I saw a ghost last weekend. Or at least, that's what a noisy, irrepressibly excitable part of my brain is shouting. It being my birthday, I was watching Skyfall on Blu-Ray (a tremendous experience). Glancing toward the open door leading to the hallway I saw a whiteness pass from the open, darkened bathroom door beyond, into the hall and away from my field of vision.
I do not believe in ghosts at all. As a youngster I think I hoped that they existed, but due to my scientific bent I have short shrift for anything supernatural. This does not mean I don't find it all fascinating: I have a very deep-seated interest in all things ghostly and mysterious, as I feel it tells us a great deal about the human condition. But I never thought I would see a ghost. And the majority of my brain still insists that I haven't. It was a trick of the light, or even an hallucination, asserts the side of my mind most closely aligned with Occam's Razor. Imagine the implication of actually seeing a spectre in my bathroom: it would firstly mean that my flat is haunted and, quite frankly, sod that. Far too stressful. It would also suggest that there is perhaps life after death (if floating meaninglessly in someone else's bathroom is 'life' in any true sense), and this goes against all of my intuition and education. Far easier to say that it was simply a sham - a trick, amplified by my silly brain.
But here's the thing: how easy it was for my brain to be fooled! I would say I am a fairly sensible chap, with a keen sense of scepticism. I always seek out the most realistic and reasoned arguments for or against anything. And yet, last weekend, just a fleeting peep of something strange has led me to wonder what my waking eyes have seen. I think this, in itself, suggests an answer to the big question: what are all these paranormal witnesses seeing. All those thousands of men and women who have seen ghosts, UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, Pikachu and all, all of them have been fooled by their brains. What they saw was something immeasurably dull - a stick, or a cloud of steam, or a little yellow rat - and their brains, their over-evolved, high-perfomance brains, have filled in the rest of the story. The stick becomes an anachronistic plesiosaur, the cloud of steam a baleful spirit and the yellow rat is suddenly a fictional pocket monster from Japan.
Our wonderful brains are flawed. All you need to do to witness this is see a face in the wood-chip wallpaper round your gran's house, or a smiling clown in the pattern of clouds above you. Your brain wants to see things that aren't there, as it is programmed to seek out movement, forms and most importantly faces. All it took was a mote in my eye, or a gust of wind, to fool my brain into seeing ghosts. And, the trouble is, once its in the mind, it's hard to shake the terror...
And this is the other thing at work, of course. Deep inside our psyche is a strange urge to be terrified. We all merrily seek out things that scare us (I watched Lightfields the other night, sequel to the excellent Marchlands, and spent the whole time peering through my fingers, waiting for a terrifying shock that sadly never came), to the point where we create or invent whole scenarios just to freak ourselves out. On a global scale this leads to theme parks and a thriving horror film industry. On an individual basis, this means telling exaggerated creepy stories and adding malign intention to everyday occurrences, like a fugue in a bathroom.
The myriad ghost stories and legends that litter the UK in particular are testament to these dual drives of wanting to be scared and the brain being able and willing to scare us. The endless reports of ghostly figures, hideous demons and frightening alien encounters are, perhaps, all a product of our own fevered imaginations.
Either that, or they're real.
Part II - my favourite 'real' ghost stories:
1. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, with her eyeless sockets and habit of floating down stairs. This photo was taken by a photographer for Country Life magazine who was taking a nice shot of the staircase when he noticed this shape descending the stairs: