When it comes to ghosts, films and books tend to tell us that they appear to deliver a message of some sort. Most often, it is to let us know how they died; many film ghosts have died in violent or suspicious circumstances and undertake hauntings to communicate their situation. Some appear to want revenge and will not rest until their murderer has either been killed or brought to justice.
TV psychics often appear to receive ‘messages’ to this end or the information they give is not about themselves, but about a member of the material plane. It may be that they are giving someone a heads up about the state of their health or intervening in a relationship decision that is yet to be made. However, do spirits really have a message for us?
A phenomenon as old as civilisation
The idea of spirits speaking from beyond the grave is as old as civilisation itself. Shamans, witches and warlocks have often cited messages from the spirit realm as guiding factors in making decisions. Alistair Crowley claimed to have written his first book under the influence of a spirit guide and even America’s First Lady, Nancy Reagan, is thought to have consulted with psychics. The notion is even responsible for some of our own traditions.
The Ancient Pagans when celebrating All Hallow’s Eve – later to become Hallowe’en – would wear masks as they danced around a bonfire. That night the souls of the dead were thought to walk the Earth to complete their spiritual journeys. However, it was believed that those spirits with ‘unfinished business’ might use this opportunity to exact their revenge, so masks were worn to hide the identities of their potential victims – and the tradition of dressing up as a ghost or ghoul was born.
The claims mediums make
While reported hauntings tend not to feature the delivery of information, mediums claim to be able to make contact with the spirits of the dead and pass on messages on their behalf. Many people use mediums on a regular basis and appear to have no problem with believing that the information they are given comes from the spirit realm. In the majority of these readings or séances, the spirit involved has some connection with the querent; they might be a friend or relative. It’s unusual for a spirit to deliver a message unless they are somehow connected to the person in the reading.
Communicating with the dead is a phenomenon that can be traced back to the dawn of civilisation. The Jewish Tanakh tells a story, The Witch of Endor, in which the spirit of the prophet Samuel is raised from the dead so that the current king could question him about a forthcoming battle. The idea is one that has never particularly waned, although it reached its peak of popularity during the 19th Century in Europe and the United Sates.
However, after the debunking of leading mediums, such as the Davenport Brothers, mediumship was viewed with suspicion and mistrust.
Investigations into supernatural messaging
There have been more recent investigations into whether the dead are capable of passing on messages to the living. The Scole Experiment was conducted for five years during the 1990s. Its purpose was to test the validity of claims that it was possible to communicate with spirits. It was reported to be the best evidence yet that there was life after death and that spirits can communicate.
15 researchers from the Society for Psychical Research investigated the talents of six mediums and the results included ghostly lights flitting about the room, disembodied voices and even the levitation of a table. For paranormal investigators, this provided as close-to-conclusive proof as they were going to get that communication with the dead is entirely possible. However, a set of failings on behalf of the Society discredited the results entirely.
The flaws in the Scole Experiment
The Scole Experiment was conducted in two basements, each belonging to a member of the group of mediums. The main flaw in the experiment is that there was no ‘control’ system; it was the mediums who governed the conditions in which the research was conducted. This including conducting séances in complete darkness so that spirits would not be ‘frightened’, and the mediums proving the sealed boxes into which blank film would be placed, revealing ghostly images when they were later unlocked.
However, the films remained blank when placed in containers brought in by the investigators, who were also surprised on later study at how easily the mediums’ containers could be unlocked. One parameter the investigators did insist on was that the mediums wore luminous wristbands, so the positions of their hands could be observed at all times. Once again, these were supplied by the mediums and, once again, they were found to be easily, quickly and discreetly removable.
21st Century research
More recent research includes an experiment by the British Psychological Society. Mediums were asked to work with ‘sitters’ in control conditions and to use their abilities to make contact with dead relatives of the sitters, themselves. They were asked to request messages from these spirits, giving information about each sitter; information that only the sitter or a relative might know.
After the mediums had fulfilled their part of the experiment, the statements they made were analysed. The more general statements were found to be the ones that could be interpreted as relevant, whilst the specific statements were found to contain no pertinent information whatsoever.
There has been no scientific proof to suggest that spirits can convey messages to the living. Scientists have proposed a number of theories, such as cold-reading, hypnotism and even that the information that mediums purport to hear is simply the result of an alternate personality, lurking within their own subconsciousnesses.
However, supporters of paranormal phenomenon believe that, at the very least, there is some evidence of ESP at play; at the most, spirits are capable of communication from beyond the grave. Unfortunately for them, the lack of evidence involved suggests that the messages that are passed on are little more than the products of over-active imaginations. Until further, more rigorous investigation proves positive, the likelihood is that the belief in supernatural messaging will, for the first time, wane.