What are some likely explanations for these shadowy ghosts?
by Brian Dunning
October 13, 2009
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They usually come at night. Maybe you're reading or watching TV or just laying in bed. He's most often a man, and may be wearing a hat or a hood. A lot of times you'll only catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of your eye, as he flits across the wall or disappears through a doorway. Sometimes he's just a shadow, a flat projection sliding across the wall or ceiling; but other times, especially in the dark when you least expect it, shadow people appear as a full-bodied black apparition, jet black like a void in the darkness itself, featureless but for their piercing empty eyes.
The foggy Santa Lucia Mountains run along the central coast of California, and for hundreds of years, the Chumash Indians and later residents have told of the Dark Watchers, shadowy hatted, caped figures who appear on ridges at twilight, only to fade away before your very eyes. A visit to the Internet reveals hundreds and hundreds of stories from people who saw shadow people in their homes, on websites such as shadowpeople.org, from-the-shadows.blogspot.com, and ghostweb.com:
I opened my eyes and looked towards the middle of the room. I saw a large shadow in the shape of a person. It had no facial features that I could see and it wasn't moving. It was just standing there looking at me... I blinked and then it was gone.
I felt like someone was watching me so I turned to look toward the hallway and there it was in the doorway... It was a black figure. I could only see from the torso up. I felt it was a male and could feel that it was looking at me... I started to walk towards it and it disappeared back into the room.
There, at the foot of my bed, was a tall dark figure like a shadow. It appeared to be almost 7 feet tall with broad shoulders and was wearing what seemed to be an old fashioned top hat and some sort of cape... I watched as it glided past me and out the door of my room.
Correction: Further research suggests that the Chumash did not necessarily have any legend that reasonably corresponds to the Dark Watchers, and thus this link is probably the invention of 20th century ghost story tellers. - BD
It goes without saying that skeptics have long-standing explanations that, from the comfort of your armchair, adequately rationalize all the stories of shadow people. These explanations run the gamut, all the way from mistaken identification of a real shadow from an actual person or object, to various causes of optical illusions or hallucinations like drugs or hypnogogic sleeping states, even simply lying and making up the story. I think that probably everyone would agree that these have all happened, and therefore they do explain some people's experiences. But here's a fact: Try to offer any of those explanations to someone telling you about a specific sighting, and it will likely be immediately shot down. "I was not asleep." "I know the difference between a regular shadow and what I saw." "What about my friend who saw it with me?"
The truth is that it's probably not possible to explain most sightings. If it was some mysterious supernatural noncorporeal being who flitted through the room, no evidence would remain, and thus there's nothing to test or study. It's so trivial to fake photos or video of something as vague as a shadow person that when these exist, they're interesting but practically worthless as far as empiricism goes. Only in the rare case where an actual physical cause can be found, and you're able to consistently reproduce the effect at the right location and the right time of day and in the right lighting conditions, are you able to provide a convincing explanation. Most of the rest of the time, all you have is conjecture and hypothesis, and the eyewitness is likely to reject these.
When I was a kid we once lived in a house where if you walked up the stairs and one of the upstairs bedroom doors was open a crack, you might see a flash of movement inside the room from the corner of your eye. I saw it a number of times, and other people in my family did too. I thought it looked like someone threw a colored sweatshirt across the room. But: I never saw it whenever I walked carefully up the stairs and kept my eyes on that crack; it only happened if you weren't looking right at it and weren't thinking about it. The more you learn about how the brain fills in data in your peripheral vision and blind spots, the less unexpected and strange this particular experience becomes. I have no useful evidence that anything unusual happened, and I have good information that can adequately explain what was perceived. I personally am not impressed enough to deem it worthy of further investigation, but others might be, and that's a supportable perspective. But unless and until some substantial discovery is made, the determination that it must have been a shadow person or ghost is ridiculous. Nothing supports that conclusion. And yet my story is at least as reliable as 99% of the shadow people stories out there. I was not on drugs, I know the difference between a shadow and what I saw, and other people saw it too.
Enthusiasts of the paranormal offer their own set of additional hypotheses about shadow people. One proposes that shadow people are the embodiments of actual people who are elsewhere but engaged in astral projection. This is not an acceptable hypothesis. Like shadow people themselves, astral projection is an untestable, undetectable, unprovable conjecture. Explaining one unknown with another unknown doesn't explain anything, and the match itself cannot be made, since neither phenomenon has any known properties that you could look at and say "What we know of shadow people is consistent with what we know of astral projection." We know nothing about either, so there's no logical basis for any connection.
The same can be said of another paranormal explanation for shadow people, that they are "interdimensional beings". Let's make an outrageous leap of logic and allow for the possibility that interdimensional beings exist. What characteristics would they have? How would we detect their presence? What level of interaction would they have? How would they affect visible light? Since these questions don't have answers, you can't correlate interdimensional beings to the known properties of shadow people. Neither one has any.
But there are phenomena to which we can correlate these stories. We know the details in the eyewitness accounts, and we know the psychological manifestations of conditions like hypnogogia and sleep paralysis. A hypnogogic hallucination is a vivid, lucid hallucination you experience while you're still falling asleep. You're susceptible again eight hours later when you're waking up, only now it's called hypnopompia. But this seems such a cynical, closed-minded reaction. When you suggest hypnogogia as a possible explanation to a person who has witnessed shadow people, many times their reaction will be understandably negative, if not outright hostile. "You're saying I'm crazy" or "You're saying I imagined it" are common replies. Hypnogogia is neither a mental illness nor imagination, and to dismiss it as either is to underestimate the incredible power of your own healthy brain. Too many people don't give their brains enough credit.
I had a dramatic demonstration of the power of hypnopompia — the waking up version — when I was about 10 years old. Early one morning, the characters from Sesame Street put on a show for me in the tree outside my bedroom window. It had music, theme songs, lighting cues and costume changes: A full elaborate production, and it lasted a good hour. To this day, I have clear memories of some of the acts. I even went and woke my parents to get them to watch, but by then the show had gone away. I knew for a fact that I hadn't been asleep. I'd been sitting up in bed and writing down some of the songs they sang. Those writings were real, on real paper, and even made sense when viewed in the light of day. It had been a completely lucid, physical experience for me. But it only existed inside my own brain in a hypnopompic state. My brain had composed music, performed the music, written lyrics, and sang them in silly voices for some director who must also have come from within me. The skits were good. The actors were rough-sewn muppets, independently moving and climbing about, even swinging through the swashbuckling number, on tree branches representing the lines of a great pirate ship. Yet through it all, I'd been conscious and upright enough to actively transcribe the lyrics. That's the power of a brain.
But many believers reject the idea that their brain has such capabilities, and instead conclude that any such perceptions can only be explained as visitations from supernatural entities. One such believer, Heidi Hollis, has gone on Coast to Coast AM radio a number of times with suggestions to defend yourself from shadow people:
- Learn to let go of your fear.
- Stand your ground and deny them access to your person.
- Focus on positive thoughts.
- Use the name of Jesus to repel them.
- Keep a light on or envision light surrounding you.
- Bless your room with bottled spring water.
Interestingly enough, such actions may actually work (although it's not the techniques themselves that are responsible — plucking a chicken or beating a drum could work just as well, if you think it will). Sleep disorders in the form of disruptive episodes such as these are called parasomnias, and the primary treatments for parasomnias are relaxation techniques, counseling, proper exercise, and the basic lifestyle changes that contribute to better sleeping habits. True believers who reject any notion suggesting their experience was anything but a genuine visit from a supernatural being, but who apply any such remedies as Hollis suggests, do indeed have a good chance of finding relief, when the process of applying the remedy brings them some peace of mind. Even though these remedies are rarely going to be as effective as professionally guided treatment, the fact that they can sometimes work only reinforces the true believers' notion that the shadow person was in fact an interdimensional demon, and that sprinkling holy water around the room did in fact scare it away.
These experiences are weird, and can be scary. But they're also fascinating, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to experience the true power of your brain. To conclude that it's a supernatural being is to rob yourself of the real wonder of what's probably happening. Faith in the supernatural offers you nothing better than an implausible and ignorant supposition that stifles further understanding, while the willingness to accept science gives you a whole universe without limits.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Shadow People." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
13 Oct 2009. Web.
27 Feb 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4175>
References & Further Reading
Bell, Carl C. "States of Consciousness." Journal of the National Medical Association. 1 Apr. 1980, Volume 72, Number 4: 331–334.
Bishop, G., Oesterle, J., Marinacci, M., Moran, M., Sceurman, M. Weird California. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, Inc., 2006. 56.
Editors. "Shadow Story Archives." Shadow People. The Official Shadow People Archives, 8 Jun. 1997. Web. 5 Oct. 2009. <http://shadowpeople.org/>
Guthrie, S. Faces in the Clouds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. 91-121.
Hines, T. Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003. 91-93.
Schlauch R. "Hypnopompic Hallucinations and Treatment with Imipramine." American Journal of Psychiatry. 1 Jan. 1979, Volume 136: 219-220.
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