Explanation For 'Ghost' Phenomenon

They have a series on ‘true’ ghost stories on the Travel Channel now.

Anyway I don’t believe in an afterlife. But some of the stories are truly striking. And they often are things witnessed by multiple people (so hallucinations are out).

So what could the explanation be for so-called ghost phenomenon? As I said, I don’t believe in an afterlife. But feel free to offer that, if that is your explanation.


People have very good imaginations, are spectacularly suggestible, and like scary stories.

Because when faced with something they can’t readily explain, some people will assume the most reasonable and obvious answer is that someone’s consciousness somehow survived the death of their brain, and is interacting with the physical world in a way it couldn’t do when alive.

[Wind blows shutter closed]
“What was that sound?”
“Most likely, someone who was murdered, and is now trying to contact us.”

One of the common causes is carbon monoxide. A lot of places with mold or decay (old cellars or dungeons) and enclosed places have carbon monoxide that produces hallucinations. A badly working furnace can do it too.

Another cause I’ve heard mentioned is low frequency sounds like in tall roomed churches. Somehow these low frequency sounds trigger a part of our brain evolved to avoid predators. You get those chills running down the spine

CO, other gasses, some sound frequencies also affect the brain, and some electrical environments [god helmet, they wire you up like for a sleep study but broadcast in instead of read out. Purportedly gives you religious like hallucinations] ingested toxins [ergot frex, licking toads some mushrooms and other plants]

However you get wild cards like my great grandfathers house [my mom returned after Sunday supper with my grandparents and when they walked into the house, every single light cellar to attic was on, even in locked spaces. Police found no evidence of intruders.] Sounds of footsteps in the attic when nobody was there [going from the full bathroom, down a corridor into the large room my g-grandfather used as a home office, complete with doors opening and closing] reported by the family we sold the place to when we moved after Dad retired from the army and got a civvy job. And the 3 year old me living exclusively in military housing with my parents reporting an imaginary friend who would tell me stories when it was nap time that matched the physical description of my g-grandfather, there being one photograph of him at my grandfathers winter house in Florida. The kiddy shrink had no nonspooky explanation for it nor could my parents explain how I came to have an old man with a port wine stain on his face and neck show up to tell me stories at nap time.

And I still tend to disbelieve 99 percent of the ghost/haunt stuff on TV.

I think that about half of it is fake. Back when few people understood photography, some photographers scammed them with double exposures that seemed to show their departed loved ones, in ghost form, in the same photo with them.

In these days of CGI and all that, many amateurs could put together something that looks convincing. And you can hook up fishing line to pull over a chair, but you can’t see the filament…sometimes you need people who are in cahoots, but it can be done.

The other half is ignorance. Now most people have phones, but they still don’t know all the ins and outs and unintended results. They get a photo and they know they took it but they can’t really explain the effect so it must be supernatural. Ever see “orbs” in photos, for example?

There is only a small percentage that doesn’t fall into those two buckets.

There are several different reasons, depending on the phenomenon observed.

But, let’s start with your source, which is a “reality” tv show. Their reporting is probably about as reliable as the reporting on other reality TV shows (e.g. House Hunters and Pawn Stars), which is to say, mostly or completely made up.

I see that CO poisoning has been mentioned, which will account for a lot of the “It just feels wrong” type of hauntings. (Interesting side note on that - I’ve read that there was an increased interest in and reporting of hauntings… about the time that gas lighting became common)

Pareidolia accounts for the photos of hauntings and people reporting seeing a face in a window or other places where no one is

A third easily explained “haunting” is the haunting that’s characterized by a smell. People report that they smell the former owners favorite pipe tobacco or dish of cooked cabbage. But aromas get easily absorbed by the porous materials that houses are constructed of and released later when the weather conditions are right.

I’d also add the fallibility of memory.

So you have some small hallucination or semi-awake dream. Or the aforementioned Pareidolia. But as you go over the events in your mind, your brain wants to form it into a coherent story.
So now the figure actually walked or maybe a random creak of wood becomes footsteps. And these can seem like real, vivid memories.

Let alone if you tell the story to other people. Then you’ll be basically playing chinese whispers (I believe it’s “the telephone game” in the US?).

Also the OP says some of the stories are striking but I would disagree. There was a time where I was very much into the paranormal and bought the line that the “establishment” was not researching this area enough. But eventually I realized that of all the many cases I’d read about, even the very best had dicksquat evidence. And now, with people carrying cameras and microphones essentially 100% of the time? Where’s the data?

Dreams. It is not uncommon to dream about friends or family who have recently passed away, and these dreams can be hauntingly (!) convincing. They really do feel as if the person “lives on” somehow.

(I think this is also the origin of religion in general.)

The one that got me was the 3 fellows who had a Polaroid camera and when they took pictures words in a smokey looking script would show up on the picture as it developed.
The words would be something important to person in the picture. If no people were in the pic the words would be non-sensical. They thought. Some of the words proved to be prophetic.
The Polaroid co. checked out the camera and verified it wasn’t tampered with.
The investigation brought verified film and the ghost writing was on every picture. I believe it even told one of the women investigators she was pregnant. She didn’t even know she was.
Truly weird
I don’t really believe in ghosts but I have had several ‘unexplained’ things happen in my house.

I was skeptically convinced that some supernatural stuff happened at the Bird Cage Theater in Tombstone, Arizona, after watching some Ghost Hunter episodes that appeared to capture some irrefutable interactions with the other side.

After visiting the place more than a dozen times and going on my own ghost hunting quests spanning a few years I found the irresistible lore of the building and its history - and keeping alive the past in the ‘town too tough to die’ - a large incentive for persistent belief in the ghost phenomenon. Plus it was great for tourism.

Ever since, I’ve learned not to confuse reality shows with documentaries, and know that every type of media is putting forth a point of view, agenda, or bias. A show about ghost phenomenon has to deliver a payoff to the audience in whatever crafty way it can create.

Re: the “telephone game”

We just called it “Telephone” when we played it as a kid. I’ve never understood why it was called Chinese whispers in the UK. I’ll have to google!

Maybe because you whisper in each other’s ear and it is as unintelligible as Chinese was for most British people when the game was invented?

Btw., the German name for the game is “Stille Post”, “quiet mail”.

I used to work at a museum and we’d occasionally allow ghost hunters to make use of the museum overnight and I volunteered to chaperone one Halloween. Spoiler alert: This story doesn’t end with me seeing any evidence of ghosts. What I observed was a group of people who put themselves into the right mindset to see evidence of the paranormal in mundane things. The building made a lot of noise at night with mysterious creaks. But it was a 170 year old building the during the warm October day the wood expands and at night as it cools it contracts. They would record the ambient noise on a digital recorder and play it back. Some of them heard voices in the playback but all I heard was background noise.

I’m convinced people see these things on ghost hunts because they’ve conditioned themselves to see them. These people weren’t unintelligent, they were respectful of the building, and they made generous donations we really put to good use educating the public. And they were mostly women so if you’re a single guy looking to love find a ghost hunter group.

Trying again to quote Acerbic…

This reminds me of a scene from the TV program “Taxi.”

The buildup to this point: “Reverend” Jim has had a vision about Alex. Jim sees a beautiful blonde falling into Alex’s arms (and later one does). But Jim also says Alex is going to die at 7 PM on Thursday. Jim says Alex will be home with a friend, he’ll drink a glass of water quickly. Someone will mistake him for a girl. He’ll dance the can-can wearing a catcher’s mask and a green shirt. Then at 7, there will be a knock on the door and that’s the end…Alex will die.

Fellow cabbies are worried but Alex says he isn’t even going to be home at that time because he has a date. Leading into this scene, Louis takes a message from his date, who cancels. Louie comes to warn him. Strange things start happening….

Spoilering parts 1 and 2 for those who want to watch the whole episode…

Yeah this, AIUI. According to the wiki:

There are a number of terms in English that use the word “Chinese” in this way. Although right now I seem to be having a brain freeze and it’s ungooglable.

Chinese fire drill?

The fundamental problem you’re mistaking here is exactly what @Zyada says these are NOT documentaries. They are entertainment shows, they literally make the stuff up and ignore anything that doesn’t show the “ghost” narrative they want to portray.

I listen to a great podcast: MonsterTalk https://www.monstertalk.org

Dr. Karen Stolznow is a cohost and she sometimes discusses her husband’s part time work as a legitimate “serious” ghost hunter (Spoiler: he’s never found any hauntings or sightings that aren’t easily explainable). In a recent episode she was discussing how he was approached by one of these shows (maybe the one you mention) about buying some of his footage from a haunted hotel he’d investigated. When they saw it and realized it showed no ghosts, the producers asked him to “reshoot it” showing (or implying) ghosts. He refused, so they just fabricated and videoed their own “ghost encounter”.

In another MT episode they do a deep dive into a 1960’s “poltergeist” case in England (objects flying around the room, things being destroyed). They discuss how it was very convincingly portrayed on an episode of a ghost hunter show as “scary, unexplainable” etc. [Conclusion after watching: Holy Crap!! Maybe poltergeists are real!]

They next interviewed a British journalistic who investigated when it was happening and had hidden camera video of the family’s daughter throwing objects around the room when she thought no one was looking!

The TV show wouldn’t show his video or even mention that the whole thing had been debunked. That’s not part of the entertaining narrative story they’re telling.

Lots of reasons for seeing ghostly things.

Standing waves in the air of some structures can create ghostly phenomena:


I had not heard of Carbon Monoxide as a potential cause, but I there are other possible hallucinogens in old buildings. Some kinds of fungus are hallucinogenic , like ‘magic mushrooms’. Maybe people breath in spores that make them see things.

There have also been cases where buildings that were used for manufacturing illegal drugs such as LSD may have dust and residues that can remain potent. The modern day ergot.

There are also cultural reasons. The huge death toll amongst men who served in WW1 left their close friends, lovers and relatives traumatised by grief. The 1920s was a time of mediums, seances and Spiritualist churches. A desire to believe in spirits and ghosts as a result of psychological trauma.

On a lighter note, in our modern culture, there is obsession for spending hours consuming endless amounts entertainment through media networks. We like mystery stories and the blurring of truth and fiction is the hallmark of the cheap thrill TV show. Ghosts stories fit the bill for some and there are plenty of producers who are prepared to embroider the true facts in order to spin a more engaging yarn.