The belief in ghosts dates back to the earliest days of the oral tradition. From the first recorded moments of human history there has been an inexorable and longstanding desire to believe that those who are gone aren’t really gone. It’s almost as if the human brain is compelled, beyond rational understanding, to believe in them.
A 2019 poll, for instance, concluded that nearly half of Americans believe that both ghosts and demons exist, despite overwhelming evidence that belief in orthodox religions– those whose scriptures and doctrines ecclesiastically contend that life persists after death– is declining. It’s congenital to the human condition, and grief more profoundly, to maintain that death is a transition, not an end. Millennials are even maintaining Facebook connections with the deceased to cope with their loss– in many ways, it helps them to feel that the deceased is still alive.
Outside of popular culture, however, there doesn’t seem to be much interest. Parapsychology, a staple in supernatural horror films (see: Poltergeist, The Entity, The Conjuring franchise), is a pseudoscientific field of study, said to be an incredulous inquiry into gobbledygook– a spiral into hocus pocus.
If you’ve seen 2012’s The Apparition or 2014’s The Quiet Ones, however, you might be familiar with The Philip Experiment. The experiment, conducted by Toronto parapsychologist Dr. A.R. George Owen and psychologist Dr. Joel Whitton, sought to create a fictional character– a ghost– through a deliberate methodology and subsequently communicate with them through a séance.
The research team consisted of Dr. Owen’s wife, Iris, an industrial designer and his wife, a heating engineer, an accountant, a bookkeeper, and a sociology student. Granted, neither movie hued all that closely to the truth– and based on your own beliefs, the parapsychological impetus for the experiment might itself be beyond the pale– but nonetheless, the experiment itself is a compelling slice of paranormal history, a microcosm of our communal desire for there to be something– anything– after death.
The research collective settled on a character named Philip Aylesford, referred to as Philip throughout the bulk of the experiment. His fictional history was a smorgasbord of real history and mendacious fabrications. Per the experiment, Philip was born in England in 1624, served in the military throughout young adulthood, and was subsequently knighted at sixteen. Philip was serving in the English Civil War– where the Parliamentarians and royalists went to war over issues of England’s governance and record on religious freedom– when he met and later became a close ally for Charles II, king of Scotland, England, and Ireland until his deposition in 1651, and later King from the 1660 Restoration until his death in 1685. Philip, though, never had a chance to see much of Charles’s rule, having fallen in love with a Romani girl. She was accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Despondent, Philip died by suicide in 1654. He would have been thirty years old.
The group worked tirelessly to contact their invention, their fictional Philip, hoping that by sheer belief in him, they could, in effect, will Philip to exist, will and make contact with some kind of spiritual entity. These attempts proved unsuccessful. Dr. Owen then changed the experiment conditions, altering several key environmental variables– dimming the lights, for instance– to more closely resemble a conventional séance, an attempt to communicate with spirits whose earliest roots are perhaps best dated to the early French metaphysical tradition. After Dr. Owen made these changes, participants reported phantom breezes, vibrations, vocal echoes, and a rap, rap, rap sound whenever questions were posed to Philip. The table was said to tilt and move about the room without human contact. Aggregate audio, visual, and participant accounts documented the phenomena, though Philip was never said to have appeared to the participants.
The study, naturally, was immediately criticized for its tenuous adherence to the scientific method, including (but not limited to) a lack of a control variable, ambiguous data analysis, and the methodological veracity of a séance itself. Similar experiments were thus conducted, a sort of paranormal replication, with ghosts named Lilith and Humphrey. And while participants in those conditions similarly reported supernatural phenomena in the room, the results were nonetheless inconclusive. Principally, critics point to both confirmation bias– the participants interpreted phenomena as evidence of Philip to confirm existing beliefs that Philip was real– and the ideomotor effect– the phenomenon used to explain Ouija boards whereupon the human body makes subconscious, involuntary movements, much like a hypnic jerk, suggesting the movement of the Ouija’s planchette when it’s really not the case– to explain witness accounts of a presence in the room.
Whether the data is true or not– whether the parapsychologists really were able to create a ghost– largely rests on preexisting spiritual beliefs. If you’re inclined to believe in ghosts, you’re inclined to believe in the Philips phenomenon. If you’re not inclined to believe in ghosts, well, you’re likely not inclined to believe in the Philips phenomenon. As a kid, my mom always urged me to stay away from games in cemeteries, Ouija, or even proclamations made to the deceased in jest, erring on the side of, “It’s probably not true, but in the slim chance that it is, don’t do it.” What’s fascinating about The Philips Experiment, though– beyond the sheer audacity of the experiment and its resounding effect on several contemporary horror titles– is that it speaks to a fundamental truth most all of us hold– we want ghosts to be real.
If there are ghosts, it means that our loved ones aren’t really gone. Ghosts mean that life persists long after death. Death, it would seem, is only the beginning. Ghosts, too, are the mental ghosts of the process of grief. Like Philip, the bereaved can sometimes cling so dearly to memories of those they’ve lost that, in a way, they will them back to life. While this holds important curative properties as the healing process is inaugurated, it can also yield adverse effects as the process continues, stymieing the formation of new relationships and, in effect, trapping the bereaved in the cycle of grief into perpetuity.
Patricia Pearson, writing for The Walrus, describes the idea of Freud’s “wishful psychosis,” the idea that we descend into madness temporarily during periods of grief willing visions of the dead in our own world. We might see their face or hear their voice, or just simply feel their presence nearby. The guiding theory among most is that it’s just that– madness. But what if it wasn’t? What if we really did see or hear something, and it was simply something we just haven’t found a way to measure or quantify? What if those who say they see the dead are telling the truth, not bound by the poles between madness and lucidity?
Participants in the Philip Experiment were said to be quite adept, quite lucid in their attempts, at carrying on conversations with their imaginary guest. New fictional entries in those most pivotal moments of Philip’s ostensible life manifested throughout dialogues, the participants actively involved in– and sometimes actively grieving– the horrors of Philip’s life. Philip revealed abuse, trauma, and even cruel treatment at the hands of his first wife, emblematic, perhaps, not of Philip’s own mythos, but the congenital anguish of the participants themselves and the way that ghosts are both conduits and effigies of our own pain.
When I was in elementary school, my youngest sister– one at the time– was struck by a car in our neighborhood, having run across the street from a neighbor’s house upon seeing my mom come home. She was rushed to the hospital, and while my mom waited right outside, the doctors told her it didn’t look good– by all clinical accounts, she was going to be dead soon. She sat down and made a single prayer to both her grandmother and grandfather– Mary and Cord Boger. She prayed that my youngest sister might live, and like so many others, she felt a shift in the room and started to perceive the faint scent of both lilac and Old Spice, my great grandparents’ signature scents. Minutes later, the doctor returned with news– my younger sister was just one out of 10,000 children whose cervical and lumbar spine had not yet formed entirely, and because of that, she was going to be okay. Had it been fully formed, the trauma from the accident would have killed her.
I don’t know that my mom’s story is true, in much the same way that I don’t truly know whether the participants of The Philip Experiment really saw and experienced what they say they did. I do know, though, that like Patricia Pearson, condescension and reductionist denial are no way to respond to stories of the paranormal. The world is mercurial and wild, and there are so many, many things we just don’t understand yet. It’s possible that ghosts don’t exist, but it’s also so very, very possible that, well, they do.