What is the science behind ghosts

By Michael Brendler

(SZ of October 31, 2003) - Scientists like Richard Wiseman can only exist in Great Britain. On an island where, according to mathematicians' calculations, five ghosts per square mile are up to mischief in the thick fog and numerous castles.

Where even the Bank of England has been haunted at night by a former employee for 200 years. "The people here believe in ghosts," says the psychologist Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire, "but science can't give them the cold shoulder." The award-winning ex-magician has now taken on the local problem and set out on ghost hunting as a scientist.

The setting for his work includes the venerable Hampton Court Palace in London. It is said that over 20 ghosts have been seen in the Queen's palace. Most notably, Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, has reportedly not been able to rest for 450 years. 15 months after the wedding, the king said he had exposed her as an adulteress: The 22-year-old was beheaded on February 13, 1542. Since then, Catherine Howard has been seen storming through the gallery of the castle again and again - bloodcurdling pleading for forgiveness.

An ideal research object for Wiseman: He asked 462 visitors to record their experiences in the palace rooms. The astonishing result: "Almost every second test person reported unusual experiences," says co-author Caroline Watt from the University of Edinburgh, "regardless of how much they knew about the haunted events beforehand."

The presence of invisible people

Some thought they felt the presence of an invisible person. Others suddenly felt a cold shiver down their spines; "Some even said they had been touched," says Watt. Every seventh visitor was convinced: ghosts were at work here.

Most of the eerie experiences had taken place in those vaulted corners that are considered "ghost-typical". In order to gain certainty, Wiseman got to grips with the walls with temperature scanners, magnetic field meters and light sensors. The result: It was precisely in these places that he frequently detected sudden drops in temperature, sudden changes in light or winds whistling through walled-up doors.

But not all phenomena can be explained with such rather obvious effects. Even the slight changes in the earth's magnetic field were not sufficient, as every television viewer experiences significantly more massive changes. On the other hand, according to Wisemans suspicion, infrasound could be responsible for some hauntings in castles and palaces. Such extremely deep tones are formed, for example, when the wind whistles through chimneys, crevices and loopholes in old castles. Although the sounds are too deep for the human ear, they can set large resonance spaces in the body such as the abdominal cavity vibrating at a sufficient volume.

The radio in the kettle

To test his hypothesis, the scientist invited 750 guests to a concert in London. He secretly underscored two of the pieces played with inaudible tones.

In fact, it turned out that when infrasound sounded, the audience felt 22 percent more feelings such as fear, worry and shivering. Wiseman thinks that this can lead to an encounter with a ghost only in human terms: "We experience things in our everyday lives that seem inexplicable to us, even if a chair falls over for no reason. But if we find ourselves in a dungeon, we think we stop, there is a ghost behind it. "

Walter von Lucadou has similar stories to tell. He runs a parapsychological counseling center in Freiburg supported by the state of Baden-Württemberg. On average, every 10 days, the doctor of psychology and physicist has a haunted experience there.

He is happy to tell the case of someone looking for advice who thought he heard voices from his kettle. Von Lucadou found out that the metal plates on the stove and kettle acted as medium wave receivers. If the neighbor had turned on his radio, the victim had to listen to the radio program.

A zombie by her side

But it is not always physics that are behind the problems of those seeking help. He also tells of a woman who was obsessed with the idea of ​​living next to a zombie. The reason: She had once turned to a self-appointed witch to have the runaway husband charmed back.

Such stressful situations are often the trigger for experiences that are then interpreted supernaturally, says Eberhard Bauer from the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Hygiene, also in Freiburg. "We tend to put problems into pictures," he explains. "With some, the films are played in their heads, with others outside in the form of ghosts and apparitions."

A classic for Bauer is the case of a man who thought he heard a knock in his closet. "He had already taken everything apart but found nothing," says the psychologist. Finally, it turned out that the poltergeist had appeared when the man had left the woman. "At some point, our client remembered that he had once worked this closet with an ax to dissipate his jealousy.

Now he was in the same situation again: helpless and alone with his medium closet. "In fact, the knocking would have stopped, says Bauer, when the connection became clear to the man.

Wiseman, who is actually looking for physical boundary conditions for the phenomena, uses similar explanations - at least when he sees a ghost himself: "One night I woke up and suddenly saw a ghost standing at the foot of my bed," he says. "'My brain is trying to outsmart me again', I thought. This is just a character from my dream from earlier that will be gone in a moment."