An apparition is the supernormal appearance of a dead person or animal, or of a living person or animal too distant to be within the sensory range of the observer. Apparitions of the dead, which are seen repeatedly over a period of time, apparently Haunting the same location, are also called Ghosts.

Only a minority of apparition experiences are visual. Most instead involve the sensing of a presence, perhaps accompanied by touch; hearing thumps, Rappings, moanings, animal sounds, and other strange noises; or unexplained Smells.

Apparitions of all types have been studied extensively by psychical researchers, parapsychologists, paranormal investigators, and others since the late 19th century. Tens of thousands of cases have been collected and analyzed. Various theories have been put forth, yet researchers still know very little about apparitions. In the discussion that follows, the term “agent” refers to the person (or animal) whose apparition is seen; the “percipient” is the person who sees the apparition.

Characteristics of Apparitions

According to a study of major features of apparitions published in 1956 by Hornell Hart, an American sociologist and psychical researcher, and collaborators, there are no significant differences between apparitions of the living and of the dead. Some apparitions seem real and corporeal, with definable form and features and clothing. Other apparitions are fuzzy, luminous, transparent, wispy, and ill-defined; some are little more than streaks, blobs, or patches of light.

Apparitions appear and disappear suddenly, and sometimes just fade away. They both move through walls and objects and walk around them. They can cast shadows and be reflected in Mirrors. Some have a marionette-like quality of limited gestures and movements, such as calling the attention of the percipient to a wound on the ghostly body, while others are more fluid and communicate verbally. Some are accompanied by sounds, smells, sensations of cold, and movement of real objects in the percipient’s environment. In some cases, percipients attempt to touch apparitions; most find their hands go through them, but in a few cases, contact has been made with a substance that feels like a flimsy garment.

An overwhelming majority of apparitions—some 82 percent, according to studies—seem to manifest themselves for a purpose: to communicate the agent’s own crisis (usually grave danger or imminent death) to someone living; to comfort the grieving after the agent’s death; to convey useful information to the living; or to warn the living of danger. Haunting apparitions appear to have emotional ties to a site, possibly resulting from violent or sudden death. Some haunting apparitions are believed to be earthbound spirits of the dead who are trapped by unfinished business (see Spirit Releasement).

Some ghost researchers believe that certain apparitions, such as haunting earthbound spirits of the dead, possess an intelligence that makes mediumistic communication possible. Some apparitions do not respond to attempts at communication, leading some researchers to conclude that they are merely a psychic recording of an event.

Historical and Cultural Beliefs about Apparitions

Every civilization throughout history and around the world has had beliefs about apparitions. Such beliefs usually are part of religion, myth, or folklore. Among Asian peoples, belief in ancestral ghosts is strong, and rituals exist to honor and placate them (see Ancestor Worship; Feasts and Festivals of the Dead). The spirits of the dead are believed to intervene regularly in the affairs of the living and are credited for good luck and prosperity and blamed for illness and misfortune (see Exorcism). The Chinese believe their ancestral ghosts can be dangerous, capable of even killing the living. Similar beliefs are held by tribal cultures around the world. The appearance of spirits of the dead plays a role in rituals and beliefs among native North and South Americans. In some South American tribes, the dead appear as guardian spirits to medicine men and shamans.

The ancient Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans believed that the souls of the dead could return to haunt the living. The Roman scholar Pliny the Younger recorded the case of a Greek philosopher who moved into a haunted house. An apparition appeared wearing chains and led the philosopher to a spot where an excavation later revealed a skeleton in chains (see Haunting of Athenodorus).

During the Dark Ages, people believed in all manner of apparitions, usually frightful: Demons, Vampires, and spectral creatures such as Black Dogs (see also Black Shuck; Whisht Hounds) and wild huntsmen (see Herne the Hunter; Wild Hunt). By the Middle Ages, beliefs in ghosts were manipulated by the Christian church, which taught that ghosts were souls trapped in purgatory until they expiated their sins. Following the Reformation in the 16th century, Protestants and Catholics disagreed over whether the dead could appear to the living. Protestants held that souls either went to heaven or to hell, where they stayed put. Catholic theology allowed for ghosts of the dead to leave purgatory, especially to lecture Protestants on the errors of their religion.

For example, an English account written in 1624 tells of an apparition that appeared to a young servant girl, Mary Boucher, after Jesuits were unable to convert her to Catholicism. The ghost of Boucher’s godmother came repeatedly to her bedside at night, claiming to have arrived from the torments of purgatory, and admonishing the girl to convert. The ghost told the girl she was destined to become a nun. Boucher was annoyed and quit her service. Her fate for ignoring the advice of the ghost is not known.

The authenticity and motives of apparitions of spirits, such as Angels and Demons, also have been debated. In Catholic thought, apparitions of religious figures, such as angels, saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus, are holy, and mystical manifestations are seen as permitted by God (see Marian Apparitions).

Some Protestants dismiss all apparitions as untrustworthy and probably Demonic in nature. They see apparitions as delusions created by Satan or his Demons for the purpose of tempting or confusing people, according to the Bible.

In popular beliefs, apparitions of the dead have played an important social role as advisers to the living. They make appearances to counsel their family members, help solve crimes, and reproach wrongful executors. (See Chaffin Will Case; Greenbrier Ghost). From the 19th century on, apparitions have played a role in Spiritualism, which believes in Survival After Death and contact with the dead through Mediumship.

In folklore, apparitions are the spirits of the dead, who, through sin or tragedy, are condemned to haunt the realm of the living. Certain motifs exist in the folklore of diverse cultures, such as the ghostly ship (the Flying Dutchman is perhaps the most famous example), the ghostly hunter, and the Phantom Traveler or Phantom Hitchhiker. Except for religious visions, apparitions usually are feared in Western Christian culture.

Study of Apparitions

Systematic studies of apparitions began with the founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London in 1882. Three of the SPR’s founders, Edmund Gurney, Frederic W.H. Myers and Frank Podmore, questioned 5,700 persons about apparitions and published their exhaustive findings in Phantasms of the Living (1886). This effort was followed in 1889 by a Census of Hallucinations, under the direction of Henry Sidgwick, who was assisted by his wife, Eleanor Sidgwick, Alice Johnson, A.T. Myers, F. W. H. Myers, and Podmore.

The Census consisted of a single question: “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 SPR collected 17,000 replies, of which 1,684, or 9.9 percent, answered “yes,” reporting 352 apparitions of the living and 163 apparitions of the dead (some apparitions were witnessed by more than one person). A similar census carried out in France, Germany, and the United States brought 27,329 replies, of which 11.96 percent were affirmative. By extrapolating the results to the population in general, the surveys showed that approximately 10 percent of the adult population had experienced an apparition.

A century later, in 1988, the SPR decided to conduct a follow-up to the Census. A total of 1,129 surveys were distributed in various areas of Great Britain, a national survey on the scale of the original census being financially out of the question. The question asked was similar to the earlier one, emphasizing that the percipient should be “fully awake and unaffected by illness, drink or drugs.” Some 840 people replied, 123 of them reporting some sort of hallucination. However, only 95 (11.3 percent) of these were of apparitions seen by persons who were fully awake at the time, a percentage closely similar to the Census and its international counterpart.

Erlendur Haraldsson found a slightly higher percentage in an Icelandic survey the same year as the second SPR census. He asked respondents to a mail questionnaire if they had “experienced or felt the nearness of a deceased person,” and followed up the responses with interviews. Based on the results of these interviews and extrapolating to his original sample size, he estimated that about 14 percent had experienced visual apparitions of the dead, another 17 percent having had nonvisual experiences, either auditory, olfactory, or tactile.

An even higher rate of experience is reflected in two American surveys conducted by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Council (NORC). In a 1973 survey, 27 percent of adults (51 percent of widows) reported contact with the dead, whereas in a 1987 survey, 42 percent of adults and 67 percent of widows did so. In the 1987 survey, 78 percent of the 42 percent (32 percent of the total) said they saw an apparition, 50 percent heard one, 21 percent were touched by one, 32 percent merely felt a presence, and 18 percent talked with the dead; 46 percent experienced a combination of phenomena. The increasing incidence in the NORC samples perhaps reflects changing attitudes which make paranormal experiences less frightening and easier to admit. The difference between this survey and the others, however, may have to do with the way the questions were asked.

Since the 1990s, most research of apparitions has focused on ghosts and other spirits in hauntings, and has been conducted by paranormal investigators outside the Scientific community. The emphasis has been on capturing photographic, film, or audio evidence, and, to a lesser degree, on building devices that allow real-time, two-way communication (see Instrumental Transcommunication).

Types of Apparitions

In Psychical Research, apparitions are described by categories. Apparition experiences that can be corroborated by circumstances and fact are called “veridical apparitions” and are of most value and interest to scientists. Many paranormal investigators have their own categories that differ from the following list:

Crisis Apparitions

These are apparitions that appear during a person’s moment of extreme crisis, particularly imminent death. The apparition usually manifests to the agent’s loved ones or others with whom the agent has close emotional ties. The purpose of most crisis apparitions is to communicate to the living that the agent is dying or has just died. Some apparitions gesture to show their fatal wounds. Crisis apparitions appear both in waking visions and in DREAMS.

Apparitions of the Dead

In After-Death Communications, the dead appear to comfort the grieving or to communicate information pertaining to the estate or unfinished business of the deceased. After his death, Dante appeared to his son and guided him to where Dante had secreted the last cantos of his Divine Comedy. The son was not aware of their existence. Apparitions of the dead may appear years later to loved ones in times of crisis.

Collective Apparitions

Collective apparitions are those that are seen simultaneously by more than one person. Collective apparitions usually are experienced in hauntings and crisis. Animals are sometimes among the multiple witnesses and are gauged by their visible reactions to the apparition. For example, a dog may whimper and hide or a cat may arch its back.

Reciprocal Apparitions

These are apparitions of the living in which both agent and percipient experience seeing each other. In most such cases, the agent has a powerful desire to be with the percipient, motivated by loneliness, longing, love, or worry. The agent suddenly finds himself transported to the presence of the percipient, who in turn observes the agent. Reciprocal apparitions may also be collectively perceived. One possible explanation of reciprocal apparitions is that the agent may project himself in an out-of-body-experience (see Wilmot Apparition).

Deathbed Apparitions

The appearance of angelic beings, religious figures, luminosities, and dead loved ones are sometimes reported by the dying shortly before death. Occasionally, deathbed apparitions also are perceived by the living who are in attendance to the dying (see Deathbed Visions).

Apparitions in Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation

Some cases of Reincarnation involve “announcing dreams,” in which an apparition of a dead person appears in a dream to a member of the family into which it will be born. Such dreams occur frequently among the Tlingit and other northwest Native American tribes, and in Turkey, Burma, and Thailand. In some cases in Burma and Thailand, children who appear to have spontaneous memories of previous lives say they remember sending the announcing dream, or, in rare instances, manifesting as an apparition to their future mother.

Theories about Apparitions in Psychical Research

Of the early SPR researchers, Gurney and Myers had the most profound impact upon apparition theories, and their influence continues to modern times. Both men believed apparitions were entirely hallucinations, mental phenomena that had no physical reality. However, after that, their views diverged significantly.

Gurney believed they were the product of Telepathy from the dead to the living, projected out of the percipient’s mind in the form of an apparition. Furthermore, he believed that collective apparitions were also a product of telepathy among the living, projected by the primary percipient to others around him. However, telepathy among the living does not adequately explain collective sightings, in which apparitions are viewed from different angles, and different percipients notice different things. If the apparition were projected solely from a single percipient, then all percipients would see the same thing.

Myers, who believed strongly in survival after death, began to doubt the telepathic theory as early as 1885. In his own landmark book, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (1903), he postulated that apparitions consist of a “phantasmogenic center,” a locus of energies clairvoyantly expended by the agent and sufficiently strong enough to modify the space of the percipient. Apparitions, he said, appear to the most psychically sensitive person or persons in a group, which could explain why an apparition might not be recognized by a percipient, but could be identified by another person, based on the percipient’s description.

Other theories that have been advanced subsequently about apparitions suggest that:

• They are idea patterns or etheric images produced by the subconscious mind of the living, with or without the cooperation of the agent.

• They are the astral or etheric bodies of the agents.

• They are an amalgam of personality patterns, which in the case of hauntings are trapped tragic events in a psychic ether or psi field of a given site.

• They are personas, or vehicles through which the “I-thinking consciousness” can take on temporarily visible form, and experience and act. Personas may represent either the living or the dead, may or may not be “fully conscious,” and may exhibit a personality structure, perhaps in part fictitious (as in the case of mediumistic Control spirits).

• They are expressions of an individual’s unconscious needs: externalized projections of unresolved feelings of guilt or the embodiment of an unconscious wish. For example, at London’s Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, rehearsing actors glance hopefully at the last seat of row D for the apparition of the “Man in Gray,” the ghost of an 18th-century theatergoer. Tradition has it that a sighting means a successful run for the play. The apparition is also believed to guide actors to better positions on stage, and make his approval known to them.

• They are projections of concentration that become ThoughtformS.

• They are Demonstrations of the nonlocal nature of consciousness, which has the ability to transcend both space and time.

• Apparitions of the dead are truly the spirits of the dead, who possess an intelligence and ability to communicate with the living.

Investigation of Out-of-Body Experiences and Near-Death-Experiences has led some modern researchers to the view that apparitions also have a physicality of their own and are not merely mental hallucinations, and furthermore, that they are directed by an intelligence or personality. Karlis Osis, an American parapsychologist, has suggested that consciousness can be an “autonomous unit capable of perception and action when localized away from the body.” Whether or not apparitions are animated by personalities has been controversial. Those who believe they are not propose various explanations: that all apparitions are merely a psychic “recording” picked up by sensitive individuals; or that the living create apparitions out of intense desire and to serve their own purposes.

In Eastern mystical philosophy, the cosmos is permeated by a substance that absorbs and permanently records all actions, thoughts, emotions, and desires. In Hinduism, this substance is called the Akasha; the term “Akashic records” refers to everything recorded since the beginning of time. Oxford philosopher H. H. Price called the substance “psychic ether,” a term adopted by some psychical researchers. Thus, if all events are recorded forever on some invisible substance, then perhaps psychically tuned individuals can at times glimpse these records and get a “playback.” Psychic ether also has been given as a possible explanation for the mysterious appearance of apparitions on photographic film (see Spirit Photography).

Other ghost researchers believe apparitions have personalities, and that apparitions are evidence in support of survival after death. They cite cases in which apparitions communicate information unknown to the percipient, or adapt to their viewers.

It is unlikely that any single theory can explain all apparitions. It is possible that some apparitions are created by the living; that some have physicality and their own objective reality; that some are hallucinations; and that some are “psychic recordings” or imprints.

Andrew MacKenzie, a modern psychical researcher, has proposed that the ability to have hallucinatory experiences might be a function of personality structure. In an examination of hallucinatory cases, he found that about one-third of the experiences occurred just before or after sleep, or when the witness was awakened at night. Other experiences took place when the witness was in a state of relaxation, doing routine work in the home, or concentrating on some activity such as reading a book. Thus, the external world was shut out and the person’s guard was down, opening the way for impressions to rise from the subconscious. Occasionally, these impressions took the visual or auditory form of an apparition.

The linkage between this dreamlike state and sightings of apparitions also was made by G.N.M. Tyrrell, an English physicist, mathematician, and psychical researcher, who asserted that there were two stages in an apparitional experience. In stage one the witness unconsciously experiences the apparition, and in stage two the information from stage one is processed into consciousness through dreams and certain waking experiences which resemble ordinary cognition. Just as in a dream, apparitions appear fully clothed and are often accompanied by objects, such as a horse and carriage. The clothing and objects are as hallucinatory as the ghost itself and are present because they are required by the “motif” of the apparitional drama, Tyrrell said.

See Also:

Further Reading:

  • Auerbach, Loyd. ESP, Hauntings and Poltergeists: A Parapsychologist’s Handbook. New York: Warner Books, 1986.
  • Cornell, Tony. Investigating the Paranormal. New York: Helix Press, 2002.
  • Emmons, Charles. Chinese Ghosts and ESP. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982.
  • Green, Celia, and Charles McCreery. Apparitions. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1975.
  • Gurney, Edmund, F. W. H. Myers, and Frank Podmore. Phantasms of the Living. London: Society for Psychical Research (SPR)and Trubner & Co., 1886.
  • Haraldsson, Erlendur. “Survey of Claimed Encounters with the Dead.” Omega 19 (1988–89): 103–113.
  • Finucane, R. C. Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1984.
  • Hart, Hornell. “Six Theories About Apparitions.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)50 (1956):153–236.
  • ———. The Enigma of Survival. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1959.
  • Hart, Hornell, and Ella B. Hart. “Visions and Apparitions Collectively and Reciprocally Perceived.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)16 (1932–33):205–249.
  • Haynes, Renée. “What Do You Mean by a Ghost?” Parapsychology Review 17 (1986):9–12.
  • Jaffé, Aniela. Apparitions: An Archetypal Approach to Death, Dreams and Ghosts. Irving, Texas: Spring Publications, 1979.
  • Lang, Andrew. The Book of Dreams and Ghosts. New York: Causeway Books, 1974. First published 1897.
  • MacKenzie, Andrew. Hauntings and Apparitions. London: Heinemann Ltd., 1982.
  • Myers, Frederic W. H. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1954. First published 1903.
  • Newton, John (ed.) Early Modern Ghosts. Durham, England: Center for Seventeenth-Century Studies, University of Durham, 2002.
  • Osis, Karlis. “Apparitions Old and New,” in K. Ramakrishna Rao, Case Studies in Parapsychology. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1986.
  • Sidgwick, Henry. “Report on the Census of Hallucinations.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)10 (1894): 25–422.
  • Stevenson, Ian. “The Contribution of Apparitions to the Evidence for Survival.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)76 (1982): 341–356.
  • Tyrrell, G. N. M. Apparitions. London: Society for Psychical Research, 1973. First published 1943; revised 1953.
  • West, D. J. “A Pilot Census of Hallucinations.” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)57 (1990):163–207.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007

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