Prof Richard Wiseman has examined why people report unusual experiences in allegedly haunted locations, including work at Hampton Court Palace and the Edinburgh Vaults. This page provides some background information on his work.
What is an alleged haunting?
Around 10% of people believe that they have experienced some type of ghostly phenomena. These experiences include reports of apparitions, unusual odours, sudden changes in temperature and a sense of presence. In a small number of cases, witnesses consistently report these experiences in certain locations, giving rise to the notion that these places are “haunted”. Some alleged hauntings last many years and involving large numbers of seemingly trustworthy witnesses. Scientific research in this area aims to discover why this is the case, including the possible role played by magnetic fields, infrasound, and various psychological factors.
Some researchers, such as Professor Michael Persinger (Laurentian University, Canada), have speculated that changes in geomagnetic fields could stimulate the brain's temporal lobes, and produce many of the experiences associated with hauntings. This theory has been tested by examining the relationship between the onset of unusual phenomena in allegedly haunted locations and increases in global geomagnetic activity, investigating whether the location of alleged hauntings is associated with certain types of magnetic activity, and laboratory studies in which stimulation of the temporal lobe with transcerebral magnetic fields has elicited subjective experiences that strongly parallel phenomena associated with hauntings. All of this work is controversial and thus has attracted a large amount of debate. Prof Wiseman and his team have examined the possible role played by naturally occuring magnetic fields in their research.
Other researchers have suggested that infrasound (very low frequency sound waves below about 20Hz) might be present in certain allegedly haunted locations and be responsible for people feeling uneasy. This idea was first proposed by the late Vic Tandy and Dr. Tony Lawrence (Coventry University, UK). Two of their papers can be downloaded from links at the bottom of this page. In 2002, Prof Wiseman teamed up with engineer and performer Sarah Angliss to test some of these ideas in an unusual mass participation experiment. This study, called Infrasonic, is detailed here.
Finally, some researchers believe that many of the experiences reported in allegedly haunted locations have a psychological explanation. For example, witnesses may have had prior knowledge about which parts of a building were ‘haunted’, and do become anxious when entering these areas, resulting in mild psychosomatic and hallucinatory phenomena. Alternatively, certain areas may simply 'look' haunted (i.e., be especially dark or creepy looking) and again cause people to feel anxious. Again, these ideas have been examined in Prof Wiseman's work into alleged hauntings.
Times article on magnetism and unusual experiences.
Guardian article on infrasound and unusual experiences.
Tandy V. & Lawrence, T,. (1998). The ghost in the machine. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 62, 851, 360-364. download
Tandy, V. (2000), "Something in the Cellar", Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, 129-140. download
McCue, P.A. (2002). Theories of Hauntings: A Critical overview. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 66, 1-21. download
Our thanks to the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research for permission to distribute these articles.