Contextual Mediation of Perceptions
During Haunting and Poltergeist-Like Experiences: A Replication and Extension
Timothy M. Harte
Department of Psychology
University of Illinois-Springfield
CONTEXTUAL MEDIATION OF APPARITIONS
Contextual Mediation of Perceptions During Haunting and Poltergeist-Like Experiences: A Replication and Extension Introduction
A Brief History on the Inquiry into Haunting and Poltergeist-Like Phenomena
Throughout history the use of allegedly psychic abilities has made its mark on lifestyles across the wide range of human culture. Psi (a general term to denote psychical functioning) might be attributed to an oracle, shaman, prophet, or priest, but the concept has been around perhaps since the beginning of our species. And of course, our longing to believe that death is not the end of our consciousness or our existence has maintained our permanent fascination, and maybe even need, for ghosts and all things spiritual.
Regardless of any causal factors, people do have experiences which they interpret as paranormal. Surveys over the years have assessed the content and frequency of spontaneous occurrences of such experiences, but the anecdotal evidence of spontaneous cases is correctly cited by parapsychologists, constructive skeptics, and debunkers as good reading that are hardly objective examinations of the experiences. It should be mentioned, however, that many philosophers would argue that all the evidence we have gathered and hold dear as scientific fact is purely anecdotal since human perception was involved to some degree. Such arguments do not add substance to science but rather detract from central issues of human experience. People report such experiences and even though we cannot assume that their reports are objectively accurate accounts of what happened, we can objectively examine these reports.
Rational and empirical thought in science shaped how the early researchers looked at the experiences and phenomena. The primary aim was to collect empirical data about the various psychic and spiritual events in the world with the intention of truly explaining this part of human experience. However, it was the spiritualistic movement that really dictated to the early investigators just exactly what would be the central topic of inquiry.
Spiritualism has been described as a new religious movement (Ellwood & Partin, 1988) but most notably, it focused public attention on psychical experiences in both the United States and England. The interest of several prominent scientists, such as Henry Sidgwick, Frederic W.H. Myers, William James, and Simon Newcomb was piqued, and this led to the formation of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London in 1882. There were several committees organized by the original leadership of the SPR with each of these subgroups to investigate particular topics of the SPR's interest, including telepathy and clairvoyance, gifted subjects (psychics and mediums), hypnotism and its apparent effects, physical phenomena spanning from mediumship to poltergeist cases, studies of literature investigating the literary and historical roots of the ideas on the phenomena, and lastly, apparitions and hauntings (Auerbach, 1986). The SPR and its branch, the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), were responsible for several parapsychologically-important volumes and papers. These included Phantasms of the Living (1886) by Edmund Gurney, F.W.H. Myers, and Frank Podmore, as well
Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903). The SPR also conducted the "Census of Hallucinations" in 1889-90, studying over 17,000 replies from the British public and asking questions about apparitional and other psychic experiences. Interestingly enough, approximately 10% of that population reported seeing, hearing, or feeling something which could be described as an apparition, whether that apparition was of a recognized or an unidentified person, living or dead (Auerbach, 1986). In addition to the SPR's efforts, at least two independent investigations of reported haunting phenomena (HP) were later undertaken.
In 1919, one of Italy's leading experts on psychical phenomena, Ernesto Bozzano, collected 374 world-wide accounts of haunted houses. He published these, together with a subsequent analysis in his book, Dei Fenomeni d' Infestazione, which has yet to be translated into English (Rogo, 1978). His analysis revealed that a tragic death had indeed occurred in 180 of these houses. In 27 additional cases, no tragic deaths had ever been recorded, but there was evidence- such as human bones unearthed near the house- which implied that some tragedy or accident did exist. Deaths had also occurred in 97 additional houses, but they had not been tragic or unusual in any way. Out of these 374 cases, apparitions were reported in 311 of them. In 76 cases, the apparitions looked similar to people who had actually lived in the houses at one time. In 41 further cases, the figures were not recognized initially, but were later found to resemble old portraits or photographs of previous tenants found after the apparitions had been reported and described by witnesses (as cited in Rogo, 1978). Such analyses as discussed by Houran (1991) would have predictive validity for future cases if all sites which incurred hostile activity became haunted in some definitive manner. However, it seems plausible that any<site, with an exhaustive investigation, may have had some tragedy or violent act there, whether the acts were deliberate, accidental, or even simply involving animal behavior may account for the haunting reputation.
Camille Flammarion, the distinguished French astronomer, collected thousands of reports of hauntings and other spontaneous phenomena suggestive of an interpretation of survival of bodily death. He followed-up credible reports and engaged in voluminous correspondence to resolve ambiguities and to obtain independent corroborating accounts from secondary witnesses. Flammarion's death in 1925 precluded the publication of his awaited book, "a special volume to ghosts, methodically discussed, in the light of observational science" (Flammarion, 1924, pp. 390-391). This work promised to concern itself with the nature of phantoms, based on a study of spontaneous case material that spanned 60 years. W.G. Roll's distinction between apparently "true" hauntings (i.e., haunting RSPK, and poltergeist episodes had a tremendous impact on haunting theory. In poltergeist cases, Roll (1977) identifies the source of the haunting phenomena as a living "agent", typically of young age, who elicits involuntary PK (psychokinesis), or RSPK (recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis) in response to environmental, biological, or social stressors. These incidents are in contrast to traditional hauntings which Roll (1977) terms "haunting RSPK." As a rule, hauntings are thought to be "place-oriented"; that is, to be associated with a special location while poltergeists are considered "person-oriented." As a rule things only happen when a particular individual is present, labeled an "agent." If several people seem influential, the one person most associated with the phenomenon is called the "primary agent" (Roll, 1977). Consequently, poltergeists are considered a special variety of haunting which may theoretically involve an incorporeal entity which has attached itself to an individual (Stevenson, 1972). More likely, from a parapsychological perspective, poltergeist cases seem to be examples of psychokinesis (PK) from a living person (i.e., agent). Roll (1977, p 383) proposes there is "strong evidence" from specific cases to infer the existence of PK and more importantly, clues to its nature (Dingwall & Hall, 1958; Pratt & Roll, 1958; Roll, 1969; Roll, 1970; Pratt & Palmer, 1976; Bender, 1968; Karger & Zicha, 1968; Roll & Stump, 1969; Roll, 1976).
However, it has been argued (e.g., Houran, 1996) that the documented subjective and objective effects reported in these experiences are ambiguous, thus, they fail to suggest or validate any particular etiology, much less one causal mechanism like RSPK. For example, a typical characteristic of both hauntings and poltergeist-like experiences are reports of repeated changes in the environment, such as movement of objects and erratic functioning of various appliances, strange sounds, "odd feelings," intelligible phrases, sensed presences, and the perception of visual forms (Roll, 1977; Persinger & Cameron, 1986, p. 49; Playfair & Grosse, 1988). These effects are considerably more mundane than has been sensationalized by the Spiritualism Movement or by the popular media (Auerbach, 1986). Further, similar effects can arise from sensory deprivation (Tiller & Persinger, 1994), guided imagery, guided meditation, "waking dreams," Jungian active imagination, and a variety of other visualization strategies (Noll, 1983; Vaughan, 1995a, b; Walsh, 1989, 1990, 1995). In fact, the mere suggestion that a particular environment is associated with unusual experiences, has been demonstrated to induce physicalcomplaints, physiologic alterations, and hallucinations (Orne, 1962). On the other hand, several studies have demonstrated that, considered as subjective experiences, paranormal phenomena can be studied with reliable self-report measures in the same way as anxiety, depression, or any other set of experiences (Ross & Joshi, 1992; Kohr, 1980; Richards, 1988, 1990a; 1990b; Wickramasekera, 1986; 1989).
Consistent with a non-paranormal interpretation of these experiences, considerable research has correlated the psychological and environmental effects attributed to poltergeists, or recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis(RSPK) and hauntings with the presence of physical energies, including geomagnetism (Gearhart & Persinger, 1986; Persinger, 1988, 1993), electromagnetic and electrostatic fields (Persinger & Cameron, 1986; Roll, Maher & Brown, 1993; Nichols, 1994) and ionizing radiation (Radin & Roll, 1994). It has been proposed that these energies are the physical instigators of haunting experiences because they induce microseizuring in the temporal (limbic) lobe. Such seizures, and their neurophysiological correlates, are hypothesized to be the foundation of these and even other various types of mystical and religious hallucinations (Persinger, 1983). However, the content of perceived apparitions (e.g., bereavement apparitions and other haunting and poltergeist experiences) cannot be explained entirely by Persinger's (1993) electromagnetic and neurochemical process model. A recent series of studies (Lange, Houran, Harte & Havens, 1996; Houran, Harte, & Lange, 1996) analyzed 924 individual haunting experiences. In contradiction to the research cited above, no relationship was found between inferred-indicators of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and the modalities of the experiences. Instead, contextual mediation (CM) proved to be of major importance. In particular, 78% of all experiences contained a reference to at least one contextual variable (i.e., belief in the
paranormal, demand characteristic of the situation, psychophysical state of the percipient, metaphorical-symbolic references, and embedded cues), and 71% of the experiences showed a clear congruency between the content of the contextual variables and the content of the experience. Further, it was found that the number of contextual variables was related to the modality of the experience (.001). Together, these results suggest that the EMF-instigators are not a prerequisite for inducing the kinds of changes in affect and cognitions (Persinger & Cameron, 1986; Persinger, 1988, 1993) which are characteristic of RSPK experiences.
Persinger (1993), looked at the suppression of nocturnal melatonin changes as the result of enhanced geomagnetic activity (or tectonic plate movement in the earth's crust) as a cause for people to experience bereavement apparitions. This process theoretically may cause microseizuring in the temporal (limbic) lobe which may explain the experiences. Most of the spontaneous experiences that Persinger (1993) looked at from Fate Magazine happened at the midnight to 6:00 a.m. local time. There was some significance, but he also proposed that other neurochemical processes might cause different types of experiences.
The present research is an analysis of reports found on the Internet site (www.crown.net/x/stories/uncle.html., 1995) and from USA Weekend (1992). The variables looked at in this study include the sex of percipient; the experienc
e (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, sensed presence, object movement, erratic functioning, and a new one, emotional feeling); the collectivity (alone, or in a group); the mood (alert, routine, reverie, or cannot tell); the contextual variables (belief, demand characteristic, embedded cues, symbolic-metaphorical reference, psychophysical state); time of day (6:00 a.m. to midnight, midnight to 6:00 a.m, cannot tell); the climactic conditions (stormy, clear, cannot tell); and the congruency of the experience (not congruent, congruent, cannot tell); from a previous study (Lange, Houran, Harte, & Havens, 1996). Climactic conditions, time of day, and emotional feeling in the type of experience were added to look for effects of Persinger's (1993) hypothesis.
It was found that more external-based manifestations, such as the anomalous erratic functioning of equipment and the non-corporeal movement of objects, were not highly mediated by contextual variables. Thus, it cannot be ruled out that these effects do in fact depend on external physical factors, possibly including EMFs. The present study will attempt to replicate and extend the former study on contextual mediation investigation by taking into account the period between midnight and 6:00 a.m. local time (i.e., peak levels of diurnal melatonin implicated in the onset of bereavement apparitions) and climactic conditions (i.e., increased atmospheric ionization which may reduce electrical thresholds in the temporal lobe) and emotional feeling of the experience to see if it contributes to the experience.
A. There will be a high percentage (75%) of congruency between the experiential and the nature of the contextual variables available to the percipients. For example: People will see a cowboy ghost in an old western saloon, or they will smell roses in a red room.
B. The number of contextual variables associated with an experience will affect the primary modality of experience.
C. The number of contextual variables involved in an experience will be related to the percipient's state of arousal preceding the experience.
D. If the analyzed experiences are an exclusive artifact of geomagnetic-induced
hallucinations in the temporal lobe, then it would be expected that the experiences will be significantly correlated with the peak suppressed diurnal melatonin levels (e.g., Persinger, 1993; i.e., the experiences should happen at the midnight to 6:00 a.m. time. If atmospheric ionization contributes to these experiences by lowering electrical thresholds in the brain (thus sensitizing the temporal lobe for non-convulsant microseizures which induce hallucinations) it would be expected that those reports containing multiple modality (i.e., comparatively intense experiences) would correlate with both time of day, as well as the number of modalities.
Method and Procedure
The sample of contemporary experiences will be obtained from the Internet (www.crown.net/X/Stories/uncle.html, 1995), and from USA Weekend (1992), (N = 843). The literature is lacking as to the demographics of Internet users. As many as 11 million people have access to the computer network (Reid, 1995) and the users are dominated by men nearly two to one (Lewis, 1995). Most of these users are identified as people who are experienced with computers, highly educated, and who utilize the network for social, professional, educational, and diversionary reasons (Anderson & Harris, 1995).
Two raters trained to score the cases according to the recent study of contextual variables (Lange, Houran, Harte, and Havens, 1996). The first rater scored all 824 experiences, and a second rater scored a random sample of 20 experiences from the first rater to determine inter-rater reliability. An intraclass correlation (Bartko, 1966) revealed significant aggreement on congruency ratings (F (1, 18) = 15.30, .001 ). However, these raters showed inconsistencies on the precise category of a contextual variable identified as present in an experience. These inconsistencies are reflected in a lower intra-class correlation for variables A thhrough F(1, 58) = 3.51, 0.31).
A total of 19 variables were identified. These are different from the Lange et. al., (1996) study in that climactic conditions and time of day were added, to investigate Persinger's (1988) hypothesis. Emotional feeling was also added to the type of experience to see if it would affect the analysis. As shown below, these variables can be grouped into seven major categories:
A. Context of Perception. This category has two options: either the experience was perceived individually, or it was perceived by two or more people simultaneously.
B. Type of Experience. Seven distinct types of experience were distinguished. More than one type could apply to each experience. <: Visual: Perception of a form (e.g., a moving shadow, amorphous light, or a defined apparition which is mistaken as a real person).
Auditory: Sound phenomena that cannot be accounted for (e.g., footsteps, percipient's name being called out, or knockings).
Olfactory: Anomalous or unaccountable odor (e.g., the smell of flowers or cigars).
Tactile: physical sensations (e.g., cold, heat, or a touch on the shoulder).
Sensed Presence: Feeling of being watched or not alone.
Object Movement: Subjective certainty that an object either unaccountably disappeared, appeared from seemingly nowhere, physically moved while in sight, or an inferred movement. (e.g., losing a personal item, finding an object in your residence which does not belong to you, or a door opening on its own accord).
Erratic Functioning of Apparatus: Unaccountable malfunction or irregular operation of mechanical fixtures or electrical equipment (e.g., electrical current surges, telephone rings, light bulb failures, jammed door locks, and film processing difficulties).
8. Emotional Feeling: Unaccountable onset of emotion (e.g., becoming inexplicably depressed, irritable, or fearful).
C. Percipient's State of Arousal. Only one of the following could apply:
The person is primed or is actively seeking out paranormal phenomena (e.g., a "sensitive" conducting a seance, a research team investigating reports, or an individual observing either of these activities.
Reverie: Any mood which indicates that the percipient was in a highly relaxed state (e.g., daydreaming, awoke from sleep, sleeping, or meditation).
Routine: A person enveloped in his or her daily living activities (e.g., at work, eating in a restaurant, or touring a site unaware of any reported phenomena).
Contextual Variables. Each experience could be characterized by one or more of the following variables:
1. Cultural beliefs or expectations: A predisposed cultural (e.g., religious or heritage) belief in ghosts, demons, or other supernatural entities.
2. Demand characteristics of the situation: A direct or indirect suggestion that the environment or situation will produce paranormal phenomena (e.g., folklore, rumors, advertising, or a seance).
3. An emotional or physical state of the person related to susceptibility: Any intense emotional state (e.g., bereavement), physical or mental illness (e.g., delusional disorders), or substance use (e.g., narcotics) which itself would facilitate hallucinations.
4. Embedded cues: Characteristics within the environment which may have structured or are incorporated into a psychological experience by the percipient (e.g., olfactory sensations of lilacs in the vicinity of a painting with prominent lavender hue).
5. Metaphorical or symbolic reference: A situational characteristic which elicits a stereotypical meaning or inference (e.g.,the name of a site, such as “Dead Man's Curve,"a specific time of day, such as 12:00 midnight-- the "Bewitching Hour", or a specific event like Halloween).
E. Additional Contextual Variables. Two added factors were included in the scoring scheme.
6. Time of Day: The 6 hr. period between midnight to 6:00 a.m. local time (i.e., when diurnal melatonin levels are peaked). (1=6:00 a.m. to midnight. 2=12:00 midnight to 6:00 a.m. 3= unknown).
7. Climactic Conditions: Conditions of the weather (1= stormy, 2= clear, and 3= undetermined).
F. Type of Percipient: Three types of percipients were distinguished: (1) male, (2) female, and (3) "unknown" (which included groups of non-specified percipients). Wherever group members could be identified individually, each member was treated as a separate experience with a collective context of perception (see category A above).
G. Congruence of Experience Content with Contextual Variables: The correspondence between the content of the experience and the nature of the contextual variable was rated on a three-point scale with categories:
Incongruent: The experiential content does not agree with the situational context (e.g., perceiving an elephant in a saloon).
Uncertain: Either the detail concerning the experiential content or the contextual variables is too vague for proper discrimination (e.g., a "human form" is witnessed by a percipient whom is aware of reports that a lady apparition has been at the site).
3. Congruent: The experiential content has close congruence to the identified contextual variables (e.g., the sound of "waltz music and people dancing" perceived by a person in an empty ballroom).
Contextual variables. Consistent with earlier findings, contextual variables could be identified in percipient reports. Specifically, approximately 836 (= 99.2 %) of the 843 experiences contained a reference to at least one contextual variable. Only 3.7 % of these experiences involved more than 3 contextual variables, suggesting that experiences revolve around a relatively limited number of context effects. This finding replicates earlier work (Lange et al., 1996). Table 1 shows that, as predicted, "belief in the paranormal" constituted the most frequently occurring contextual variable, whereas “embedded cues” occurred the least frequently.
Categorized Frequency of Contextual Variables Mentioned Within 843 Reports of Percipients’ Experiences
Contextual Variable n %
Belief in the paranormal 392 46.5
Symbolic-metaphorical references 160 19.0
Demand characteristics 72 8.5
Psychophysical state 34 4.0
Embedded cues 12 1.4
In support of hypothesis C, the total number of contextual variables, excluding the distinction between individuals and groups, involved in an experience is greater (F(2, 840) = 59.985, p < .01) when percipients are alert (M= 2.37) or reverie (M= 2.36), rather than involved in routine activities (M= 1.78). This pattern is consistent with the literature on hypnotic and hallucinatory states which indicate that cuing is prime in such susceptible states, as opposed to normal-waking experience (Lange et al., 1996).
Individuals vs. Groups. A comparison of individual experiences versus collectively perceived experiences indicated that individuals were more likely to perceive visual phenomena than groups (Phi= -.11, p< .001). As reported earlier, demand characteristics were found more often in the experiences involving groups (Phi= .10, p< .01). Since the presence of others contributes to an individual's state of arousal (i.e., can be considered a context effect), this finding is also consistent with hypothesis C.
Type of Experience. The revised classification scheme distinguished a total of eight possible modalities of experience. Their frequencies over all 843 experiences are given in Table 2. It can be seen most experiences were of an auditory (38.3%) or visual nature (38%), though these two types of experiences tended to be mutually exclusive (r= -.22, p<< .001). This pattern strongly replicates earlier findings (Lange et al., 1996). Experiences of emotion and olfactory sensations were the least reported.
Hypothesis B was not strongly supported since only a weak correlation was found between the primary type of experience and the number of contextual variables (r= -.07, p<< .058). However, consistent with the earlier study (Lange et al., 1996), hypothesis B was supported in that the number of different modalities involved in an experience was strongly related to the number of contextual variables (F(3, 832)= 3.092, p< .05). In addition, Table 2 shows the frequency of the average number of contextual variables by the primary modality of experience.
Congruence. The congruence between contextual variables and the content of the experiences was judged over all 843 experiences that contained at least one contextual variable (excluding "time of day" and "climactic conditions" which contain no concrete information for judging congruence). The main hypothesis was supported in that the content of 58.8% of these experiences were rated as congruent with the cues contained in the contextual variables available to the percipients. In only 2.8% of the experiences was there a direct contradiction between the content of the experience and the context. Lastly, a rating of congruency could not be given for 38.4% of the experiences.
Hypothesis D. The peak diurnal period in which melatonin is normally elevated and thus, geomagnetic influences would have the greatest suppression (i.e., midnight to 6:00 am) is strongly associated with visual phenomena (1, 812) = 26.860, p< .001) (M = 0.51), as opposed to 6:00 am to midnight (M = .32) or time periods not specified (M = 0.00). These findings support Persinger's (1988, 1993) melatonin-etiology hypothesis for visual phenomena. However, other types of phenomena showed associations with other time periods. In particular, erratic functionings of equipment (F(1,812) = 10.772,
p< .001) were most observed during the 6:00 am to midnight period (M = 0.13) rather than midnight to 6:00 am (M = .05). Further, a similar pattern is seen with movement of objects (F(1,812) = 8.354, p< .004) during 6:00 am to midnight (M = 0.23) as compared to midnight to 6:00 am (M =.14). These consistent results suggest that the perception of erratic functionings and object movements are more a function of attentional biases (Houran & Lange, 1996), rather than instigated by EMFs (e.g., Persinger & Cameron, 1986).
Hypothesis E. Potential ionization effects were inferred from the meteorological conditions indicated at the time of the experience. In support of hypothesis F, stormy weather (i.e., inferred increased ionization in the environment) was associated (F (1, 151) = 5.422, p< .02) with a higher number of modalities in an experience (M = 1.85) over clear weather (M = 1.43). However, stormy weather did not show significant correlations between any of the individual modalities of experience.
The major findings from Lange et al., (1996) were replicated in that (1) contextual variables were identified in 99.2% of the cases; (2) the content of the experiences was judged to be consistent with the nature of the contextual variables in 58.8% of the experiences; (3) contextual variables were related to the percipients' state of arousal and the modalities of the experience.
In addition, inferred ionization in the environment (i.e., stormy weather) was associated with the number of modalities; however, it is not clear whether "stormy conditions" affects percipients' modalities through the through negative ions or whether stormy conditions act as a contextual variable, (for example a demand characteristic or symbolic-metaphorical reference). Indeed, more research is required in this area before any firm conclusions can be reached. Persinger's (1988; 1993) hypothesis appears to be supported by the data in that visual phenomena were most associated with the period of time when melatonin levels would be most affected by geomagnetic activity (i.e., midnight to 6:00 a.m.). Other experience modalities were not affected by this hypothesis. Consequently, it remains to be established whether EMFs contributed to these visual phenomena or whether percipients were simply more susceptible to hypnagogic imagery upon spontaneous awakenings.
The low intraclass correlation raises questions regarding the reliability and validity of the findings, yet such discrepancies are not surprising because contextual variables can be mistaken for one another in these types of fine distinctions. Consequently, more research is needed to (1) confirm the role of contextual variables in poltergeist-like experiences, and (2) describe more precisely the nature and characteristics of contextual variables.
Frequency of Contextual Variables over Experiences
Contextual Variable N %
Belief in the paranormal 392 46.5
Symbolic-metaphorical references 160 19.0
Demand characteristics 72 8.5
Psychophysical state 34 4.0
Embedded cues 12 1.4
Frequency and Average Number of Contextual Variables by Primary Modality
Primary Modality N M
Visual 268 0.81
Auditory 246 0.73
Object movement 115 0.83
Sensed Presence 78 0.87
Equipment malfunction 63 0.75
Tactile 59 0.90
Olfactory 11 0.45
Emotion 3 1.00
NOTE: Percentages do not total 100% because experiences could contain more than one contextual variable.
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