ONE REASON why we believe in the reality of certain things, such as life after
death, hunches, prophecies, fortune-telling, is that we want to believe in them;
but it is not the only reason. There can be very few people who have not had
some kind of "odd" experience. To anyone who has studied parapsychology the
description of most of these oddities is, quite frankly, as boring as the usual
account of somebody's last night's dream. One sympathizes with the celebrated
reply of Archbishop Temple to the curate. "My aunt," said the curate, "was going
to travel on that train which had the accident with every passenger killed, but
she changed her mind at the last moment and put off her journey. Don't you
think, Your Grace, that that was an example of the working of a beneficent
Providence?" "Don't know," replied the Archbishop. "Never knew your aunt."
Anyone who wants to find out the truth about psychical phenomena must begin by
seeing why the usual stories are almost always worthless. Let us look at a few
When the wife says to her husband, "Why, dear, I was just going to say the same
thing!" are we at once to suppose that we have found a case of thought
No. Husbands and wives who have lived together for some years have a large
common fund of experience, of feelings, of interests. Something in the
environment produces the same reaction in both, and one speaks first. That
explanation is the simplest and will cover almost all cases; and it is often a
pleasant and even profitable experiment for both husband and wife to examine the
chain of unspoken thoughts which finally led to the spoken one. Often the chains
begin far apart until at last a common link of past experience brings them
On the other hand, we must not make the mistake of insisting that the simple
explanation must always be sufficient. There may be the thousandth or the
millionth occasion when a more complicated explanation is needed. There may be
one day a flash of telepathy between husband and wife, and we must be careful
not to miss it, just as we must be careful not to drag in telepathy where there
is no need for it.
The ardent lover sits down and writes to his girl: "Darling I dreamed of you
only last night and here this morning is a letter from you!" Telepathy? Perhaps;
perhaps not. How often does he dream of her without a letter coming? How often
does she write without his dreaming? If she writes every other day and he dreams
once a week, there is not the slightest reason for any less simple explanation
than coincidence. In fact, there is no reason, even if he dreams once a year and
she writes once a year, though perhaps the coincidence might be considered more
But if the man dreams that he has a letter in which the girl tells him some
specific thing which he actually finds in her letter next morning, then it may
be something less simple than coincidence. Even then it depends on the rarity,
the unlikelihood of the message, whether telepathy should be suggested. If the
words he dreams and later reads are "I love you" or "I wish you were here with
me," the evidence for telepathy would be negligible, for again a simpler
explanation would suffice. If the words are "I have bought a green hat and a
green handbag" and if this appeared in the dream and in the letter, then we must
be a little more careful. We must still refuse to believe in a telepathic
communication unless we have taken certain precautions, and it is because almost
nobody ever takes these precautions that there is so little unimpeachable
evidence of psi phenomena.
A man may well believe he dreamed what he later read in the letter, but did he
in fact dream it? Time and again it can be shown that memory is unreliable, that
it fills in details, adds the frills which we would like to be true. It may be
that in the dream the girl had bought a hat, not a very uncommon thing for girls
to do, and it was only after he had the letter that his memory suggested to him
that he had dreamed it was a green hat and that a handbag was bought as well.
Now if, on waking in the morning, the man had written down his dream, sealed up
the account in an envelope, and posted it to his bank or his lawyer before the
letter came; and if it was afterward opened by the lawyer or bank manager and
compared with the letter; and if the words were found to have been identical in
both - then and only then would a real case for telepathy have been made out.
Even then the only thing actually proved would have been a correspondence
between a dream and a letter, and it would depend on the nature of the
correspondence whether telepathy should be invoked as an explanation. If all the
lawyer found in common between the two were the sentence, "I wish you were
here," there would still be no reason to drag in telepathy, since the simpler
explanation of chance coincidence would suffice.
However, we must never close our minds to the possibility that a dream may be
truly telepathic. A famous example known to all students of psychical research
is the dream of a Mrs. B, who had a favorite servant named Annie. She dreamed
one night that Annie said to her: "I have something on my mind that I must tell
you. I have a three-year-old boy named Bertie." She told her husband of the
dream and later that day told Annie. Annie turned pale and soon after was found
crying in the kitchen. She had indeed got a child named Bertie, three years old,
and she had been trying to make up her mind for some weeks to confess.
A year later Mrs. B had another dream while away from home in London. This time
the dream was of Annie in very great trouble, and it repeated itself all night.
She was so depressed that she decided to break off her visit and go home. There
she was greeted by a grief-stricken Annie. "Oh, madam," she sobbed. "Mother
tells me Bertie is dying. I was crying and praying all last night for you to
come back: I want to go to him!"
If the account as we have given it on the authority of reliable witnesses is
accurate, no simple explanation leaving out telepathy can account for all the
facts. There is always a chance of such an experience coming to anyone, and part
of the object of this book is to show how the value of such an experience may be
preserved by appropriate action.
Sometimes people are struck by having dreamed of an event which they then read
about in the next day's paper. "I dreamed of a big fire and in the morning paper
I saw that a warehouse was burned down in the night." If that is all, the
explanation may be exceedingly simple. On a large number of days in the week
there are fires reported in the newspapers, and on this particular morning the
person happened to be reminded of the dream by reading the newspaper account.
How often something happens and we say: "That reminds me. I dreamed about that
last night." We forget our dreams so easily that we rarely remember any of them
unless something happens to remind us. Unfortunately, we are often "reminded" in
this way of dreams which we have never dreamed at all! Or our unreliable
memories graft on the real dream details which makes it seem to refer to the
The fact is that it is so hard to avoid these possibilities of self-deception
that no account of a dream will have much value as evidence of paranormal
phenomena unless it is so vivid that the dreamer writes it down immediately on
waking. Dreams of which one is only reminded by reading a paper or by
conversation at the breakfast table very seldom deserve general credence,
however significant they may seem to the dreamer. The perfect telepathic dream
is the one which, written down on waking, is later found to contain such
detailed truth about something unknown to the dreamer that coincidence is ruled
There is an experience which almost everybody has had and been puzzled by. It is
called in psychological circles déjà vu - "I have been here before," or "this
has happened to me before." Sometimes there is a feeling that the person knows
what is going to happen next.
There are dozens of explanations of this. Some people, with very doubtful
anatomical backing, say that one half of the brain gets out of step with the
other and produces the same sort of effect as one sometimes hears with a faulty
phonograph needle. Others say that the explanation is purely psychological; for
example, you are walking along a road, and without knowing it you observe one
detail which is exactly like something you saw on a previous occasion - let us
say, a tree trunk. It is perfectly true that you have been past the tree trunk
before, but the feeling of recognition, by the time it becomes part of your
conscious picture of what is happening, has spread all over the picture, so that
instead of recognizing correctly a tree seen before, you think you recognize a
whole situation which is entirely new to you.
For us it does not matter very much what the explanation is, and none of those
which have been suggested seems to us likely. It is, however, important to
realize that sometimes, but no doubt very rarely, there is in a déjà vu
experience something of interest to students of the Unknown. Here is an example.
Some years ago a lady was going over a house in a remote part of the country
with a view to renting it. With her was her husband, a distinguished scientist.
As they walked into one room, she said: "Jack, I've been here before, I'm sure
of it." She then described the details of other rooms which they had not yet
visited. When they went into these rooms the descriptions were found to be
correct. Here the feeling of déjà vu was combined with a foreknowledge of
experiences which had not yet taken place.
There are a good many such examples, many of them based on reliable evidence,
and anyone who experiences a vivid sense of déjà vu should see if he can
foretell what is going to happen next, or be seen next, and describe it as
clearly as possible to someone with him. It is not impossible that déjà vu is
sometimes due to a paranormal faculty, and every effort should therefore be made
to preserve any value it may have as evidence.
Another very common experience, especially with highly strung or worried people,
is that of feeling "out-of-the-body." People describe how they have felt
themselves hovering in the air and looking down on their bodies lying in bed.
The experience seems to be rather like a common sort of dream, except that it
takes place while the person is awake. This is an example of something which by
itself is quite useless as evidence for the paranormal.
What is evidence? It is that which will convince fair-minded people that a
certain event really happened. There is no doubt at all that some people do have
out-of-the-body experiences, but how can they possibly find evidence which can
convince anyone else that what they experienced was not an illusion or a
delusion or a dream or indeed a thumping lie?
Of course if, while out-of-the-body, they appeared to someone else miles away
from their body, and if the other person saw them, then, provided both people
wrote down their account of what happened immediately afterward, there is
certainly a case to go before a jury. The jury will have to be convinced that A
felt himself leave his body and go to see B, and that B received the visit
consciously while definitely awake. If both A and B have written down their
experiences and given their accounts to third parties, long before there can be
any question of their exchanging messages, then indeed we would have a most
interesting case. But, unfortunately, although we have many accounts of such
apparitions, there are fewer cases approaching the evidential standard which is
Then why do so many people believe in out-of-the-body experiences? Because ever
since mankind began to think, such a power has seemed the obvious explanation of
dreams. We do seem to visit people in our dreams and to leave our bodies behind
in bed; to the primitive mind it seems obvious that what happens in dreams does
really happen. Besides, we have no evidence that out-of-the-body experiences do
not happen, and this is an important point.
There are things which we can prove cannot possibly happen, and there are other
things which we cannot possibly prove do not happen, though we cannot prove that
they do, and both sorts of things are equally useless as evidence of paranormal
phenomena. That is an elementary point which is forgotten again and again by
people recounting their private experiences. "What is the good of your saying I
did not leave my body, when I tell you that I did?" is a perfectly sound
reproof. There is no good whatever in denying this, for there is no evidence
that it did not happen; but, equally, there is no point in bringing it forward
as evidence, for there is no proof possible that it did happen.
And what about the night you saw a ghost? It is quite rare to find anyone who
has not seen a ghost, or heard of one who has, and yet the number of cases of
proved apparitions could probably be counted on your fingers and toes. There is
almost completely convincing evidence for the reality of apparitions, but this
certainly rests not on the millions of ghosts reported by people since the
beginning of history, but on the few which were carefully investigated by
reliable people, who were able to rule out every other possibility except that
the apparition was an apparition.
If we leave out obviously made-up ghost stories and retain only those which are
serious contributions to our understanding of ghosts, we find that quite a
number of people have had some kind of dealing with some kind of apparition. At
least that was true in England sixty years ago when a Census of Hallucinations
was carried out by the (British) Society for Psychical Research. The sample of
population questioned numbered 17,000 and of these 1,684 - that is, one in ten -
had seen a ghost.
Of course the people asked were by no means a true sample of the general
population, and there is no way of knowing whether the percentage would have
been higher or lower if everybody in Britain had been asked. It seems, however,
that far fewer than 5 million Britons have had such an experience!
There is some evidence that ghosts are dying out. "Naturally," says the
unbeliever. "With the coming of education people are a bit more sensible and
don't imagine rubbish so often as they used to." That may be true; but we must
carefully underline the word may. It is possible that education, and
civilization generally, reduces the number of paranormal experiences, but that
does not necessarily mean we are giving up false beliefs; it may possibly mean
that we are losing the faculty for experiencing certain kinds of true things. It
may be our fault rather than our progress. The ghosts may be there, but we do
not see them because, just as some people are color-blind, we have become
But to return to your own ghosts. Few people have less than ten friends, so
there is a probability that there is a ghost in your circle of acquaintances.
What can you do about him? In succeeding chapters we shall discuss in more
detail how the reader's paranormal experiences can be made useful, but some
general rules will be given here, since they are the sort of thing that should
be remembered throughout this book.
1. If you hear a ghost story, said to be true, ask first of all: Who saw the
ghost? Was it the man telling the story? Or is it of the type, to alter slightly
a once popular song, of "I danced with a man, who has danced with a girl, who
has danced with the ghost of Rudolph Valentino"? What we want is firsthand
2. Given that it is a firsthand account, what sort of person tells the story? It
may help you to know that very few people see a ghost more than once in their
lives. Beware of the person who is always adding another "ghost" to his bag.
3. Did anyone else see the ghost, or was anyone else present when the ghost was
seen, although he did not see it himself? All evidence needs corroboration.
4. What is the manner of the person telling the ghost story? Does he tell it
often, and is it to get the limelight for himself? Most people who have really
seen an apparition feel rather serious about it and are reluctant to discuss the
matter, at least with strangers.
5. Most ghosts are seen in connection with some serious event, such as a death,
a great danger, an accident. If the person who saw the ghost connects it with
any such event, did he write down his experience or tell somebody before he
could have heard of the event?
6. Was there anything about the man's mental state which might have predisposed
him to see the ghost, i.e., great anxiety, loneliness, or expectation of seeing
the person whose ghost he has seen?
7. Did he recognize the ghost, or was it just a figure or shape seen vaguely and
taken to be someone?
A great deal can be learned from the answers to these questions, and the value
of the ghost story as evidence of the Unknown will largely depend on them. The
sort of story which is of no use whatever would be this: "I was walking along in
the twilight when I suddenly saw on the road in front of me a white figure which
seemed to be waving its arms at me. I could not see its face, but I thought it
was a man, and then I felt sure it was X. Just as I got up to it, it
disappeared. A week later I had a letter from a friend who told me that X had
died. I don't know when he died, but it must have been just about when I saw
Such a story would not be worth while investigating, although, of course, that
is not the same as saying that such a story would certainly be untrue. It is not
enough that a thing is true; we want to be able to prove that it is true. Here,
for example, is a story included in the Census of Hallucinations which sounds
like half the ghost stories we are told from childhood up. It would be no better
than those we meet in everyday life and would not be worth quoting, but for one
Henry Sidgwick, one of the most reliable of the early parapsychology
investigators, interviewed the married sister and was impressed by her
corroboration of the details. This raises the story to the rank of "probable"
but cannot of course turn it into a certainty.
"A young couple were engaged. Her father withdrew his consent; the mother on her
deathbed made its renewal her last request. The father, instead of getting over
his sorrow, seemed more and more bowed down with an ever-increasing sense of
'horror.' One day he told his married daughter and her husband that his wife
haunted him every morning at four, the hour when she died, always talking of the
young couple. They asked him what clothes the apparition wore, and he said, 'The
last dress I gave her, and a cap of your making.' On the way home the married
daughter told her husband that it was when in that dress and cap that her mother
had said to her, 'If I die before your father renews his consent, I shall haunt
him till he does.' She was then in perfect health. This was never told to the
father, but he was urged to renew his consent. For some months he could only
escape the visitations by having someone awake with him in the room. From the
day he consented again to the marriage his wife's visits ceased."
This certainly sounds rather like the traditional ghost story; but, as we have
said, Professor Sidgwick personally interviewed the narrator, the other married
daughter, and considered that there was no fraud, conscious or unconscious, and
that there was third-party corroboration.
In this case the whole value of the story depends on one point: was the father
ever told of his wife's threat to haunt him? According to the evidence of the
married sister who tells the story, the father was never told. Had it been
otherwise, the simpler explanation of suggestion would have sufficed and would
have had to be accepted. If the father knew that his wife proposed to haunt him,
and especially if he had a guilty conscience, that might well have been
sufficient to wake him up at 4 a.m. It would seem that he did not enjoy these
visits of his departed wife, so that the relations between them may have been
strained. (This does not, of course, follow, since, however dear they may be,
most people prefer their loved ones to stay put. The origin of the flat
gravestone as well as innumerable primitive burial rituals is to prevent the
return of the dear departed.)
The case would have been immeasurably strengthened if only the married daughter
had at the time of her conversation with her mother written down: "Mama told me
today [giving date] that she would haunt Papa after her death if he didn't give
consent. She was dressed in [description]. I told my husband this at once and
have written it down in his presence. Signed " But this is exactly what so
few people ever dream of doing. It is what you yourself should do if ever you
have the luck to see a ghost, or, as here, are told by an elderly person of
their intention to become a ghost after death.
There is one more point that should be emphasized: there is no evidence whatever
that true apparitions are seen only, or even chiefly, by people in a bad state
of mental or physical health. Nervous strain may predispose a person, but not
nervous illness. It is not very common for a true apparition to cause fright.
The frightening ghosts are usually of the hollowed-out turnip with candle and
bed sheet type. Honest ghosts, like Hamlet's father's ghost, usually want to
give information or seem, to those who see them, to want to get something done
and not to scare the life out of you.
We shall say nothing here of one other "supernatural" experience, since it must
occupy our attention in the next chapter. People very often claim to have been
cured of a disease by supernatural means. Leaving out cures associated with
religions, such as those at Lourdes, there is abundant evidence that people can
be cured by means which no doctor could duplicate or explain. The doctor would
put all these down to such things as fraud or faulty diagnosis, whereby a person
is cured of some disease he never had, or, more respectably, to "suggestion."
Again it is not so simple as this. There are cases which not even that useful
but vague thing, "suggestion," can explain.
The article above was taken from "The Unknown - Is is Nearer?" (New York: Signet
Key Book, 1956) by Eric. J. Dingwall and John Langdon-Davies.