With the season of Hallowe’en approaching, what better time for a tale of haunting? The NZ Skeptics recently commented on the story of a purportedly haunted house in Pukekohe, currently occupied by Filipino workers. The story appeared in the NZ Herald this week.
Let’s have a look at what we know about the claimed evidence for the haunting, from the NZ Herald story:
- Sounds, such as footsteps and crying, and somebody calling out one of the workers’ names.
- Lights being switched on or off.
- Descriptions of sleep paralysis
- Awaking to a slap in the face but nobody in the room
- Strange smells
- Sudden drops in air temperature
A group of paranormal enthusiasts, Haunted NZ, has engaged with the workers, offering to investigate and cleanse the house of spirits.
The Haunted NZ people give a definition of what they consider to be a ghost:
“A ghost is a person who is no longer a corporeal being, they don’t have a body anymore, but they’re still the same person that they were before.”
It’s difficult to imagine how this would work. What we know, through experiments, is that the mind and consciousness result from brain function. Without an alive brain, there is no personality or consciousness that can continue to exist. To think otherwise is to support the well discredited idea of mind-body dualism.
The listed claims are all physical phenomena. How is it that non-physical entities could produce physical phenomena?
There are likely better explanations of the evidence that do not require the existence of spirits. Many of the experiences of the workers seem to have occurred around the time they fall sleep. Hypnogogic or hypnopompic hallucinations provide a good explanation for these phenomena. The brain, in a half-awake state, essentially paralyses your body. Hallucinations are also common during these times.
It is intriguing that some of the claimed phenomena align with conceptions of paranormal activity depicted in Hollywood movies. For example, the idea of somebody’s legs being grabbed and involuntarily raised and lowered is a trope. So, it appears that the workers’ experiences might well have been influenced by conceptions from popular culture.
What should we make of Haunted NZ’s claims to be able to rid the house of spirits?
Apparently, Haunted NZ will use a Wiccan approach, the “lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram” – basically magic incantations.
Haunted NZ will apparently also make use of a GeoPort spirit box. This device works by quickly scanning AM or FM radio frequencies to produce sounds that a primed mind might interpret as voices of spirits. We have a name for this – audio pareidolia – the ability of the human mind to find patterns in random noise and attach meaning to it. But, again, back to physical mechanisms – how are spirits able to influence these devices to produce the sounds?
It is plausible, however, that invocation of magic spells might well have a psychological effect on the current (physical) occupants of the house. Perhaps after the “cleansing”, the workers minds might be less inclined to put unexplained occurrences down to spirits.
The prior owners of the house also claimed to have experienced strange goings-on, and had the house blessed. Amusingly, they suggested that a previously-closed wardrobe door had been opened which let out whatever evil spirits lurked trapped within the house. What seems more likely is that rumours of the purported haunting were somehow passed on to the new occupants, thereby setting up an expectation in their minds.
From what we know about the house it is an old villa. As such, the idea of creaky floorboards and inadequate weather sealing producing creepy effects isn’t out of the realm of plausibility.
Haunted NZ have challenged NZ Skeptics to experience the reality of a haunted setting. We’ve been invited to spend a night at the Howick Historical Village in Auckland, and we endeavour to have a representative take them up on their offer. The hidden assumption here is that skeptics will be converted into believers by experiencing something out of the ordinary. This seems unlikely to me – as skeptics we look for rational explanations for strange events, and recognise the fallibility of human perception and biased thinking. It might be an interesting experience though, and a chance to have a conversation with believers and better understanding how they think, as well as being an opportunity for us to give our perspective on their approach.
We can only hope that we won’t be “pranked” with the aim of providing a mysterious, “unexplainable” happening that will turn us into believers!
We would encourage Haunted NZ and other believers to have a more open mind. Rather than jumping to conclusions that any strange and currently unexplained phenomena must be evidence of paranormal activity, they would do well to consider more rational explanations in the first instance.