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Your Ghostliest Tales, Explained

Donate In which we hear, analyze, and attempt to explain the ghostly personal stories you've sent in.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Logic & Persuasion, Paranormal

Skeptoid Podcast #817
February 1, 2022
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Your Ghostliest Tales, Explained

On a show about urban legends, we often talk about the true science or true history behind random stories that you may or may not have heard. But sometimes it's fun to bring this closer to home — to talk about your own personal experiences; stories that have actually happened to you. And that's just what we're doing today. I asked Skeptoid premium members to send in their ghostliest tales, and we're going to find out if I can get rid of the para and the super and expose the natural and the normal.

The Phantasmic Study Partner

We'll get started today with a story from listener Chris, who found himself astonished by an experience that maybe some of you have had as well:

Back in the early 2000s, I had a glass tube CRT monitor. I was studying, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shadowy figure walking towards me. Normally when you look directly at something like this, it disappears, but this thing was still there when I looked directly at the reflection. In shock, I spun around and of course, nothing was there, but my studying had to stop for a few minutes so I could calm down.

So there are two basic possibilities here: there was some kind of spectral presence; or there wasn't, and your brain tricked you into seeing one. Spectral presences are not something that exist in the scientific literature, as there's never been a replicable and verifiable observation of one. But brains tricking their owners into seeing something, on the other hand, fill volumes of textbooks — in a number of disciplines, including neurology, psychology, and ophthalmology. Since you were dealing with reflections, I'd toss optical physics into the mix.

If this was something that happened to you more than once, I'd start with the low-hanging fruit and book an appointment with an ophthalmologist. There are a number of eye conditions that can cause you to see things, especially in your peripheral vision. Some of these are treatable and some of these are just a natural part of having human eyeballs. Beyond that, if this was a one-time thing, the field of possibilities is just too broad for me — who wasn't there — to make a competent nomination for what might have happened.

The one thing I can say for sure, and which is the reason I ask you nice folks to send me these stories, is that every weird experience has potential explanations from the natural world. Most of us in the world are not familiar with what all of these might be, and so we often turn first to the ones that are hammered into our heads every day by the cable networks: the paranormal. Well, no. There's a whole universe out there besides what's on television.

The Restless Door Slammer

Next we have another not too different story from Brian, who, in addition to sharing my first name, enjoyed a book that I loved myself and read a thousand times:

When I was a teenager, 40-something years ago, I was asked to housesit for family friends whose wife and mother had recently died. The house was an old farmhouse that had been remodeled with a large addition and was out in the country. I was sitting in the new part of the house reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull, when suddenly a door on the other side of the house slammed with a loud bang. It was cold outside, so no windows or outside doors were open to admit any wind.

I'm always fascinated by the inclusion, in stories like this, of the fact that someone in the family had recently died. A door slamming mysteriously is one thing; but then why add "And oh by the way, someone in the family recently died, in case that helps solve the mystery of the slamming door." What has one thing possibly got to do with the other? By concluding that when someone dies, they come back as a ghost and start slamming doors, you're assuming that ghosts have this known, established property. Well, I can tell you one thing for a fact: ghosts have no known established, accepted properties. Not one.

Beyond that, since we know there were no people or animals in the house, the obvious candidate for slamming a door is air pressure. It's impossible for me to speculate, but chances are that a thorough inspection by an HVAC professional could lay the likely blame. You said this happened in the old part of the house, and perhaps the new addition had forced air ventilation. There could have been pressure moving from the new part and leaking out of old windows and doors and vents in the old section. Like I said, impossible to know from my armchair, but an HVAC inspection is the first step. There are plenty of avenues of investigation before we need to start asking whether anyone died recently.

The Car from Beyond

Next, a creepy tale from Terry in New Braunfels, Texas, about his then-girlfriend's haunted car:

I persuaded my new girlfriend to spend the night with me. She was a traditional girl, but her parents were passed away and she agreed. Around 3am, we were awoken by a repeating car horn just outside. We found it was coming from her car. She started it, the horn stopped, and she thought it was her parents coming down from heaven and drove away. But an hour later she changed her mind, drove back, and we're about to celebrate our 31st wedding anniversary. The car didn't have a security system and it had never happened before or after.

This does not surprise me. Not long ago we inherited a Suburban, probably 15 years old or so, from my late father-in-law. One night it decided to start blasting its horn. I managed to get it shut off, but from that moment on, the horn would start going whenever the key was inserted. His wife assured us that the car did not have an alarm and had never done anything like this. A trip to the dealer revealed the culprit: an aftermarket alarm, badly installed, probably by the dealer they'd originally bought the car from, and that they hadn't even known about.

My own experience is just an anecdote, of course, as is yours. But they prove that people aren't always aware of weird, defectively-installed car alarms that might act up in unexpected and unintended ways. There was a 9-volt battery in the circuit in our case; maybe in yours there was something similar, and when the battery got low enough, it went crazy. Who knows. But regardless, we needn't yet close our minds to all but paranormal explanations.

The Phantom of the Theater

Next, straight from the annals of the old Hollywood film vaults, comes an unsettling case of a haunted theater from listener Jay:

Friends used to own and run a downtown movie theater. After closing one night, I was with them in the projection booth when I heard a woman scream loudly from out in the seats. My friends heard it too and said it was not the first time. They also had a general storage room by the business office that, by general agreement, was considered too creepy to go into.

Obviously you know your friends and I don't, but the first thing that comes to my mind is they were messing with you. Or maybe some employee was messing with all of you, knowing that the bosses had a friend up in the booth. Obviously the theater had a reputation for being haunted, which is better marketing than money can buy; so any good employee there would be likely to leverage that at any opportunity.

I don't mean to sound cynical, but I assume you were fully conscious so you actually did hear a scream. That means someone screamed — or maybe played a recording of a scream, which could have been controlled from up there in the booth. With a very good practical reason to create a scream at that moment, which is more likely: that that's what happened, or that some ghost from beyond the grave somehow materialized and reproduced the sound waves from human scream — a prospect for which there is neither any precedent nor plausible theoretical basis?

The Visiting Will-o'-Wisp

What would you do if a spook light had a habit of traversing your apartment? Listener Craig had to face that very decision:

At 1am in the dark of my living room, I was spooked by a ghastly, fast, wobbling light moving from one end of the apartment to the door.

At this point I rolled my eyes, thinking "Oh great, here it comes, everyone's going to say ball lightning" — the perennial mythical unknown that everyone believes is a real thing but that has no consistent observation and no credible theory predicting its existence.

It took me a few minutes to figure out what it was. It turned out to be a light from the rotating beacon on the George Washington Bridge in New York, two miles away. It was casting an odd light that you could easily see and get spooked, once your eyes were used to the dark.

OK I like that much better than ball lightning. I had a friend with a very similar UFO experience: he saw lights shooting past his apartment up in the sky almost every night. Finally I was over and we figured it out; it was the reflected headlights of cars turning into his complex. They reflected off one of those convex driveway mirrors and ran along a suspended powerline as the car turned. So simple once you figure it out, but such a compelling illusion.

The Bereaved Spectre

Next a very frightening — and quite real — encounter experienced by listener Jessie:

One night, I was in my back yard listening to music. I walked up to the back door and saw through the clear glass pane, clear as day, my deceased grandfather walk right past me into the room to my right. Quickly, I opened the door and ran into the room, only to find emptiness. My grandmother and I were the only ones in the house; there was absolutely no chance I misidentified her, as the first thing I did was immediately run to her room on the opposite side of the house.

Jessie, your experience is much more common than you might think. Most people don't want to announce that they just saw a ghost, especially when everyone knows their loved one just passed away. Such a story would be dismissed as just wishful thinking.

They're called bereavement hallucinations, and there is a substantial body of research on them. In all, most people who lose their loved one (56.6%, according to a meta analysis of 21 studies) experience some type of bereavement hallucination. Among elderly people, one survey found that more than 80% did; and of those, a third reported that the apparition of their lost partner spoke in response to them. Obviously such experiences are far more dramatic and common than most of us would guess — so your experience is not unusual; in fact it's the norm.

The results of the studies indicate that it's more likely to happen to people who knew each for a long time and had a closer relationship, and also to people who are not doing well at coping with the loss. I've no idea where you might fall on those spectra, but it can happen to anyone — and apparently, quite often does.

And so there we have it, six ghostly tales, and six — well, if not solutions, at least six suggestions for where to look next. We won't always find it — in many cases, with stories that happened years ago there's insufficient evidence to draw any conclusions — but at least we can always be assured that there are places to look in our world that are more likely than places outside of our world.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Your Ghostliest Tales, Explained." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 1 Feb 2022. Web. 13 Jun 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

AACAP. "Hearing Voices and Seeing Things." Facts for Families. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 1 Oct. 2017. Web. 16 Jan. 2022. <>

Bell, V. "Ghost Stories: Visits from the Deceased." Scientific American. Springer Nature America, Inc., 2 Dec. 2008. Web. 16 Jan. 2022. <>

Grimby, A. "Bereavement among elderly people: grief reactions, post-bereavement hallucinations and quality of life." Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica. 1 Jan. 1993, Volume 87, Number 1: 72-80.

Kamp, K., O'Connor, M., Spindler, H., Moskowitz, A. "Bereavement hallucinations after the loss of a spouse: Associations with psychopathological measures, personality and coping style." Death Studies. 28 Sep. 2018, Volume 43, Number 4: 260-269.

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997. 306.

Stenhoff, Mark. Ball Lightning: An Unsolved Problem in Atmospheric Physics. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 1999.

Teeple, R., Caplan, J., Stern, T. "Visual Hallucinations: Differential Diagnosis and Treatment." The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 1 Jan. 2009, Volume 11, Number 1: 26-32.


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