Phantoms wrought by crisis
The phantom at Clapham
At dusk one day in the middle of the nineteenth century, a woman and her son sat peacefully in the garden at the back of the house in Clapham, England. Nothing in their surroundings carried any suggestion of the unusual. The hour was pleasant and serene, the fading light throwing long shadows across a rolling lawn that stretched from the house to a wall and gate. Yet in a moment the lives of their family would be transformed by what they believed to be a phantom encounter.
As the two of them sat talking, the son, whose name was John, shifted suddenly in his chair and pointed at something across the lawn. "Mother," he exclaimed, "there's Ellen!"
His surprise was understandable. Ellen, the older of the family's two daughters, had been sent away to Brighton in the south of England by her parents, in hopes of dampening the ardor of an unacceptable romance. Although the girl had been desperately unhappy away from home and suitor, Ellen's mother realized that her husband would be angry over their daughter's early return against his wishes.
"John," she said to her son, "go quickly and tell Ellen to come into the house. Don't say anything to your father."
The young man started to rise from his chair, but sank down again after trying to put his weight on an ankle sprained earlier that day. "I can't run after her," he said. "You'll have to send Mary."
The mother summoned the other daughter from the house and told her to go fetch her sister. "Father shall not know anything about her coming back," the mother instructed. "We'll send her away again the morning." Mary, a young and energetic girl, ran across the lawn and through the garden gate. She hailed Ellen and was puzzled when her sister failed to respond. She called out again. Wordlessly, Ellen turned down a path that led away from the house, her dark blue cloak billowing behind her.
Mary ran in pursuit, following the path across the softly rolling countryside. At last she caught up and reached out to grasp her sister's arm. "Ellen," she said, "where are you going? Why are you -"
The words caught in her throat. She found that she was unable to take hold of her sister's arm. Her hand seemed to pass directly through the flesh and bone; she felt nothing. A terrible chill ran through her as she watched Ellen turn silently away again and recede.
Numb, the girl walked back to the garden where her mother and brother sat waiting. She told them what had happened. The mother, by now ashen, ran to her husband and repeated the story to him. He shared her conviction that some calamity had befallen their elder daughter.
The next day, their worst fears were confirmed. The previous evening, at the very hour her image had appeared at the house in Clapham, their distraught daughter had thrown herself into the sea and drowned.
The phantom encounters
Throughout history, from one end of the earth to the other, people have reported seeing apparitions, ghosts, and phantoms. Many accounts of such sightings eventually took the form of folktales. And those tales, often broadly embellished, fostered a popular impression of terrifying specters wafting like smoke through countryside and town, infecting the very atmosphere.
Often enough, an aura of evil or grim vengeance seemed to surround these phantoms. They were envisioned as chain-rattling night creatures implacably bent on redressing some injustice committed during their lifetime. That was the stuf with which to scare small children - and raise more than a few adult hairs in the bargain. It was all hair-raising, to be sure. The question of truth, however, was rarely probed deeply.
Yet that question has always hovered close to the edge of the tales. Do these apparitions have some basis in reality? Does their undubitable power as entertainment conceal more fundamental powers - forces that still lie beyond human understanding, mechanisms still to be defined? In the late nineteenth century, students of the paranormal began to collect and analyze reports of thousands of sightings and visitations. It was their conviction that apparitional appearances deserved serious investigation. One of these researches, Frederic W. H. Myers, wrote: "Whatever else a 'ghost' may be, it is probably one of the most complex phenomena in nature." That sentiment is still widely shared, and the process of gathering a body of evidence continues to this day.
The documentation is highly provocative. A large number of phantom encounters involve some sort of life crisis, most frequently the ultimate crisis of death. Quite often, the apparition seeminly makes itself known at the very moment or within a few hours of death, as claimed by the family residing in Clapham. And as with that family, the viewers, or percipients, often knew and loved the departed. In many other cases, apparitions have reportedly returned - sometimes years after death - to deliver messages to the living, to honor death compacts made in life, to seek justice, or merely to reassure loved one that all is well in the world beyond the grave.
Yet phantom appearances seem not to be the province only of the dead. Frequently, apparitions of the living have been said to manifest themselves for no particular reason and with no particular intent; people have seen their doubles, or doppelgängers, separated from the body and performing mundane tasks, entirely oblivious to the observer - or observers, for such spontaneous phantoms have on occasion been witnessed by groups of people.
And then there are the rarest of all phantom encounters, the hauntings, so designated because a specter seems to inhabit a building or locale, revealing itself over time to percipients who did not have any connection with the apparition during life. Hospitals, museums, mansions, and houses of all sorts, dilapidated or not, have been the supposed abodes of ghosts, which may take the form of humans or animals - or indeed may appear in any physical form at all, including that of long-sunken submarines or spectral armies fighting ancient battles.
It is easy, of course, to scoff at reports of encounters with apparitions. Disbelievers hold that if no case is supported by absolutely perfect evidence, then every case should be assumed to have a normal explanation; the sum of any number of zeroes, the skeptics hasten to remind us, remains at zero. The contrary view is that although each case may be imperfect, the sum of the evidence is cumulative; a single bit of thatch may be weak, but many together can make a sturdy roof.
Moreover, argue the proponents, advances in modern physics may provide an intellectual framework within which such things will be understood. Writes Dr. Christopher Pedler, a noted British physiologist and science fiction writer: "The real trouble is that people won't believe in anything they can't explain. The old rules of physics - where God winds up the system to let it run like clockwork - may produce new technical advances. But they just can't contain the new discoveries. Ghosts, for instance, may be like a footprint which some event has left imprinted in time."
Whatever the explanations may be, the investigators believe that they are gaining ground. As the well-known parapsychologist Louisa Rhine put it in 1981: "Parapsychology is the Cinderella of the sciences. The stepmother, Science, has never favored her. She got a late start and the big sisters like physics, chemistry and biology almost coldshouldered her out of recognition. It remains to be seen if any fairy prince will rescue her."
The Society for Psychial Research
There was no Prince Charming and scant encouragement anywhere in 1882, when England's Frederic Myers and a handful of colleagues organized the Society for Psychical Research in order to investigate apparitional experiences. The founding members, however, boasted impressive credentials. Myers was a well-known poet, essayist, and classical lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge. Joining him were Edmund Gurney, also a classical scholar at Cambridge; Henry Sidgwick, professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge; the tireless researcher Frank Podmore; and a number of other prominent academics, including Sir Oliver Lodge, an eminent physicist at Liverpool University, and Sir William Barrett, who was a professor of physics at the University College of Dublin.
The SPR's founders brought a healthy caution to their investigations. As the society's first official report stated: "The very last thing we expect to produce is a collection of narratives of a startling or blood-chilling character; our pages are far more likely to provoke sleep in the course of perusal than to banish it afterwards."
Still, the Society for Psychical Research attracted enormous public criticism and no little ridicule at the outset. Professor Sidgwick, the society's first president, later recalled being approached by indignant people who "did not like to see so many superior persons spending a serious part of their time on such matters, instead of writing a commentary on Plato, or studying the habits of beetles, or in some other way making a really useful contribution to science or learning."
Even those inclined to be liberal were put off by the franchise the society had outlined for itself. Wrote Sidgwick: "Some not unfriendly critics have given us to understand that if we had only confined ourselves to thought-reading and perhaps clairvoyance and similiar phenomena of the mesmeric trance, we might have had countenance; but that by taking in haunted houses and spirit-rapping and so forth, we make ourselves too absurd."
Undaunted, the society's founders were at work in earnest by the close of 1882. One of their first endeavors was to establish a committee to "make a careful investigation of any reports, resting on strong testimony, regarding apparitions at the moment of death." Another committee was entrusted with collecting existing material bearing on the history of psychical matters. "Our somewhat persistent and probing method of inquiry," noted Gurney, "has usually repelled the sentimental or crazy wonder-mongers who hang about the outskirts of such a subject as this."
The society started out by writing letters to London and provincial journals as well as to friends and colleagues requesting any information they might have on apparitional encounters. There was no lack of response; the problem was one of seeking to authenticate the reports, most of which were, at best, anecdotal recollections of past events. The investigators took as a given that human testimony is nothing if not fallible; observations may be incorrect, details sketchy, judgments biased - even when people are genuinely trying to relate the truth. The researchers applied rigorous standards to each case; whenever possible, they personally interviewed the narrator and sought out other living persons involved in the matter in order to get independent corroboration of the story.
It did not take the Society for Psychial Research investigators long to become convinced that they were on to something. As expressed in the society's first report: "The terrific quality, but its overwhelming quantity - overwhelming, we mean, to any further doubting of the reality of the class of phenomena."
Some of the cases were stunning, among them two experiences in which the percipients were unquestionably in full possession of their senses and highly unlikely to fall victim to delusions or visions. In the first incident, a Mr. Rawlinson was getting dressed in his home in Cheltenham one morning in December 1881 when he felt a powerful presence in the room. "On looking around," he related, "I saw no one, but then instantaneously (in my mind's eye, I suppose), every feature of the face and form of my old friend, X, arose. This, as you may imagine, made a great impression on me, and I went into my wife's room and told her what had occured, at the same time stating that I feared Mr. X must be dead."
Rawlinson and his wife spoke of it with growing concern several times that day. The next day, Rawlinson received a letter from X's brother reporting that X had died a quarter to nine the previous morning. Recounted Rawlinson: "This was the very time the occurrence happened in my dressing room." Rawlinson felt compelled to note that "we had heard some two months previously that X was suffering from cancer, but still we were in no immediate apprehension of his death." And he added: "I never on any other occasion had any hallucination of the senses, and sincerely trust I never again shall."
The other case was even more remarkable. The event had taken place on September 8, 1855, and it involved G. F. Russell Colt, later a British Army captain, but at the time a schoolboy at home with his parents near Edinburgh, Scotland. The family was a military one, and the eldest son, Oliver, age nineteen, was serving as a lieutenant with the Seventh Royal Fusiliers at Sebastopol in the Crimean War. Waking one night, Russell found his brother Oliver in his room; the youth seemed to be kneeling and was enveloped in a bright, phosphorescent mist.
Russell told himself that his eyes were playing trics on him; what he was seeing was nothing more than a beam of moonlight playing on a towel draped over a chair. The apparition persisted, however, "looking lovingly, imploringly and sadly at me," said Russell. It seemed so real that the schoolboy leaped from his bed and went to the window. But there was no moonlight; the night was black and heavy with rain. By now thoroughly frightened, Russell fled from the room. Looking behind him, he saw the apparition had a terrible wound on the right temple from which blood was gushing forth.
When Russell told his father, the older man snorted and advised him "not to repeat such nonsense." Yet it was anything but nonsense. More than a fortnight after the incident occurred, the family received the news of Oliver's death; he had been killed in the storming of a Turkish redoubt. Sometime after, they learned that a bullet had struck Oliver in the right temple, precisely where the wound had appeared to Russell. And there was more. Related Russell: "Oliver had then been some months before Sebastopol and had recently written to me in low spirits and evidently unwell, a letter to which I replied urging him to cheer up, adding half-facetiously, that if anything did happen to him, he must let me see him again in the old room where we had so often had ... a cozy chat at night."
In 1886, Gurney, Myers, and Podmore published what was the most ambitious piece of psychical research to date, a two-volume, 1,400-page survey entitled Phantasms of the Living. The purpose of the report, wrote Myers, was "to open an inquiry which was manifestly impending, and to lay the foundation-stone of a study which will loom large in the approaching age. "The sheer size of the work indicated the massive volume of evidence and firsthand accounts available to the psychical researchers, and the authors believed that the book banished any remaining doubts about the reality of phantom encounters. The goal, then, was to attempt to classify and understand these experiences. In so doing, the three investigators opened a debate that continues to this day.
In attempting to explain apparitions, Phantasms of the Living advanced a theory based on telepathy - a term actually coined by Myers to replace the unwieldy "thought-transference." In the cases collected in Phantasms, the authors said, they examined "the ability of one mind to impress or be impressed by another mind other than through the recognized channels of sense." In other words, the percipient might actually be recieving a telepathic signal from the apparent - the person represented by the apparition. In fact, according to this theory of telepathy, the apparent need not be present in any sense in order to be represented as a phantom. As Myers later summed it up: "Instead of describing a 'ghost' as a dead person permitted to communicate with the living, let us define it as a manifestation of persistent personal energy."
Census of hallucinations
Although this theory proves instantly controversial, there appeared to be much in favor of it. Of the 701 cases discussed in Phantasms of the Living, more than half concerned reports of phantom appearences or other impressions in which the manifestation coincided with either the death of the apparent or some other critical moment in that person's life. "On reviewing the evidence thus obtained," wrote Edmund Gurney, "we were struck with the great predominance of alleged appiritions at or near the moment of death. And a new light seemed to be thrown on these phenomena by the unexpected frequency of accounts of appiritions of living persons, coincident with moments of danger or crisis." To these cases, the SPR applied them the term "crisis apparitions," suggesting that in such moments of crisis, telepathic communications seem more likely to take place.
Phantasms of the Living proved to be only the first step in a master plan of the society - the "foundation-stone," as Myers had termed it. The next phase, which was pursued over a period of five years, was an exhaustive Census of Hallucinations, undertaken with characteristic thoroughness by Professor Sidgwick.
Sidgwick hoped to discover what percentage of the general population had experienced hallucinations that might be considered apparitional. Toward the end, he carefully developed a census question that would encompass touch - while exluding dream experiences. The question read: "Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living being or inanimate object, or of hearing a voice; which impression, so far as you could discover was not due to any external physical cause?"
The question was printed on a form that required the person being canvassed to state only yes or no and to give name, address, and occupation. Those answering yes were provided with another form on which they were asked to put down the details. Forms were circulated by 410 volunteer census collectors and drew an astounding 17,000 responses. The survey was an international one, with replies coming from Austria, Brazil. France, Germany, Italy, and Russia, along with those of Great Britain.
The result defied all expactations. Nearly 10 percent of those polled - 1,684 persons - admitted to having experienced sensory hallucinations of the kind described in the census question. The group was made up of 1,029 women and 655 men. Of the total cases reported, 1,087 were visual and 493 auditory, whereas 2 had involved the sense of touch; 129 of the phantom encounters had been experienced by more than one person.
Fur purposes of his investigation, Sidgwick defined crisis appiritions according to an arbitrary "margin of coincidence." In effect, he contended, a phantom sighted within a period of twelve hours either before or after a crisis in the apparent's life could reasonably be called a crisis appirition. Given this definition, Sidgwick's data indicated that such appiritions occured with far greater regularity than any other type of appiritional experience. As a matter of fact, the likelihood of an appirition appearing coincident with a crisis in the apparent's life proved 440 times greater than the chances of one appearing for any other discernible reason.
The accounts of apparitional experiences collected in both Phantasms of the Living and the Censuc of Hallucinations shared a number of features. A typical case was that of Mrs. Sabine Baring-Gould of Exeter, England. On January 3, 1840, Mrs. Baring-Gould sat at her dining room table reading the Bible by the light of a candle. Looking up, she reported afterward, she saw her brother, Henry, sitting at the other side of the table. The scene appeared entirely natural - except for the fact that Henry was at that time serving aboard a Royal Navy ship in the South Atlantic.
Although agitated, Mrs. Baring-Gould refused to panic, perhaps calmed by the kindly expression she saw on her brother's face. Neither one spoke, but the woman stared steadily at her brother for several moments, until his form grew dim and faded away before her eyes. Realizing what this might mean, Mrs. Baring-Gold jotted the words "Saw Henry" and the date in the flyleaf of her Bible. A month later, word came that her brother had died at sea - his death had occured at the very moment his sister saw his figure sitting across from her.
Unfortunately, there were no witnesses to the appearance of Mrs. Baring-Gould's brother. Moreover, the woman did not tell anoyone of the experience until after his death became widely known.
The case of Mrs. Anne Collyer of Camden, New Jersey, although similar in many respects to Mrs. Baring-Gould's, provided a crucial element of third-party confirmation. On the night of January 3, 1856, Mrs Collyer awoke to find her son Joseph standing in the doorway of her bedroom, staring intently at her. As in the case of Mrs. Baring-Gould, the appearance of Mrs. Collyer's son was decidedly impossible, since he was at that time in command of a steamboat on the Mississippi River, more than 1,000 miles to the west. Shocked enough to see her son so unexpectedly, Mrs. Collyer was even more disturbed to note that his face and head were terribly disfigured and wrapped in a crude bandage. He wore a dirty white nightshirt, which she did not recognize, although she later described it as looking something like a surplice.
The next morning, Mrs. Collyer related to her husband and four daughters what she had seen. Her family gave the story little credit, believing that she had simply experienced a very bad dream.
Mrs. Collyer knew better, but it was almost two weeks before the news that she dreaded finally arrived: Captain Collyer had been killed in a steamboat collision. Part of the ship's mast had fallen on him, splitting his skull. His death had occured at almost the precise moment that his mother had seen his appirition.
The case proved of particular interest to the Society for Psychical Research because of the independent testimony provided by Mrs. Collyer's husband and daughters. All attestet to the truth of her story, which she had told in detail well before her son's death became known through more conventional channels. Another of Mrs. Collyer's sons added a further detail after viewing the body: Captain Collyer, roused from his cabin in the middle of the night, had been wearing a white nightshirt, which became soiled in the collision. At the time of his death, he had been attired exactly as his mother saw him.
Not all crisis apparition cases involve intimate family members. In a more recent case that took place in New Delhi, India, a phantom appears to have manifested itself to the wrong person, even though a more likely percipient - the apparent's granddaughter - was present in the same room. These unusual instances are known to researchers as "bystander cases."
In April of 1968, Dr. Bhanu Iyengar, a college professor, was in the hospital recovering from a difficult childbirth. Though Dr. Iyengar's condition was not critical, she had developed a prolonged high fever and slipped in and out of consciousness for several days. Her friend Suman Kirti often visited during this period, sitting quietly at her bedside along with Dr. Iyengar's mother.
One afternoon, drowsy and half asleep, Dr. Iyengar opened her eyes and saw Miss Kirti's grandfather, whom she had met on one or two occasions. The old man stood at the foot of her bed with a strangely plaintive look on his face. Leaning foward, he said, "Would you not send my child home?" Dr. Iyengar assumed that her high fever had brought on hallucinations and quickly rolled over to the other side of the hospital bed, expecting that the image would vanish. It did not, however. The old man again appeared before her and repeated the same words, "Would you not send my child home?"
The feverish woman was growing excited now, but she saw by the calm expressions on the faces of the two women at her bedside that they had not seen the appirition. Frantically, Dr. Iyengar urged Miss Kirti to go home to her grandfather at once. The young woman, thinking her friend had become delirious, assured the upset Dr. Iyengar that her grandfather was fine. As a matter of fact, he was due to pick her up at the hospital within the hour. Dr. Iyengar was not mollified. Though she did not talk about what she had seen, the woman continued with rising hysteria to urge her friend to go home. Finally, a skeptical Miss Kirti agreed to make a telephone call to her grandfather. At once her skepticism turned to shock and grief: Her grandfather had passed away just ten minutes before.
This episode is seen by psychic investigators as suggestive on a number of levels. Although the two people in the hospital room who did not see the apparition provide independent verification that Dr. Iyengar had an unusual experience, the crucial question remains: Why did the supposed phantom not appear directly to Miss Kirti? Perhaps, some psychical reseraches have thorized, Dr. Iyengar's fever caused her to be in a state that was particularly receptive to hallucinations.
An even more remarkable case of bystander apparition had been reported in America nearly 150 years earlier on board a sailing vessel voyaging from Maryland to the West Indies. In this instance, the phantom not only manifested itself to a pair of complete strangers but continued to be seen repeatedly throughout what became a desperate trip, always foretelling some danger.
The incidents began just before the vessel set sail from the port of Annapolis. During the night watch, one of the sailors started calling insistently for the captain to come on deck. When the skipper finally appeared, the man told him that a woman in black had inquired after him and had then disappeared. A search of the entire vessel was made, but they could not discover any sign of the mysterious visitor. Thinking that the sailor was drunk, as was all too often the case, the captain issued a sharp reprimand to him and retired to his cabin.
Again, at about 2:00 A.M., the captain was roused by a call from the deck. The woman in black had shown herself to another sailor, this one the soul of sobriety. But once more, no sign of the wraithlike visitor could be found. By now, the superstitious seamen were clamoring to flee the ship, even offering their advance wages, so sure were they that a curse of doom had been leveled at the vessel. But the master shrugged off their entreaties and set sail next morning for southern waters.
When they were two days out on the open sea, a terrible storm blew up, with deafening thunderclaps and winds so fierce that before long the ship was running under only her main and fore-topmast stay sails. Between the hours of six and eight o'clock at night, the two sailors claimed the supernatural being again appeared before them. As she did, the gale increased in fury, and the seas swelled to mountainous heights.
Precisely at midnight, the woman in black appeared yet a fourth time. And now the winds reached hurricane velocity, churning the sea to a froth and threatening to hurl the vessel on her beam ends. For four hours, the banshee winds ripped and tore; not a shred of canvas remained aloft; the ship's boats were smashed or carried away and much of the deckhouse was in ruins. Finally, at 4:00 A.M., the wild storm suddenly died; the wind abated, the seas moderated, and the moon came out.
Nothing untoward occured during the remainder of the voyage south. But when the vessel was in Guadeloupe taking on cargo of sugar, the phantom woman in black appeared for the fifth time; the visitation was followed two days later by an outbreak of yellow fever that claimed the life of one of the crew.
When the battered vessel finally returned to her home port of Baltimore, a letter awaited the captain. His wife, who resided on Nantucket, was dead. She had passed away almost exactly the moment the woman in black first appeared before the sailor on watch in Annapolis.
An equally intriguing case, taking from the journals of the SPR, was that of Captain Eldred Bowyer-Bower, a British airman who was shot down and killed over France during World War I. At the moment of his death, his phantom was reportedly sighted by two people, both relatives, many thousands of miles apart, one of whom was in India and the other in England.
On the morning of March 19, 1917, Captain Bowyer-Bower's half-sister, Mrs. Spearman, sat cradling her baby in a hotel room in Calcutta, when she turned to see the flier standing behind her. His face, she later reported, wore a "dear mischievous look", as if his appearance was part of some youthful prank. Although the captain's presence in her room was unexpected, Mrs. Spearman was delighted to see him, having no indication that anything had gone wrong. With a brief word of greeting, she turned to put her baby in its crib so that she and Captain Bowyer-Bower could have a talk. When she turned around again, extending her arms to give her half-brother a hug of welcome, he had disappeared.
At nearly the same moment, halfway around the world in Great Britain, Captain Bowyer-Bower's sister, called Mrs. Chater, had a similarly unsettling experience. As Mrs. Chater was dressing early in the morning, her three-year-old daughter came skipping gally into the bedroom to report that downstairs she had just seen "Uncle Alley Boy," a nickname the young girl had for Captain Bowyer-Bower. When Mrs. Chater reminded her daughter that her Uncle Eldred was in France, the child stubbornly repeated that she had seen him downstairs.
Later that same day, Mrs. Chater wrote of the incident in a letter to her mother - not because she found the occurrence so remarkable but to illustrate the fact that the girl thought of her uncle frequently. Neither Mrs. Chater nor Mrs. Spearman learned of Captain Bowyer-Bower's death for several more days.
The records of the Society for Psychical Research hold yet another dramatic incident concerning a World War I British aviator, this one reported by Lieutenant J. J. Larkin. On December 7, 1918, less than a month after the armistice, Lieutenant Larkin sat writing letters in his quarters when a good friend, Lieutenant David E. McConnel announced his intention of taking a Sopwith Camel biplane out for a machinegun practice. McConnel, a rakish young pilot who made a point of wearing a navy cap with his uniform, remarked to his friend: "I expect to be back in time for tea." Then the young flier headed off for the airfield. A moment later McConnel returned to retrieve a map he had forgotten, and then was off again.
Larkin thought no more of the incident until sometime between 3:15 and 3.30 in the afternoon, when McConnel burst into the room with a cheery word of greeting.
"Back already?" Larkin asked.
"Yes," McConnel replied. "Got there all right, had a good trip. Well, so long!"
With these words, McConnel slipped out of the room. At 3:45, a senior officer entered the room and said, "I hope McConnel gets back soon."
"He is back," Larkin said. "He was here a few minutes ago." Unfortunately, Larkin was unable to locate his friend then or ever. Within the hour, he came across a group of fellow officers discussing a fatal airplane crash that had happened earlier that afternoon. Slowly, Larkin realized that the dead pilot was none other than McConnel, whose death, according to all evidence, had occured at just past three o'clock that afternoon, the same time that Larkin had been speaking to him.
The incident, which was corroborated by the senior officer, is remarkable in that it was auditory as well as visual - Lieutenant Larkin apparently heard and spoke to McConnel in a manner so lifelike that he did not realize he had spoken to an apparition until he later found out about the death of his friend.
Indeed, most phantom encounters involve apparents whose habits and appearance are extremely familiar to the percipient. Consequently, some skeptics contend that many so-called apparitional experiences are really just the products of overheated imaginations - and no doubt that is sometimes the truth of the matter. A report of an encounter such as Lieutenant Larkin's, for instance, lies open to the charge that the pilot merely imagined the familiar presence of his friend, depsite the young officer's convictions to the contrary. In most instances, there is no way of obtaining foolproof evidence of the validity of an apparitional experience, and this inability remains a key stumbling block for psychical research.
Full court dress
Yet a number of cases resist much of the criticism leveled at such studies. Percipients seem to know certain exact details - the head wound suffered by Lieutenant Cold in the Crimera, the soiled nightshirt worn by riverboat captain Collyer - that many reserachers maintain could not possibly be acquired except through the agency of a genuine apparition. One such case was the famed "Full Court Dress" incident, which occured sometime in the 1830s or 1840s and was reported years afterward to the SPR.
The percipient was an Englishwoman who awoke to the sound of a loud knocking at two o'clock one morning. Going over to the window, she discovered her mother, from whom she had been estranged for a number of years, standing at her doorstep. At once the women roused her husband, but when he went to the window her saw nothing. The woman was not only convinced that it had been her mother on the doorstep, but she described in detail her mother's "full Court dress," a gown appropriate for wearing at a royal funcion.
Later the next day, the woman heard news of her mother, the first she had received in many years. Her mother had indeed been at a royal ball at Kensington Palace the previous evening, but had become ill suddenly and been rushed home - where she died at 2.00 A.M., still wearing her full Court dress.
These cases as well as the numerous others that have been collected and analyzed by the Society for Psychical Research sparked a lively and prolonged debate about the nature and substance of apparitions. One of the central points of contention - and one that is still discussed to this day - is the question of wether apparitions are physical or nonphyscial. In other words, do phantoms occupy actual space or are they purely subjective hallucinations that exist only in the mind of the percipient?
Like his colleague Frederic Myers, Edmund Gurney believed in apparitions as subjective phenomena, unique to the percipient, that could be explained only in relation to telepathy. In his opinion, the apparent is not actually present in any sense at the scene of the phantom encounter. Rather, he proposed that the percipient receives a telepathic cue from the apparent, a cue often caused by a crisis or near-death experience, which the percipient then utilizes to project an apparition.
A flaw in Gurney's theory was that it did not adequately account for the occasional occurrence of "collective phenomena," or apparitions seen by more than one person at the same time. Gurney attempted to explain these rare events by introducing the idea of "contagious telepathy," in which an apparition projected by one person might infect the minds of others so that they too see the same figure. The theory, however, was not a very convincing one, and even Gurney himself did not seem to be entirely comfortable with it.
Myers put forward a revised theory that attempted to overcome the limitations of Gurney's hypothesis. Although Myers agreed that phantoms were not physical manifestations in the strictest sense, he did contend that they occupied a physical space that he called "metetherial," a sort of fourth-dimensional field that intertwines with our own physical space. In Myer's view, this explained why some apparitions might appear to have a combination of both physical and nonphysical qualities.
The beliefs of Edmund Gurney and Frederic Myers exerted a considerable influence on the psychical researchers who followed them, including G. N. M. Tyrrell, who became president of the Society for Psychical Research in 1945. Tyrrell devoted forty years of his life to the study of apparitions, although, like his predecessors, he had a strong grounding in the physical sciences, holding a degree in physics and mathematics from London University. Throughout his long tenure with the society, Tyrrell attempted to revise and reconsider the existing apparitional theories.
In his book Apparitions, which drew on the early cases collected by the SPR, Tyrrell broke down all apparitional incidents into the four broad categories that are still generally recognized:
apparitions of the living
continual, or recurring, apparitions
He then went on to postulate the existence of layers of unconscious creative potential in the minds of apparition percipients, to which he gave the rather whimsically theatrical names of "producer" and "stage carpenter." These creative elements, Tyrrell theorized, teamed up with those of the apparent to produce a joint "apparitional drama," which Tyrrell described as "not physical phenomenon but a sensory hallucination." Any flaws in the production, such as the wrong clothing or a mixed-up setting. Tyrrell airily dismissed as nothing more than faulty stagecraft.
Nevertheless, Tyrrell's hypothesis did address many of the difficulties of the earlier theories. Some of the hard-to-explain aspects of certain apparitional experiences could be understood as the "stage-craft" of the apparitional drama. If, for example, an apparition appeared to open a door, the door did not physically open. The idea of the door opening seemed dramatically appropriate, so movement took place in a hallucination - which he interpreted as evidence of an efficient "stage carpenter."
But no single theory, however detailed, has managed to adequately explain each of the hundreds of apparitional cases examined by the society. Tyrrell's views of a subtle creative apparatus at work in both the percipient and the apparent, for example, does not seem to account for several instances of apparitional appearences by dogs, cats, and horses. Sir Henry Rider Haggard, the English novelist, reported in July 1904 a vivid crisis apparition of his daughter's prized retriever. The writer saw the dog lying motionless in a bed of reeds; it turned out that the animal had, in fact, fallen from a bridge to its death in a marshy stream.
On an even more creative level, a phantom animal was not seen but only heard. In this case, a Mr. and Mrs. Beauchamp owned a little mongrel dog humorously named Megatherium, after a species of large sloth. One night the Beauchamps were awakened to hear the sound of their pet's footsteps in the bedroom. But they could not find the animal and assumed that they had been mistaken about the sounds when they saw that the door to their bedroom was closed. A bit later, the couple was awakened again - now by their daughter pounding on the door and shouting that the dog was dying. The Beauchamps rushed downstairs to find Megatherium entangled and strangling in his collar, from which they swifty rescued him. Megatherium might have been an intelligent little dog, but this bit of dramaturgy may have been a bit beyond him.
Smiliarly, the case of Mrs. May Clerke admits of no easy explanation, even when considered in the light of the various theories. In August of 1864, Mrs. Clerke sat reading a book on the terrace of her house on Barbados when a maid approached and asked, "Missus, who was that gentle man talking to you just now?"
Mrs. Clerke replied that she was quite alone and had spoken with no one. But the maid insisted that she had seen a tall, pale young man earnestly speaking to Mrs. Clerke and had thought it odd that her mistress failed to acknowledge him in any way.
In the familiar pattern of crisis apparitions, Mrs. Clerke later discovered that her brother, a tall, pale man, had died after a short illness at just the time that the maid spotted the figure on the terrace. The maid had no apparent predisposition to witness an apparition of Mrs. Clerke's brother. In fact, she had never even met him.
Another perplexing variation in the phenomenon of crisis apparitions involves "death compacts," or agreements made between two living people that the first to die will attempt to contact the survivor. Two remarkable instances of death-compact apparitions are recorded in Phantasms of the Living. The first involves Lord Henry Brougham, a prominent figure in English civic life in the early half of the nineteenth century and a lord High Chancellor of England from 1830 to 1834.
As a young man, Lord Brougham attended Edinburg University with his closest friend, dubbed G. in the SPR account. There, the two friends fell into frequent conversation about survival of death and the immortality of the soul. The possiblity that the dead would appear to the living intrigued both men, with the result that the two made a solemn vow that the first to die would make every attempt to appear to the survivor in some form.
The two men went their separate ways after leaving the school, and over the years they lost track of each other. Eventually, Lord Brougham later admitted, he had nearly forgotten the existence of his former friend from the university. Many years later, while traveling through Sweden, he had occasion to recall his friend G. One night, as he lay soaking in a hot bath after a long day of travel, Lord Brougham glanced over at the chair where he had left his clothing and saw the figure of G. The next thing Lord Brougham knew, he lay sprawled on the bathroom floor; the apparition had disappeared.
Only upon returning to Edinburgh did Lord Brougham discover that his friend had died on the same date and the same time as the strange appearance.
Despite having made the death compact in his youth, Lord Brougham was far from an ideal percipient. Even when confronted with the sight of his old friend, and upon learning about the coincidence of the time of his death, he continued to harbor strong reservations concerning the validity of the experience. Writing in his journal some years later, he referred to the whole thing as a "singular coincidence" and speculated at length on the nature of dreams and coincidences.
A ghostly touch
Sometimes, however, the percipient of a ghostly visitor seems to be left with physical evidence of the other-wordly encounter. In 1884, for example, a Professor Romanes recorded a curious incident involving a handsome young Englishman named Griffiths, who was about to marry a lovely French girl. Chaperoned by their mothers, the betrothed pair had just spent a pleasant holiday in Italy and the south of France and were on their way home, the Griffiths to London and the French girl with her mother to Paris. On the night before crossing the channel to England, young Griffiths was awakened from a heavy sleep to hear the voice of his fiancée pleading with him in French to come instantly to her in Paris.
Griffiths then saw his betrothed coming toward him and felt her reach out to grasp his arm in her hand. An awful fright took hold of him, and the Englishman rushed to his mother's room. As might be expected, she calmly reassured him that everything was all right, and he returned to his bed. He fell briefly asleep but was soon conscious of an intense pain on his arm. Rolling up his nightshirt sleeve, he found an ugly red spot and a rising blister where his love had touched him.
Next morning, Griffiths visited a doctor, who told that he had suffered a severe burn. But that seemed impossible - and doubly so because the doctor could not find the slightest indication of fire or corrosive chemical on the sleeve of the nightshirt.
Later that day, a telegram arrived from Paris bringing news of his fiancées sudden death, following an illness of only a few hours. Some time later, Griffiths learned that as she lay dying she had called out for him in the very words he had heard in his bedroom.
Cases of such vivid physical evidence are virtually unheard of in the recent history of psychical research. For the most part, the traces of an apparitional visit, when there are any at all, are fleeting and usually purely sensory - a familiar aroma of pipe smoke, for example, or the sound of a favorite tune being whistled. But so-called somatic dramas, in which the percipient actually experiences the pain felt by the agent, have been reported.
In an incident recorded by Louisa Rhine, a woman in California awoke at 4:00 A.M. one day in 1955, convinced she was dying. She had the sensation of blood pouring from her head as if from a wound and found herself gasping and choking. As her husband helped her drink some water, the woman distinctly heard the voice of her son call, "Oh, Mama, help me." Two days later, after a doctor assured her that nothing was physically wrong with her, the woman learned that her son, a soldier stationed in Germany, had received a fatal gunshot wound to the head at exactly the time of her attack. She became convinced that what she had heard had been his death cry, and that the pain she had experienced had been his final agony.
In a similar instance at about the same time, a man preparing to go to work in New York felt himself suddenly stricken with what felt like a blow to the head, leaving him dizzy and somewhat confused for much of the morning. Only later did he learn that his mother in California had simultaneously suffered the same symptoms as the result of a blood clot in the head. After she had recovered, the mother recalled that she had cried out for her son just as the agonizing pain commenced.
These cases, both of which occured in the United States, illustrate the new directions taken by physical research in the 1950s. Following World War II, the amount of such work done in Great Britain declined considerably, while the American counterpart of the SPR, the American Society for Psychical Research, flurished.
In 1953, for example, Dr. Hornell Hart, a Duke University sociologist and an active member of the ASPR, undertook a complete reevaluation of the apparitional theories that had been formulated to date. Rejecting earlier notions of telepathic projection, Hart maintained that apparitions possessed a certain amount of independent consciousness, and taht they reacted to physical objects and people in their environment just as a normal, living person would. After years of research, Hart came to believe that apparitions represented some sort of "ultraphysical vehicle" that could be liberated from the human body at death and even during life. Hart called this the "soul body."
Dr. Louisa Rhine took a different view. In the course of amassing the largest collection of spontaneous hallucination incidents on record in the United States, Dr. Rhine came to think of apparitions as "psi experiences, or as ESP hallucinations." Her theory of clairvoyance proposed that an apparition is solely created by the percipient, based on clairvoyant impressions of the apparent and his or her situation, whether it be death, physical danger, or any other crisis. Both the Hart and Rhine theories could account for the somatic dramas experienced by the California woman and the New York man.
During the course of her work, Dr. Rhine came across a number of crisis experiences that fell into the category of death visions, or "meeting cases," also known as near-death experiences. In this type of alleged apparitional phenomenon, it is the percipient, not the apparent, who is in crisis. Often a person who is near death seems to see, or calls out to, departed friends or relatives who appear to have hastened to the borderland between life and death in order to extend a welcome. Incidents such as this one are notoriously difficult to authenticate, however, since percipients seldom linger long enough to be interviewed by a trained investigator.