how would you explain this "ghost" sighting?

I was having dinner with a friend the other day, and we were discussing her beliefs (Catholic) vs mine (Atheist/skeptic). Friendly chat here, nothing mean.

During the discussion, she told me a story which she swears is true. I respectfully replied that I simply didn’t believe it happened the way she described it, and gave some examples of what may have been misconstrued. But. It’s interesting enough that I’d like to post it here.

Obviously, without eyewitness accounts, we won’t get more than conjecture out of this, but I’d love to hear from fellow skeptics on how they would explain these phenomenons from their POV. No, I don’t need validation for my beliefs (heh), just curious on other folks’ thoughts.

The events were described as happening like this: This woman, let’s call her Jen (because, as the joke goes, EVERYONE knows a Jen) was dating a guy (I dunno, let’s call him Mark). Well, Jen found a book on “black magic” in Mark’s house, took it home, skimmed through it and was very disturbed. Clashed with her Catholic faith and all. So she returned the book to Mark, but asked him to get rid of it as she wasn’t comfortable coming to his house with that book there. He agreed to discard the book.

So she was surprised when she went back to his place the following week and saw the book laying out on the open. She was angry, as he had promised to get rid of the book. He said he didn’t want to fight about a stupid book, picked it up, and threw it into the lit fireplace in his living room.

This is where is gets weird. She swears that a strand of fire immediately shot out of the fireplace and flew across the room right between the two of them, and that it was accompanied by three very disctinct, very human sounding screams. That both of them witnesses the flame and heard the screams, and that it was so intense her boyfriend stopped believing in atheism and went back to his Catholic roots.

Yeah, yeah. I know it’s got the ring of propaganda all over it, but this was a friendly chat between friends and I had to pry the story out of her (she was reluctant to tell it for a while).

Option 1 is she made the whole story up, which in this instance I don’t believe is the case.

Option 2 is it happened like she said it did, that some spirits were freed from the book and they were pissed. I don’t buy that for a second.

So assuming two people witnessed the fire and the screams, what would you consider to be option 3?

She asked me how I could be a skeptic if her story was true, and I replied that the situation was primed for them to see normal events and mentally attribute supernatural elements to them (fighting over a magic book, throwing it into a fire).
I figured that throwing a book into a fireplace could easily dislodge something and force a flame to shoot out. And I suggested that the screams could have been air escaping from the burning wood, or something else that could have sounded like a scream but wasn’t. Again, triggered by an impact in the fireplace. But she swore they were clearly three human screams in succession.

Anyway, as much as it’s just a mental exercise at this point, would love to hear some dopers’ input on this.

It was probably something like that.

Well, this (or variations of this) is pretty much the only “explanation” you’re going to get. If she won’t accept that this is what happened then you’re going to have to accept that she’s a) making it all up, or b) delusional.

Well, that certainly is illogical, and I don’t mean just the bifurcation. She may indeed be absolutely correct.

Or the pages could have had something used on them that caused the fire to ‘shoot out’…exotic inks come to mind, or perhaps wax or other substances to make the pages appear shinny…or ‘old’. Color pictures or illustrations do this quite a bit (burn a magazine sometime, especially an older one from say the late 70’s early 80’s and you’ll see what I mean).

I’ve burned a lot of stuff and seem some pretty wierd things (we have a large fireplace at my house, and when I was younger we didn’t have electric heat)…colors, wierd smokes, even flare ups that were quite impressive. As to the noise, again, nothing that mysterious…I’ve heard a lot of wierd things when burning stuff in the fireplace. Mix that in with a charged atmosphere (the couple was fighthing) and the psychological impact of the ‘black magic book’ (your friend being a devoted Catholic probably has a belief in ‘black magic’) and you have all the elements you need.


Right-o. I await St Nick’s annual visit it as I saw him with me own two eyes during the Christmas of '89 at the Super Mall. I know what I saw and no one can tell me otherwise.

Just to clarify…is “Jen” the woman telling you the story or is your friend relating the story second hand.

The most likely explanation is the one you’va already given. This woman obviously is already pretty credulous and has a vivid imagination. there is nothing remarkable about a flame leaping out of a fireplace after having something flung into it, and the “screams” could have been just about anything. As you already noted, burning logs will often make a high pitched squeaking sound when broken. Other possibilities include voices from outside (and mere suggestion will make it sound like they they’re coming from the flames), the television or radio and the individuals screaming themselves. Imagination and wishful thinking will edit the memory of the event to produce the desired glurgey anecdote.

As for the dude being scared Catholic…well, it occurs to me that a certain level of badgering from “Jen” may have had an influence on that as well as his own interpretation of this complete non-event.

Selective memory, suggestion, credulity, wishful thinking, exaggeration and a touch of religious fanatacism would about sum it up.

The idea of “spirits escaping” from a book is beyond retarded, but more importantly could not be concluded from the evidence even oif everything happened as she said. After all, what is a “spirit” and how did they get into the book? How does fire affect them? It’s a huge quantum leap from “screams” to “spirits.”

Yeah, it was her telling me the story directly.

I agree, it’s pretty amazing how you can translate bizarre (but explainable) events into supernatural ones when the right circumstances all line up. Thanks for the responses, everyone.

xtisme, interesting stuff about the inks. Especially as this happened to her in the mid 80’s.

This sounds exactly like a Jack Chick tract. Maybe I’ll go through the archives and find it. Or not. Perhaps she is mis-remembering a nightmare she once had after getting the bejeezus scared out of her.

And then, after her friend left, she found her own package of biscuits underneath her newspaper!

I believe her, and I’m going with option 2.

I find it interesting that people in this thread weren’t there, and she was, yet her story is just “wishful thinking.”

Yeah, it was her telling me the story directly.

I agree, it’s pretty amazing how you can translate bizarre (but explainable) events into supernatural ones when the right circumstances all line up. Thanks for the responses, everyone.

xtisme, interesting stuff about the inks. Especially as this happened to her in the mid 80’s.

I wasn’t there, but I’ve seen plenty of books in my life, and none of them were capable of screaming. I am not aware of any mechanism by which a book would be capable of screaming. I am, however, aware of numerous instances of people imagining things that weren’t real. It will take some strong evidence for me to reject this explanation in favor of one that my own experience tells me is far more unlikely.

What, I’m supposed to suddenly believe every outlandish tale I hear unless I was there personally?

First, sorry about the double post. Web browser hiccough.


No offense Abbie, I wasn’t at any event in the Bible either, but I think most of the miracles there are bunk, too. I also know Jews didn’t drink the blood of babies during the Russian pogroms. And I wasn’t there. I’d bet that the Virgin Mary… wasn’t. And I wasn’t there.

That is to say, as has been pointed out in MANY threads on this message board, that the whole POINT of the Straight Dope site is for rational thought, scientific advancement, and the eradication of mumbo jumbo and other assorted bullcrap.

Another way to put it: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I can either believe that evil spirits were trapped in pressed woodpulp, or I can understand the laws of the universe and that there are totally reasonable explanations that are significantly more likely.

If you want Voodoo explanations, this isn’t the place for them.

Do you also believe everybody who says they saw bigfoot or that they were abducted by aliens?

Do you also really think that every natural explanation should be preemptivly excluded and that we should go right to evil spirits escaping from a book?

As I said before, even assuming that this woman is giving an accurate description of events (unlikely) a conclusion of “spirits” is still unwarranted considering that we have no definition for what a “spirit” is, nor any reason to believe that they would inhabit or 'escape" from an item made of cardboard and paper. If you really examine the second hypothesis it becomes clear that it is no hypothesis at all but simply nonsense words.

What is a “spirit?” What is it made of? Where were they physically in the book? Why didn’t the owner of the book ever notice them before? Why did the fire make them leave?

By what mechanism did they “scream?” You are aware that sound is a physical phenomenon, are you not? Screaming requires a movement of air through a vibrating medium such as a voice box. Where were these voice boxes? What was vibrating? Where did the air come from and what made it move?

As long as we’re investigating la la land, how do you know there wasn’t some other supernatural, metaphysical or technological explanation?

How do you know that aliens had not implanted a tiny, microscopic transmitting device in the pages and that the screams were not screams of anguish from aliens observing remotely from Neptune?

How do you know it wasn’t invisible tiny leprechauns who were after their Lucky Charms?

How do you know it wasn’t a remote viewing telepath implanting a hallucination in their brains?

We could go all day with this stuff. All my hypotheses would still fit the facts of the story at face value and they all have the same evidence to support them as these undefined “spirits.”

You know, a really good way to approach this kind of thing is to start with prosaic, natural explanations which actually, you know, conform to the laws of physics and simple probablities. Once you eliminate those things, you move on to the more…creative…hypotheses. Since nothing in the story cannot be explained by natural events- including the extreme possibility of the story being changed, exaggerated or misremebered by the storyteller- then we have no reason to even consider number two- nor do we have any reason to consider that number two is any more plausible or likely than any of my other explanations.

That only works in train stations in England, and if your last name is “Dent.” :wink:

As for the OP… I’ll wager that any attempts to find the original “Jen” will fail. Anyone who repeats the story will say they heard it from a friend, and when the friend is contacted, s/he’ll refer to another friend, and so on and so on. The spectacular, unexplainable-by-known-science touches, the heavily religious connotations, they all scream “friend of a friend” bupkis to me. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar story is already recorded at Snopes…

This has got Urban Legend marked all over it. It happened to a friend of a friend, it has a “moral” to it (Don’t be reading anything other than the Bible!), it was told to prove a point (There is supernatural phenomenon! there is! There is!), and it’s impossible to trace back to the actual person.

That and I’ve heard several variations of this story before (in fact, now it’s driving me crazy and I want to trace it back to where I heard it), IRL and online. Which either means it’s happened to several different people, or it’s one story that’s been passed on and on…like and urban legend.

What assumptions did “Jen” make about what she witnessed?

I know that Jen assumed that the screams were human. This is not verifiable, and her own interperetation of the event and understanding of exactly what is and what is not a human scream can’t be relied upon, even assuming that she is telling the truth about the whole deal.

If we assume that she’s not making anything up, the only “strange” things about this story are that flames shot between them when the book was tossed into the fire, and that a sound came from the fireplace that at least two people (Jen and Mark) thought was a human scream.

Jen cannot reliably categorically deny that the screams were anything but human. Things can sound human, and not be human. In fact, these were obviously something OTHER than human screams, because no human was present in the fireplace to do the screaming. Unless we start defining fireplaces, flames, books, ink, paper, firewood, or even demon spirits as “human”, these were, by definition, not human screams.

Did Jen assume that evil spirits were somehow released from the book, or was that your own interperetation of her account of the events? If she presented this as the only possible conclusion that could be drawn from what she saw, then her judgement is unreliable. Like Diogenes the Cynic stated, there are a plethora of other supernatural and natural events that could explain these circumstances. Aliens could have inserted a microscopic transmitter that emitted the screams and caused the flame, or heavenly angels used the flame as a sign that we have misunderstood all along and black magic is the way to salvation, or natural hearth spirits that are normally silent around humans, but couldn’t contain themselves and slipped when the sudden gift of extra fuel for their flame was given to them.

Basically, what all of this adds up to is that “Jen” is likely to be full of crap.

OK, this is moving in a strange direction. To clarify, this happened directly to my friend “Jen” in the 80’s, she told me the story directly (as it happened to HER, not to her friend) last week.

So the person is still here, still findable, still a friend of mine. I just have different beliefs as to what happened to her than her interpretation of the same events. As a religious person, the events took on a supernatural explanation for her. As a skeptic, they are very natural events to me.

This was her interpretation. She said she thought they were evil spirits, and she actually starting saying a Catholic prayer to try and usher them out of the house, so they wouldn’t enter her or Mark’s bodies.

Again, her interpretation, not mine. And I wouldn’t say she’s full of crap, I’d say she’s just wrong.