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Hawking ‘Ghosts’ in Old Louisville

Column

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 42.2, March / April 2018


David Dominé is author of a series of three books (2017a; 2017b; 2017c) offering, in turn, “Ghosts”—and “Phantoms” and “Haunts”—“of Old Louisville.” Do they indeed present “True Stories of Hauntings” and even “the possibility of supernatural phenomena” (as the publisher suggests in book-jacket blurbs)? Dominé asks, “Do I believe human beings experience strange phenomena that cannot be explained away by science and coincidence?” He answers: “Most assuredly. I have experienced activities myself that—apart from sheer imagination or happenstance—could only be attributed to something beyond ordinary human understanding.”

Then again, in one of the most self-contradictory prefaces I have seen, he talks out of the other side of his mouth, stating that his “stories” are “for entertainment purposes only.” Indeed, “Don’t ask me to justify my accounts of hauntings in this book, and don’t tell me that you don’t believe in the supernatural, because—truth be told—I don’t care.” Yet again, he states, “I just want to present a story that defies explanation.” Yet he habitually treats the “unexplained” as evidence of the paranormal—a form of faulty logic called “an argument from ignorance” (Dominé 2017c, 6–10; Nickell 2012, 269).

But let us take a look at some of Dominé’s intentionally spine-tingling accounts—keeping in mind that he often changes the names of his informants and admittedly uses “artistic license” to improve the narratives (2017a, 7). One gets the impression he does not even want the tales to be examinable.

Specter of Light

In Dominé’s very first offering, a man left work at the historical society after an exhausting fourteen hours. He was so tired that he skipped his usual walk and got into his car parked in front of a church. Laying his head back on the seat rest, he soon “noticed a strange light” that he then perceived as “a beautiful woman.” He would later recall her outdated hair and clothing in remarkable detail. Although he sensed she was otherworldly, the vision seemed real. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, he was overwhelmed by a sense of sadness she projected, and then she vanished. He thought he might have imagined her but decided otherwise (Dominé 2017a, 17–31).

The ghostly vision is, in fact, a textbook example of a “waking dream”—known scientifically as a hypnagogic experience (Mavromatis 1987). It occurs in the state between being fully awake and asleep, and it has features of both. The subject’s extreme tiredness is telling, along with the strange imagery. A common aspect of hypnagogia is suggestibility, and the subject’s prior hours of immersion in history may have been a factor, as may have been an apparent local legend of “the Lady of the Stairs.” Invariably, those having a waking dream insist on the reality of their experience (Baker and Nickell 1992, 130, 226–227).

Demonry?

In the 1940s, a young World War II veteran had a series of bizarre experiences in his apartment in the old women’s infirmary on South Sixth Street. Nothing happened for the first three months he lived there, but then enough hell broke loose for him to summon a priest. The events began one night when he was tired and ready for bed. As he brushed his teeth, he heard music from the radio and, thinking he had misremembered turning it off, he checked—only to find it was turned off. He still heard music, even when he pulled the plug from the outlet, and he heard “the apparent hiss and crackle of static.” He also had an experience with a lamp that he could not turn off. Lying in bed he heard moaning and sobbing but, oddly, did not get up to investigate. Such experiences plagued him for weeks—always at night—and on occasion he saw both the radio and lamp levitate before him while a fog gathered. On one occasion, “Immobilized, he stared at the objects in the air before him and gulped for air, afraid he might suffocate. …” And then the spell subsided. The events continued even when the priest came to exorcise the demonry, though he was “apparently unperturbed” during the moaning and gathering fog. Finally, normalcy returned, and the man lived on there without incident for nearly two years (Dominé 2017a, 75–86).

The subject’s bizarre experiences have numerous features in common with hypnagogia: the tiredness, the elements of mist and luminosity together with auditory effects (including music and “crackling and snapping noises”) and visions (which can be of great variety and include the movement of inanimate objects); one notes also the onset of sleep paralysis (he was “immobilized” and felt he “might suffocate”), a corroborative factor. (The inability to move is due to the body being in the sleep mode.) Taken together, the effects indicate a series of hypnagogic experiences (Mavromatis 1987, 14–35, 81; Baker and Nickell 1992, 130, 226–27; Nickell 2012, 352–354). I suspect the priest (who reportedly shared one vision) humored the subject, as has been done in untold cases.

Disembodied Footsteps

One night early on, Dominé hightailed it out of his own abode, the historical Widmer House, when he encountered—well, what were those creaking sounds? They seemed to him like the footsteps of “an invisible visitor”—there on the old steps (“Someone is coming down the stairs!”), and then beside the bed where he lay with his two miniature schnauzers: at once “a loud groan from the floorboards,” then “a long moaning squeak that ended with a loud pop.” Soon—the tension mounted—the sound came from the other side of the bed, and, he says, “I literally flew out of bed.” Well, he doesn’t mean literally “literally,” but he and the two dogs—i.e., three scaredy cats—were out of there in a trice (Dominé 2017a, 34–47).

Dominé is at pains to convince us his place is haunted, even while maintaining he is “hopeful that something logical would explain the weird noises.” He reports asking his workmen if their recent sanding of the floors or the warmer weather might be responsible, but they were rather skeptical. In fact, old houses, especially, can creak and pop, due either to settling of the structure or to the fact that wood frame houses expand and contract when the temperature changes—becoming cooler for example during the night, just as he experienced (Holton 2014). Settling of the house might well be suggested by other phenomena there: occasional loud noises, plaster dropping from the ceiling, and pictures falling off the walls (Dominé 2017a, 37–38).

At a Séance

Dominé seems especially unprepared when an alleged spiritualist medium invites him to midnight séances at the old Spalding Mansion. Calling herself “Amber” but declining to give a surname, she seated Dominé and others at a large table in the dining room illuminated only by a flickering candle. After various blessings and an invocation to her “spirit guide,” she placed on the table a small vase into which was stuck a white feather somewhat taller than its container. As she asked questions of some alleged spirit, the feather rose, hovered, and fell to indicate yes, remaining motionless for no. Laboriously, by beginning with the letter A and proceeding letter by letter through the alphabet, the entity could also spell out words, including its name: once that of a possible house owner, another time the words, “MY NAME IS DARKNESS.” On one occasion the plume sailed up and out of the vase! Still, without mentioning the possibility of trickery, Dominé states he had “seen enough” and would simply chalk up the strange happenings to “the unknown.”

How convenient. In fact, séance tricks have been common throughout the history of spiritualism, especially wherever dark rooms were used. The mystic-feather feat is easily accomplished with the aid of what magicians call an invisible thread. Indeed, corroboratively, when the medium’s feather once leapt from the vase it “landed on the table in front of her” (not to the left or right or away from her), just as if it had been pulled in her direction (Dominé 2017b, 21–41). Using my magician’s background and extensive study of spiritualist methods (including sitting in many séances, often undercover), I have exposed fake “spirit precipitations” (images supposedly materialized on cloth), billet readings, and many other mediumistic phenomena (Nickell 2012, 94, 217–218, 219–221, 287–290).

Ghost Hunting

We are treated several times to the antics of so-called ghost hunters, who employ various gadgets on the supposition that they detect ghosts. That involves finding electromagnetic energy (supposedly somehow connected with ghosts), or taking photos (sometimes, for instance, showing “orbs”), or recording ghostly murmurings called “electronic voice phenomena” (or EVP), and so on. Some utilize “psychics,” who report their feelings or visions or who employ dowsing rods or other means to “communicate” with spirits (e.g., Dominé 2017a, 171, 179–182; 2017b, 110–111, 141–143; 2017c, 126–127, 144–145).

In fact, none of these methods has ever proven to have detected a single ghost. Sources for electromagnetic fields, for example, are as ubiquitous as faulty electrical wiring, radio waves, microwave emissions, solar activity, electrical thunderstorms, and many other influences, including the hapless seekers’ own electronic equipment! EVP “voices” typically represent the tendency to hear apparent words in random sounds, such as background noise, or perhaps unrecalled actual voices of the crew. (Other alleged phenomena, including “orbs,” are discussed in the next two sections.) Much “ghost” activity is attributable to pranks and—deliberately or inadvertently—to ghost hunters themselves (Nickell 2012, 146, 259–280, 309–312).

Mystic Motions

One of Dominé’s informants discovered that a ghost had twice made her bed for her! Oh, sure, she first thought it was her roommate, Sarah, but then the two consulted spirits via Ouija board. When they asked who made the bed, the pointer spelled “I D-I-D”—not S-A-R-A-H as expected (2017a, 100–101). Surely Sarah would not play pranks! Besides, a local “psychic” at another “haunted” abode was reportedly able to detect “spirit energy” using a pendulum. The psychic employed it, she said, “to measure the energy around us.” Dominé gushes, “Suddenly, the suspended object seemed to start swinging on its own, back and forth, and then around in long, lazy arcs.” “Oh yes,” said the psychic, “there’s a lot of good energy here” (2017b, 63–65). Some psychics use a pendulum to supposedly communicate with a ghost, using specified movements to answer “yes” or “no.”

Such mystical motions—when they are not deliberate—are known to be caused by the psychological phenomenon called the “ideomotor effect”: when one concentrates on an expected movement, unconsciously the muscular system carries out the action. This explains the movement of the Ouija planchette, the swinging of dowsing rods and pendulums, and the activity of the once-popular spirit phenomenon known as “table tipping.” The noted British physicist Michael Faraday explained the latter phenomenon in 1853 using simple experiments (Christopher 1970, 115–123). When knowledgeable investigators use proper safeguards to eliminate the ideomotor effect with the Ouija board, for example—say, when the operator is properly blindfolded—“only gibberish is produced” (Randi 1995, 169–170).

Fauxto Ghosts

Ever looking for “ghost” phenomena, Dominé thinks he may have seen—and in some instances made—photos of ghosts. In Ghosts of Old Louisville, he describes a photo with “what appeared to be the shadowy figures of a young child leaning forward on the window sill and an old woman in a nightgown standing behind.” His friends could see them too (2017a, 174–175), but what is really mysterious is that he does not print the picture for us to see. He does show four snapshots from a couple’s New Year’s Day parties containing strange bright, blurry shapes that impressed a “psychic” and two photo “experts” who could not explain them (2017a, 170–177). Again, he himself captured what are known in ghost-hunter parlance as “orbs”: “Many believe them to be actual ghosts or spirits in the spherical forms of light” (2017c, 144–145).

Actually, the “shadowy figures” described in the first photo are consistent with simulacra—the result of one’s ability to perceive images in random shapes (like seeing pictures in clouds or inkblots). Known as pareidolia, this is a neurological-psychological phenomenon by which the brain interprets vague images as specific ones—commonly as people (such as the “man in the moon”). The second phenomenon—the blurred, whitish shapes—result from the camera’s flash rebounding off some intruding object—commonly part of the photographer’s hand or, in these instances, the bunched camera strap (I can even make out the scalloped edge of the braiding). As to the “orbs,” they result from particulate matter in the air (dust, lint, water droplets) being close to the lens and bouncing back the flash (much as the camera strap did). I have made many of these in both still photos and videos, even creating and observing and photographing the effect in progress (Nickell 2012, 351, 128–129, 301–306).

Poltergeists

The poltergeist (German for “noisy spirit”) is alleged to cause various ghostly—if usually mischievous—disturbances. Just such a pranking specter—dubbed “Sally”—is said to haunt the old Ferguson Mansion (home to the Filson Historical Society.) The phenomena attributed to a resident poltergeist include books that unaccountably fall from shelves—usually singly and when someone walks by. However, a researcher reportedly saw a book that “hovered in the air” before falling, followed by another and another until the shelf was emptied. Again, “a huge letter S” was discovered, laid out on a rug in the center of a room with books “from the surrounding shelves.” And once, into a researcher’s unattended notebook, the presumed poltergeist’s autograph appeared: “In an elegant, flowing script, Dominé tells us, “a feminine hand had written the name SALLY.” (Dominé 2017c, 21–37). Do we need more proof than this?

We do. First of all, books fall from shelves due not to spirits but to gravity. If books are placed carelessly, or if an old building settles, or if someone depresses a floorboard walking by, a book may tumble—or books, considering the domino effect. (In the case of the “hovering” book, it was seen by an impressionable researcher who had often had “creepy” feelings there. (She had worked late and “felt a sensation of pressure” in her chest—indicating the possible onset of sleep paralysis.) However, the “S” of books and the penned spirit autograph do indicate deliberate pranking. Many famous poltergeists have turned out to be human mischief makers—children or immature adults—plaguing credulous adults. I have caught several of these (Nickell 2012, 294–295, 319–341). Indeed, the researcher’s response to the spirit autograph was “to wonder if someone hadn’t been pranking me.” As she reasoned, “Maybe one of the employees wanted to perpetuate the legends of the ghost named Sally on the premises” (Dominé 2017c, 35).

* * *

The foregoing examples show how Dominé’s books foster ignorance and superstition. Moreover, they pay only occasional lip service to science while at times promoting noxious pseudoscience—and even reveal an antiscience bias. Dominé appears not to understand why science dismisses the existence of ghosts, treating the matter as one of belief versus disbelief: “To my mind,” he says, “only arrogance and lack of faith in one’s own convictions could lead so-called rational beings to discount all phenomena outside their belief systems” (Dominé 2017c, 7). But it is Dominé who is arrogant. Only someone supremely ignorant of science could make such a statement.

And how could a press that represents all of the universities in the Commonwealth of Kentucky publish such nonsense—even in an age of fake news and fake science? I suspect the motive was money (at the expense of ethics and science) that led to republishing the author’s previously published books. (They were apparently not even read by an editor so as to remove errors like “lead” for led, “aide” for aid, “queue” for cue, and so on, including—ironically in reference to a container of holy water—“vile” for vial.)

As Dominé and his press should learn, science cannot substantiate the existence of a “life energy” that could survive death without dissipating or function at all without a brain. Besides, even if such an energy did exist, and perfectly retained the form of the person it inhabited (being sometimes reported as visible), why would inanimate objects such as clothes survive as well? If the imagined energy were such that “ghosts” could glide noiselessly through walls, then why do they at other times have such heavy footfalls? The answer is that ghosts behave in apparitional dramas just as they do in dreams, memories, and imaginings, because they too are mental creations. They are evidence—not of another world, but of this real and natural one.



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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 joenickell.com.