The (Real) Science Behind Ghosts And Hauntings

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Chris Doyle

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SanchaiRat /

I dare you to stay overnight in a reportedly haunted house. Would you do it?  Most wouldn’t. I might based on research that a haunting or a ghost is all in the mind.

Now that Halloween is over for the year we shift our attention to the holiday season.  However, for the 40 percent (Harris Poll 2013) of Americans who believe in ghosts they still have them on their radar, especially those who feel they are actually living in a haunted home.


A haunted house is claimed to be a space that contains the existence of a former and deceased resident.  They are also claimed to be a vessel for “recording” past traumatic or violent events. Both of these theories have obviously never been proven scientifically, however there is a science behind the haunt. Let’s take a look at the real causes. Forget about the hoaxes, confirmation biases by people who want to believe and the expectations of an encounter when entering a reportedly haunted location.  These all muddle the investigation into why a person could feel they actually experience a haunting.

People mostly experience a ghostly encounter when about to fall asleep or when waking up. These encounters are also common of those intoxicated or sleep deprived. Small doses of carbon monoxide leaking and poisoning is often connected with similar reports. A sensed presence effect is known to occur when individuals experience cold, fatigue and or hunger and go to bed (2017 Investigating Ghosts, Scientific Search for Spirits) so it isn’t difficult to understand how these various situations will contribute to the idea of a haunt. In addition, preexisting biases, memory and waking dreams add to this effect.  Ever notice how creeped you get at night after watching a scary movie and head to bed?  The same rarely happens in a cheery environment with a rested mind.

The Philip experiment is a classic example of creating a spirit by just belief. The goal of the experiment was to create a mythical ghost and then communicate with it through means of a séance. This experiment, done in Toronto in 1972, had some pretty astounding outcomes. The character created and agreed upon by the scientists (Led by Dr A.R George Owen) was called Philip.  The group was seated around a table and a séance was started. This first séance yielding no connection to any ghost. or any feelings of evidence.  When Owen moderately altered the conditions of the room (dimming the lights and lowering the temperature, etc) the participants started to claim to feel a presence, hear noises and apply the preexisting back story of the ghost’s life to account for otherwise earthly happenings.  Despite all these “happenings”, Philip never ever actually appeared. It was all just suggestion.

Hypnagogic hallucination is a known experience which occurs between sleep and being awake. People claim feeling someone (or something) touching them, sitting on the bed or other ghostly interactions. This transitional state can cause mental phenomena’s such as sleep paralysis, lucid dreaming and flat out hallucinations.  This combined with other biases easily explain the visitation of preternatural beings. Toxicologist Albert Donnay believes chronic exposure to carbon monoxide and other chemical poisoning can lead to hallucinations associated with haunted houses. This syndrome would easily explain the hauntings experienced by the Victorians having such things as gasoline lamps and arsenic laced wallpaper poisoning their minds.


So, the next time you see a property for sale at a bargain because of a class A haunting be sure to snatch it up. You may just only need to hire a house safety inspector instead of an exorcist.

For more by Chris Doyle, magician and collector of curiosities, find him on Facebook and Instagram.