arbitary sign: We know the meaning of a sign without considering other
cognitive dissonance: Theory that, when faced with contradictory information
or viewpoints, the mind seeks out messages that confirm choices or
verdicts previously reached.
communal recreation: Urban legends that are changed in the re-telling.
icon: A sign that, through frequent repetition, gains a central position
in the communication systems of the culture and thereby acquires rich
and relatively stable connotations.
liminal: Derives from Latin, and means 'boundary' or 'threshold'.
metonymy: The use of an object to represent the person or organisation
which uses it.
motif: A traditional narrative unit, such as character, object or
action that serves as a building block of folk stories of all kinds.
mythopoetic: Myth-making imagination.
transcendent function: Archetypal process that mediates opposites
and enables a transition from one attitude or condition to another.
It arises in an attempt to understand the elusive meaning of images.
It has a healing effect by bridging consciousness and the unconsciousness.
transference: Projecting emotions onto the environment or other people.
spaces of transition:
new light on the haunted house
'Your house is your larger body.
It grows in the sun and sleeps in the stillness of the night;
and it is not dreamless.'
Kahlil Gibran The Prophet
What I hope to do in this article is question, as a 'ghost hunter',
how we interpret ghosts and more specifically the 'haunted house'.
I do not profess to have any answers, but hope to open up a subject
that has remained on the fringes long enough. Respected psychical
researcher A.D. Cornell is more than aware that we need to take a
new look at ghosts and hauntings. At the 1997 Fortean Times UnConvention
he said: 'You have got to put forward ideas, it's no good taking a
safe line all the time in case you get criticised' (Cornell 1997).
For too long now most psychical researchers or, as the tabloid press
still insists on calling us, 'Ghost Busters' have concentrated on
the 'nuts and bolts' approach to hauntings, with the use of various
pieces of recording equipment with, it must be said, very limited
results. What has been overlooked in the past has been the cognitive
aspects of hauntings, and that is because the haunted house still
remains the domain of the amateur investigator, while the professional
parapsychologists are more concerned with repeatable psychokenesis
and extra-sensory perception experiments in their ivory towers, which
is a shame because with their help we have a greater chance of reaching
a better understanding of hauntings. The 'Ghost Hunters' also do not
seem to be coming up with the goods, as it were, tending instead to
stick with the same old beliefs in 'spirits' or 'place memories'.
UFOlogists and folklorists are opening new avenues of research.
Every community in every corner of the world has a 'haunted house',
a building that has become a strong cultural icon both within our
conscious and subconscious minds. Novelist and folklorist Andrew Lang
observed that haunted houses 'have been familiar to man ever since
he has owned a roof to cover his head' (Lang 1897). The haunted house
as a traditional folklore narrative motif has long been recognised.
If we look at the haunted house from a folklore/psychological angle
we can begin to see that it represents an arbitrary sign within the
collective unconscious of the community. Its metonymy transforms the
house, in the eyes of that community, into a modern representation,
all be it in bricks and mortar, of a sin eater. It begins to take
on and absorb the fears and concerns of that community. In extreme
cases, where a violent murder has been committed in a house, that
building may become derelict or, in the case of Cromwell Street, Gloucester,
local and national feeling demands that all trace of the building
should be destroyed, reinforcing I believe the very real and strong
reactions and beliefs we have about houses. The possible act of cognitive
dissonance applied to the local haunted house may also reinforce psychological
theories about our feelings and views of ourselves and the world around
us. But this belief, a form of internal projection, in effect brings
about a communal re-creation of that internalised belief and may even
haunted houses – transferring tensions
As a psychical researcher I come into contact with many cases of haunted
houses. The archetypal haunted house may very well be a council house,
and indeed many are, but by the same token many are not. These cases
are not confined to any one social class or structure and there are
common motifs in all these cases. One case which comes to mind concerned
a family who lived in an affluent suburb of Birmingham. The recurring
phenomena which they reported occurred at night, and involved the
mother and daughter hearing footsteps walk across the patio at the
rear of the house, then enter the house (no doors were heard to open)
and then walk up the stairs and stop outside the teenage daughter's
bedroom. Upon investigation no one was there. The family made discreet
enquiries with the neighbours about the history of the house. They
were told that no one ever stayed long there.
When I visited them it was clear that the present occupants believed
that a past resident, who they believed had died in the house, was
responsible for the phenomena. These occurrences, they believed, had
apparently also been experienced by previous occupants of the house
– with the result that no one ever stayed long in the property. An
hour in the local records office soon showed that, despite what the
neighbours had told them, a normal number of families had stayed in
the house over a reasonable period of time and, even though past occupiers
may have died, there was no evidence to suggest that they had died
in the house. This I feel illustrates the point: faced with apparently
unexplained phenomena the family believe that the only explanation
can be the 'spirit' of a past resident who died in the house. Their
belief is reinforced by neighbours who appear to have 'invented' a
history of the house.
Even when faced with such contradictions the family were convinced
that a death must have taken place in the house. As Peter Rogerson
has pointed out, 'To the new occupant, the "incomer", the haunted
house has a "history" or a "reputation" in a personal, almost sexual
way. The house is not a "virgin". It has been violated by the presence
of other human activity... ' (Rogerson 1987). And while we cannot
say with any certainty that the family in question had any problems,
certainly no more than 'normal' families anyway, their neighbours
certainly seem to have projected their concerns onto the house. The
house had become a sort of psychic scapegoat. We can then get entangled
in a chicken and egg situation. Rumours that a house is haunted could
lead the family to turn normal 'bumps' and 'bangs' into a tormented
'spirit', and before you know it the entire family is convinced the
house, which prior to the rumours everyone was happy to live in, is
I investigated a similar case some time ago. Again the occupiers were
concerned that someone had died in the house, and that their 'spirit'
was responsible for the phenomena experienced. Despite the scientific
research undertaken along with other members of Parasearch which strongly
indicated that an electromagnetic phenomena was responsible for the
experiences in the house, the occupiers still desperately believed
that a supernatural explanation was more probable. This case also
illustrates a very important, and an often overlooked aspect of hauntings.
The family in question have since moved house, and now live in a small
rural community. Both parents have since developed a healthy attitude
to ghosts and are now both actively involved in various aspects of
healing. After enduring what they have described as a living nightmare,
the family has emerged stronger for it. Psychologist Julie Milton
has also found similar cases which show that a more positive outlook
on life and any possible life after death is also shared by some witnesses
to the paranormal (Milton 1992).
An obvious motif that emerges in most cases is the apparent link between
hauntings and poltergeists and children going through puberty and
family problems. As Gauld and Cornell have observed, 'The most common
themes in the resultant diagnosis have been repressed aggression and
tensions within the family... This consideration provides substantial
evidence for the view that poltergeist phenomena not uncommonly express
emotions and emotional conflicts denied access to the agent's ordinary
stream of consciousness' (Gauld and Cornell 1979). These sentiments
have been shared on the other side of the world by Brazilian researcher
Andre Percia De Carvalho 'Apparent paranormal occurrences are always
reported near the high points of crisis in a disturbed environment' (De
Carvalho 1992). Although we do not as yet have enough data to make
any concrete statements, I am at this point tempted to speculate,
from various observations I have made, that along with these factors,
we are also dealing with frustrated and suppressed creative tendencies,
the frustrations from which, due to increased external and internal
factors, can be projected onto the immediate environment.
The stress involved in a case, particularly a poltergeist, may also
occasionally lead the witness to become 'actively' involved without
being aware of it. Such an observation was made as long ago as 1938
by Dr Nandor Fodor. His most celebrated case involved a 35 year old
housewife who he called Mrs Forbes who appeared to be at the centre
of a poltergeist outbreak. Fodor soon came to suspect that Mrs Forbes
was responsible for the poltergeist activity. The turning point came
while they were out walking one day. Quite suddenly, and without warning,
Mrs Forbes opened her handbag, took out a small stone and casually
threw it over her shoulder. When Fodor questioned her about it afterwards,
she indignantly denied having done such a thing. Significantly Mrs
Forbes seems to have been at least half-aware of what she was doing.
In the aftermath of the stone throwing incident she told Fodor 'Sometimes
I feel that I am not here, that I am not really alive. It seems to
me as if another person has taken control of my body... Last Monday
my cat had an accident . . . I have a horrible feeling that I did
it without knowing... ' (Fodor 1958). It is difficult for those who have not lived
in a haunted house to appreciate the emotions and stress involved,
so is it any wonder that the witness finds it easier to believe that
'spirits' are involved rather than something much more closer to home.
But we should not be surprised at these deeply rooted beliefs in the
haunted house and spirits. In the ancient world it was a common belief
that every dwelling had its own spirit or genius loci that was honoured
and respected. Neglecting to honour and make offerings to these guardian
spirits of the home would almost certainly result in havoc breaking
loose. What we would today classify as poltergeist activity was in
the past often attributed to the fairies (Bord 1997). Today we consider
ourselves far too civilised to believe in fairies and goblins, but
the belief in spirits is obviously far too deeply rooted. So far I
have yet to come across a case where the occupiers thought that their
house was haunted by an elemental spirit.
haunted houses – universal symbols
The acquisition of a house has become a symbol of power, and an important
rite of passage in our culture. It shows we are ready to stand on
our own two feet and face the world and its responsibilities. The
acquisition of land has always been a potent image often relating
to supernatural powers and feats of strength, whether it be through
the traditions of carrying fire round the perimeter of the land or
the well known ox hide myths. Peter Rogerson may be right when he
says that the council house is today's archetypal haunted house, and
offers a tantalising explanation that this is due to a lack of bonding
between occupier and the property simply because as a council house
it belongs to someone else. Maybe our houses are haunted because we
have lost touch with them, not in a physical sense, but in a deep
spiritual sense. Author and researcher Nigel Pennick has suggested:
'The personality of a house, expressed by its name is denied by numbering.
It is reduced to an object, defined only in terms of its relationship,
spatial or otherwise, to other objects classified similarly. Its character
is no longer recognised' (Pennick 1993). This interaction between
memory, emotion and home has been explored by the artist Pam Skelton
'We construct a sense of who we are, what our identity is, through
our recollections of places and people – ghosts and symbols from the
past which haunt us both in the present and the future' (Skelton 1990).
You only have to look at reports of recent legal battles between once
friendly neighbours over boundary disputes to see how entrenched these
This interaction is not only confined to our perception of the house
but to how we perceive ghosts. As Bob Trubshaw has outlined elsewhere, our attitudes to ghosts, from classical Greece to Victorian
England means that to each generation ghosts appear for a variety
of reasons and purposes. An audience in classical Greece, familiar
with vengeful spirits would scarcely comprehend the 'Grey Lady' as
she flits through Victorian graveyards (Finucane 1982). Our own sensibilities
and constraints of the Victorians have not only silenced us but our
ghosts as well. Death within popular Western culture is seen as a
contamination. Our denial of death reached a peak with the Victorian
era. But within Indo-European creation mythologies the act of death
inevitably leads to life. The sacrifice of the primordial god leads
to the formation of the world (Stone 1996). Even today anthropologists
have documented tribal cultures that believe that the ancestors have
power over the living and can endow it with fertility (Children and
Nash 1997). In traditional cultures, the cosmos, temple, house and
human body are all linked (Trubshaw 1997). This means that we are
intrinsically linked in a supernatural relationship with the land
that the house is built on.
From the annals of folklore an intriguing aspect of this symbiotic
relationship between death and houses can be glimpsed in the customs
and superstitions still centred around screaming skulls. These are
either actual human skulls or carved stone heads which have been kept
in a property or passed down through the family, and which occupy
a specific place in the house. Removal of these 'skulls' often leads
to screaming and other poltergeist type activity until the 'skull'
is returned (Clarke and Roberts 1996). The location of these 'skulls'
and other ritual artefacts, in geomantic weak spots, such as windows,
over doors and chimneys is said to keep away unwanted ghosts (Lloyd
1997). So here we glimpse archaic vestiges between house, spirits
and death, traditions which, even though greatly diluted, are still
an important and deep rooted aspect of modern culture in the form
of those who believe their house is haunted. How many people do you
know whose attitude would change if you told them that a person had
died in the chair which they were sitting in or the bed in which they
slept? That chair or bed suddenly takes on a new meaning. It is viewed
differently. It is still a chair or a bed, but it has now taken on
a liminal quality, it has a symbiotic link between the living and
the dead. And as we have seen, in extreme cases such as Cromwell Street,
that relationship cannot be tolerated.
As we can see from any good ghost story, ghosts are always perceived
to occupy liminal areas, such as crossroads, graveyards, moor land,
and, as we have already seen, liminal objects are associated with
death (Trubshaw 1995). I am also intrigued by the many reports I have
come across and the observations I have made, where ghostly apparitions/presences
have been encountered on everyday liminal thresholds such as doorways.
Some of these experiences may be deeply rooted in Neolithic superstitions
about doorways and death (Children and Nash 1998). Once again as Peter
Rogerson has perceptively pointed out 'Ghosts, haunts and polts then
are the signs of the Liminal zones between being and not being' (Rogerson
haunted houses – dreaming the sacred
The developments between consciousness research and 'earth mysteries'
has led to 'Project Interface', the latest phase of the Dragon Project,
which was established in the 1970s to research so-called 'earth energies'
at ancient sites. This new phase has centred around volunteers sleeping
and dreaming at selected ancient sites to see if any transpersonal,
site specific motifs will emerge which can shed new light on these
sites (Devereaux 1994). Now this raises an interesting point. By the
simple act of defining some areas as 'sacred sites' what we are in
fact doing is saying that some sites are not 'sacred', we are taking
the sacredness away from the land and our lives (Trubshaw 1991). What
makes some locations any more sacred than another is not the primary
concern here. However it is an interesting possibility that the research
by Paul Devereux suggests strong correlations between stone circles
and geological faulting (Devereux 1982) may be applicable to cases
of hauntings. Dr Michael Persinger has also done a great deal of work
linking geomagnetism, altered states of consciousness and anomalous
phenomena (Persinger and Lafreniere 1977), and we must not overlook
the influence of man made electromagnetic fields on the human mind
(Budden 1994; 1995).
If the work of Project Interface tells us anything about sacred sites,
could this research be applied to the study of haunted houses? One
of the underdeveloped areas of parapsychological research is the interaction
of human consciousness at haunted locations. Writing in the 1920s
Jung made a pertinent observation: 'One of the most important sources
of the primitive belief in spirits is dreams' (Jung 1982).
I ask this question simply because a few months ago I came across
the following case of a haunting, in which one of the witnesses was
having vivid dreams, dreams which only occurred in the house, never
while she was away. In the dream the dreamer is woken by a knock at
the front door. She opens it, and is greeted by her recently dead
brother who was killed in a car crash. He tells her that he was 'hoovered
up' after the accident, taken to the top of a tall tree, put back
together again, and has come to give her a message. A strange aspect
of this already strange dream is the fact that the dead brother has
no skeletal structure. The dream ends when he opens his eyes, revealing
nothing but blackness, at which point the dreamer screams and wakes
If we look beyond the obvious personal and emotional aspects of this
dream we can begin to possibly glimpse some transpersonal details
with strong shamanistic elements. The being taken up to a (world)
tree, the putting back together, the supernormal powers (no skeletal
structure), and a message for the living, are all apparent in shamanic
practices (Kelly 1996 and Eliade 1989). But this is just a dream,
and so tends to get over looked by most psychical researchers, which
is a shame, because I have a hunch that here is the key to unlock
a Pandora's box of answers. Jung had similar thoughts: '... the
primitive speaks of spirits, the European speaks of dreams... I
am convinced that if a European had to go through the same exercises
and ceremonies which the medicine man performs in order to make the
spirits visible, he would have the same experiences. He would interpret
them differently, of course, and devalue them... ' (Jung 1982).
Maybe in cases of haunted houses we can glimpse the emergence of a
much neglected strand of shamanistic experience. After all, if we
placed these experiences within any other context than a modern Western
one, dreams and visions of 'spirits' was the domain of the shaman.
If this dream had occurred at a stone circle, burial chamber or holy
well we would all be jumping up and down, excited and expectant at
what it would tell us about our relationship with sacred sites. But
this dream occurred in a council house in a suburb of Birmingham,
and as we all know, these are not sacred sites . . . are they?
haunted houses – healing the haunted
Haunted houses certainly have a lot to tell us. H.H. Price, Professor
of Logic at Oxford University and past President of the Society for
Psychical Research, seems to have been aware that when investigating
ghosts and hauntings we are faced with a dual problem: '. . . neither
mental or physical, but betwixt and between" (Price 1953–6). Very
few cases show any evidence of direct, conscious hoaxing. The majority
of cases are reported by genuine people who are struggling to come
to terms with what they have experienced. They are more often than
not scared by these experiences and are confused and a little embarrassed
at talking about them. It is up to psychical researchers, psychologists
and folklorists to help people in this situation to come to terms
with their experiences. It is certainly tempting to engage in what
Jung would have called the Transcendent Function in cases of hauntings
in an attempt to bridge the conscious and the unconscious minds with
the 'spirit of place' of the house through its mythopoetic projections
in an act of self healing. Whether we realise it or not, myth has
a key role to play in unravelling the enigma of the haunted house.
'Myths recount the actual workings of the supernatural, and because
they do so, whenever they are retold or re-enacted, they are deemed
to release or set in operation that supernatural activity... Myth
preserves a sense of the sacred. If a society has no use for the sacred
it will probably have no use for myth either, except perhaps as a
euphemistic term for indicating what it takes to be a lie' (Sykes
As I stated at the start of this article, this is in no way intended
as a cohesive argument for a well-packaged theory, but rather the
musings of one ghost hunter who – after countless long cold nights
in haunted castles, pubs, factories, manor houses, council and private
houses – feels that it is about time we made a move and followed the
suggestion of A.D. Cornell quoted at the beginning of this article,
and put forward new ideas. Most paranormal investigators will resist
this, but that is no surprise for new ideas are seldom liked or encouraged.
When investigating ghost/haunting experiences we have to remember
that we are dealing with human experiences. We have in the past I
feel, overlooked the human element in all this in favour of the apparent
non-human. There is certainly a lot to be said for physical readings
and measurements with scientific equipment in cases of hauntings,
and I would be the first to champion that line of research, but also
we have to be careful that we do not neglect the other, more cognitive
aspects of these cases and what they may tell us about the world around
us and more importantly, about ourselves.
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Originally published in At the Edge No.10 1998.
copyright © David Taylor 1998