What do you get when you cross growing American religious fundamentalism and a burning desire for the End of Days with the get rich quick schemes of a group of Church elders blindly following the prophesies of a single, charismatic man into a state of sour confusion when nothing actually happens? How does the average follower in the street deal with their ongoing existence when the longed for end, as anyone with half a rational brain would expect, comes to nothing and leaves those supposed true believers waiting for answers a day wiser and in certain cases a whole lot poorer after selling up and donating their wallets wholesale to the church?
Those who observe and dissect anomalous incidents are often spurred into a continued quest for answers by seemingly paranormal experiences of their own, usually while quite young. Some accept these events on face value and happily weave them into a personal mythology that fails to live up to outside scrutiny, such as exhibited by most Spiritual or Magickal belief systems, while others attempt to find a place for them within a more rational world-view, striving to find answers without sacrificing their intellectual integrity in the process.
I have dipped my toes into the mindset of the former, less questioning group and paddled around in their viewpoint for a while, but ultimately I asked too many questions of the events that I have witnessed and soon enough drained all of the magic out of them. Just like Occam’s ever-present razor cut, I have come to realise that the bottom line in all of this is a simple one. No matter how special the feeling, anomalous the experience or frightening the encounter, the explanation is usually delightfully mundane, if you know how to ask the right questions. And as skeptics, asking the right questions is what we do.
As an example, I present an experience which I went through personally back in 2007. I was recovering from a simple, but painful operation which had required the deep, Sevoflurane induced sleep of general anaesthetic, and lay bored out of my otherwise active mind in a sparsely furnished side room on an equally drab hospital ward, awaiting release back to the much more colourful real world. It had been almost fifteen hours since I had been under the knife, and I was convinced that the anaesthetic had long worn off. As later events would show, I was most definitely wrong. Bored and preoccupied, I sat on the end of my bed looking listlessly out of the window over the roof of the hospital as the clouds rolled over, the prospect of another night spent in the building dampening my already deflated spirits far more than the slowly building rain ever could. Yet even as I sat there I was suddenly overtaken with such a compulsion to sleep that I found myself powerless to resist, and laying down on my side facing the window I passed into a deep and fitful slumber.
And then, even though I realized that I was still dreaming, I seemed to be awake, my already drab surroundings colourless but largely unchanged, my mind seized by such unrelenting terror that every movement seemed to be counterbalanced by the very real desire to just curl up into the smallest possible ball and ride out the experience, hoping that it would be over as quickly as possible. Yet instead I forced myself to roll onto my other side on the bed, away from the window and towards the door of my room, where I knew something terrible was waiting for me. The anomaly in question appeared, at first, to be a young girl of no older than ten or eleven, wearing an old-fashioned pastel blue party dress, the kind with puffy sleeves and a long, ankle length pleated skirt, and long blonde hair tied into ringlets that fell heavily to her shoulders. Yet her face was a blur of motion, indistinct and unknowable, not a blank but rendered to appear so by the all too quick vibration of her features, and her words, when she eventually did speak to me, were deep and forceful way beyond her seemingly tender years, though sadly mostly gibberish.
The whole time the entity was speaking the images associated with her voice continued to change. The most notable example of this was the outward appearance of the girl herself, for as I watched her dress evaporated and her flesh dissolved, to be replaced by an odd, clear blue gelatinous substance, her face still hidden from my perception by the undulating movements of the ooze which made up her now bloated and hairless frame. Then she turned and faded from view, to be replaced by an extreme close up of a human brain, the whole mood of the experience suddenly darkening as a blood-red filter was placed across my vision, leaving me to stare in confused and paralysed silence as a gnarled and rusty pair of tongs began to lift little clear plastic bags full of oddly inconsequential items and place them into draws which appeared for a second or two in the surface of the brain tissue itself, before closing again. Needless to say, when unconsciousness took me for the final time, I was more than a little grateful.
I was still exhausted, numb with shock and sweating profusely when I finally regained consciousness. I rose unsteadily to my feet and headed to the door of my room, intending to go down to the canteen for a can of cola and a chocolate bar to help steady my nerves. Yet my door was locked, the orderly explaining through the tiny little observation window that the elderly lady in the room next to me had passed away earlier that afternoon, while I had been asleep, and that I would have to stay where I was until they removed the body. An odd coincidence considering what I had experienced a mere few metres away, and made all the stranger by the fact that I had not been awoken by the understandable commotion caused by the nursing staff’s many and varied attempts to revive her. When the consultant released me back into the real world later that evening I couldn’t wait to tell my small but delightfully left-field circle of friends what I had experienced, and how it had occurred at the same time as the elderly woman’s passing; proof positive of its paranormal validity, or so I joked. Thus, for a while at least another interesting paranormal tale was born, discussed and soon enough discarded as more interesting events from my day-to-day life replaced it as topics of conversation. But I could not let it rest, and soon decided to get to the bottom of it.
This is where asking the right questions comes in. The first place I looked was in the medical literature, easily available online. A good example was authored by Wilson, Vaughan and Stephen (1975) in their study into awareness, dreams and hallucinations associated with anaesthesia. The trio investigated 490 adult patients undergoing operations requiring general anaesthetic, and reported an 11 percent incidence of, as they put it ‘mental aberrations’, including a majority of 8 percent involving dreams. But could I have experienced an inescapable chemically induced dream anything up to 15 hours after the initial procedure? Surprisingly, yes. General anaesthesia stays in the patient’s system for at least 24 hours, which is why medical professionals refuse to allow postoperative patients to drive themselves home. Coupled with the mental trauma and pain associated with the build up to the operation itself it is not no great a leap of faith to assume that whatever dreams may come would be more like nightmares, and have a decidedly surgical feel, gnarled tongs, bloody brain tissue and all.
Researchers in the field should also be aware of unrelated incidents that seemingly add secondary layers to the context of the anomalous event being reported, but in fact bear no relation to it whatsoever. Such events should be identified early on in the evaluation, and while acknowledged, need to be respectfully disregarded to prevent the investigator wasting their time chasing inconsequential issues down the rabbit hole. In my case, there was the purely coincidental, but nevertheless compellingly timed death in the room next door. As if the dream itself had not been weird enough, this concurrent event was just begging for the natural human desire to seek patterns in otherwise unrelated incidents to kick in. Indeed, while I sat on the bed waiting for the door to be unlocked I let my mind wander over the whole situation, both that within my room and the slightly more morbid one next door, and found myself happily adding two and two together with very few facts to play with. Needless to say, my calculations erroneously resulted in something closer to seventy-three and a half than four.
The danger of taking such immediate conclusions on face value without leaving the back door open for changes based upon cold hard facts is obvious, and the mistake of the non-critical thinker. While it is difficult to alter the perceived acceptance of the initial interpretation of events based purely upon later evidence, it is the obligation of the investigating party, be they personally involved in the anomalous incident or just making notes after the fact, to allow the ever-present cut of Occam’s Razor and good old clear thinking outweigh the need to explain the improbable in impossible terms. It might not be popular, but it is what we do, and I like to think that the world is a little more stable because of it.
As somebody who used to fully believe in life after death and the existence of ghosts I can understand how easy it is to accidently introduce these beliefs into a paranormal investigation without realising you are doing so.
There seems to be some general confusion about how involving your personal beliefs into a paranormal investigation an be a problem, people often question ‘What’s the harm?’ and don’t understand were I am coming from with my thoughts on this.
Basically, I think people need to step back and asses what it is that we are dealing with; ghosts – something for which there is no proof. Sure! Many people have witnesses things that convince them personally that ghosts are real and it’s their right to be convinced in this manner. However there is a difference between you believing what you do because you have been convinced and entering a location as a paranormal investigator to study the supposed haunting at that location.
I’m not claiming that those who believe in ghosts shouldn’t investigate but what I am saying is that people who hold a belief in ghosts, spirituality, an afterlife or whatever is it that they choose to believe should not allow this belief to have an effect on the investigation.