had no detectable brain functioning). The magical disciplines also speak of this, noting that the etheric body will stay awhile near the physical body.

Those that recall a deeper NDE experience, report going through a dark tunnel, and arriving at another plane of existence, just as magical philosophy teaches that we ascend to a higher level of existence, the astral plane.

But what happens when all does not goes as planned? Apparently an entity can stall out between the first and second deaths, according to magical teachings. And this is when ghostly activity occurs. Most of the time the etheric body is in a kind of dream state, and doesn’t interact with the living. Sometimes, however, the sleep state is disrupted. If the etheric body feels it has tasks yet to accomplish, messages to impart, it may linger to perform them. Messages delivered it then departs. This accounts for the number of people that report having their departed loved one make one final appearance to say goodbye.

But sometimes the etheric body gets trapped for a longer period between the second and third deaths. Sudden or violent death, especially if the deceased is feeling strong negative emotions, causes the etheric body to be torn from the body while it’s unadulterated. A dying person who is experiencing very strong emotions such as fear, anger, extreme pain, sadness can also, unwittingly forge a link with etheric ally receptive objects in the environment. Similarly if they spend a long period of time in one location and they’re fixated on negative emotions the bond between etheric body and object can be made. In effect the dying person becomes anchored in the material world.

Finally, sometimes only the emotions, usually strong emotions, can imprint on the environment, long after the person or persons have died. This then is a residual haunting, which is merely a replaying of past events recorded into the environment. The events never change, never deviate, the apparition if one appears never interacts with the living. Many former battlefields and hospitals, mental institutions, places where people have suffered therefore are often imprinted in this manner.

What Parapsychologists Suggest

You may be wondering what a parapsychologist is, and why I keep bandying about the term. Parapsychology is actually a branch of psychology which attempts to scientifically study paranormal and psychic phenomena. Begun during the Spiritualist Movement in the 1880’s, parapsychologists originally investigated hauntings, tested psychics and studied such things as clairvoyance, psychokinesis, Near-death experiences and the like. In the 1900’s they turned their attention primarily to the study of psi abilities, because these could be studied in a laboratory setting under careful scrutiny. Remember Dr. Peter Venkman (played by Bill Murray) in Ghost Busters? In the first scene of the movie Murray is performing a test for psychic abilities by holding up cards (called Rhine cards after J.P. Rhine who invented them) and having the students try to guess the symbol. Venkman and the boys were parapsychologists. Under constant disdain and ridicule from the rest of the scientific world, which considers anything that can’t touched, seen or tasted as a fabrication of the imagination, sadly, parapsychology appears to be a dying breed, with the youngest parapsychologist in his 40’s. (Don’t start licking scientists either, though they might have it coming.)

The hypothesis of Psi Projection has been suggested by many in the parapsychology field using various terms but basically suggesting the same end. The hypothesis suggests that strong emotions may cause an imprint in the environment and that an aspect or aspects of a personality may be able to imbed themselves as a form of replication at a location. If enough of a person’s personality is able to imprint on a location after the person dies or perhaps remains after the person leaves, it may have enough personality to actually behave in a seemingly intelligent manner. Incidentally, death may not even be a contributing factor to the copying that occurs.

The theory reminds me of my computer has this pesky idiosyncrasy when I try to delete photos. I’ll highlight the photos to delete them and it will make copies of them instead, and where I had one bad photo to delete, now I have two – the original and the replica. This theory is also reminiscent of the Egyptian belief described in Chapter One of the ka. The ka wasn’t actually the soul of the person (the soul going onto Auru, the Egyptian heaven), but a replica of the person’s personality – the ghost – that stayed with the body. It is also starkly similar to the etheric body described by those involved in magical studies, the etheric body being basically a lower level, unintelligent being, who can get imbedded in an environment or stalled between the second and third death cycle.

In the “psi projection theory” the personality replica would be able, on a limited basis to interact with people. It might be able to answer simple questions such as what is your name, or did you live here? Quite possibly it would be able to make auditory sounds or even manifest visually upon request. And in some limited capacity it might even be able to effect matter, move an object etc. But not being the actual soul of a living person, it would not be able to change, or understand the changes going on around it. It would probably not have a memory and not be able to learn new things such as the year it is now. It might be able to interact, but never to remember new experiences. One can again we see the similarities to the poo eating Ka, and the semi-sleep state of the disembodied etheric entity.

So how might such an imprint or copy be made? Quantum physics offers an explanation. If you know nothing about Quantum Physics, it is an area of study that is an offshoot of Physics, which is a study of the natural, material world. Hence Quantum Physics is to physics what parapsychology is to psychology, only quantum physicists get far more respect (probably because they never mention ghosts.) Quantum physics as a research study really began with the discovery that light acts both as a particle and a wave. As such sometimes it flows as a wave does, but its flow can be staunched until light dribbles out through a blockage one particle at a time. This was a miraculous discovery at the time with two heated factions claiming that light was either a wave or a particle.

Within the brain human thought appears to move as waves as well, with electrical impulses flowing across neurons at lightning speed and varying frequencies. We know this to be true because we can test brainwaves with an electroencephalograph or EEG machine. We might speculate that thought like light might move as both a particle and a wave. And if this were true we could theorize that our bodies would be constantly surrounded by a sea of thought particles, think the multi-colored auras reported by mediums who may not have been too far off. This idea of a psi field has been accepted for decades by parapsychologists, and is further suggested by consciousness studies. Think Carl Jung and our old friend William James for theories on a collective and an ever present stream of consciousness.

The psi field extends beyond the organism and saturates the environment around it. It is capable of interacting with the psi fields of other organisms and perhaps even objects. Consider your childhood science experiment with the metal shavings and the magnet for a moment. Remember how the magnetic shavings would immediately line up in the direction of the magnet. The molecules of a magnet are aligned or distributed in one organized direction. Therefore, if a magnet is introduced into an electromagnetic field the field will realign to this new magnet. Accordingly, if a strong emotion or emotions is interjected into the environment it will act as a magnet, and reorganize or realign the thought particles. Do recall that all thought patterns in the brain are fueled by a low level of electro-magnetic energy.

Parapsychologists use the analogy of tapes, although this metaphor is somewhat dated with the new technologies emerging. Audio or video tape depended on a coating of easily magnetized particles to make recordings. The tape itself moved through a device which produced magnetic impulses. These magnetic impulses caused the particles on the tape to realign into a pattern that matched the magnetic impulses, which resulted in a recorded image or sound – or both.

Supposedly a very strong emotion, or many strong emotions, sent out into the environment over time could cause the thought particles in the environment to realign in patterns that matched the original thoughts, and that could be perceived by someone with a suitably developed psychic ability.

Psychic ability seems to be easily equated with the strength of an individual’s antenna. Some may only be equipped with the stupid rabbit ear antennas that sat atop televisions until recently, and needed constant readjustment. Other people may be equipped with the large, roof top antennas that brought in far more channels, while still others were receiving images from satellites in space and could receive all the channels – all for free. Lucky dogs.

But what does the antenna actually detect? It may be that individuals with heightened psi abilities may be sensitive or hyper sensitive to electromagnetic fields. Thus if they enter an area with unusual amount of electromagnetic fields they will feel uneasy, or watched. They may even have physiological reactions such as becoming nauseous or ill. This hypersensitivity may allow them to pick up on electromagnetic resonance or anomalies in the area more readily than a person without this sensitivity. Anomalous electromagnetic fields can be natural, as in areas with seismic activity, or manmade such as buildings located near power lines. They may also pick up on electromagnetic resonance which is one theory as to how a spirit may communicate with us.

Traumatic events would cause stronger imprinting upon the environment, thus sites where murders, suicides or battle occurred would have stronger impacting projections. Think of the most haunted sites you remember, mental hospitals, prisons and battlefields always surface at the top of the list. Sites with unusual electromagnetic or geomagnetic properties are more likely to be regarded as haunted.

Such sites with seismic faults or underground water sources may further create a “containment zone” for activity that holds paranormal activity for longer periods of time. Water in particular appears to have an ability to record or retain information. Although haunting phenomena does tend to decrease in both regularity and intensity over time, when the particles are eventually scattered.

These hypothetical thought-particle imprints might carry either a telepathic or psychokinetic charge – meaning they might be perceived more subjectively or objectively as thoughts or impressions or as physical disturbances. Telepathic imprints would result in more subjective phenomena, such as seeing an apparition, feeling cold spots, hearing sounds of footsteps or voices or merely sensing a feeling of being watched.

The psychokinetic impulses would result in more objective phenomena such as recordable sounds like footsteps or knocking, objects actually being moved or manipulated such as in poltergeist cases. Poltergeist activity could be explained by the dynamic changeability of a human agent who is present and constantly changing the psychic thought patterns. Residual haunts could be explained by a type of “psychic residue,” phenomena that is repetitive and non-interactive, left over from a former resident. And these random thought-energy particles may hold the essence of consciousness – or as I have suggested – a copy of the personality of an agent. Remember my computer making a copy of my photo as I try to delete it, this would be more like copying the entire hard drive of the computer.

In the End

I think in the end we can see the similarities between the three, very disparate, fields of study concur. While the terminology is different, the effects appear to be the same. At the most basic level of haunting, a residual, and the paranormal activity is merely an imprint, a recording of past events that does not interact with the human world. At the other end of the spectrum, the intelligent haunt will and can interact with its environment and the inhabitants therein, but, and I apologize to the rude lady, they’re still not the soul of our dearly departed, but just a more complex or more completed copy of the departed’s personality. Having said that, hauntings are still enormously fascinating to investigate. Best case scenario, the careful investigation of hauntings may lead us to a better understanding of the human condition, consciousness, and the extension of life after death.

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