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When it comes to the types of ghosts we believe in, the general public has a perception primarily based on what we’ve learned from books and movies, rather than research. Most people fall somewhere between disbelief or a comical perspective like you might expect to find in the 1984 film “Ghostbusters.” Others are drawn to the more romantic aspects of ghosts as depicted in 1947’s “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” or 1990’s sensational hit “Ghost.” Still others find them terrifying like those who haunted a family in the 1982 classic, “Poltergeist.” The truth of the matter crosses all these boundaries and a few others which we will explore more deeply here.
What Is a Ghost?
To understand the types of ghosts, it might be helpful to start with a basic understanding of what a ghost is. Even here there is no clear cut consensus. For the purposes of the haunting context, Merriam Webster dictionary defines the word ghost as “a disembodied soul; especially: the soul of a dead person believed to be an inhabitant of the unseen world or to appear to the living in bodily likeness.” Others have defined a ghost as the residual energy, positive or negative, from a once living being.
Interactive Personality Types
The type of ghost that can interact with the living world is known as an interactive personality type. Frequently this ghost is a deceased human being known to the observer though, on occasion, it is a complete stranger. They appear intelligent and self-aware and seem to interact within the living world’s time and space. Their appearance can be visible, audible or telepathic. In some instances they display tactile functions and may be able to touch people or objects in the living world.
These entities can sometimes fabricate odors that were associated with them when they were alive such as the scent of tobacco, perfume or another familiar aroma. Like living beings, these beings can display a wide range of emotions from loving and playful to angry and fearful. Naturally, the encounter can be either pleasant or frightening, depending on the demeanor of the ghost.
Within the category of Interactive Personality Types, there are a number of subcategories classified by the relationship of the ghost to the observer that these beings fall into. If the observer recognizes the personality as that of a deceased family member of friend, the personality is considered familial. Spouse, children, parents, siblings and close friends would fall into this category because they share a close intimate relationship with the observer. Of all the ghosts reported, this is the most common and usually short-lived. Most sightings are deemed to be a farewell or an effort to console the grieving. As they don’t usually appear more than once, their existence is difficult to document.
Historical personalities are not typically known to the observer personally but may still be recognizable to him or her. It may include famous historical figures like Anne Boleyn or Abraham Lincoln or it might be the former owner or inhabitant of haunted residence. Personalities in this category must be identifiable to the observer, even if that identification does not occur until after the sighting. Historical ghosts differ from familials in that they are seen numerous times, by numerous witnesses, sometimes over periods of decades. They seem to be tied to a particular location rather than to a person in the living world. This attribute makes it easier to study this type of ghost.
The previous two subcategories are personalities which can be identified by the observer. The third subcategory is populated by those personalities who remain anonymous to the observer or researchers. While this presence appears human and it possesses the interactive qualities attributed to all interactive personalities, the ghost remains anonymous. An example might be the repeated sighting of soldier at a location on or near a battlefield who never actually lived in the locale and therefore left no historical traceability. This type of personality is often seen as angry, confused or fearful of those it encounters in the living world. Their existence can be documented but not much more can be learned about these personalities.
Imprints are termed as non-interactive personalities because in spite of their human appearance and actions, they seem completely unaware of their surroundings. Another characteristic that sets these ghosts apart from their interactive counterparts is the tendency to carry out the same acts over and over. Things like walking down the same hallway or staring out the same window repeatedly are the actions of this type of entity. Observers are unable to make any contact with these personalities and unable to interrupt the repeated pattern of action. The term imprint comes from the fact that these ghosts seem bound or imprinted to a specific place and set of predictable behaviors.
Some argue that these are not actually ghosts but the spiritual equivalent of a photograph of someone who once lived caught in the act of carrying out her normal activities. The recording, somehow captured by the environment, plays over and over under conditional circumstances that allow the current world to witness it.
Ghosts of the Living
A “living” ghost is uncommon but does happen. A living ghost is the manifestation of someone who is alive but is physically present somewhere else at the moment of the sighting. Usually the ghost is known to the observer. Investigation usually reveals that the person who appeared was in distress or danger at the time of the appearance as though the spirit returned to a safe haven or came to warn a loved one of imminent danger. These appearances occur but once and are not something that can be repeated duplicate or therefore, studied.
Another instance of a living person appearing to someone is the “moment of death” ghost. While technically still alive, this apparition occurs at the moment the personality is dying though that is unknown to the observer until later. The personality is often at a separate location and the observer is confused by its presence. Later, when news of the death is received, the observer often noted the appearance occurred at the moment of death. Theses personalities are also familial as they appear to loved ones who immediately recognize them. Their occurrence is rare and impossible to document other than the observer’s report because they cannot be predicted in the first place and do not occur again.
Inanimate Object Ghosts
The appearance of ships, trains and other inanimate objects is more akin to the “imprint” ghost. As these items were never living, there is no soul or energy involved in the apparition who lends credibility to the idea that these visions are imprinted on the environment rather than manifesting out of some need to communicate or interact. These phenomena tend to be rare and non-recurring.
This type of ghost is most often a family pet. Though animals are not normally credited with possessing a soul or the type of consciousness associated with the ability to manifest, the number of reports, both oral and a few photographic, seem to suggest otherwise. The source of these appearances may be with the animal itself or possibly within the observer’s sub-consciousness.
Unlike the personality-driven ghosts already mentioned, the non-human ghosts originate as either beings that may have lived on another planet or who have always lived in the spirit world. They can be interactive in nature and often seem highly intelligent. They are not bound by the human constraints of time, space, and morality. Their intelligence seems to date to ancient times and they may exist on other planes of existence, choosing to enter ours for reasons we cannot begin to guess at.
These beings seem to interact in a way intended to teach the observer something or to intercede on his behalf as would an angelic being for instance. Often they work in the background, going completely unseen. While many seem to have good intentions, some are malevolent.
This is the most commonly recognized type of ghost. The name comes from the German word meaning ‘noisy ghost’. Characteristics include a certain mischievousness that results in moved objects, repetitive noises such as rapping, and objects being thrown across a space. Relatively harmless, a few have been known to push a person or start fires.
Poltergeist activity is frequently associated with one individual as though the entity has an attachment to that person. This theory would explain why the entity seems to follow that person even when they are other locations. Another theory posits that the victim is unconsciously using telekinetic abilities to perpetrate the activities and that no ghost exists at all in these situations.
Photographic Images of Ghosts: Orbs, Vortexes and Full Bodies
The types of ghosts that are often seen in photographs fall into one of three distinct categories: orbs, vortexes and full body manifestations. Often, the photographic image of a ghost is chalked up to some other explanation but the frequent recurrence of this phenomenon bears further investigation.
An orb is an unexpected sphere of light that materializes in the photograph with no source in the photographed environment. They are typically white or blue and can vary in number from one to many. If captured on videotape, they are often seen to be moving. Some paranormal researchers believe them to be spiritual energy of a primitive nature. Others believe the orbs to be airborne particles reflecting the flash of the camera or reflecting some other light source. This theory does not, however, explain why the orbs do not appear on every photograph then. If this were the case, then every photo taken with the same camera or in the same setting should have the anomalies.
The appearance of a vortex, a cloud or wisp of light, is sometimes present in photos without explanation. From thin puffs resembling mist or fog to opaque shapes of significant size, vortexes are also thought by many to be bundles of spiritual energy. These photographic anomalies are also frequently attributed to as the reflection of light bouncing off o breath, cigarette smoke or an obstacle in front of the camera lens such as a hair. Of course, not all of the examples of vortexes captured on film can be explained away so easily.
One of the most unusual and intriguing is the full-body manifestation captured on film. These are rare images of recognizable people or occasionally animals that are clear. Friends and family are able to identify the image without hesitation.
Full body manifestations usually appear quite unexpectedly on photos, most commonly in the background of a portrait. In some of the more remarkable examples, they can even appear quite solid and seem to be interacting with the cameraman, just as a person often does in life. It is almost as if they are posing for a picture, as though they are either unaware or unwilling to accept their own death, or wish to continue to do the same things they did before death. There are a number of instances where the image of a dead soldier or airman appears in a group photo standing behind his still living mates, as if he refuses to break those close bonds that often exists among men who have been through combat together. Still others, however, seem oblivious to the camera, and often appear to be about much the same routine they maintained while alive. This leads one to speculate whether the ghost is aware the camera is capturing their image, or is simply choosing to ignore it. While it certainly seems that some ghosts are quite aware they are being photographed, there is no way of knowing whether this is true of all ghosts.
Only about a dozen really superb full body manifestation photos exist, and these constitute some of the best evidence of paranormal phenomenon on record but, as I said earlier, they will never constitute proof of ghosts simply because even the very best spirit photos are capable of being hoaxed. They are tantalizing tastes of what sophisticated equipment might be capable of recording, but seem forever fated to remain just outside the realm of empirical evidence. That’s not to say that one day a few seconds of clear, crisp footage of a full color apparition walking down a stairs in front of a room full of witnesses may not earn a very close and serious look; it’s just that scientific standards of what constitutes proof are unlikely ever to be met by a bit of flickering celluloid or magnetic tape, no matter how convincing it might be.
Three of the World’s Most Believable Ghost Stories
The Gurdon Light
The story of The Gurdon Light comes from a small railroad town in Arkansas roughly eighty five miles south of the state capitol of Little Rock. One of the most reliable stories to date, The Gurdon Light is visible nearly every single day and generates some of the most intense tourism surrounding an unexplained phenomenon. They say that rarely are people disappointed when they come to see the lights and especially around Halloween time. The story has garnered so much attention, that even the popular network television show “Unsolved Mysteries” made a visit to the site in the early 1990’s.
Those who have seen The Gurdon Light explain it as being a disembodied light floating and bobbing in the wooded distance along the railroad tracks. Many have attempted to approach the light for further inspection but it invariably disappears before contact can be made.
The story originated around the time of the great depression, and the most common version of it involves the death of a unnamed railroad worker who was working by himself late one evening and accidentally fell onto the path of an oncoming train. In the accident, his head was severed from his body and the light is said to be that of his lantern, as the headless body searches for its lost component.
Another version consists of a railroad foreman, William McLain, who was involved in a confrontation with one of his workers over their schedule and ultimately met his demise at the hands of his disgruntled laborer and a heavy spike-hammer. Occurring in 1931, the appearance of the Gurdon Light occurred shortly thereafter, leading many to believe it was his lantern shining off in the distance.
Many have tried to explain away the occurrence as being reflections of headlights coming from the nearby freeway, but the freeway was not constructed until the mid 1970’s, nearly forty years after the first report of the Gurdon Light. It is still seen frequently to this day.
The Borley Rectory is a house in Essex, England near the Stour river that earned the reputation as being the most haunted house in the entire country during its existence from 1863 to 1939, when it ultimately burned down. In addition to being largely unexplained, the sheer volume of ghostly incidents brought infamy to the Borely Rectory, citing literally thousands of separate incidents during its standing. From 1930 to 1935, over two thousand reports were given about ghostly activity going on within the house ranging from strange writing appearing on the walls, to ghostly figures moving about in the property gardens.
The Rectory was the subject of intense media scrutiny at the time, including investigations by the Daily Mirror and soon-to-be famous investigator Harry Price who conducted an ongoing array observational experiments of the property. Price rented the rectory in 1937 and arranged for a series of observers to spend long periods of time there and record any paranormal phenomena they encountered. His team of investigators were not disappointed. The house produced a vast array of reports including a spectral nun wandering about and possibly ringing servants bells who had their cords cut years before.
Once the Borley Rectory finally burned to the ground in 1939, the stories did not stop. It is believed that many of the ghosts simply moved across the street to the Borley Church and continue their frightening activities to this day.
Brown Lady of Raynham Hall
One of the most widely seen and respected photographs of ghostly activity is that of the Brown Lady who is thought to be the ghost of Lady Dorothy Townshend who haunts her old residence of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England.
Dating back to 1835, stories of ghost sightings have been reported coming from Raynham Hall. In one such story, Captain Frederick Marryat encountered a ghost with two of the nephews of Lord Charles Townshend. They were walking along a long hallway when they came very close with the ghost of a lady. Captain Marryat, taking charge of the situation, raised his firearm and shot the figure but to no avail. The bullet appeared to go right through the lady and was later found stuck in the doorway directly behind where they had seen her standing.
Fast forward to 1936, a professional photographer was hired to take images of the interior of the mansion. The photographer, Indra Shira, was taking shots of one of the main staircases in the house and he noticed a strange vapor-like body appearing over the stairs. He instructed his assistant, who could not see the body, to take a shot in that direction as the vapor appeared to descend down the staircase. In the resulting image was one of the most well-believed images of a ghost in history.