More Options

The Ghost in my House: An Exercise in Self-Deception


Bertram Rothschild

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 24.1, January / February 2000

For a while, I (almost) believed a ghost occupied my house. Before I confess all, however, you need to know something about me. First, I'm approaching (not there yet) my dotage; second, I'm a clinical psychologist; and third, I was a skeptic well before I knew the word, much less its meaning. If asked about ESP and the spirit world, I would laugh and wonder about what kind of idiot could believe such things. The arguments I've had with believers sometimes almost led to blows, though in my later decades I decided that keeping my mouth shut was wise. But, with further maturity, I concluded that the wisest course of action would be to focus my skepticism on issues of public concern.

Here's the story: I lay in bed one evening, half dozing, with the bedroom door shut. My wife gets to bed later than I do, but sometimes she'll come in to find something and then leave, again shutting the door. You must understand: this is a decades-old pattern, one with which I am quite familiar. Well, as I lay there, I heard her footsteps approaching the door. I saw the door open with exactly the same speed as always, and it opened to the same distance as usual. I expected to hear her footsteps coming into the room, but there was no such sound. (As I write this, I realize that I did not hear her footsteps. It was an after-the-fact embellishment obviously supportive of the ghost theory.)

My first assumption was that she had changed her mind, but two considerations suggest otherwise. First, she would have closed the door, and second, there were no footsteps leading away. Okay, it wasn't her so it must have been a puff of wind. But the night was calm and no window was open. The puff of wind hypothesis dissolved.

Now in some consternation, I arose and looked for her. She was not in a nearby room, not anywhere on the bedroom level. I walked further to the little balcony that overlooks the downstairs area and there I saw her, with a bowl of cereal and thoroughly ensconced in a crossword puzzle. Although the circumstances convinced me it could not have been her, I asked. She denied having anything to do with the door that had mysteriously opened and went back to the puzzle. Although she has at times been a trickster, she would always give me a clue about her intent to tease me. Without a triumphant grin on her face, she clearly had not tried to disconcert me.

When I described the door's peculiar behavior she jokingly asked if I thought it were a ghost. I snickered at her and returned to bed. A ghost? Ridiculous. I soon fell asleep. The next morning, dozing in bed, I became aware of the noises-and she did too. One of us said: "Perhaps it was the ghost." We both laughed, but we both listened for more strange sounds. And, of course, they were there.

That evening, in the den watching television, we both heard sort of a combined clink and thud clearly indicating that some hard object had fallen to the floor. I examined the area and could find nothing to account for the sound. Were we disquieted? You bet. The noises continued over several days, and we jokingly got into the habit of evoking the ghost as explanation . . . and I started to take that explanation seriously. As a consequence, the hairs on my arms would stand up when I could not find an explanation for some sound or event.

At the same time, I resisted the "ghost" explanation and wondered about my willingness to accept the possibility. The noises, after all, were really nothing new, just the creaks and groans of the house. They had always been there, but rarely the focus of my attention. Either every house I'd ever visited had a resident ghost (possible, but surely unlikely), or house noises were commonplace, not the production of invisible spirits. But the door incident remained on my mind. I realized, finally, that my mind, operating out of awareness, demanded an explanation of the door's behavior. It wasn't the wind; it wasn't my wife. What the hell was it? I had to know; but only the ghost hypothesis remained.

Because of my training as a Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapist (REBT) I had learned to challenge the notion of demandingness. After some mental work on that I finally realized that I didn't have to know what prompted the door to open; once I achieved that, I stopped fixating on the damned (no irony intended) event. I had made the same error that humans have made since our cave-dwelling ancestors roamed the earth. When rational explanation failed to settle the matter, they invoked spirits and magical events. Any explanation would be better than chaos and, if one could invoke the spirits, it implied power over ugly reality. And we are the genetic inheritors of what worked for survival.

Albert Ellis (the creator of REBT), a highly esteemed psychologist, has suggested that human beings 1) have a strong tendency to be irrational, and 2) have a strong tendency to ignore data contrary to their beliefs. However, this can be overcome by training in critical thinking. That is the essence of his psychotherapy, teaching people how to think about their beliefs regarding reality. We need to teach our children how to think and reason at the earliest age possible, a process that should be ongoing.

No, I don't believe that a ghost opened the door, but that I had entertained the possibility continues to astonish me. Without an understanding of the event, my brain simply created a magical explanation despite my years of looking at the universe in a rational way. We all do that. Our brains fill in the blanks, and without considerable debunking effort we fall prey to such "explanations." Children do this all the time; and for many people nothing changes with age-they continue to explain events with their idiosyncratic construction of explanations that have nothing to do with reality.

When I was a child, I asked my mother to tell me how lightning and thunder are produced. She explained that clouds bumped into each other, producing a spark and noise. I won't tell you how old I was before I figured it out. But, how many more subtle explanations have I (or you) lived by, never noticing their absurdity?

If we embark on such an enterprise, educators had better anticipate a negative reaction from parents. Many parents would become enraged with children who come home and puncture their beliefs. Enraged parents become profoundly interested in their school boards, and school boards often cave in to placate them. An example occurred not so long ago in Colorado. A town put up a library with gargoyles on it as ornaments. Upset parents demanded that they be removed because gargoyles "represent the devil." Explanations of the churchly history of gargoyles did not change their minds and the gargoyles came down.

So, yes, let's see if we can't get the schools to provide some training in how to think and reason. That it will be a difficult battle is of no consequence.

(Shh! I'm trying to figure out what happens to socks that disappear in the dryer. Can it be . . . ?)