Menus Subscribe Search
ghost-forest

(PHOTO: ANDREIUC88/SHUTTERSTOCK)

If You Believe in Ghosts, You’ll See a Ghost

• November 07, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(PHOTO: ANDREIUC88/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Katie Heaney went to a haunted house. Did she—or anyone else—see anything? It depends on whether or not they wanted to.

On the Saturday before Halloween I went on a haunted tour of the Merchant’s House Museum, where my roommate volunteers as a guide. The museum, a grand brick house on East 4th Street, is the oldest single-family home in New York City. It was built in 1832, and the family who lived there did so for nearly 100 years, until the daughter of the family, Gertrude, died in 1933 at 93 years old. It is at that point that she may or may not have turned into a ghost and started haunting her former home.

According to the tour guide—a co-volunteer of my roommate, who, during my visit, was on flashlight rather than speaking duty—Gertrude was seen in the street scolding a group of rowdy young boys just days after her death. Just days after! (I don’t know why this makes it seem extra weird and kind of funny. It just seems to me that hauntings, in an ideal world, would more logically take at least a few years after the death in question to kick in. Dead people should take a break first. To do it any other way is just rude, and, I would think, would be less effective in achieving shock value.)

But from that day on, people—visitors to the house, staff members, contractors doing repairs on the house—kept seeing her. Sometimes she looked like she did when she died, and sometimes she was young. People would say they saw a woman in period dress in the hall or at the top of the stairs and, later, when showed a picture of Gertrude Tredwell by someone affiliated with the museum, they’d say, “That’s her.”

If you’re neither a believer nor feeling very generous, this manner of identifying a ghost seems like a clear example of fitting the evidence to the theory after the fact. There is no true side-by-side comparison to be had; people who believe they’ve just seen a ghost of a woman in an old dress are shown a picture of a woman in an old dress and, naturally, nine out of 10 of them will probably find that it’s a startling match. Either you’re the type of person who wants to make something of what she’s just seen, or you’re not.

“I have very wealthy people here. They think it’s the coolest thing there is.”

IN 1994, TWO ENGLISH psychologists, Susan Blackmore and Rachel Moore, published a study called “Seeing Things: Visual Recognition and Belief in the Paranormal.” People tend to believe a number of weird and ultimately wrong things that might contribute to a belief in the paranormal, they surmised: We tend to think we’re more in control than we really are, we think the likelihood that any event is due to chance is much lower than it really is, we never want to think any series of occurrences could be purely random. As a species, we like to attach meaning and form to the things around us. A spilled coffee plus a missed train plus a mild scolding from a supervisor turns into a bad luck streak we’re doomed to suffer through, rather than a set of three unrelated events that just happened to fall together on one day. Similarly, for a sizable portion of us, a thump plus a flash of light plus a curtain that moved a bit oddly turns into, maybe, a ghost.

For their study, Blackmore and Moore enlisted 30 undergraduates at the University of Bristol, all of whom were shown sets of black-and-white pictures that were distorted with varying levels of computer-generated noise. The students were told to examine the pictures and then asked whether they recognized anything and, if so, what it was they saw. But there wasn’t actually anything pictured in any of them.

The students took a separate questionnaire that gauged their belief in the paranormal, and the researchers used this to see whether that belief corresponded to an increased tendency to identify images and people where none existed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it did—those participants who expressed a belief in the paranormal were more likely to claim they could identify images among the noise in the photographs they were shown. Less expected might be the researchers’ finding that the believers were even more likely to identify something specific from among the noisiest, darkest, least-clear photographs. (You have to feel a little embarrassed for the students, here. “It’s the face of a tiger.” “Are you sure?” asks the researcher, trying not to laugh. “Yes,” they reply, so misguidedly confident. “I’m certain.”)

This false sense of recognition—seeing significance in a random stimulus—is a phenomenon called pareidolia. It’s a term more typically associated with seeing faces and religious imagery, especially in ordinary objects (think Jesus Christ on a grilled cheese sandwich), but some, including Blackmore and Moore, suspect it might have a lot to do with why certain people see ghosts. Or hear them—the identification of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) as paranormal has been called auditory pareidolia.

AT THE END OF most episodes of Ghost Hunters, the hosts would play one of the recordings they collected while filming overnight. The clarity of sound on these recordings varied dramatically. Sometimes you’d hear what they heard, and it was small but unsettling. Sometimes, though, they’d play a series of whiny scratches and come up with something hilariously specific that was allegedly being said—“It was Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick,” or similar—and you wouldn’t hear it at all. This never stopped me from watching the next episode that came on, so Blackmore and Moore would probably say I’ve got pareidolia. But I’ve always thought it silly to try to explain ghosts (or explain them away) with science. Whether it’s because I’m a little salty at the fact that Blackmore and Moore called ghost-believers “sheep” in their study or because I want to think more highly of myself than perhaps I deserve, I think what pareidolia (and even half-hearted belief in ghosts, for that matter) comes down to is whether or not you have an imagination you’re willing to indulge.

They played us an EVP recording at the Merchant’s House Museum that night—first you hear the ghost hunter introducing himself to whichever spirits might be there, telling them not to fear him. After that there’s a little creak. Then they play it back, cleaning up the background noise, and I’m sure that everyone in the room could hear it if they wanted: a little girl, answering, “I’m not afraid.”

“Is this the voice of a young Gertrude Tredwell, frozen here in time as a child?” the tour guides asked. I nodded. Why not?

Katie Heaney
Katie Heaney is a writer and an editor at BuzzFeed and author of Never Have I Ever. Follow her on Twitter @KTHeaney.

More From Katie Heaney

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.