I was inspired to write an article on ghosts, ghouls and phantoms after remembering a visit to Mary King’s Close, Edinburgh, Scotland. I had the privilege of going to Scotland last Short Term to dig in the Shetland Islands. As part of the historical build-up to the archeological work, we spent a week in Edinburgh visiting monuments, castles and museums. Mary King’s Close was the most unique tour because after the glitz and glamour of palaces we were faced with the harsh reality of what history was genuinely like for the not-so-fortunate in society. After plague ravaged Edinburgh, the lower levels of the city were closed off to prevent any more epidemics, to isolate the infected and let them die and to keep the filth at bay. Mary King’s Close was one of the streets that is now subterranean. In one of the small apartments we visited lies a pile of toys that have been accumulated by visitors over time to end the eternal search of the spirit of a little girl for her doll who died there of the plague. Is there any truth behind these reports? How much is real and how much is hallucination?

While we were there, we had no personal encounters with anything unnatural, but the Close is described by many familiar with it as haunted. The stories of the many restless souls whose horrid lives still shock them well into death become the source of much fascination and debate. All over the world there are similar reports of people appearing and disappearing, mysterious noises, startling photographs and inexplicable re-enactments. At the White House, many residents and visitors describe Abraham Lincoln wondering the corridors. In France, Marie Antoinette is said to still linger long after being guillotined. Similarly in England, Anne Boleyn’s headless body still roams after many eyewitness accounts. These events not only encourage the publicity of various monuments but they call for so many spin-off television shows like Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters and even some episodes of Scooby-Doo. Clearly, some hauntings are fabrications designed to rake in cash from tourists and hopeful TV viewers. But what about the reports by people who stand to profit nothing from their claims?

The most obvious explanation will be innocent human perception. Some types of hallucinations (i.e. induced by inhaling any gases present) and optical illusions can trick even the most rational of people. Scientific analyses have studied how natural magnetic fields in certain areas warp human perception. Studies into infrasound (low-frequency sound) have proven to stimulate experiences related to hauntings in test subjects. Vic Tandy, a lecturer at Coventry University, has written extensively about how the resonating eyeball can trick the brain into seeing unnatural movements at the corner of one’s eye. He concluded that sound at a frequency of 19Hz can induce feelings of fright in humans. He was the first to link his discovery with ghost sightings.  Poor sleep patterns have also proven to give some people the perception of being haunted. Pareidolia is a phenomenon where the human brain has a tendency to make unknown or inanimate objects familiar. This is how we look at clouds and see unlikely shapes or look at the face of the clock and see a man with a mustache. Any sudden movement or unusual sound is automatically associated with something human and hence the perception of a haunting.

But moving beyond the scientific skepticism is there something else? As likely as the above explanations are, are there some encounters that are not hoaxes and not caused by misperception? The Law of Conservation of Energy says that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed. We, as living beings, who are bodies of energy, what does that say about us? Of course there is plenty debate of the extent to which this theory applies to us. This theory is clearly true for the decay of our bodies and how in our death we provide life to some members of our eco-system.  But is this true at a more spiritual level? Assuming the soul is something that exists? For thousands of years, religions all over the world have advocated for some type of life after death. Irrespective of any personal beliefs, the consistency should be something to be taken into consideration.

So are ghosts real? Maybe. Before the Law of Conservation there was the Bhagavad Gita of Hindu wisdom that romantically stated “The soul is never born and it never dies. It is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. It is not slain when the body is slain.”