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Catching Ghosts

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Briefs Volume 18.2, June 2008

Despite the popular antics of inept “ghost hunters,” ghosts continue to remain elusive—as if they are only productions of the imagination rather than purportedly still-living entities of a supenatural realm. Nevertheless, actively ghost hunting since 1969, I have actually “caught” a few “ghosts.”


True, in most cases I have found plausible explanations for haunting phenomena. At Mackenzie House in Toronto, mysterious footfalls had been heard on the stairs for much of a decade until, during 1972–73, I investigated and discovered the iron stairway in the adjacent building regularly was traversed by a late-night cleanup crew (Nickell 2001, 217). At various haunted inns, many apparitions have turned out to be due to the percipient experiencing a common “waking dream” (Nickell 2001, 290–292). And aboard a haunted ship, the mysterious blurring of a dead sailor’s picture whenever it was photographed was caused by its nonglare glass softly reflecting the camera’s flash (Nickell 2001, 187).

Such physical illusions are common, but they also tend to have a psychological component. Belief in ghosts caused the superstitious folk who lived at Mackenzie House to assume they heard ghostly activity. They did not stop to consider how nonphysical entities could produce manifestly physical effects. I, on the other hand, thought there might indeed have been a source for the sounds—reported by multiple earwitnesses—and I investigated by looking for the most obvious potential sources.

The effects of memory can also play a role in enhancing a reported occurrence. The fallibility of memory is demonstrated in several studies. For example, Wiseman and Morris (1995) compared paranormal believers with disbelievers by showing them videotapes featuring pseudo-psychic trickery. The believers tended to recall less contradictory information than the skeptics.

The power of suggestion is a potent force in reported hauntings. One person may excitedly influence another (or the latter may acquiesce to preserve domestic tranquility), resulting in what the French term folie á deux—the folly of two! Important also is what psychologists term contagion: the spreading of an idea, action, or the like from person to person. Thus, as a house, inn, or other place becomes thought of as “haunted,” more and more ghostly encounters are reported. At Kentucky’s Liberty Hall mansion, for example, spooky phenomena flourished during the tenure of a manager who found the “ghost” good for business but waned under the more professional direction of a subsequent curator (Nickell 1995, 49). Research by Lange et al. (1996), shows that when people are “alert” to the paranormal (i.e., given to expect paranormal events), they tend to notice those conditions that would confirm their expectations. Also, suggestion effects were more frequently associated with groups of paranormal percipients than with individual ones, indicating that groups are more susceptible to the effects of contagion. “Seeing is believing,” goes the old saying, but it may also be said that sometimes “believing is seeing.”

Flickering Lights

Figure 1. Rustic Hand Hotel in the old mining town of Fairplay, Colorado, is reputedly home to prankish ghosts. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

Figure 1. Rustic Hand Hotel in the old mining town of Fairplay, Colorado, is reputedly home to prankish ghosts. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

And then there are hoaxes. At a reputedly haunted restaurant in Georgia, various strange phenomena were reported, including lights that flickered on and off in the barroom. The bartender, whom I interviewed, was initially convinced it was the work of a spirit entity. Parapsychologists who had earlier “investigated” the site using electromagnetic field meters failed to uncover the young worker who admitted that she would sneak up to the doorway, reach for the light switch, then dart away, giggling silently. Similar pranks, minor accidents and glitches, as well as misperceptions coupled with contagion, could easily account for the phenomena reported at the restaurant.

Perception—actually misperception—can transform a hoaxed occurrence into a seemingly supernatural one. A young lady told me of an incident at her apartment in which a light was turned on and off. When I suggested she might be the victim of a prankster and related the case of the Georgia barroom lights, she at first told me she had actually seen the light switch move. On further thought, however, she withdrew that “memory” and concluded that her boyfriend was responsible. He had wanted to spend the night, she said, her tone warming as she recalled the situation, and probably faked the phenomenon so she would be frightened—just as young men used to take their sweethearts to horror features at drive-in movies to induce “snuggling.”

As related in my “Haunted Inns” (Nickell 2001, 296), I once caught such a “ghost” in action, namely a hotel desk clerk who was unaware I was looking in his direction as chandelier lights flickered mysteriously. There, as at many other places, ghosts were apparently thought to be good for business (See figure 1).

Poltergeists at Large

Such antics are the explanation for almost an entire class of physical hauntings, known as poltergeist cases (after the German term for “noisy spirit”). Typically, small objects are hurled through the air by unseen forces, furniture is overturned, or other disturbances occur—usually by a juvenile trickster determined to plague credulous adults. Unfortunately, in many instances the adults prohibit knowledgeable investigators from becoming involved (e.g., Randi, 1985). However, where such cases are properly investigated by magicians and detectives using such tactics as installing hidden cameras, using or threatening the use of lie detectors, or dusting objects with tracer powders, they usually turn out to be the pranks of children, teenagers, or immature adults.

For instance, consider a case that occurred in the summer of 1957 in Hartsville, Missouri. A nine-year-old girl was the focus of poltergeist attacks that included a flying comb, spilled water buckets, shaking laundry baskets, and other odd events. The girl told reporters she was terrified by the happenings, but a magician who visited the house to investigate concluded otherwise: he actually observed a can opener fall from its place of concealment under the girl’s arm (Christopher 1970, 145). In another case, events centered around a thirteen-year-old girl whose fingerprints were discovered on a dish she claimed the poltergeist had tossed out of a window. On Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World program, a revealing bit of footage showed a little girl slipping from bed to break an object, then scampering back under the covers. And a Tulsa, Oklahoma, poltergeist case was solved when tracer powder dusted on certain objects in the house were subsequently discovered on the hands of the plagued couple’s twelve-year-old adopted daughter (Nickell 1995, 85–88). Simply having a talk with the mischief-maker proved successful in ending many poltergeist outbreaks, whether it took the form of a police grilling or sympathetic counseling.

Such was a case I investigated with Robert A. Baker (1921–2005), a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky and author of numerous books. While I was completing doctoral work at the university, he and I teamed up to examine a number of paranormal cases, and in 1992 we published our investigative manual Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics and Other Mysteries.

Dr. Baker and I were called to an Indiana farmhouse that was experiencing a spate of haunting activity. The yard contained religious statues that may have been placed for their presumable protective value. The main percipient was the young wife and mother. Due to the various noises and prankish antics that she perceived, mostly upstairs where her children slept, she seemed at her wit’s end. Afraid for her children, she made them sleep downstairs on sofas and day beds.

We listened to her story, went through the house, and talked to each family member separately. One little boy, being rather pointedly quizzed by the sage Dr. Baker, suddenly blurted out, “You aren’t going to tell on me, are you?” No, the understanding psychologist replied, while insisting that we must nevertheless have an end to the “haunting” activity. We kept in touch with the family for awhile, and apparently the little ghost had heeded Hamlet’s imploring, “Rest, rest, perturbed spirit” (Hamlet i.v. 182).

The Shifting Pictures

Figure 2. In “Sarah’s Room,” in Ohio’s historic The Golden Lamb Inn, pictures on the wall were repeatedly found askew—to the consternation of the housekeeping staff. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

Figure 2. In “Sarah’s Room,” in Ohio’s historic The Golden Lamb Inn, pictures on the wall were repeatedly found askew—to the consternation of the housekeeping staff. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

Another supposedly haunted place is The Golden Lamb Inn in Lebanon, Ohio, whose sign proclaims it is “the oldest Inn still operating as a hotel in Ohio.” Serving travelers since 1803, it has hosted ten presidents, including John Quincy Adams, as well as notables Henry Clay, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mark Twain. In 1842, Charles Dickens refused to stay there when he learned it was “a temperance hotel,” one that did not serve alcohol (Woodyard 2000, 22, 24).

The inn is allegedly haunted by the ghost of Sarah Stubbs, a little girl whose family once managed the hotel. “Sarah” is blamed for most of the ghostly hijinks that are reported at The Golden Lamb. There is even a museum room containing a couple of pieces of children’s furniture once owned by her, along with additional period furniture, pictures, and other artifacts. The first such “Sarah’s Room” was located on the fourth floor next to the stairs. Unfortunately, guests either blocked the stair traffic as they viewed the display or else missed their footing when they glanced at it on their way downstairs. As a consequence, the exhibits were moved to a room across the hall. Reportedly, that was when the “haunting” began (Woodyard 2000).

According to a display card at the room, “Housekeepers mentioned that pictures on the wall in Sarah’s Room were sometimes crooked after being straightened the day before” (figure 2). Not surprisingly, the claim is elaborated in the Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Haunted Ohio (Woodyard 2000, 25). I wondered about the phenomenon as I prepared to check into the hotel on February 7, 2002.

I had just given a lecture on the paranormal at the University of Cincinnati, sponsored by UC Skeptics, and had dinner, so it was rather late. Local skeptics Robert Sexton and Liz Upchurch were helping me check into the original Sarah’s Room (room number 2, renamed the Harriet Beecher Stowe Room).

As I brought up the subject of haunting, the night clerk told us a secret: Sometimes, she confided, because she found the housekeeping staff so superstitious and credulous, she would slip upstairs at night and “turn the pictures” in Sarah’s Room just to “mess with” their minds.

Once again, I had confirmed the value of on-site investigating over armchair debunking. I had caught another ghost, this time at the very beginning of a stay. I have to admit, I slept especially well that night.


Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at