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If ghosts aren’t real, then explain this! – A guide for novice ghost hunters

Bloody hell Ken. Things have started to get spooky.

You’re hearing footsteps on the stairs when there’s no one else in the house, seeing shadowy figures out of the corner of your eye, and waking up with the distinct feeling that someone else was just in your bedroom. It’s unnerving, or downright scary, and you need help.

But before you call the Ghostbusters, or email Danny Robins, there are a few things that you should first consider. Because things that go bump in the night aren’t always what they seem, and if you want to prove that ghosts are real, you must first rule out the things that aren’t ghosts.

Whether you’re #TeamSceptic or #TeamBeliever, you’ll want to hear these ghost-hunting tips…

Image by Enrique from Pixabay

For the love of Scooby, get a carbon monoxide detector!

If you have a weird feeling that you’re being watched, that something in your house is somehow wrong, or if you start seeing or hearing things that shouldn’t be there, you might have carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide is a gas that can be produced when burning fuels such as gas, oil, coal, or wood. If you have a wood burner, coal fire, gas cooker, boiler, or similar appliance in your home – and that’s most of us – you could be at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide is stealthy. You can’t smell it, you can’t taste it, and you certainly can’t see it, so unless you have a carbon monoxide detector to alert you to its presence, you won’t know it’s there. And it can make you seriously ill, or even kill you.

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Breathing in carbon monoxide over a long period of time can give you flu-like symptoms – fatigue, headache, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, muscle pain, and weakness. Frighteningly, because carbon monoxide affects the brain, it can also cause vision problems, movement problems, memory problems, confusion, personality changes, and dementia.

Between 2010 and 2020, carbon monoxide killed between 100 and 200 people per year in England and Wales alone, and it sends around 4000 people per year to A&E. In investigating a ‘haunt’ situation, the presence of carbon monoxide is absolutely the first thing you should check for.

And if you feel like you or your family are being haunted, or your health has taken a nosedive, check your home for carbon monoxide and talk to your GP.

Image by PhoenixArt43 from Pixabay

Sounds like trouble

Infrasound is low frequency sound, below the usual range of human hearing. The theory is that even though you can’t hear infrasound you can still ‘experience’ it, and it can have an effect on your body and brain.

It is said that infrasound is capable of intensifying or inducing emotions such as joy, anger, fear, and awe. It has been put forward as a culprit for otherwise unexplained feelings of unease or dread, of an invisible ‘presence’ in the room, and sometimes even for sightings of ghosts, with the theory being that, at the right frequency and strength, infrasound can cause the eyeballs to vibrate, causing visual distortions and the appearance of apparitions.

There is however, some controversy about the effects of infrasound and the experiments to explore its effects, as well as criticism of a scientist who wrote extensively about it. So for many the jury is still out on whether infrasound is actually responsible for ‘hauntings’.

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Infrasound occurs in nature in many animal vocalisations, such as a tiger’s roar or an elephant’s call. It can also be found in certain types of weather (thunder, high winds), waves, waterfalls, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other natural events. There are also numerous artificial sources of infrasound, including wind turbines, traffic, aircraft, trains, low speed fans, and building sway.

Infrasound, it seems, is all around us. But how do we know it’s there if we can’t hear it? Well, as with almost everything else nowadays, there’s an app for that. Search for ‘infrasound detector’ or ‘infrasound recorder’ in your app store and you’ll get a variety of offerings that might – or might not – allow you to demonstrate that the something strange in your neighbourhood is actually just weird sound.

Image by cottonbro studio via Pexels

Waking nightmare

You’re asleep in bed. There’s no one else in the house. You’re woken by the sound of footsteps, and then, terrifyingly, your bedroom door creaks open and a figure walks in. Maybe it sits down on the bed, maybe it leans over you. You are paralysed with fear, unable to move, unable to scream.

It’s ok. You’re still dreaming.

I know you will swear that you were awake, and that what you saw was absolutely real, but I promise you that you were still asleep and dreaming, in a state called ‘sleep paralysis’.

Sleep paralysis can occur when you are falling asleep or waking up, and your brain gets briefly confused about which state you should be in. Your body has switched your muscles off, so that you don’t act out your dreams whilst you sleep, but your brain is attempting to interpret input as though you are awake.

This can result in a weird and often frightening overlay of dream images or hallucinations on top of your actual surroundings. Your bedroom is real, but what you think you are seeing or experiencing is not. A frightening figure or presence in the room, a feeling of suffocation or pressure on your chest, the sense of movement such as your body jerking or the bed shaking, and even the feeling that you are levitating or rising out of your body, are all incredibly common when experiencing sleep paralysis.

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Sleep paralysis is often the result of sleep disturbances. You might need to do some investigative work into what is at the root of the sleep disturbance – stress, mental health issues, illness or pain, unstable sleep patterns due to shift work, hypoglycaemia, an environment unconducive to good sleep – and read up on how to address the issue and get less disturbed sleep.

Sleep paralysis also appears to have a genetic component, so it’s quite possible that several people within the same family could experience it in the same time period, particularly if disturbed sleep is being caused by environmental factors in or around the home.

You might also want to consider whether your spooky experience was a hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucination – which are pretty common, with 37% people reporting that they have experienced hallucinations as they fall asleep, and 12% reporting hallucinations as they wake up.

Whilst none of these conditions will, in themselves, cause you harm, if you feel worried by them you should, as always, talk to a doctor.

Image by Elīna Arāja on Pexels

Spooky stuff on the brain?

Do you hear whispering outside your bedroom door? See strange flashes of light or ghostly figures? It could be your eyes – or your brain – playing tricks on you.

Firstly, let’s talk mental health. Any one of us can experience mental health problems, and one in four of us do, every year. So if you feel like something strange is going on, or something’s wrong, the sensible thing to do is to find support, and talk to someone about your experiences.

It’s common for mental health issues to distort our perceptions, whether that’s low mood causing us to doubt how our friends and loved ones feel about us, a sense of unease or a frightening ‘presence’, hearing voices, seeing things that aren’t there, or any number of other strange or scary experiences that aren’t our own experience of ‘normal’.

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Having a mental health issue is nothing to be embarrassed about or ashamed of, and you  should talk to a medical professional about your experiences, to get any support or treatment that you might need. If you need to talk to someone right now, you can call Samaritans for free, and if you see or hear something that tells you to harm yourself or someone else, call 999 or go to A&E straight away.

If you’re seeing odd things, it could be your eyes that are the issue. Seeing flashes or floaters (dots or lines) is common and usually nothing serious, and sometimes seeing white flashes can be caused by PVD – Posterior vitreous detachment – where the gel within your eye changes, or starts to come away from the retina. Then there’s Charles Bonnet syndrome, which can cause people who are losing their sight to experience visual hallucinations of patterns, people, animals or objects. Getting yourself a regular eye test can help to reassure you and ensure you get any treatment or support that you might need.

Whilst it’s important to take care of your brain and eyes, there are also many other situations and health conditions that can cause distorted perceptions, such as medicine side effects, migraines, or even a urinary tract infection (particularly in the elderly), and you should call 111 or talk to your GP if you are worried.

Image by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels

Unreliable narrator

Whilst some people will straight up create a ghost story that ‘happened’ to them, either for the attention or for the money, many witnesses of strange happenings truly believe the tale that they are telling – but that doesn’t make their interpretation of events true.

Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, and are one of the biggest causes of miscarriages of justice within the criminal justice system, so we need to take a step back when considering the testimony of witnesses in ‘haunt’ type situations.

A memory is not recorded in the brain in the same way that a film is recorded on a camera. Memories are living things, potentially changeable with each telling of a tale, with a tendency to be distorted over time, and vulnerable to outside influence or suggestion.

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A vaguely unusual occurrence could, over time, be transformed into something truly terrifying and supernatural, in the same way that the minnow gradually transforms into a whale shark in subsequent retellings of an old fisherman recounting his catch.

A set of unconnected experiences can, with the right catalyst and the aid of confirmation bias, turn into the spookiest of stories. Share your terrifying tale with inhabitants of the same environment, add a pinch of social contagion, and suddenly you have multiple ‘witnesses’ who all believe that they have experienced the same thing.

Sincere belief should not be confused with truth, and even the most credible-seeming witnesses can be mistaken about what they really saw.

If your spooky experience isn’t explained here, there are many other things that it could be. And if it’s none of those things? Then perhaps – just perhaps –  it really is a ghost…

Looking for something spooky? Uncanny is available on BBC Sounds and BBC iPlayer, and UncannyLive! is touring until December. 

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