What Ghost Is That?

Part One: Did You Hear That?

In which the author discusses the most common form of ghostly encounter: the Bump In The Night.

There you are, crouched over your monitor in the night. Your family are all abed and the house is settling creakily into its nightly routine of odd thumps and bangs. At your feet, the cat rests peacefully. All is right with the world.

As you enjoy the latest COSPER article, you find yourself shivering. Now you come to think of it, it has grown dreadfully cold. Must be a chilly night. You reach for a jumper but become distracted as the cat leaps up and glares hissily out into the corridor, fur bristling. You glance through the open door into the corridor, and your blood freezes as, shockingly, you encounter…

…What is that thing anyway?

Anybody who has a taste for ghost stories will know that there are hundreds of different species of ghost, ghoul and apparition haunting our folklore and our imaginations. Reported ghost encounters range from vague feelings of unease in dark places, to apparitions so solid that they can be mistaken for living people.

These differences are of particular interest to ghost hunters, who make it their business to investigate, record and classify reports of ghostly encounters. Anybody who tends to spend large periods of time waiting in deserted buildings for something supernatural to happen – and it very rarely does – has plenty of time to think about these differences and come up with a workable system of classification.

To be honest, there are probably as many classification systems as there are ghost hunters – but some categories are universal. In this article and the next few, I’ll discuss some of the most commonly recognized spooks… because I know you just won’t be able to sleep until you’ve identified that thing in the corridor.

Ghost hunters hear a lot from people who have encountered strange things and want to find an explanation. Some of these things are quite spectacular (some of them are obviously invented). But the most common type of encounter is also the least remarkable – and strangely enough, the people who report these happenings are often more frightened by them than those who have more dramatic experiences.

I’m talking about the common or garden ‘Bump in the Night’. Vague sensory happenings that can’t quite be explained easily. Sounds, temperature changes, smells, a sensation of being touched – even bad dreams. Most people, when pressed, recall at least one such experience in their lives. As individual events they aren’t that striking but they do tend to stick in the memory.

Think about it… you know what I mean don’t you? That time when you walked along that dark, quiet street and you got that creepy sensation that you were being followed. You knew that nobody was there but you still increased your pace to get out of there a little sooner. Or perhaps when you were alone in the house at night and you could swear you heard footsteps in the hall – but of course all houses make noises at night don’t they? Perhaps you occasionally wake up to the weird sensation that you aren’t alone in the room, but when you turn on the light nobody is there (the cat usually gets the blame).

Almost everybody has a spooky little story to exchange at the café or pub. They are fun stories to tell, often followed by a little laughter and the acknowledgement that of course it was perfectly rational, we all know what it’s like when our imaginations get going, best to remain skeptical really…

The story sometimes changes when several of these perfectly explainable incidents occur at once, and especially when they happen in one place over a period of time, to different people.

For example, once when I was touring a delightful castle in the UK we left one of the rooms to pause for a moment on a landing. The second I walked through the door I felt a very odd ‘thickening’ of the air. There was a sudden chill, and the room seemed to spin. I’d been traveling for a long time, and put the sensation down to insufficient sleep and perhaps one too many cleansing ales the previous night. But when the tour guide announced that this was the ‘haunted staircase’ upon which many people felt ‘odd sensations’ it did make the moment a little more memorable.

There can also be occasions when a series of otherwise explainable events happen in a way that seems to tell a coherent story. Is it coincidence, or evidence of a real haunting? Something like this happened during another tour I attended, a night tour of an old homestead in Tasmania.

It was a very windy night and there were plenty of spooky bumps and howls to add to the atmosphere of the lantern-lit tour. At one point we were in an upstairs room when we distinctly heard the downstairs door open and close, followed by unmistakable footsteps coming up the stairs and towards the room we were standing in. Our tour guide was half-expecting a colleague to appear at some point in the evening, so she turned expectantly to the door to welcome the newcomer – but of course nobody was there. Was it just the wind blowing the door and making the staircase creak? Most likely – but how odd that the door was still bolted shut when we observed it a moment later. The tour participants put it down to our imaginations – as we huddled over strong, calming drinks at a pub afterwards.

A skeptical reader will observe that in both of these situations there is a strong likelihood that we were half-expecting something spooky to happen, so were far more likely to interpret any event, no matter how innocent, as paranormal. This is very possible! Most ghost hunters are aware of peoples’ tendency to interpret events in terms of their own cultural, spiritual and superstitious upbringing. If we are in a place that has a spooky reputation, or just a creepy atmosphere, we are much more likely to encounter a ‘ghost’. No wonder the Bump in the Night is the most commonly reported ghostly encounter.

Sadly, the Bump in the Night is also one of the most difficult types of encounter to investigate. Even when there is considerable anecdotal evidence of strange happenings over a long period of time in a single place, reports tend to be subjective and difficult to measure physically. How do you obtain proof that somebody was really ‘touched’ by an invisible hand, or explain why sitting in a particular chair gives people the chills?

At times like this, statistical research is the ghost hunter’s only friend. When a Bump in the Night happens once, to somebody who was already in a spooky frame of mind, it isn’t a good enough reason to haul out the infrared camera, folding chair and coffee thermos. But when numerous people report similar incidences in a place over a long period of time, that’s a fair excuse for hauling out the notepad and pen and running a few surveys.

As well as the frequency and similarity of the events, a useful survey will attempt to record qualitative data such as what a person may have known about the place before they had their experience, what frame of mind they were in at the time, or whether they knew any of the other people who had had similar experiences. The idea is to obtain as much information about the place, the events and the people as possible. It may be that a testable explanation of the Bump in the Night is never found, but then again if the scrutiny is sufficiently thorough you never know – perhaps some patterns might emerge that lay the blame firmly at the feet of the wind, the cat… or the spectre.

So, the next time you get that prickling of the neck, feel the sudden chill or hear the odd sound – and you think it might be a little more than the cheese you ate before bed – don’t go straight for the ouija board. Go for your notebook and pen! Try to write down as much as you can about the incident. When it happened, where it happened, the direction you were facing at the time, the season, the weather, your late-night snack, your state of mind… anything that occurs to you.

Keeping a diary of events like this has three benefits. Firstly, it can help you to clarify in your own mind whether you actually do have something to be spooked by. It might become obvious over a period of time that the ‘footsteps’ in the hall can only be heard when the weather is cold, or that you only ever hear things when you have that mild but recurring ear infection.

Secondly, taking the time to interpret and write down your thoughts is a good way to improve your own observational skills. Perhaps you were never aware of how much you actually observed at the time, compared with what you remembered afterwards? Memory is a tricky thing but a careful trained observer learns to tell the difference between what their eyes see and what their mind remembers.

Thirdly, if the Bumps in the Night get to the point of becoming annoying and you are thinking of seeking out help, you have already done half the research.

After all, it might just be that over time your notebook jottings reveal something a little less common than late night indigestion…

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© Leanne Dempsey 2002