Qualitative methods enable a rich understanding of exceptional experiences (e.g., Drinkwater, Dagnall & Bate, 2013; Kruth, 2015). This paper employed grounded theory (e.g., Charnaz, 2015) to analyze people’s first hand descriptions of their experiences with ghosts. Several authors have noted that there is more than one type of “ghost” experience (Irwin & Watt, 2007). Tyrell (1953/2010), for example, articulated four categories of ghosts; experimental ghosts, post mortem cases, crisis apparitions and traditional ghosts. This taxonomy was later expanded by Evans (e.g., 2001) and included revenants, haunters, crisis apparitions, phantasms of the living and doppelgangers. Hufford’s experiential approach observed that ghost stories are narratives constructed from direct and indirect experiences combined with background knowledge and cultural and personal beliefs regarding subjective paranormal phenomena (Hufford, 2001). Houran and colleagues have also drawn on the integration of bottom up (e.g., anomalous bodily sensations and other ambiguous stimuli), fear, and top down psychological and contextual factors in understanding the etiology of ghost experiences (Lange & Houran, 2001; Houran, Kumar, Thalbourne, & Lavertue, 2002). Other research has found that these experiences are interpreted within the framework of mainstream culture, they tend to be vivid and attributed to an external entity and have an impact on personal growth and meaning-making (Drinkwater, Dagnall & Bate, 2013).
Verbal descriptions of peoples’ experiences with ghosts were collected as part of a larger survey (using Qualtrics). Participants who responded affirmatively to any (of eight) questions about ghosts were invited to answer an open-ended question that asked them to provide a detailed description of their experience and its impact on them. The url was distributed to psychology students, staff and faculty at the University of West Georgia, in several local businesses and via social media (N= 355, of which 145 shared a story). It was also distributed to psychology students at Northwest Missouri State University (N=85, of which 45 people shared a story). A later sample consisted of additional participants from the University of West Georgia and surrounding area (N=103 of which 57 people shared a story). Narratives were read multiple times by the first and 3rd author and coded by the first author. Themes were developed and theoretical memos written until theoretical saturation was reached. Types of ghost included simple figures, simple watchful presences, intrusive presences, traditional ghost experiences and experiences of connection with deceased loved ones. Traditional ghost experiences included localized felt presences, interactive presences or figures, patterned noises (including footsteps and voices, anomalous movements and some smells), externalized apparitions, ghost dreams, and multisensory “haunting” experiences. Experiences of connection with deceased loved ones included visit dreams, reassuring interactive presences (including animals and other
symbols that were recognized as the enduring spirits of loved ones) and apparitions of the deceased. Refinement of the coding and themes lead to the development of four overarching themes.
1. Meaningful interactive experiences: Bereavement and the continued emotional connection to a loved one contributes to increased likelihood of meaningful interactions with the loved one following their death. Interactions are symbolic or tangible and sometimes embodied (e.g., hugs), realistic, and opportunities for reassurance and healing. They occur in sleep states and waking states, but are
particularly likely as visit dreams.
2. Challenging complex phenomena: This theme reflects how people make sense of convincing perceptual-like experiences that strongly suggest a ghost and which are challenging to normal, socially accepted ideas about reality and psychological wellbeing. Complex perceptual experiences include patterned phenomena (e.g., sounds like footsteps and voices) and spatially present or realistic imagery of initially unrecognized detailed figures. Imagery is transient and observed (less likely to interact) and may provide information about the figure. People engage in logic and hypothesis-testing, and integrate evidentiary sources (other witnesses, anomalous animal behavior, consultation with psychic groups and mediums and (successful) attempts to get rid of the ghost) into their narratives. Complex experiences may be associated with initial feelings of fear (which often dissipate). People express concern about being perceived to be insane and often remain quiet until their experience is socially supported or corroborated (learning that someone died in the house, imagery matches the features of a deceased person, or there is academic research on ghosts).
3. External presences (something unseen) - energy, emotion and the body: Invisible presence experiences occur when there is a combination of emotion and tangible changes in energy in the external environment or on the body. Simple presence experiences reflect feelings that someone is at the end of a long dark hall way (often while alone) or feeling that one is being watched that is related to anxiety and paranoia. Complex presence experiences are connected to sudden overwhelming/flooding of emotion (negative) accompanied by a tangible change in the energy in the room. Physically interactive experiences in which there are [sudden] violations in the “world model” (after Belz & Fach, 2012) (e.g., being physically touched, pushed or shoved; bedclothes being tugged) are attributed to
the actions of an unseen other and are associated with extreme fear and terror. Physical presences are often associated with fitful sleep or waking up from sleep and remain frightening even when attributed to “sleep paralysis”. Mild touch experiences are sometimes attributed to a playful spirit. In alignment with theme 2, invisible presences are more likely to be attributed as “a ghost” if they occur in older locations, if there are other witnesses and when there is anomalous animal behavior.
4. Sensitivity and connectivity (boundary thinness): A trait like sensitivity to aspects of the environment and to other unseen aspects of the world that often began in childhood and may be shared with family. Ghost experiences develop from direct and indirect experiences (after Hufford, 2001), interactions between top down and bottom up influences, including strong emotions (Lange & Houran, 2001), displays of logic/rationality (e.g., Wooffitt, 1992; Stone, 2014; Lamont, 2007) and meaning-making (Drinkwater et al., 2013) that contribute to the narrative of a ghost in the telling of the story.