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by Steven Novella, Nov 02 2009

Have you ever had the chills? You know, the frights, spooks, willies, nerves, jitters, heebie-jeebies? Do you get these feelings when you have to enter a dark room alone, or if you find yourself on a lonely street at night?

Even the most hardcore skeptic can still be frightened by dark or scary places. One does not have to believe in ghosts to be a little apprehensive about staying in a large medieval castle alone through the dead of night. Sure, being rational is a distinct advantage, as we  skeptics can reassure ourselves that there is nothing to be afraid of. However, sometimes it seems that our imaginations did not get the memo.

Some fears are innate and primal. We can rise above them – but they are still there. Apparently we are descended from those hominids who had such an innate fear of the dark, who wanted to stick close to their parents at night, or seek the comfort of fire’s light. Those who were fearless and more comfortable hanging out alone near the shadows probably did not fare very well. So fear is always with us, lurking in the more primitive parts of our gray matter.

Fear of the dark is also not the only innate fear. The first time I had an MRI scan, I never thought for a moment it would cause me any fear, but then the sensation of being completely helpless inside that small tight tunnel resulted in a primal claustrophobic sensation. I was able to distract myself and get through it – but the fear was there.

Most of us also like to be scared. Halloween is a favorite holiday in my family (especially with by brother, Bob, who actually runs a haunted corn maze in October). We like to be brought to the brink of terror, but then relieved in our own safety. It gives us a thrill. Perhaps it is also a way to experiment with the boundaries of our own fear – to know what is safe, or perhaps how we will react when real fear rears its head.

There are other reasons than fear that belief in ghosts persists. Our brains are not perfect tools – they are subject to a host of anomalies in perception and altered states. Our hardwiring can easily generate a sensation of an entity, perhaps right at the periphery of our vision. We can hear noises that are nothing more than neuronal echoes. We have have waking dreams – a fusion of the awake and dreaming states. Sleep deprivation (not uncommon on late night ghost hunts) can result in hallucinations and altered perception. And we are highly suggestible, often seeing and experiencing strange phenomena simply because we expect to.

Research has also shown that the more frightened we are, the more likely we are to see patterns where they do not exist. It is as if when our nervous system is put on alert for danger, we shift into hyper-pattern-recognition mode. When sifting reality for real patterns, we tend to err on the side of seeing patterns that are not there, rather than missing genuine patterns. Fright and anxiety shifts the balance further in favor of seeing patterns.

It is therefore no surprise that during ghost-hunting, or a seance, or hunting for EVP’s, etc. that people will experience strange things and attribute them to the paranormal.

Some scientists have also tried to explain such experiences (not that it is really necessary) as a response to physical phenomena – such as magnetic fields or infrasound. Research into these effects, however, have been mixed, with the best double-blind studies showing no difference in strange experience when the magnetic fields or infrasound were on or off. It is not implausible that physical phenomena contribute to spooky experiences, but the evidence for these specific causes is thin.

Understanding human nature itself is one of the key skill sets for critical thinking and skeptical analysis. We are, generally speaking, a jittery species, with some built in fears – fears that kept our ancestors alive (and still likely have some survival benefit today), and now feed the horror movie and Halloween industries, as well as the annoying ghost-hunting genre of reality TV.

21 Responses to “Spooky”

  1. Nexus says:

    I think basic biology plays a role here. Humans can’t see in the dark, period. Our night vision is abysmal. Hence, fear is probably an appropriate response to this particular deficiency in our visual senses when there are many nocturnal predators lurking about. However, it makes me wonder how people would respond if they were given the option to wander around a dark wooded area with night-vision goggles on. Would people be as fearful in that situation when they can see everything clearly?

  2. Haplo says:

    “Most of us also like to be scared”

    I think that is because we know that nothing bad is going to happen, it’s a game, and our body loves the adrenalin shot. But whoever has been in a really life treatening, terrifying situation will assure you that we DON’T like AT ALL being scared.


    • tmac57 says:

      That is not universally true. There is a well known phenomenon of war correspondents and some soldiers who become addicted to the extremes of fear that they are subjected to, and find themselves inexplicably drawn back in to dangerous scenarios that they thought that they wanted to escape from. I have often heard them say things like ” I’ve never felt so alive as while being in a life threating situation” or “When I returned home, the normal world seemed so mundane and pointless”. They are truly adrenaline junkies who have found a useful way to channel their addiction.

    • kabol says:

      this TOTALLY explains the popularity of disney world’s “space mountain”.

  3. Lucci says:

    regarding the night goggles, as a former soldier… It really helps to see at night.
    To be more specific, when in a drill at night you you almost have no fear walking at night because you know its just a drill and nothing harmfull can happen.
    However, when in realtime mission at night there are more factors that lowers fear. First of course you can see things when you know your potential enemy cant, you also have your team mates and that-only helps alot. And you have the experience of previous missions that makes you more confident and fearless.
    But yes, at least by my experience, NV lowers fear alot.

  4. Max says:

    Does Halloween desensitize children to spooky stuff?

    • Vie says:

      If Halloween effectively desensitized children to “spooky stuff” then it would be reasonable to assume that “spooky stuff” would no longer be spooky because everyone would have been desensitized to it already. Halloween has quite a pedigree, and it isn’t the only cultural source of spookiness. Monsters, murder, and all manner of gruesome nastiness can be found in folklore too.

  5. naivecortex says:

    > Understanding human nature itself is one of
    > the key skill sets for critical thinking and
    > skeptical analysis.

    .. then may I invite you to read the writings of Richard: and especially

  6. JD says:

    I have to disagree with the article because I have seen ghosts in broad daylight. Both my Mother and I saw my Grandfathers ghost in a mirror telling both of us to look in the brown shoes.
    We went to his home and after searching the home, along with other relatives who said they saw him we found a pair of brown shoes that had several thousand dollars in it. This we gave to my Grandmother because we are sure that is what he wanted.

    • Max says:

      You personally heard the ghost say to look in the brown shoes, and you didn’t know about the money at the time, correct?

    • tmac57 says:

      Your other relatives were also visited by the ghost of your Grandfather? Did they also see him in a mirror? Where did you find the brown shoes? Were they in a closet where he normally kept his clothes or shoes, or were they stored away in a box or some other unlikely place? What denominations were the bills? Were the bills very old (did he hide these long ago).How old was your Grandfather when he died? How long had he been dead when you and your mother saw his ghost?

      • Myk says:

        And also, what were you doing just before seeing your grandfather’s ghost, and what did you do _immediately_ after seeing him? Did you ask any questions? How long ago did this event happen, and have you discussed the event recently with your mother?

    • Any chance your grandfather could pay me a visit? I could always use some spare cash.

  7. Junco says:

    Chills? Don’t you mean “Ghost Cold”?

  8. Nayr says:

    I have my own ghost story but it ends very differently.

    When I was in college some locals were telling a story about a haunted house just outside of the city. They said that back in the 20’s a family lived there and the mother was into spiritualism and the occult. One day she killed her entire family and drew occult symbols in blood on the walls of the house. The house had been abandoned every since then. They said that the symbols could still be seen on the walls and that everyone who went there if they turned and looked at the house as they left would see the women in one of the upper story windows.

    One the guys who knew where this house was agreed to take me there. True enough it was an abandoned farm house, but the house didn’t match the back story.

    For one thing, the symbols written in blood were clearly not written in blood but oil from a used oil filter that was still near by. There were some pentagrams drawn in oil but there were also the names of various heavy metal bands also written in oil. Probably just the recent work of vandals. The electrical outlets and other aspects of the house clearly appeared to be from the late 60’s and early 70’s. Maybe even the 50’s but certainly not the 20’s. There was also a stack of newspapers and magazines that dated to the 60’s and 70’s.

    As we left, I dutifully looked back to see the ghost. There was nothing there, but!!!! dum dum dum!!! we did hear something that sounded like laughter coming from the house. My friend started running towards the car, but I went back to the house to find the source of the sound. I realized that what we actually heard were sheep that were in a field behind the house on the other side of a wooded creek.

    If I hadn’t been there this would story would have added a new detail to the local folklore. Now, sometimes the ghost would laugh at people as they left.

  9. Nayr says:

    Sorry about all the typos, I was typing fasting and didn’t proof my post.

  10. I got the chills when I reviewed the “evidence” page on this site

    I thought they were joking, then I recognised one of the names on their team list. Oh my goodness!