Apparitions, Ghosts and Hallucinations
By Andrew Lang
Only one thing is certain about apparitions, namely this, that they do appear. They really are perceived. Now, as popular language confuses apparitions with ghosts, this statement sounds like an expression of the belief that ghosts appear. It has, of course, no such meaning. When Le Loyer, in 1586, boldly set out to found a ‘science of specters,’ he carefully distinguished between his method, and the want of method observable in the telling of ghost stories. He began by drawing up long lists of apparitions which are not specters, or ghosts, but the results of madness, malady, drink, fanaticism, illusions and so forth. It is true that Le Loyer, with all his deductions, left plenty of genuine specters for the amusement of his readers. Like him we must be careful not to confound ‘apparitions,’ with ‘ghosts’.
When a fist, applied to the eye, makes us ‘see stars’; when a liver not in good working order makes us see muscæ volitantes, or ‘spiders’; when alcohol produces ‘the horrors,’—visions of threatening persons or animals,—when a lesion of the brain, or delirium, or a disease of the organs of sense causes visions, or when they occur to starved and enthusiastic ascetics, all these false perceptions are just as much ‘apparitions,’ as the view of a friend at a distance, beheld at the moment of his death, or as the unrecognized specter seen in a haunted house.
In popular phrase, however, the two last kinds of apparitions are called ‘ghosts,’ or ‘wraiths,’ and the popular tendency is to think of these, and of these alone, when ‘apparitions’ are mentioned. On the other hand the tendency of common-sense is to rank the two last sorts of apparition, the wraith and ghost, with all the other kinds, which are undeniably caused by accident, by malady, mental or bodily, or by mere confusion and misapprehension, as when one, seeing a post in the moonlight, takes it for a ghost. Science, following a third path, would class all perceptions which ‘have not the basis in fact that they seem to have’ as ‘hallucinations’. The stars seen after a blow on the eye are hallucinations,—there are no real stars in view,—and the friend, whose body seems to fill space before our sight when his body is really on a death-bed far away;—and again, the appearance of the living friend whom we see in the drawing-room while he is really in the smoking-room or in Timbuktu,—are hallucinations also. The common-sense of the matter is stated by Aristotle. ‘The reason of the hallucinations is that appearances present themselves, not only when the object of sense is itself in motion, but also when the sense is stirred, as it would be by the presence of the object’ ( De Insomn., ii. 460, b, 23-26).
The ghost in a haunted house is taken for a figure, say, of a monk, or of a monthly nurse, or what not, but no monthly nurse or monk is in the establishment. The ‘percept,’ is a ‘percept,’ for those who perceive it; the apparition is an apparition, for them, but the perception is hallucinatory.
So far, everybody is agreed: the differences begin when we ask what causes hallucinations, and what different classes of hallucinations exist? Taking the second question first, we find hallucinations divided into those which the percipient (or percipients) believes, at the moment, and perhaps later, to be real; and those which his judgment pronounces to be false. Famous cases of the latter class are the idola which beset Nicolai, who studied them, and wrote an account of them. After a period of trouble and trial, and neglect of blood-letting, Nicolai saw, first a dead man whom he had known, and, later, crowds of people, dead, living, known or unknown. The malady yielded to leeches. Examples of the first sort of apparitions taken by the judgment to be real, are common in madness, in the intemperate, and in ghost stories. The maniac believes in his visionary attendant or enemy, the drunkard in his rats and snakes, the ghost-seer often supposes that he has actually seen an acquaintance (where no mistaken identity is possible) and only learns later that the person,—dead, or alive and well,—was at a distance. Thus the writer is acquainted with the story of a gentleman who, when at work in his study at a distance from England, saw a colleague in his profession enter the room. ‘Just wait till I finish this business,’ he said, but when he had hastily concluded his letter, or whatever he was engaged on, his friend had disappeared. That was the day of his friend’s death, in England. Here then the hallucination was taken for a reality; indeed, there was nothing to suggest that it was anything else. Mr. Gurney has defined a hallucination as ‘a percept which lacks, but which can only by distinct reflection be recognized as lacking, the objective basis which it suggests’—and by ‘objective basis,’ he means ‘the possibility of being shared by all persons with normal senses’. Nobody but the ‘percipient’ was present on the occasion just described, so we cannot say whether other people would have seen the visitor, or not. But reflection could not recognize the unreality of this ‘percept,’ till it was found that, in fact, the visitor had vanished, and had never been in the neighborhood at all.
Here then, are two classes of hallucinations, those which reflection shows us to be false (as if a sane man were to have the hallucination of a crocodile, or of a dead friend, entering the room), and those which reflection does not, at the moment, show to be false, as if a friend were to enter, who could be proved to have been absent.
In either case, what causes the hallucination, or are there various possible sorts of causes? Now defects in the eye, or in the optic nerve, to speak roughly, may cause hallucinations from without. An injured external organ conveys a false and distorted message to the brain and to the intelligence. A nascent malady of the ear may produce buzzings, and these may develop into hallucinatory voices. Here be hallucinations from without. But when a patient begins with a hallucination of the intellect, as that inquisitors are plotting to catch him, or witches to enchant him, and when he later comes to see inquisitors and witches, where there are none, we have, apparently, a hallucination from within. Again, some persons, like Blake the painter, voluntarily start a hallucination. ‘Draw me Edward I.,’ a friend would say, Blake would, voluntarily, establish a hallucination of the monarch on a chair, in a good light, and sketch him, if nobody came between his eye and the royal sitter. Here, then, are examples of hallucinations begotten from within, either voluntarily, by a singular exercise of fancy, or involuntarily, as the suggestion of madness, of cerebral disease, or abnormal cerebral activity.
Again a certain amount of intensity of activity, at a ‘sensory centre’ in the brain, will start a ‘percept’. Activity of the necessary force at the right place, may be normally caused by the organ of sense, say the eye, when fixed on a real object, say a candlestick. (1) Or the necessary activity at the sensory centre may be produced, abnormally, by irritation of the eye, or along the line of nerve from the eye to the ‘sensory centre’. (2) Or thirdly, there may be a morbid, but spontaneous activity in the sensory centre itself. (3) In case one, we have a natural sensation converted into a perception of a real object. In case two, we have an abnormal origin of a perception of something unreal, a hallucination, begotten from without, that is by a vice in an external organ, the eye. In case three, we have the origin of an abnormal perception of something unreal, a hallucination, begotten by a vicious activity within, in the sensory centre. But, while all these three sets of stimuli set the machinery in motion, it is the ‘highest parts of the brain’ that, in response to the stimuli, create the full perception, real or hallucinatory.
But there remains a fourth way of setting the machinery in motion. The first way, in normal sensation and perception, was the natural action of the organ of sense, stimulated by a material object. The second way was by the stimulus of a vice in the organ of sense. The third way was a vicious activity in a sensory centre. All three stimuli reach the ‘central terminus’ of the brain, and are there created into perceptions, the first real and normal, the second a hallucination from an organ of sense, from without, the third a hallucination from a sensory centre, from within. The fourth way is illustrated when the machinery is set a-going from the ‘central terminus’ itself, ‘from the higher parts of the brain, from the seats of ideation and memory’. Now, as long as these parts only produce and retain ideas or memories in the usual way, we think, or we remember, but we have no hallucination. But when the activity starting from the central terminus ‘escapes downwards,’ in sufficient force, it reaches the ‘lower centre’ and the organ of sense, and then the idea, or memory, stands visibly before us as a hallucination.
This, omitting many technical details, and much that is matter of more dispute than common, is a statement, rough, and as popular as possible, of the ideas expressed in Mr. Gurney’s remarkable essay on hallucinations. Here, then, we have a rude working notion of various ways in which hallucinations may be produced. But there are many degrees in being hallucinated, or enphantosmé, as the old French has it. If we are interested in the most popular kind of hallucinations, ghosts and wraiths, we first discard like Le Loyer, the evidence of many kinds of witnesses, diversely but undeniably hallucinated. A man whose eyes are so vicious as habitually to give him false information is not accepted as a witness, nor a man whose brain is drugged with alcohol, nor a man whose ‘central terminus’ is abandoned to religious excitement, to remorse, to grief, to anxiety, to an apprehension of secret enemies, nor even to a habit of being hallucinated, though, like Nicolai, he knows that his visionary friends are unreal. Thus we would not listen credulously to a ghost story out of his own experience from a man whose eyes were untrustworthy, nor from a short-sighted man who had recognized a dead or dying friend on the street, nor from a drunkard. A tale of a vision of a religious character from Pascal, or from a Red Indian boy during his Medicine Fast, or even from a colonel of dragoons who fell at Prestonpans, might be interesting, but would not be evidence for our special purpose. The ghosts beheld by conscience-stricken murderers, by sorrowing widowers, by spiritualists in dark rooms, haunted by humbugs, or those seen by lunatics, or by children, or by timid people in lonely old houses, or by people who, though sane at the time, go mad twenty years later, or by sane people habitually visionary, these and many other ghosts, we must begin, like Le Loyer, by rejecting. These witnesses have too much cerebral activity at the wrong time and place. They start their hallucinations from the external terminus, the unhealthy organ of sense; from the morbid central terminus; or from some dilapidated cerebral station along the line. But, when we have, in a sane man’s experience, say one hallucination whether that hallucination does, or does not coincide with a crisis in the life, or perhaps with the death of the person who seems to be seen, what are we to think? Or again, when several witnesses simultaneously have the same hallucination,—not to be explained as a common misinterpretation of a real object,—what are we to think? This is the true question of ghosts and wraiths. That apparitions, so named by the world, do appear, is certain, just as it is certain that visionary rats appear to drunkards in delirium tremens. But, as we are only to take the evidence of sane and healthy witnesses, who were neither in anxiety, grief, or other excitement, when they perceived their one hallucination, there seems to be a difference between their hallucinations and those of alcoholism, fanaticism, sorrow, or anxiety. Now the common mistakes in dealing with this topic have been to make too much, or to make too little, of the coincidences between the hallucinatory appearance of an absent person, and his death, or some other grave crisis affecting him. Too little is made of such coincidences by Dr. Hibbert, in his Philosophy of Apparitions (p. 231). He ‘attempts a physical explanation of many ghost stories which may be considered most authentic’. So he says, but he only touches on three, the apparition of Claverhouse, on the night of Killiecrankie, to Lord Balcarres, in an Edinburgh prison; the apparition of her dead mother to Miss Lee, in 1662; and the apparition of his wife, who had born a dead child on that day in England, to Dr. Donne in Paris, early in the seventeenth century.
Dr. Hibbert dedicated his book, in 1825, to Sir Walter Scott, of Abbotsford, Bart., President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Sir Walter, at heart as great a ghost-hunter as ever lived, was conceived to have a scientific interest in the ‘mental principles to which certain popular illusions may be referred’. Thus Dr. Hibbert’s business, if he would satisfy the President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was to ‘provide a physical explanation of many ghost stories which may be considered most authentic’. In our prosaic age, he would have begun with those most recent, such as the tall man in brown, viewed by Sir Walter on the moor near Ashestiel, and other still remembered contemporary hallucinations. Far from that, Dr. Hibbert deliberately goes back two centuries for all the three stories which represent the ‘many’ of his promise. The Wynyard ghost was near him, Mrs. Ricketts’s haunted house was near him, plenty of other cases were lying ready to his hand. But he went back two centuries, and then,—complained of lack of evidence about ‘interesting particulars’! Dr. Hibbert represents the science and common-sense of seventy years ago, and his criticism probably represents the contemporary ideas about evidence.
The Balcarres tale, as told by him, is that the Earl was ‘in prison, in Edinburgh Castle, on the suspicion of Jacobitism’. ‘Suspicion’ is good; he was the King’s agent for civil, as Dundee was for military affairs in Scotland. He and Dundee, and Ailesbury, stood by the King in London, to the last. Lord Balcarres himself, in his memoirs, tells James II. how he was confined, ‘in close prison,’ in Edinburgh, till the castle was surrendered to the Prince of Orange. In Dr. Hibbert’s tale, the specter of Dundee enters Balcarres’s room at night, ‘draws his curtain,’ looks at him for some time, and walks out of the room, Lord Balcarres believing it to be Dundee himself.
Dr. Hibbert never even asks for the authority on which this legend reposes, certainly Balcarres does not tell the tale in his own report, or memoirs, for James II. (Bannatyne Club, 1841). The doctor then grumbles that he does not know ‘a syllable of the state of Lord Balcarres’s health at the time’. The friend of Bayle and of Marlborough, an honorable politician, a man at once loyal and plain-spoken in dealings with his master, Lord Balcarres’s word would go for much, if he gave it. But Dr. Hibbert asks for no authority, cites none. He only argues that, ‘agreeably to the well-known doctrine of chances,’ Balcarres might as well have this hallucination at the time of Dundee’s death as at any other (p. 232). Now, that is a question which we cannot settle, without knowing whether Lord Balcarres was subject to hallucinations. If he was, cadit quæstio, if he was not, then the case is different. It is, manifestly, a problem in statistics, and only by statistics of wide scope, can it be solved. But Dr. Hibbert was content to produce his easy solution, without working out the problem.
His second case is of 1662, and was taken down, he says, by the Bishop of Gloucester, from the lips of the father of Miss Lee. This young lady, in bed, saw a light, then a hallucination which called itself her mother. The figure prophesied the daughter’s death at noon next day and at noon next day the daughter died. A physician, when she announced her vision, attended her, bled her, and could find nothing wrong in her health. Dr. Hibbert conjectures that her medical attendant did not know his business. ‘The coincidence was a fortunate one,’ that is all his criticism. Where there is no coincidence, the stories, he says, are forgotten. For that very reason, he should have collected contemporary stories, capable of being investigated, but that did not occur to Dr. Hibbert. His last case is the apparition of Mrs. Donne, with a dead child, to Dr. Donne, in Paris, as recorded by Walton. As Donne was a poet, very fond of his wife, and very anxious about her health, this case is not evidential, and may be dismissed for ‘a fortuitous coincidence’ (p. 332).
Certainly Dr. Hibbert could come to no conclusion, save his own, on the evidence he adduces. But it was by his own fault that he chose only evidence very remote, incapable of being cross-examined, and scanty, while we know that plenty of contemporary evidence was within his reach. Possibly the possessors of these experiences would not have put them at his disposal, but, if he could get no materials, he was in no position to form a theory. All this would have been recognized in any other matter, but in this obscure branch of psychology, beset, as it is, by superstition, science was content to be casual.
The error which lies at the opposite pole from Dr. Hibbert’s mistake in not collecting instances, is the error of collecting only affirmative instances. We hear constantly about ‘hallucinations of sight, sound, or touch, which suggest the presence of an absent person, and which occur simultaneously with some exceptional crisis in that person’s life, or, most frequently of all, with his death’. Now Mr. Gurney himself was much too fair a reasoner to avoid the collection of instantiæ contradictoræs, examples in which the hallucination occurs, but does not coincide with any crisis whatever in the life of the absent person who seems to be present. Of these cases, Dr. Hibbert could find only one on record, in the Mercure Gallant, January, 1690. The writer tells us how he dreamed that a dead relation of his came to his bedside, and announced that he must die that day. Unlike Miss Lee, he went on living. Yet the dream impressed him so much that he noted it down in writing as soon as he awoke. Dr. Johnson also mentions an instantia contradictoria. A friend of Boswell’s, near Kilmarnock, heard his brother’s voice call him by name: now his brother was dead, or dying, in America. Johnson capped this by his tale of having, when at Oxford, heard his name pronounced by his mother. She was then at Lichfield, but nothing ensued. In Dr. Hibbert’s opinion, this proves that coincidences, when they do occur, are purely matters of chance. There are many hallucinations, a death may correspond with one of them, that case is noted, the others are forgotten. Yet the coincidences are so many, or so striking, that when a Maori woman has a hallucination representing her absent husband, she may marry without giving him recognized ground for resentment, if he happens to be alive. This curious fact proves that the coincidence between death and hallucinatory presence has been marked enough to suggest a belief which can modify savage jealousy.
By comparing coincidental with non-coincidental hallucinations known to him, Mr. Gurney is said to have decided that the chances against a death coinciding with a hallucination, were forty to one,—long odds. But it is clear that only a very large collection of facts would give us any materials for a decision. Suppose that some 20,000 people answer such questions as:—
1. Have you ever had any hallucination?
2. Was there any coincidence between the hallucination and facts at the time unknown to you?
The majority of sane people will be able to answer the first question in the negative.
Of those who answer both questions in the affirmative, several things are to be said. First, we must allow for jokes, then for illusions of memory. Corroborative contemporary evidence must be produced. Again, of the 20,000, many are likely to be selected instances. The inquirer is tempted to go to a person who, as he or she already knows, has a story to tell. Again, the inquirers are likely to be persons who take an interest in the subject on the affirmative side, and their acquaintances may have been partly chosen because they were of the same intellectual complexion.
All these drawbacks are acknowledged to exist, and are allowed for, and, as far as possible, provided against, by the very fair-minded people who have conducted this inquisition. Thus Mr. Henry Sidgwick, in 1889, said, ‘I do not think we can be satisfied with less than 50,000 answers’. But these 50,000 answers have not been received. When we reflect that, to our knowledge, out of twenty-five questions asked among our acquaintances in one place, none would be answered in the affirmative: while, by selecting, we could get twenty-five affirmative replies, the delicacy and difficulty of the inquisition becomes painfully evident. Mr. Sidgwick, after making deductions on all sides of the most sportsmanlike character, still holds that the coincidences are more numerous by far than the Calculus of Probabilities admits. This is a question for the advanced mathematician. M. Richet once made some experiments which illustrate the problem. One man in a room thought of a series of names which, ex hypothesi, he kept to himself. Three persons sat at a table, which, as tables will do, ’tilted,’ and each tilt rang an electric bell. Two other persons, concealed from the view of the table tilters, ran through an alphabet with a pencil, marking each letter at which the bell rang. These letters were compared with the names secretly thought of by the person at neither table.
He thought of The answers were 1. Jean Racine 1. Igard 2. Legros 2. Neghn 3. Esther 3. Foqdem 4. Henrietta 4. Higiegmsd 5. Cheuvreux 5. Dievoreq 6. Doremond 6. Epjerod 7. Chevalon 7. Cheval 8. Allouand 8. Iko
Here the non-mathematical reader will exclaim: ‘Total failure, except in case 7!’ And, about that case, he will have his private doubts. But, arguing mathematically, M. Richet proves that the table was right, beyond the limits of mere chance, by fourteen to two. He concludes, on the whole of his experiments, that, probably, intellectual force in one brain may be echoed in another brain. But MM. Binet and Féré, who report this, decide that ‘the calculation of chances is, for the most part, incapable of affording a peremptory proof; it produces uncertainty, disquietude, and doubt’. ‘Yet something is gained by substituting doubt for systematic denial. Richet has obtained this important result, that henceforth the possibility of mental suggestion cannot be met with contemptuous rejection.’
Mental suggestion on this limited scale, is a phenomenon much less startling to belief than the reality, and causal nature, of coincidental hallucinations, of wraiths. But it is plain that, as far as general opinion goes, the doctrine of chances, applied to such statistics of hallucinations as have been collected, can at most, only ‘produce uncertainty, disquietude, and doubt’. Yet if even these are produced, a step has been made beyond the blank negation of Hibbert.
The general reader, even if credulously inclined, is more staggered by a few examples of non-coincidental hallucinations, than confirmed by a pile of coincidental examples. Now it seems to be a defect in the method of the friends of wraiths, that they do not publish, with full and impressive details, as many examples of non-coincidental as of coincidental hallucinations. It is the story that takes the public: if we are to be fair we must give the non-coincidental story in all its features, as is done in the matter of wraiths with a kind of message or meaning.
Let us set a good example, by adducing wraiths which, in slang phrase, were ‘sells’. Those which we have at first hand are marked ‘(A),’ those at second-hand ‘(B)’. But the world will accept the story of a ghost that failed on very poor evidence indeed.
1. (A) A young lady, in the dubious state between awake and asleep, unable, in fact, to feel certain whether she was awake or asleep, beheld her late grandmother. The old lady wept as she sat by the bedside.
‘Why do you weep, grandmamma, are you not happy where you are?’ asked the girl.
‘Yes, I am happy, but I am weeping for your mother.’
‘Is she going to die?’
‘No, but she is going to lose you.’
‘Am I going to die, grandmamma?’
‘Yes, my dear.’
‘Yes, my dear, very soon.’
The young lady, with great courage, concealed her dream from her mother, but confided it to a brother. She did her best to be good while she was on earth, where she is still, after an interval of many years.
Except for the conclusion, and the absence of a mystic bright light in the bedroom, this case exactly answers to that of Miss Lee, in 1662. Dr. Hibbert would have liked this example.
2. (B) A lady, staying with a friend, observed that one morning she was much depressed. The friend confided to her that, in the past night, she had seen her brother, dripping wet. He told her that he had been drowned by the upsetting of a boat, which was attached by a rope to a ship. At this time, he was on his way home from Australia. The dream, or vision, was recorded in writing. When next the first lady met her friend, she was entertaining her brother at luncheon. He had never even been in a boat dragged behind a ship, and was perfectly safe.
3. (B) A lady, residing at a distance from Oxford wrote to tell her son, who was at Merton College, that he had just entered her room and vanished. Was he well? Yes, he was perfectly well, and bowling for the College Eleven.
4. (B) A lady in bed saw her absent husband. He announced his death by cholera, and gave her his blessing, she, of course, was very anxious and miserable, but the vision was a lying vision. The husband was perfectly well.
In all these four cases, anxiety was caused by the vision, and in three at least, action was taken, the vision was recorded orally, or in writing. In the following set, the visions were waking hallucinations of sane persons never in any other instance hallucinated.
5. (A) A person of distinction, walking in a certain Cambridge quadrangle, met a very well-known clergyman. The former held out his hand, but there was before him only open space. No feeling of excitement or anxiety followed.
6. (A) The writer, standing before dinner, at a table in a large and brilliantly lit hall, saw the door of the drawing-room open, and a little girl, related to himself, come out, and run across the hall into another room. He spoke to her, but she did not answer. He instantly entered the drawing-room, where the child was sitting in a white evening-dress. When she ran across the hall, the moment before, she was dressed in dark blue serge. No explanation of the puzzle could be discovered, but it is fair to add that no anxiety was excited.
7. (A) A young lady had a cold, and was wearing a brown shawl. After lunch she went to her room. A few minutes later, her sister came out, saw her in the hall, and went upstairs after her, telling her an anecdote. At the top of the stairs, the brown-shawled sister vanished. The elder sister was in her room, in a white shawl. She was visible, when absent on another occasion, to another spectator.
In two other cases (A) ladies, in their usual health, saw their husbands in their rooms, when, in fact, they were in the drawing-room or study. Here then are eight cases of non-coincidental hallucination, some of people awake, some of people probably on the verge of sleep, which are wholly without ‘coincidence,’ wholly unveridical. None of the ‘percipients’ was addicted to seeing ‘visions about.’
On the other side, though the writer knows several people who have ‘seen ghosts’ in haunted houses, and other odd phenomena, he knows nobody, at first hand, who has seen a ‘veridical hallucination,’ or rather, knows only one, a very young one indeed. Thus, between these personally collected statistics of spectral ‘sells’ on one part, and the world-wide diffusion of belief in ‘coincidental’ hallucination on the other, the human mind is left in a balance which mathematics, and the Calculus of Probabilities (especially if one does not understand it) fail to affect.
Meanwhile, we still do not know what causes these solitary hallucinations of the sane. They can hardly come from diseased organs of sense, for these would not confine themselves to a single mistaken message of great vivacity. And why should either the ‘sensory centre’ or the ‘central terminus’ just once in a lifetime develop this uncanny activity, and represent to us a person to whom we may be wholly indifferent? The explanation is less difficult when the person represented is a husband or child, but even then, why does the activity occur once, and only once, and not in a moment of anxiety?
The coincidental hallucinations are laid to the door of ‘telepathy,’ to ‘a telepathic impact from the mind of an absent agent,’ who is dying, or in some other state of rare or exciting experience, perhaps being married, as in Col. Meadows Taylor’s case. This is a theory as old as Lavaterus, and was proclaimed by Mayo in the middle of the century; while, substituting ‘angels’ for human agents, Frazer of Tiree used it, in 1700, to explain second sight. Nay, it is the Norse theory of a ‘sending’ by a sorcerer, as we read in the Icelandic sagas. But, admitting that telepathy may be a cause of hallucinations, we often find the effect where the cause is not alleged to exist. Nobody, perhaps, will explain our nine empty hallucinations by ‘telepathy,’ yet, from the supposed effects of telepathy they were indistinguishable. Are all such cases of casual hallucination in the sane to be explained by telepathy, by an impact of force from a distant brain on the central terminus of our own brains? At all events, a casual hallucination of the presence of an absent friend need obviously cause us very little anxiety. We need not adopt the hypothesis of the Maoris.
The telepathic theory has the advantage of cutting down the marvelous to the minimum. It also accounts for that old puzzle, the clothes worn by the ghosts. These are reproduced by the ‘agent’s’ theory of himself, perhaps with some unconscious assistance from ‘the percipient’. For lack of this light on the matter, M. d’Assier, a positivist, who believed in specters had to suggest that the ghosts wear the ghosts of garments! Thus positivism, in this disciple, returned to the artless metaphysics of savages. Telepathy saves the believer from such a humiliating relapse, and, perhaps, telepathy also may be made to explain ‘collective’ hallucinations, when several people see the same apparition. If a distant mind can thus demoralize the central terminus of one brain, it may do as much for two or more brains, or they may demoralize each other.
All this is very promising, but telepathy breaks down when the apparition causes some change in the relations of material objects. If there be a physical effect which endures after the phantasm has vanished, then there was an actual agent, a real being, a ‘ghost’ on the scene. For instance, the lady in Scott’s ballad, ‘The Eve of St. John,’ might see and might hear the ghost of her lover by a telepathic hallucination of two senses. But if
The sable score, of fingers four,
Remained on the board impressed
by the specter, then there was no telepathic hallucination, but an actual being of an awful kind was in Smailholm Tower. Again, the cases in which dogs and horses, as Paracelsus avers, display terror when men and women behold a phantasm, are not easily accounted for by telepathy, especially when the beast is alarmed before the man or woman suspects the presence of anything unusual. There is, of course, the notion that the horse shies, or the dog turns craven, in sympathy with its master’s exhibition of fear. Owners of dogs and horses may counterfeit horror and see whether their favorites do sympathize. Cats don’t. In one of three cases known to us where a cat showed consciousness of a spectral presence, the apparition took the form of a cat. The evidence is only that of Richard Bovet, in his Pandemonium; or, the Devil’s Cloyster (1684). In Mr. J. G. Wood’s Man and Beast, a lady tells a story of being alone, in firelight, playing with a favorite cat, Lady Catherine. Suddenly puss bristled all over, her back rose in an arch, and the lady, looking up, saw a hideously malignant female watching her. Lady Catherine now rushed wildly round the room, leaped at the upper panels of the door, and seemed to have gone mad. This new terror recalled the lady to herself. She shrieked, and the phantasm vanished. She saw it on a later day. In a third case, a cat merely kept a watchful eye on the ghost, and adopted a dignified attitude of calm expectancy. If beasts can be telepathically affected, then beasts have more of a ‘psychical’ element in their composition than they usually receive credit for; whereas if a ghost is actually in view, there is no reason why beasts should not see it.
The best and most valid proof that an abnormal being is actually present was that devised by the ghost of Sir Richard of Coldinghame in the ballad, and by the Beresford ghost, who threw a heavy curtain over the bed-pole. Unluckily, Sir Richard is a poetical figment, and the Beresford ghost is a myth, like William Tell: he may be traced back through various medieval authorities almost to the date of the Norman Conquest. We have examined the story in a little book of folklore, Etudes Traditionistes. Always there is a compact to appear, always the ghost burns or injures the hand or wrist of the spectator. A version occurs in William of Malmesbury.
What we need, to prove a ghost, and disprove an exclusively telepathic theory, is a ghost who is not only seen, heard, or even touched, but a ghost who produces some change in physical objects. Most provokingly, there are agencies at every successful séance, and in every affair of the Poltergeist, who do lift tables, chairs, beds, bookcases, candles, and so forth, while others play accordions. But then nobody or not everybody sees these agencies at work, while the spontaneous phantasms which are seen do not so much as lift a loo-table, generally speaking. In the spiritualistic cases, we have the effect, with no visible cause; in ghost stories, we have the visible presence, but he very seldom indeed causes any physical change in any object. No ghost who does not do this has any strict legal claim to be regarded as other than a telepathic hallucination at best, though, as we shall see, some presumptions exist in favor of some ghosts being real entities.
These rare facts have not escaped a ghost-hunter so intelligent as Mrs. Henry Sidgwick. This lady is almost too sportsmanlike, for a psychical researcher, in her habit of giving an apparition the benefit of every imaginable doubt which may absolve him from the charge of being a real genuine ghost. ‘It is true,’ she says, ‘that ghosts are alleged sometimes to produce a physical effect on the external world;’ but to admit this is ‘to come into prima facie collision with the physical sciences’ (an awful risk to run), so Mrs. Sidgwick, in a rather cavalier manner leaves ghosts who produce physical effects to be dealt with among the phenomena alleged to occur at séances. Now this is hardly fair to the spontaneous apparition, who is doing his very best to demonstrate his existence in the only convincing way. The phenomena of séances are looked on with deserved distrust, and, generally, may be regarded as an outworn mode of swindling. Yet it is to this society that Mrs. Sidgwick relegates the most meritorious and conscientious class of apparitions.
Let us examine a few instances of the ghost who visibly moves material objects. We take one (already cited) from Mrs. Sidgwick’s own article. In this case a gentleman named John D. Harry scolded his daughters for saying that they had seen a ghost, with which he himself was perfectly familiar. ‘The figure,’ a fair woman draped in white, ‘on seven or eight occasions appeared in my bedroom, and twice in the library, and on one occasion it lifted up the mosquito-curtains, and looked closely into my face’. Now, could a hallucination lift a mosquito-curtain, or even produce the impression that it did so, while the curtain was really unmoved? Clearly a hallucination, however artful, and well got up, could do no such thing. Therefore a being—a ghost with very little maidenly reserve—haunted the bedroom of Mr. Harry, if he tells a true tale. Again, a lady had doors opened for her frequently, ‘as if a hand had turned the handle’. And once she not only saw the door open, but a grey woman came in. Another witness, years afterwards, beheld the same figure and the same performance. Once more, Miss A. M.’s mother followed a ghost, who opened a door and entered a room, where she could not be found when she was wanted (p. 121). Again, a lady saw a ghost which, ‘with one hand, the left, drew back the curtain‘. There are many other cases in which apparitions are seen in houses where mysterious thumps and raps occur, especially in General Campbell’s experience (p. 483). If the apparition gave the thumps then he (or, in this instance, she) was material, and could produce effects on matter. Indeed, this ghost was seen to take up and lay down some books, and to tuck in the bed-clothes. Hallucinations (which are all in one’s eye or sensory centre, or cerebral central terminus), cannot draw curtains, or open doors, or pick up books, or tuck in bed-clothes, or cause thumps—not real thumps, hallucinatory thumps are different. Consequently, if the stories are true, some apparitions are ghosts, real objective entities, filling space. The senses of a hallucinated person may be deceived as to touch, and as to feeling the breath of a phantasm (a likely story), as well as in sight and hearing. But a visible ghost which produces changes in the visible world cannot be a hallucination. On the other hand Dr. Binns, in his Anatomy of Sleep tells us of ‘a gentleman who, in a dream, pushed against a door in a distant house, so that those in the room were scarcely able to resist the pressure’. Now if this rather staggering anecdote be true, the spirit of a living man, being able to affect matter, is also, so to speak, material, and is an actual entity, an astral body. Moreover, Mrs. Frederica Hauffe, when in the magnetic sleep, ‘could rap at a distance’.
These arguments, then, make in favor of the old-fashioned theory of ghosts and wraiths, as things objectively existing, which is very comforting to a conservative philosopher. Unluckily, just as many, or more, anecdotes look quite the other way. For instance, General Barter sees, hears, and recognizes the dead Lieutenant B., wearing a beard which he had grown since the general saw him in life. He also sees the hill-pony ridden by Mr. B., and killed by him—a steed with which, in its mortal days, the general had no acquaintance. This is all very well: a dead pony may have a ghost, like Miss A. B.’s dog which was heard by one Miss B., and seen by the other, some time after its decease. On mature reflection, as both ladies were well-known persons of letters, we suppress their names, which would carry the weight of excellent character and distinguished sense. But Lieutenant B. was also accompanied by two grooms. Now, it is too much to ask us to believe that he had killed two grooms, as he killed the pony. Consequently, they, at least, were hallucinations; so what was Lieutenant B.? When Mr. K., on board the Raccoon, saw his dead father lying in his coffin, there was no real coffin there, at all events; and hence, probably, no real dead father’s ghost,—only a ‘telepathic hallucination’. Miss Rose Morton could never touch the female ghost which she often chased about the house, nor did this ghost break or displace the threads stretched by Miss Morton across the stairs down which the apparition walked. Yet its footsteps did make a noise, and the family often heard the ghost walking downstairs, followed by Miss Morton. Thus this ghost was both material and immaterial, for surely, only matter can make a noise when in contact with matter. On the whole, if the evidence is worth anything, there are real objective ghosts, and there are also telepathic hallucinations: so that the scientific attitude is to believe in both, if in either. And this was the view of Petrus Thyræus, S.J., in his Loca Infesta (1598). The alternative is to believe in neither.
We have thus, according to the advice of Socrates, permitted the argument to lead us whither it would. And whither has it led us? The old, savage, natural theory of ghosts and wraiths is that they are spirits, yet not so immaterial but that they can fill space, be seen, heard, touched, and affect material objects. Medieval and other theologians preferred to regard them as angelic or diabolic manifestations, made out of compressed air, or by aid of bodies of the dead, or begotten by the action of angel or devil on the substance of the brain. Modern science looks on them as hallucinations, sometimes morbid, as in madness or delirium, or in a vicious condition of the organ of sense; sometimes abnormal, but not necessarily a proof of chronic disease of any description. The psychical theory then explains a sifted remnant of apparitions; the coincidental, ‘veridical’ hallucinations of the sane, by telepathy. There is a wide chasm, however, to be bridged over between that hypothesis, and its general acceptance, either by science, or by reflective yet unscientific inquirers. The existence of thought-transference, especially among people wide awake, has to be demonstrated more unimpeachably, and then either the telepathic explanation must be shown to fit all the cases collected, or many interesting cases must be thrown overboard, or these must be referred to some other cause. That cause will be something very like the old-fashioned ghosts. Perhaps, the most remarkable collective hallucination in history is that vouched for by Patrick Walker, the Covenanter; in his Biographia Presbyteriana. In 1686, says Walker, about two miles below Lanark, on the water of Clyde ‘many people gathered together for several afternoons, where there were showers of bonnets, hats, guns, and swords, which covered the trees and ground, companies of men in arms marching in order, upon the waterside, companies meeting companies. . . . and then all falling to the ground and disappearing, and other companies immediately appearing in the same way’. This occurred in June and July, in the afternoons. Now the Westland Whigs were then, as usual, in a very excitable frame of mind, and filled with fears, inspired both by events, and by the prophecies of Peden and other saints. Patrick Walker himself was a high-flying Covenanter, he was present: ‘I went there three afternoons together’—and he saw nothing unusual occur. About two-thirds of the crowd did see the phenomena he reckons, the others, like himself, saw nothing strange. ‘There was a fright and trembling upon them that did see,’ and, at least in one case, the hallucination was contagious. A gentleman standing next Walker exclaimed: ‘A pack of damned witches and warlocks, that have the second sight, the deil ha’t do I see’. ‘And immediately there was a discernable change in his countenance, with as much fear and trembling as any woman I saw there, who cried out: “O all ye that do not see, say nothing; for I persuade you it is matter of fact, and discernable to all that is not stone-blind”.’ Those who did see minutely described ‘what handles the swords had, whether small or three-barred, or Highland guards, and the closing knots of the bonnets, black or blue. . . . I have been at a loss ever since what to make of this last,’ says Patrick Walker, and who is not at a loss? The contagion of the hallucination, so to speak, did not affect him, fanatic as he was, and did affect a cursing and swearing cavalier, whose prejudices, whose ‘dominant idea,’ were all on the other side. The Psychical Society has published an account of a similar collective hallucination of crowds of people, ‘appearing and disappearing,’ shared by two young ladies and their maid, on a walk home from church. But this occurred in a fog, and no one was present who was not hallucinated. Patrick Walker’s account is triumphantly honest, and is, perhaps, as odd a piece of psychology as any on record, thanks to his escape from the prevalent illusion, which, no doubt, he would gladly have shared. Wodrow, it should be said, in his History of the Sufferings of the Kirk, mentions visions of bonnets, which, he thinks, indicated a future muster of militia! But he gives the date as 1684.