A Grounded Theory of Ghost Experiences | Christine Simmonds-Moore

Qualitative methods enable a rich understanding of exceptional experiences. This paper employed grounded theory 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. 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 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. 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. 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.

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

2. Challenging complex phenomena

3. External presences (something unseen) – energy, emotion and the body

4. Sensitivity and connectivity (boundary thinness)

Ghost experiences develop from direct and indirect experiences, interactions between top down and bottom up influences, including strong emotions, displays of logic/rationality and meaning-making that contribute to the narrative of a ghost in the telling of the story.

Presented at the “62nd Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association” on July 4, 2019, Paris, France; program chaired by Ramses D’Leon. Download the Abstracts at https://www.parapsych.org/articles/37/483/2019_pa_convention_abstracts_of.aspx

The Parapsychological Association is an international professional organization of scientists and scholars engaged in the study of psi (or ‘psychic’) experiences, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, psychic healing, and precognition. The primary objective of the PA is to achieve a scientific understanding of these experiences.

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Published on January 25, 2020