Phantom Histories: Exploring the Work of Medievalist Claude Lecouteux

Posted in > ANALYSIS by David on October 31, 2018

In those days it was common to bury people at night and by torchlight: and it was noticed that whenever a funeral was toward, John Poole was always at his window, either on the ground floor or upstairs, according as he could get the better view from one or the other …

There came a night when an old woman was to be buried. She was fairly well to do, but she was not liked in the place. The usual thing was said of her, that she was no Christian, and that on such nights as Midsummer Eve and All Hallows, she was not to he found in her house.

— from “There Was a Man Dwelt by the Churchyard” by M.R. James



A wonderful collection of classic texts was discovered beneath the finely writ words of a Byzantine prayer book. Seven treatise by Archimedes, including the only known copies of his works The Method of Mechanical Theorems and Stomachion, along with previously unknown speeches by the Athenian orator Hyperides and a commentary on Aristotle’s Categories from the second or third century AD, have been carefully reproduced by analyzing the traces left on the prayer book’s vellum pages. Some enterprising scribe had scraped them clean to reuse the sheets, overlaying prayers on top of a wealth of ancient knowledge.

Mirroring the material focus of our time this discovery gives a very physical example of a process which is prevalent in all areas of culture. Hidden beneath folk tales, myths, familial anecdotes, and in between the lines of every song, book and treatise one can find the remnants of past revelations.

The Medievalist Claude Lecouteux’s Chasse fantastiques et cohorts de la nuit au Moyen Age and La maison hantee: Histoires des Poltergeists, translated as Phantom armies of the night: the wild hunt and the ghostly processions of the undead and The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses, From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations respectively, published through Inner Traditions, provide perfect examples of the depths that can be found when one looks more carefully at common stories and popular beliefs.

By examining folk traditions and orthodox references to the wild hunt, poltergeists, regional rituals, and beliefs, Lecouteux has been able to revive ancient concepts of mortality, discovering a complex philosophy of life and death hidden beneath a thin veil of legend and storytelling.

Hallucinatory and revealing, his books recover the cold tracks of popular beliefs, stalking their deeper associations through a careful study of literature, religious treatise and cultural expressions. His specialty is the nightside realms of phenomenology, what contemporary philosopher and author Patrick Harpur describes as “daimonic reality,” and what derisive critique calls ghosts, goblins and ghouls.

In the year 1678, on the Sunday after Twelfth Day, William Medcalfe and his Wife went to church, leaving their only daughter Alice at home, and whilst they were there they said Alice heard a noise in the yard, and looking out the window she saw a man of a middle stature …

— The beginning of Joseph Glanvil’s account of the Medcalfe haunting from 1678 as recounted by Claude Lecouteux in The Secret History of Poltergeists

This is historical scholarship that holds all the chilling import of the best M.R. James stories, without falling on fiction to allow an easy suspension of disbelief as he explores our haunted world. Astral doubles, witches, werewolves, vampires and hauntings take center stage, but this isn’t the pastiche reality you’ve come to expect from paranormal television.

Here the data gives voice to its own interpretation. Case reports, documentation and personal testimony provide the platform for Lecouteux comparison of official histories explaining encounters with what officially does not exist. Unlike most of the stories that have been recently promoted through television, radio and podcasts these are not case reports from suburbanite minds.

These are the tales of the rusticus, paganus, the cacophonous reminders of the vox populi of earlier times where the sanguine truths of life hold resonant potency. One finds that these phenomena clothe themselves in the imaginal potential of those who experience them, and these tales are told by imaginations filled with the realities of agrarian existence, the blood and bones truths of rural living.

Abel, second son of Count Waldemar of Denmark, slew his brother in 1250 then fell in 1252, when fighting the Frisons. He was buried in St. Peter’s Church in Schleswig, but numerous hauntings occurred. His body was removed from the religious building and submerged in a swamp in the Pol Forest, near Gottorp, after the coffin had been pierced through with a stake.

During this time, the area became haunted and those who passed near it heard the sound of a hunting horn and saw a man. Everywhere, it was said that the man was Abel and that his mouth and his body were black and that he rode a small horse of the same color and that he was accompanied by three dogs glowing like fire.

– from the Schleswig Chronicle, Testimony of Brother Boissen, counselor to Duke Johann Adolph of Holstein-Gottorp, as quoted in Phantom Armies of the Night

By focusing on accounts of these anomalous events from functional historical media, such as religious treatises, old chronicles and news reports, he opens a deep examination of the process of interpretation itself. Functional media presents us with material intended to shape understanding, and Lecouteux’s use of church records and early Enlightenment era investigations provides a clear presentation of how ideologies work as an interpretive lens for experiential phenomenon. In doing so he also begins to develop a wider critique of how all official explanations serve less to investigate the experiential truth of an event, than to provide a place for that event within an acceptable social framework.

Through accounts like the one found in the Schleswig Chronicle regarding Abel, Lecounteux demonstrates how narrative themes develop over time, with key markers such as the staked coffin, burial in the swamp, and the figure of the phantom huntsman, recurring throughout. These recurring themes can be traced back to pre-Christian beliefs and ritual observances, one thinks of the infamous bog bodies which show signs of ceremonial burial, providing keys to understanding how our relationship with the natural world as a symbolic system has developed.

One is also struck, beyond symbolic evolution, by the efficacy the anomalous phenomenon itself is afforded by even those skeptical of its origins or existence. By comparing text after text describing disruptive phenomenon we follow as explanations are offered to fit the events within a standard context supported by the prevailing world view of the time. Throughout we find explanations ranging from meandering spirits, malicious demons to mental unbalance, what never changes is the phenomena itself, and certain experiential factors that lead towards its manifestation.

Rather than seeking to clarify the causes of the phenomenon, Lecouteux looks at how authorities and official explanations contend with the frequency of anomalous events. Here we see interpretive structures develop over time to fit the periods acceptable social narratives.

In The Secret History of Poltergeists, this is shown through the changing interpretations of “knocking spirits” or “noisy hauntings,” reports of which can be found going back to the classical period. The events themselves repeat the same phenomenological profile … taps, raps, growls, moving objects, stones materializing in midair and raining down at great speed, and yet the reasons for these experiences are washed continuously in terms of what is metaphysically accepted as reality for the time period of the report.

Developing out of a close reading of texts from each period, is a clear picture of how popular insistence as to the veracity of these anomalies, supported by individuals within the orthodoxy who have themselves experienced them, creates a need for orthodox narratives that fit these events into an acceptable framework, or manipulate them as convenient propaganda.

This is a process which Jacques Vallee has outlined in great detail dealing with the subject of UFO and anomalous lights, and which has been brought up to date by Mark Pilkington’s book Mirage Men: An Adventure into Paranoia, Espionage, Psychological Warfare, and UFOs (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010),which deals with the direct interference of intelligence agencies in creating politically expedient narratives that guide the understanding of anomalous events.

In speaking of orthodox narratives we are talking about all narratives that support the identity of a larger social narrative, be it political, scientific, religious, mystical or occult. What becomes very clear in Lecouteux’s work is that all explanations act as confabulations to describe the origins of phenomena that have no clear underlying cause within the accepted orthodoxies. Because these events are anomalous, the importance given to them by their framing is able to be manipulated to the benefit of the intention of the storytellers.

These phenomena can even become tools for justifying narratives which refute them, playing the dark foil to the positive enumeration of official existential norms. When filtered through church documents, for instance, exorcism and prayer are used as a weapon against anomalous phenomena perceived as the agency of demonic forces lead by the devil.

These holy rituals return the balance of divine agency which allows the phenomenon to stop, having renewed the rational (in relation to prevailing norms) structure. While the importance of these occurrences is downplayed by authoritative dismissal, they still play an important part in bolstering party line dogmas.

When all accounts are assessed, Lecouteux is able to analyze the actual efficiency of these religious interventions, and there is a clear discrepancy. As these official accounts are compared to those given by commentators outside of religious (or scientific) orthodoxy, the phenomena is often unabated by ritual means. Dualistic, mind vs. material, God vs. the devil arguments do not properly apply to these phenomena, and they remain uneasy outliers within official historical narratives.

Le paranormal introduit une relation entre un état psychique et un fait (la télépathie et la voyance, qui concernent le rapport entre deux pensées, se réfèrent en fin de compte à un fait, celui vécu par le tiers). Or, les sciences physiques ne disposent d’aucune définition de la pensée qui leur permette de la faire intervenir dans les faits .*

– Philippe Wallon, research fellow at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM)

This is a very compelling observation for a number of contemporary issues. Similar analytic criteria can be applied to the effectiveness of psychiatric drugs, as much as it can to practices of those active in deliverance ministries. Both of these areas present the physical manifestation of materialist and spiritualist belief systems, and both are aimed at reintegration of the individual identity within a conventional narrative.

We are either correcting the balance of assumed chemical or psycho-spiritual mechanisms within the individual that causes disparity. By examining the ways in which language and storytelling justifies a given treatment, and in turn the actual effectiveness as proven by experiential data, we are able to see that the complexity of life is not a reductionist proposition.

Here the ‘relation entre un etat psychique et un fait,’ or the relation between identity and fact, becomes a decisive element. One of the things that Lecounteux is able to demonstrate is that anomalous events such as poltergeists sit on the cusp of boundaries, whether it’s moving in to a new home which stirs up the Genus Loci, the place spirits, or finding oneself at the seasonal thresholds where barriers between the world of the living and the world of the dead are less distinct. They are heralds of a change in state, moments of malleable identity, and at times witnesses become participatory in accommodating these phenomena, or mirroring them, in order to expedite the processes invoked.

This participation is an important aspect of what skeptics delineate as fraud in these situations. In contemporary accounts of poltergeist activity it is often found that the phenomenon is aided, or skeptics would say directly caused by, those that are experiencing it. In R. Scott Rogo’s classic study of the phenomenon, On the Track of the Poltergeist (Anomalist Books, 2005), the first encounter that he relates eventually leads to the conclusion that at a certain point the daughter of the family experiencing the poltergeist activity is involved in deception.

In light of the participatory elements that Lecouteux uncovers in his analysis, however, this becomes something more than just trickery. The human actor takes on the role of the spirit in order to participate in the meaning that is trying to be communicated. Anomalous phenomenon becomes intimately entwined with ritual participation.

If we understand poltergeist activity to be a sign that some boundary has been broken, be it a familial relationship, moving to a different house, or a disruption of the family unit through divorce, abuse or some other violation, then it really doesn’t matter how the ‘noisy spirit’ manifests, it is already existent in the violation and its signs can come through human agency or anomalous phenomena.

Gin ye ca’ me imp or elf,
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye ca’ me fairy,
I’ll work ye muckle tarrie;
Gin guid neibour ye ca’ me,
Then guid neibour I will be;
But gin ye ca’ me seelie wicht,
I’ll be your freend baith day and nicht.

— Chamber’s Popular rhymes of Scotland

This participatory action is further revealed in Phantom armies of the Night, were Lecouteux presents a case history of accounts dealing with discarnate troops of spirits, which appear in folklore under various guises, but whose activity, like that of the poltergeist, remain similar in each case.

We are familiar with this ritual participation through holidays such as Halloween and the act of dressing up in costume, even if in the Western world this practice has become a destitute of its original power. Lecouteux demonstrates through more potent examples, such as the Krampus tradition of the Alps, where the costumes consist of animal hides, and terrifying demonic masks, how these rituals connect to remembrance of ancestral dead, actions to maintain social balance and pre-Christian ritual which gain some of the liminal power of these events through embodying the narratives which surround anomalous phenomenon and allowing direct participation in these mysteries.

Cando eramos vivos,
Andabamos pol-os caminos;
E agora que somos mortos
Andabamos por entre os hortos
Tocando nas campanillas
E commendo pimentos …*

— Song of a troop of revenants in Manzaneda, Trives (Orense, Galicia) cited in Phantom Armies of the Night

Lecounteux’s examination of these troops of the dead shows how there is a very complex interplay between natural phenomenon (seasonal boundaries, certain celestial alignments, anomalous lights or sounds), conceptions of the afterlife, and ritual participation as they become entwined in these folk beliefs.

In Galicia the concept of the Santa Compaña, or Holy Company, relates how penitential spirits mete out their purgatory as nocturnal wanderers. In turn we find in Spain and Andalusia the powerful image of penitential believers dressed in capirotes, pointed hoods and capes that cover them completely, making their pilgrimage during holy week.

Having never seen these penitents in person, and having not grown up with the stories of the Santa Compana, an outside observer would be hard pressed to find any difference in their immediate descriptive elements. An artist rendering either the spectral procession or the physical pilgrims would end up with the same image.

By exploring the interstices of these beliefs and practices we find a much deeper understanding than the strict orthodox interpretation of these rituals. Moving further into the twilight we discover that some of these beliefs and practices take root in ancient beliefs now seen only in vague recollections.

The scholar Carlos Ginsburg in his work The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the 16th and 17th Centuries (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), recounts the persecution during the Inquisition in Italy of the Benedanti, or Good Walkers, who were said to travel in spirit form during certain times of the year to do battle with malefic spirits in order to insure a good harvest, maintaining a proper balance within the world. One of the signs that marked the Benedanti was to be born with a caul.

We are at present dealing with apparitions of the living only (including persons at the moment of death) ; and we have good reasons for thinking this a prudent limit to draw, inasmuch as this evidence for apparitions of the living is in several ways stronger than the evidence for post-mortem apparitions. But we must remember that this limit is an arbitrary one, fixed by ourselves; and that while we are treating death as the limiting point of apparitions, it may be merely the point of maximum frequency of apparitions …

– Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Nov. 1884

In such ritual observances the act of dying takes on initiatory resonance, and again we see the entwined conception of the supernatural as a relationship between identity and fact.

Another cultic manifestation of these beliefs, the Societá do Oso, or Society of the Bone, as Lecounteux explains, was an initiatory society whose ritual practice involves taking on the persona of the dead during nocturnal marches.

Carrying candles, or bones, they are said to visit those who are soon to die. While the stories surrounding them associate this with a physical death, the complexity of these relationships leaves us to wonder if there is not something more meaningful here in relationship to an initiatory death, and resurrection, as found in something like the Masonic rituals in which a candidate is ‘raised’ from their former life into a new life wholly dedicated to serving the global society.

Contemporary Christianity has offered us a very poor conception of what is meant when we talk about a person’s soul. Psychologizing this belief has given it the assumed meaning of mental identity, but as Lecouteux’s work on folklore surrounding ghosts discovers this is not analogous to any of the ancient beliefs found examining the textual evidence.

He identifies three types of spirit troops, in German they are called the Nachtscher (Night Troop), which are similar in purpose and function to the Benedanti, the Rechte Fhart (Just Voyage), which represent the spirits of the dead moving on to the realm of the dead, and the Hexen-fahrt (Witches’ Voyage), which are the maelific spirits. Both the Nachtscher and the Hexen-fahrt can include members from either the living or the dead.

The living participants in these ceremonies accompany the troop through what would be considered today out of body or ecstatic experiences. Lecounteux follows the work of other scholars, such as the Goetic scholar Jake Stratton Kent and witchcraft scholar Nicholaj De Mattos Frisvold, who have discovered that underlying much of the magical lore existent from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment, we find traces of ecstatic cultic rituals in which dream incubation (lucid dreaming), altered states of consciousness and sacred ordeal closely interact with anomalous experience.

Because of the official white washing of these practices we are left piecing together folktales, songs and stories to get an idea of the actual importance and reality of these beliefs. Lecounteux, as historical detective, provides us with a survey of the official narratives that have arisen to explain away these practices by hiding them behind an approved veil. This kind of scholarship allows us to catch a glimpse of the power behind the ghost stories that keeps them forever fascinating, and forever relevant to our understanding of the haunted world we live in.

Perhaps what strikes your disbelief when you hear a ghost story is not the revenant dead themselves, or those that walk in their place, but the false note sounded by orthodox fairy tales overlaying the true meaning of these events.

What is a ghost?

I’m no longer sure that the arguments of skeptics or believers hold much weight when the issue is brought forward in terms of phenomenal relationships. Rather than an expectation for encountering some discarnate entity in ectoplasmic glory, Lecounteux’s work reveals how our understanding of these phenomena relates directly to our relationship with the world around us.

In these ghost stories the importance is on memory and identity, and using phenomenal markers to aid in remembering the places memory and identity intersect in our living experience. Like the Archimedes palmiset, there is much to uncover beneath the layers of orthodox explanation. We can hold whatever opinion we like on the reality of ghosts, but one day we might just find ourselves carried away by the hunt and all opinion on the matter will be mute when the dogs are barking at our heels.


Phillipe Wallon — The paranormal introduces a relationship between a mental state (identity) and a fact (telepathy and clairvoyance, which concern the relationship between two thoughts, refer ultimately to a fact, that experienced by the third). However, the physical sciences have no definition of thinking that will fit these facts.”

Song — When we were living/we traveled along the paths;/today when we are dead/we walk between the gardens/striking our bells/and eating peppers.

Note: Special thanks to Inner Traditions for providing copies of the recent translations of Claude Lecouteux’s work for research and review. This article was originally published at The Teeming Brain.

* * *

Claude Lecouteux is a former professor of medieval literature and civilization at the Sorbonne. He is the author of numerous books on medieval and pagan afterlife beliefs, including The Return of the Dead, The Secret History of Vampires, and Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies. He lives in Paris.

For Further Reading:

“Chasses fantastiques et cohorts de la nuit au moyen age” (1999, Paris: Éditions Imago) Phantom armies of the Night. The Wild Hunt and Ghostly Processions of the Undead : Inner Traditions. Rochester (Vermont), Toronto, Canada , 2011.

“La maison hantee: Histoires des Poltergeists (2007, Paris: Editions Imago) The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses, From Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations: Inner Traditions. Rochester (Vermont), Toronto, Canada, 2012.

Also by Claude Lecouteux:

Fantomes et Revenants au Moyan Age (1996, Paris: Éditions Imago) — The Return of the Dead, Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind. Inner Traditions. Rochester (Vermont), Toronto, Canada, 2009.

Fees, Sorcieres et Loups-garous (1992, Paris: Éditions Imago) — Witches, Werewolves and Fairies, Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages: Inner Traditions. Rochester (Vermont), Toronto, Canada, 2003.

Additional Resources:

10 Questions with Claude Lecouteux: http://themagicalbuffet.com/blog1/2011/10/16/10-questions-with-claude-lecouteux/
Interview with Claud Lecouteux (French Language): http://www.maison-hantee.com/files/lecouteux/itw_lecouteux.htm

Riding the Blurry Borders — The Evidence for Phantom Hitchhikers

Posted in > ANALYSIS by David on October 31, 2018

Archer Avenue0
a dark stretch of road outside of Chicago, in a town called Justice, Resurrection Mary introduced me to the ambiance of the phantom hitch-hiker. I was 16 years old, sitting in the backseat of my friend’s car as we drove down Archer Avenue at midnight. When we hit the darkest part of the road he turned off the lights and let up on the gas, dropping the car down 30 miles per hour under the speed limit. With experimental naiveté we were hoping that such peculiar behavior would increase our chances of meeting a world famous apparition.

The two police officers that pulled us over for reckless driving were less sure of our research methods. Confused, bemused and annoyed, they questioned us for over an hour with indignation at the allure she still held for legend trippers after so many years of her tale being retold. Weiser Books reissue of Michael Goss’ 1984 work, The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-Hikers, gives me the opportunity to pause and reflect on this formative moment in my involvement with applied investigation in the liminal realm. It’s a timely reissue too, as the influence of researchers such as Jeffery Kripal and my friend George Hansen brings greater focus on multi-disciplinary approaches to contemporary anomalistic studies.

Analyzing the phantom hitch-hiker phenomena through the interstices of psychical research and folkloristics, Goss’ methodology implies an important starting point for effective investigation into the night-side of nature. We often make assumptions about common categories like ‘ghost,’ but ask yourself, would you know a ghost if you saw one?

Let go of  believe or disbelieve

As Goss shows in his detailed examination of phantom hitch-hikers, there is a striking difference between folktales or urban legends and personal reports of anomalous experience. If seeing is believing, we should be careful when what we see fits the phantoms found in familiar stories. While there are superficial similarities in terms of experiential themes, i.e. something like encountering an apparition, folktales and urban legends rely on narrative structures and plot developments that are usually missing in reports of anomalous experiences themselves.

An anomalous encounter is, by its very nature, outside of the normal flow of things — they emerge into our view set against the habitual patterns that fashion the narrative of our lives. In Liminality, Marginality, Anti-Structure, and Parapsychology, a paper presented at the 2011 Academy Of Spirituality And Paranormal Studies conference, researcher and theorist George Hansen points out that:

…paranormal phenomena are more likely to occur under liminal and transitional conditions and around liminal and marginal persons than among more ordinary conditions and people.

Generally, those invested in established hierarchies find strongly liminal conditions unpalatable, irrational, and threatening. Thus liminal persons are often marginalized and viewed with some suspicion. (Marginality is a subcategory of liminality, and frequent consequence of it.)

It is not surprising then that catch valves for the maintenance of cultural continuity and status quo, such as academic scholarship and popular media, would foster normalizing approaches to anomalous phenomena like the phantom hitch-hiker, rounding these encounters off in explainable ways.

The mind creates continuity through root structures of information patterning. We see these same structures appear in the artifice of effective storytelling. Good stories stick because they work with the cognitive necessity of pattern recognition. They provide us with a smooth and comfortable movement from introduction of the theme to its conclusion — a person is traveling, encounters a hitch-hiker, they pick them up, hitch-hiker disappears from the car, puzzling over the encounter they later realize that they picked up the hitch-hiker where an accident had occurred, the narrative ends with this revelation which conforms to our need for sensible closure. This sense of closure allows the liminal nature of a liason with an apparition on a lonely stretch of road to be reintegrated into the structure of a culture’s shared worldview.

Anomalous Anomalies

The raw reports collected by researchers lack the strong internal cohesion necessary for this integration — it is only in the urban legend and folk tale that this kind of stock pattern emerges. Psychical researchers usually find that a person encounters an apparition, and…that’s the report.

Over the years it has been possible to collate these reports into specific categories, the apparition looked like a loved one that recently passed away, the apparition was solid, the apparition was misty, and so on, but for the most part no meaningful narrative structure fits the majority of what is reported. Anomalous experiences are just that, anomalous.

As Goss explains in terms of phantom hitch-hiker stories surrounding the Blue Bell Hill area near Chatham England:

the Blue Bell hill phantom may have been either relocated or regional variations on an old, received motif (folklore) or veritable apparitional encounters which, rightly or wrongly, became associated with the memorized fact of (a)1965 accident. What is more certain is that many of these episodes derived a species credibility or even respectability from the indisputably-real crash.

The discomfort of an anomalous encounter entices our curiosity into trying to explain it, and often coincidental events that occur in the area of the phenomena will be drawn in to help with this.

In the story of the Blue Bell Hill phantom a local accident becomes narrative ground to anchor what would otherwise be an inexplicable, and almost pointless, encounter. This pointlessness is a theme that researcher and writer Jacques Vallee covers extensively in his work, and is one of the things that frustrates serious researchers who delve into the field of apparitional appearances, be they ghosts, UFOs, goblins, or whatever else — although popular retellings (especially those sculpted for the media) put meaning to these events by attaching them to historical or pseudo-historical facts, the occurrences themselves are isolated by their often absurd incongruity.

In examining these accounts against the analysis of folklorists Goss differentiates the psychological needs fulfilled by folktales and urban legends and those which coincide with reports of actual believed experience. Citing the work of Aniela Jaffe, and her 1963 study Apparitions and Precognition: A Study from the Viewpoint of C.G. Jung’s Analytical Psychology, Goss highlights how story based and experiential based accounts differ in certain details. This is demonstrated in her analysis of the sole phantom hitch-hiker account found in the 1200 letters she received during her initial research:

Ms. Jaffe almost refuses to comment on this story. To her, it is devoid of significant, symbolic data and the style contrasts with the plain, monotonous tone of the other material she quotes. ‘The lack of archetypal features seems to be a criterion of the improbability of the ‘experience’. Another way of saying this might be to describe the thing as too artificial, too much so to even approximate the sort of account readers might concede as veridical. There is a clear credibility gap, then, between the artistically-devised ‘true story,’ which is fiction, and the real life experience it attempts to mimic.

Urban legends and folktales have their own unique set of archetypes whose artificial gloss differ from those manifesting in perceived experience. Through careful attention to the symbolic content of the story one can get a better idea for where it stands in terms of being a fictional story or a report where the person truly feels they are relating a real experience that they have had.

Breaking the Pattern

The picture of a ghost as an immaterial and spectral figure is a familiar tropeof popular media, accompanied by numerous other incidences that are associated with spirit manifestation — orbs, shadowy shapes, or some kind of purposeful, unseen force. However, as type categories these bear more relation to narrative cues than to actually getting to the heart of the experience itself. All of them fall under the category of ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit,’ yet experientially they are quite different. Stories surrounding anomalies often speak more to our concepts of life and death, and to our relationships with the social order and the natural world around us, than they do about the phenomena themselves.

When I ventured with friends to find Resurrection Mary part of the draw was that outside of the famed hitch-hiker, the area has actively accumulated numerous other urban legends. Stories circulate of mysterious lights over the waterways that converge there, strange monk like apparitions and a vanishing horse drawn hearse are said to have been seen at the St. James-Sag cemetery down the road. Even the old tale about the Devil appearing at a dance, discovered when his dance partner sees his cloven feet (in Southwestern variations his feet are sometimes those of a chicken), has found a home at one of the local ballrooms.

While my search for Resurrection Mary lead me deeper into ghostland, many years later a chance encounter one night with a fellow named Preston would continue to change my understanding of how these patterns emerge and relate to anomalous incidents.

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 9.34.33 AMBorn with a veil

Not long after I moved to Georgia I met Preston in an alleyway behind theLiminal Analytics office as he was walking home from work. He was a cook at a restaurant a few doors down and after a polite introduction, he asked me what I did. The question made me pause and consider the ramifications of revealing my obscure interests to a random stranger in an alley in the hyper-charged religious atmosphere of the Deep South, and finally said:

“I write about … weird things.”

“Oh, like what?” he asked.

“Well, peoples’ belief in the supernatural,” I explained with care. “How stories of the supernatural affect our sense of self.”

Much to my surprise, he didn’t flinch. Instead, he nodded thoughtfully and said, “I believe in the unknown, because to me, not to believe in the unknown is not to believe in God. I can’t see him, neither, but I know he’s there, and I can see him working.” I nodded, smiling to myself, his attitude echoed that of some of the early members of the Society for Psychical Research. It’s clear from correspondences among the founders, as well as the focus of much of their work, that proving anomalous experience was considered one way to shake things up for the philosophical hold of materialist mechanism that was becoming more prevalent during the late 19th century.

“Now, some people are afraid of ghosts,” he continued.

“They don’t like to talk about them none. I tell them, ‘Now I believe in the Lord too strong to be worried about any of that.’ I believe in ghosts because my daddy believed in them. He was born with a veil over his face. They say folks born like that can see things. He used to heal kids with the thrush.”

“Your dad was born with a caul?” I asked with excitement. A caul, as you may know, is a piece of the birth membrane that can cover a newborn’s head and face. Throughout history it has been popularly associated with second sight, and has often been taken as a sign that a child will have special abilities to heal as well. Preston was telling me that his father had been a local seer and faith healer, born directly into the tradition.

“Yeah,” he said, “some people call it that.”

He then proceeded to recount a number of stories about encountering “ghosts” with his father. But these were not the ghosts that I would normally have thought of. Some of them, for instance, were solid, as in his recollection of a “ghost” they met while waiting for a bus:

“One time we was at the bus stop, and he tells me ‘Look over there,’ pointing to a man standing across the street at the other bus stop. He was standing with his back turned to us so you couldn’t see his face. My daddy said, ‘That’s a ghost.’ And I said, ‘Now how in the world can that be a ghost? That’s a man standing there solid as me.’ He said, ‘Nah, that’s a ghost. You ain’t never gonna see his face. Watch.’ So we did. We sat there until our bus come. Whole time the man just stands there with his back to us. My daddy, he said, ‘Now wait, we’ll let this one pass, we’re going to sit here until his bus come.’ So we did, we sat there until his bus come, and still that man never did turn or move. My daddy say, ‘Now watch … ‘ The lights inside the bus was bright, you know, and I watched, but I never seen him get on the bus. When it drove away, he was gone. Now, I tell you, I ain’t seen him get on, but he was gone when it left.”

It was upon hearing this that I realized just how far popular and academic media had separated me from nearly every traditional tale of the “Other World” that I had ever heard or read. How many urban legends deal with very solid figures that are only later revealed to have origins other than the waking world? Preston’s account was quite different from the stories that had drawn me to Archer Avenue.

What exactly is a ghost in this sense? And what does it mean to encounter one?

There are ghosts, and then there are ghosts

In folktales and reported experience the phantom hitch-hiker is one of the more solid apparitions that people speak of encountering, at least in terms of the scholarly literature on the subject. Goss points out that, “one important aspect of Phantom Hitch-Hikers consists of their not being readily identifiable as supernatural entities, but as living, unexceptional human persons in need of a lift. Consequently, Beardsley and Hankey were convinced that ‘there is a modernity about the elements and the essence of the story…which sets it off sharply from the tales of the past. The most significant of the modern elements is the hitch-hiker’s successful masquerading as a human being.’ This element, they thought, is rare in European ghostlore and the few exceptions do not rely upon it for their impact. The ghost who is sufficiently real to pass for human — the kind most commonly reported in early psychical research journals — was not popularized until the end of the nineteenth century.” Goss systematically overturns these assumptions with clear examples from folklore attesting to corporeal ghosts.

There is even a name for this type of apparition –a revenant. Medievalist Claude Lecouteux has written extensively on European traditions of revenants and ghosts, and by drawing on court records, medical reports and other official period documents he too has shown how the veil between corporeal and phantasmal flesh is often rather thin.

While Victorian ghost stories and reality television often lead us towards the image of a misty immaterial phantom, traditions which include interacting with the spirit world almost always treat spirit manifestation in fleshy forms. There is a stark contrast between the kind of tropes associated with ghosts in folktales and ‘ghost stories’ and those we find in the living folk beliefs of people whose worldview includes interacting on a regular basis with the spirit world. We can see this very clearly in Preston’s account of his father’s practice as a traditional seer.

Narrative and belief

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 9.33.14 AMIf we seek other sources we find similar accounts appearing in the work of folklorists such as Harry Middleton Hyatt, who collected folk accounts without starting with a particular theme of interest. The folklorists that Goss references were all studying the narrative structures of folktales, and as such they discovered folk accounts with those narrative forms in place. On the other hand, Hyatt, in works like The Folklore of Adams County Illinois, survey’s general beliefs and comes up with many reports of spirit encounters that fit closer to the isolated accounts found by psychical researchers.

When we look for stories, we find stories, when we look for experiences we find experiences. Throughout Goss’ analysis one is given the opportunity to reflect on the nature of our experiential narratives and the effects of belief — as well as how the tools and paradigms used during our investigation help to shape the understandings that arise. Through the interplay of psychical research techniques with folkloristics we are given an interesting clue to how folklore studies, through the functional necessity of gathering and examining narratives, often moves outside the nature of folk beliefs as they are actually lived.

For instance, a local recounting a story told about a witch or faith healer, will be quite different than the experiential account of the witch or faith healer themselves. The vanishing hitch-hiker that we are given to observe in the book is a shadow filtered through popular media and correlated anecdotal reports, yet, as I learned from Preston, behind the blinds of literary leitmotiflays a living world of spirits.

Having gained more understanding since my foray at the age of 16, comparing the accounts that Preston related to me with the stories that lead me so many years ago into the darkness of Archer Avenue in search of Resurrection Mary I can clearly see the divergence of experience and legend. As Goss’ own examination shows, diving into first hand personal accounts we suddenly find that the tight categories which satisfy the needs of a good story are not necessarily those found in actual reports.

In future articles we will go ‘off trail’ and into the wild wood of history with our investigation. We’ll turn off the lights, drive a bit slower and focus on exploring with more detail what we can discover from phenomena such as the phantom hitch-hiker when we move away from the constricting atmosphere of categories like ‘urban legend’ and dance into the areas where experiential accounts fit with older understandings of the thinly veiled borders between the wide roads of the waking world and the darkened paths of ghostland.

Note: Special thanks to Red Wheel/Weiser for the opportunity to enjoy these reflections through Michael Goss’ book The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-hikers — for more information on the book, visit their website. This article originally appeared in a slightly modified form on the web-magazine Reality Sandwich and later Modern Mythology.

Liminal Analytics: Psi in the News 10.29.18

Posted in > PSI IN THE NEWS by David on October 29, 2018

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“…whether we emphasize evidence or meaning or something else, it is essential that we learn more about the basic characteristics of psi experiences, to build what Gardner Murphy called a “taxonomy of the paranormal.”

— Rhea A. White, Review of Approaches To The Study of Spontaneous Psi Experiences

– Upcoming Events –

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018 – The Old Royal Naval College in London will host Susan Owens, author of The Ghost: A Cultural History (Tate Publishing), for a discussion on Britain’s artists and writers long relationship with the phantasmal, and how changes in ghostly representation may demonstrate deeper cultural changes:

Wednesday, October 31st, 2018 – The Scientific and Medical Network will host a launch for the Galileo Commission Report – Science Beyond a Materialist Worldview: https://explore.scimednet.org/index.php/events/event/launch-of-galileo-commission-report-science-beyond-a-materialist-worldview/

Thursday, November 8th, 2018 – The Green-Wood Cemetery Association, in collaboration with the Morbid Anatomy Museum, will host award-winning photographer and author Shannon Taggart for an illustrated lecture featuring original photographs from her 17 year-long exploration of séance, ritual possession and mediumship: https://www.green-wood.com/event/altered-states-mediums-mambos-and-michael-jackson/

November 8th-11th, 2018 – The Mind and Life Institute will host the 2018 International Symposium for Contemplative Researchhttps://iscr2018.org

November 9th-11th, 2018 – The Forever Family Foundation will host Mediums Behind The Scenes – The Second Biennial Afterlife Explorers & Mediumship Conventionhttp://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/event?oeidk=a07ef8pr8gi17e65d39&llr=ydrsgxbab

November 10th, 2018 – the Society for Psychical Research will be hosting a  Study Day, chaired by Prof. Adrian Parker and organised by Erica Brostoff, on the topic of ‘Understanding the Uncanny’: https://www.spr.ac.uk/civicrm/event/info?reset=1&id=115

Saturday, December 8th, 2018: The Australian Institute of Parapsychological Research will host a mini-Conference at the North Sydney Community Centre, NSW, featuring Four Lectures on the Afterlife and Related Themeshttp://www.aiprinc.org

Through December 19th, 2018, The University of Manitoba is hosting an exhibit featuring items from their collections relating to spiritualism and psychical investigation, including séances, life after death, dowsing, psychokinesis, automatic writing, Spirit photography and more – Investigation of the Human Psyche: Spiritualist and Parapsychology Collections at the University of Manitobahttps://lib-umanitoba.libcal.com/event/3451594

May 10th-12th, 2019 – The 2019 Conference of the Open University Psychological Society will focus on the topic of parapsychology: https://www.oups.org.uk/events/annual-conference-parapsychology

The Parapsychological Assocation has announced the 2019 dates for its annual convention – on July 4th-6th, 2019 the event will be held in Paris, France to honor the 100th anniversary of the Institut Métapsychique International. With Program Chair Ramsés D’León Macías and Arrangements Chair Mario P. Varvoglis, this event will bring together international researchers at the avant-garde of science: https://www.parapsych.org/section/59/2019_convention.aspx

June 25-28, 2019 – The Collegium Helveticum Zurich and Center for Consciousness StudiesUniversity of Arizona at Tucson will host the 2019 Science of Consciousness Conference in Interlaken – Switzerland:

– Research Requests and Calls for Papers –

The Estate of Ingo Swann has posted an ‘open invitation to anyone who experiences dreams, premonitions, visions about future events‘ to participate in The Prophecy Project database initiative to create a ‘central prophecy registry‘: http://theprophecyproject.com/

The Parapsychological Association has issued a Call for Papers for the 62nd Annual PA Convention in Paris, Francehttps://parapsych.org/articles/0/464/2019_pa_convention_call_for_papers.aspx?fbclid=IwAR1uBiq3cjvmczqAIj8UlYyc66Y8cCSAMx89U0iXl3wCv3v4h7UqON0mREI

– News, Interviews and Relevant Links –

Congratulations to Dr. Jack Hunter on being awarded a honorary research fellowship at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David’s Religious Experience Research Centre! https://www.uwtsd.ac.uk/research/humanities-lampeter/religious-experience-research-centre-/

Charles T. Tart, PhD, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, joins Jeffrey Mishlove for a conversation on – Future Psychenauts (New Thinking Allowed):


Ectoplasm on the Prairies – CBC News has an interactive online exhibit featuring – Images from University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, Hamilton Family Fonds (CBCNews): https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/ectoplasm-on-the-prairies

Can we predict the future? Larry Dossey talks with Kerry Needs about – The Power of Premonitions:


Contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, Kaitlyn Greenidge admits – I Believe in Ghosts (NYTimes): https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/27/opinion/sunday/ghost-stories-haunted-house-halloween.html

‘Tis the season – Popular Photography brings us back to the days When Cameras Captured Ghosts with a look at – The Fascinating History of Spirit Photography (Popular Photography)https://www.popphoto.com/when-cameras-captured-ghosts

Don’t let all these spirits spook you though, according to a recent NewsWeek opinion piece if you believe in ghosts ‘it just might make you a better person‘ (NewsWeek): https://www.newsweek.com/do-you-believe-ghosts-it-might-just-make-you-better-person-opinion-1188876

According to a new study, we trust our fingertips over our eye when it comes to processing ambiguous information (Neuroscience News): https://neurosciencenews.com/reality-philosophy-touch-10080/

Dr. Cal Cooper (University of North Hampton) joins Christina Bucher in conversation about his research and authorship:


Mary Rose Barrington, Vice President, Society for Psychical Research,  joins Rosanna Schaffer-Shaw on the Shattered Reality podcast to discuss her new book – JOTT – When Things Disappear… and Come Back or Relocate – and Why It Really Happens:

Psychics, Saints and Scientists – In this 1972 documentary produced by Irving and Elda Hartley, parapsychologist Thelma Moss introduces the field of parapsychology, including interviews with scientists who were active in exploring particular areas of psychical research during that era:


JSTOR Daily takes us back to Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 19th century Arctic journey – When Clairvoyants Searched for a Lost Expedition (JSTOR Daily):  https://daily.jstor.org/when-clairvoyants-searched-for-a-lost-expedition/

The Parapsychology Foundation has uploaded another presentation talk from their October 2016 PF Lyceum Forum event focusing on physical mediumship, this one featuring Dr. Stephen E. Braude on – The Felix Experimental Group: The Mixed Blessings of Mixed Mediumship


– Papers of Note –

Dr. Carlos Alvarado, research fellow at the Parapsychological Foundation, draws our attention to a recent issue of the journal Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice featuring discussions of precognition by various authors:

A recent paper published in Frontiers of Psychology looks at the – Neural Correlates of Gratitudehttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4588123/?fbclid=IwAR3mJMT34mxv9LxfV__hAaY7J6lA1KI597E-z5J-voX8TlfEZfBezPNmggo

Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice has published a paper from Renaud Evrard, Chloe Toutain, Jacob Glazier, and Pascal Le Maléfan which looks at – The energy of despair: Do near-death experiences have an evolutionary value?http://psycnet.apa.org/record/2018-53147-001

John Sabol (I.P.E. Research Center) addresses what he sees as an ‘identity’ crisis in contemporary ‘ghost hunting’ with a recently uploaded paper – Trick or Treat: Ideocultural Affordances and ‘Ghost Hunting’ (Academia.edu):

Steve Parsons has published his Guidance Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases. Apparitions, Hauntings, Poltergeists and Similar Phenomena to Academia.edu – these guidelines are distributed by the Society for Psychical Research: https://www.academia.edu/37667002/Guidance_Notes_for_Investigators_of_Spontaneous_Cases._Apparitions_Hauntings_Poltergeists_and_Similar_Phenomena 


– New Entries in the Psi-Encyclopedia –

Indridi Indridason – https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/indridi-indridason

Robert Monroe – https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/robert-monroe


–  Books –

The popular web magazine Boing Boing has a short excerpt from Peter Bebergal’s new book – Strange Frequencies: The Extraordinary Story of the Technological Quest for the Supernatural (Tarcher/Penguin, 2018):

This month Columbia University Press published Mind Beyond Brain: Buddhism, Science, and the Paranormal by David E. Preseti’s (UC Berkeley): https://cup.columbia.edu/book/mind-beyond-brain/9780231189569?fbclid=IwAR3XadTAuWKKxueT1nAhD2PhIHMQ_NRyv8zr2ZuK1GChcYyir5d1dD8cd3o

You can pick up a copy of “Science beyond a materialist world view” by Harald Walach, written on behalf of the Scientific and Medical Network Galileo Commission, for £6.50 (approx. $8.32 U.S.) here:


–  Doctor’s Advice –

“For Dante, the empyrean, far above Earth’s own moon and the planets of the solar system, is the ultimate goal of the human. in order to make it there, however, humans must change. They must become posthuman.”

– Dr. Diana Pasulka, Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy and Religion University of North Carolina Wilmington, The Prehistory of the Posthuman

– Featured Sounds –

SUBJECTIVE TECHNOLOGY – Subtle Devices for Exploring Nonphysical Landscapes (The Message, 2016) –

“Now is the time for us to begin building a single whole of humanity. Now is the time to develop our nonrational abilities into a “subjective technology,” which will begin the wedding of science and religion, reason and intuition, the physical and the spiritual. This union of head and heart, insight and instinct, will ensure that as science comes to comprehend the nonmaterial aspect of reality as well as it knows the material – that is, as science approaches omniscience – our knowledge will become wisdom, our love of power will become the power of love, and the universal human of cosmic consciousness can then emerge.” – Edgar Mitchell, Psychic Exploration: A Challenge for Science (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1974)


– Featured Photo –

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Ectoplasm forms on the face of medium Mary Marshall during a seance at T.G. Hamilton’s home. (Photo: University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, Hamilton Family Fonds)


Psi in the News is a service brought to you by the Liminal Analytics: Applied Research Collaborative – with a focus on COLLABORATIVE – if you have updates, events or relevant links that you would like included in our next edition please feel free to get in touch with us using the contact link in the sidebar!

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Special thanks to the Society for Psychical Research, Cherylee Black and Michael Duggan for links included in this edition – and a huge and humbled thanks to all of those who have offered donations to support this ongoing Psi in the News series – your appreciation is greatly appreciated!