The Foot-warmer and the Fallacy

An introduction to ghosts and their contrasts.

In which the author first learns about ghosts and discovers that for something that doesn’t exist, there seem to be an awful lot of them around.

The very first ghost I ever heard of was the one that sat on my uncle’s feet.

Everybody in my mother’s family knows the story. Mum told me about it as a special treat one evening when I was small. I clearly remember her special hushed ghost-story voice and her expression of awed amusement.

The story took place when my mother was a child, in the impossibly far-off land of England where supernatural events were as common as grass. It seems that the teenaged boy who would one day be my uncle was sitting on the end of his bed one night, idly chatting to his siblings and swinging his feet, when the ghost entered.

Nobody saw it, but everybody knew that it was there. The invisible presence came in the door, crossed the room and sat down on my uncle’s feet. Everybody watched his feet suddenly press into the carpet, as though a weight had landed on them.

There was a bewildered silence. Then my uncle said politely ‘Would you mind getting off my feet?’ After a short pause, the weight lifted off his feet and the invisible presence left the room.

My mother told me this story, and others later, with no sense of irony. The episode of the foot-warmer ghost obviously tickled the family sense of humour, but there was always the absolute certainty that ghosts existed.

Raised knowing that this was so, I was amazed when I got to school and discovered that I was now expected to disbelieve in ghosts. ‘There’s no such thing,’ said all my teachers, and ‘There’s no such thing’ parroted all the students – but we still read stories about ghosts, and saw programs about them on the telly, and told each other stories about haunted houses.

This duplicity on the topic of ghosts has haunted me since childhood. We know that ghosts don’t exist, in the same way that we know the molecular weight of boron, or how many wives Henry VIII had. But ghost stories are everywhere, they fill our lives in story, book, movie, television and idle chat. There is an immensely rich folklore on ghosts that permeates nearly every human culture and age of human existence. Raising the topic at dinner parties invariably produces a good crop of stories – try it the next time you have guests. And my mother unrepentantly continues to tell anybody who will listen the one about the ghostly foot-warmer.

Carl Sagan, in his wonderful book about pseudoscience and the value of scientific thinking, The Demon-Haunted World (1997), states that around ten percent of Americans report having seen ghosts. Although this translates to an extraordinary number of sightings, Sagan logically points to the fact that hallucinations and unreliable memory are very much a part of the human condition.

On the other hand Peter Underwood, respected author, ghost hunter and President of Britain’s Ghost Club, suggests that successfully blaming ghost sightings on an error of the human mind depends on having a firm definition of what is meant by ghosts, as well as the term ‘mind’. Both concepts, he points out, are very loosely defined. Underwood also refers to the overwhelming number of ghost sightings that are reported each year, adding that many of these people are both intelligent and critical thinkers.

Contrast is an all-pervading theme in the ghostly sphere: the force of the rational versus the richness of belief. Ghosts are by nature flimsy, incorporeal creatures, yet ghost-hunters search endlessly for hard physical evidence of their existence. Folklore is full of tales of terrible, dangerous vengeful ghosts, but evidence of anybody actually being injured by ghostly means is vanishingly small. Children are taught scientific methodology in school but still suffer terrible nightmares after watching a movie about ghosts. The rise of spiritualism and the popularity of the parlour séance occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the ‘Age of Reason’ when new discoveries in science and technology caused many people to abandon their faith in the church.

A gentleman once asked witty Madame du Deffand (1697 – 1784) if she believed in ghosts. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘but I am afraid of them.’

It was the lure of contrast that eventually led me to study both folklore and science. Since the days of listening to ghost stories at Mum’s knee, I have developed both an appreciation for the immensity of the folkloric subject of ghosts, and a value for logical process and evidence. I have also taken up ghost-hunting, partly to have the opportunity to put various skills to use, and partly in the forlorn hope that one day I might get to have an experience of my own.

I have certainly learned this much: that during the day, when there is plenty of light and company, an old house or haunted building holds no mystery. It can be picturesque, beautiful or merely sad, but it requires a great deal of imagination to raise so much as a shiver. But the same place at night, occupied only by cold and patient ghost-hunters armed with torches and cameras, is full of moving shadows, whispers, odd chills and unexpected noises. Like Madame du Deffand, you don’t need to believe in ghosts to find the idea of meeting one in a dark corridor very scary.

One of my colleagues is a research scientist. She is a practical, down-to-earth energetic person, a trained observer who is capable of approaching life with a critical eye. When I told her I was going to a haunted house to try and find evidence of ghosts, she gasped in horror.

Thinking she was appalled at my pseudo-scientific activities, I quickly pointed out that I didn’t actually expect to see any ghosts, I was going for curiosity’s sake.

‘Oh, but what would you do if you did see anything?’ she asked, and added: ‘I’d find it too scary, personally’.

I have also learned that the mischievous invisible spook that sat on my uncle’s feet is only one of a multitude of varieties of ghost. There are countless definitions of what a ghost is, and countless events that are described as supernatural – ranging from vague sensory phenomena to fully-fledged solid-seeming apparitions witnessed by many people at once.

There is in fact a loose classification system that is recognised by many ghost hunters, psychical researchers and paranormal investigators: a sort of ‘spotters guide’ to ghostly visitations. In the next article, I will describe a few of these classifications, and how to recognise them. You never know – it might come in handy when you next find yourself alone in a dark place and something happens.

Ghost-hunting has opened up a sort of alternate universe that I was never aware of before. When we were told in school that some things are real and others – such as ghosts – are only imaginary, who could have imagined a life full of spiritualism, ouija boards, séances, spirit photography, Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), Disappearing Object Phenomena (DOP), ghost-hunting clubs, psychical societies, table-rapping, infra-red photography, vortexes, poltergeists and ghost conventions?

And in the face of all of this, I still often think about a roomful of teenagers and an invisible presence that mistook dangling feet for a chair. Whenever I’m perched uncomfortably in a dark haunted room, juggling camera and voice recorder and desperately trying not to nod off, I wonder if I might get lucky like my uncle. Perhaps some kindly ghost, maybe even that of my now-deceased uncle, will take pity on me and resolve a lifetime’s inconclusion by sitting on my feet.

But it hasn’t happened yet.

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© Leanne Dempsey 2002