The ghost story that never was

The Skeptic, 6.6

The Department of Computer Science at the University of Manchester is not the sort of place you would expect to feature in reports of the `paranormal'. Recently, however, I had a very odd experience. I was passing the Departmental Office, opposite which were a few visitors' chairs. As I walked along, preoccupied with reading a memo, suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw a man, wearing a brown suit, sitting, slightly stooped, in one of the chairs. Less than a second later, I turned my head to look at him. The figure had vanished. In an instant, I had clearly seen a man appear and disappear. And I'm a full-paid up, card-carrying skeptic of anything so-called paranormal.

So what was it? Was it a ghost? This is of course possible - I can offer no proof that ghosts don't exist, but more persuasively I can offer no proof that they do. What I am sure of however, is that I had the experience I have described. Based on the belief that everyone's Swiss Army Knife should have an Occam's Razor attachment, what other explanations might there be? (Before you ask - I hadn't touched a drop all day. That bottle of sherry in my desk is for visitors only, you understand). First, I saw what I saw out of the corner of my eye, which is reportedly often the case with sightings of `ghosts'. Perhaps this is connected with the fact that the light-sensitive `rod' cells which predominate in the periphery of the retina are sensitive to low-levels of illumination, a fact often exploited by astronomers when they wish to see faint stars though a telescope. Perhaps the particular patterns of light and shade I observed out of the corner of my eye were mistakenly interpreted by my brain. Alternatively, since I was wearing my glasses at the time, perhaps a fleeting image of someone nearby, out of my direct line of vision, was temporarily reflected into my eyes from my lenses, somehow adding to the illusion.

I decided to tell some friends and colleagues about my `sighting', without mentioning anything related to the `paranormal', and their responses were interesting. Absolutely no-one seemed to think I was making it up. No-one questioned that I had undergone a personal experience for which I had not a scrap of evidence, and one which I could only share with others by describing my subjective memories. Some felt it was entirely possible that I had seen a ghost. It occurred to me that, should I wish, I was in a perfect position to start a ghost story - The Brown Man of the Second Floor, perhaps. In the following days, I found my story had passed around a few people in the Department, and for the first time I felt a sense of what is a common factor in folktales, and stories of the `paranormal' in particular: the attention the teller receives, the `fame', the feeling of (for want of a better word) `power'; to be there at the genesis of a story that might still be told, and wonderfully embellished, for years to come. But as a skeptic, starting a ghost story was the last thing I wanted to do!

So, if you're actively skeptical of unsupported claims for paranormal goings-on, and you have a strange experience - what do you do? Do you immediately tell others, in a spirit of open enquiry, and risk reinforcing paranormal stereotypes? Or do you keep quiet, try and find out what happened in terms of accepted scientific knowledge, and then present your experience as an open-and-shut case? Maybe you can't find a definitive explanation. How should a skeptic trying to be fair-minded handle such a situation without unnecessarily boosting belief in `the paranormal'?

There's no doubt in my mind that I had the experience - I can conjure up the image quite clearly in my head right now - but I can't prove it to anyone, of course. I'd like you to believe me, but why should you? If I'd have said frogs had fallen from the ceiling, or fairies had whispered in my ear, would you believe that too? If not, why not?


©Toby Howard 1995

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