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  • Bryan Williams

Looking Back at the Ghostly Case of "The Scratched Cheek"


Although popular depictions in fiction novels, movies, and TV shows might initially lead us to think otherwise, many of the real-life encounters that people report having with apparitions (or ghosts) of the dead do not turn out to be very scary. In fact, as the late parapsychologist Martin Ebon had once observed in his introduction to the book True Experiences with Ghosts: Fictional accounts notwithstanding, the usual encounter with a ghost is no more frightening than an unexpected meeting with a living stranger. Afterward, when the full impact of the otherworldly event is understood, memory of the encounter can be quite a shock. [1, p. 10] Indeed, such encounters can often leave a lasting impression on those who have them, particularly when the ghost seems to convey some detail or piece of information that the witness was unaware of at the time, but which is later found to be correct. One classic encounter of this type is the case of "The Scratched Cheek," which is recounted in the fourth chapter of Ebon's edited book [1, pp. 30 - 35]. Originally described in a survey of cases by Frederic W. H. Myers that was published in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research in 1889 [2, pp. 17 - 20], the case focuses around the spectral encounter that a young commercial traveler from Boston had once had with his deceased sister, who'd passed away nine years earlier, and with whom he'd shared a close bond. At the time of his encounter, the young man was casually working at a table in his hotel room in St. Joseph, Missouri, while away on one of his business trips. As he personally stated in his account of the experience: ...I had not been thinking of my late sister, or in any manner reflecting on the past. The hour was high noon, and the sun was shining cheerfully into my room. While busily smoking a cigar, and writing out my orders, I suddenly became conscious that some one was sitting on my left, with one arm resting on the table. Quick as a flash I turned and distinctly saw the form of my dead sister, and for a brief second or so looked her squarely in the face; and so sure was I that it was she, that I sprang forward in delight, calling her by name, and as I did so, the apparition instantly vanished. Naturally I was startled and dumbfounded, almost doubting my senses; but the cigar in my mouth, and pen in hand, with the ink still moist on my letter, I satisfied myself [that] I had not been dreaming, and was wide awake. I was near enough to touch her, had it been a physical possibility, and noted her features, expression, and details of dress [etc.] She appeared as if alive. Her eyes looked kindly and perfectly natural into mine. Her skin was so life-like that I could see the glow or moisture on its surface, and, on the whole, there was no change in her appearance, otherwise than when alive. [2, p. 18] Later on, the young man also added: There was nothing of a spiritual or ghostly nature in either the form or dress of my sister, she [appeared] perfectly natural, and dressed in clothing that she usually wore in life, and which was familiar to me. From her position at the table, I could only see her from the waist up, and her appearance and everything she wore is indelibly photographed in my mind. I even had time to notice the collar and little breastpin she wore, as well as the comb in her hair, after the style worn by young ladies. The dress had no particular association for me...no more so than other she was in the habit of wearing; but [today], while I have forgotten all her other dresses, pins, and combs, I could go to her trunk (which we have just as she left it) and pick out the very dress and ornaments she wore when she appeared to me, so well do I remember it. [2, p. 19] The most remarkable part of the experience came when the young man had returned home and told his family about what he had seen. As he recalled: ...My father, a man of rare good sense and very practical, was inclined to ridicule me, as he saw how earnestly I believed what I stated; but he too, was amazed when later on I told them of a bright red line or scratch on the right-hand side of my sister's face, which I distinctly had seen. When I mentioned this, my mother rose trembling to her feet and nearly fainted away, and as soon as she sufficiently recovered...with tears streaming down her face, she exclaimed that I had indeed seen my sister, as no living mortal but herself was unaware of that scratch, which she had accidentally made while doing some little act of kindness after my sister's death. She said she well remembered how pained she was to think she should have, unintentionally, marred the features of her dead daughter, and that unknown to all, how she had carefully obliterated all traces of the slight scratch with the aid of powder...and that she had never mentioned it a human being, from that day to this. In proof, neither my father nor any of our family had detected it, and positively were unaware of the incident, yet I saw the scratch as bright as if just made. [2, p. 18] In addition to this remarkable detail, the young man's encounter seems to hint at three notable things about apparitions:

  1. The fact that the man saw his sister at high noon suggests that apparitions can be experienced during the daytime (and not only at night, as the popular depictions often claim). This is consistent with a survey of 449 cases done by Icelandic researcher Erlendur Haraldsson [3, pp. 57 - 58], who found that there were roughly equal amounts of apparitional experiences occurring at night and during the day;

  2. The fact that the man's sister appeared life-like to his eyes suggests that not all apparitions take the form of white, misty, translucent figures. This is also indicated by an earlier survey of cases done by Green and McCreery [4, p. 150], who found that 91% of the apparitions seen by people were described as being "...completely opaque like a normal object so that nothing was visible through it"; and

  3. The fact that his sister appeared dressed in a way that was familiar to him is consistent with an observation made by parapsychologist Richard Broughton [5, p. 150], who pointed out that: "Often the clothing that the ghost appeared in was what the deceased customarily wore, not necessarily those in which the person died." This may suggest that the young man played a role in producing the apparition that he saw, perhaps by seeing it in a way that reflected his own memory of how his sister had looked in life. As Broughton states, this would imply that the apparition is "...essentially a product of the mind of the percipient [i.e., the witness] - an hallucination composed of images taken or constructed from the [witness'] memory." The wide amount of anecdotal and experimental evidence suggesting that memory plays a role in psychic experiences [5 - 8] may also lend some support to this possibility.

The fact that the scratch seen on the sister's face - which the man was unaware of at time he saw her - was later verified by his mother is an aspect of the ghostly encounter that is particularly difficult to account for by normal means. Is it possible that his sister was trying to convey this detail to him as a sign that she had somehow survived beyond the grave? Perhaps, but one must also realize that this detail was known by someone who was still alive - the man's mother. It is thus conceivable that the man's mother could've also conveyed this detail about his sister to him through some form of psychic connection, as well. Determining who exactly was the source of the detail - the man's sister or his mother - is one of the issues which tends to make it difficult to put forth a reasonable argument for life after death in these cases. But as the late Ian Stevenson had once pointed out [9], there are certain apparition cases which contain details that may be difficult to account for when another living source for those details does not seem to be immediately apparent - although they are exceedingly rare and relatively few in number. If a greater number of cases of this type can be identified, documented, and carefully evaluated to determine (to the best degree possible) that neither the witness nor any other living person has prior knowledge of them, then perhaps a more extensive assessment can be made of the likelihood that some apparitions may represent some form of life after death. References: [1] Ebon, M. (Ed.) (1968). True Experiences with Ghosts. New York: Signet Books/New American Library. [2] Myers, F. W. H. (1889). On recognised apparitions occurring more than a year after death. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 6, 13 - 65. [3] Haraldsson, E. (2012). The Departed Among the Living: An Investigative Study of Afterlife Encounters. Guildford, UK: White Crow Books. [4] Green, C., & McCreery, C. (1975). Apparitions. London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd. [5] Broughton, R. S. (2006). Why do ghosts wear clothes? - Examining the role of memory and emotion in anomalous experiences. European Journal of Parapsychology, 21, 148 - 165. [6] Roll, W. G. (1966). ESP and memory. International Journal of Neuropsychiatry, 2, 505 - 521. [7] Palmer, J. (2006). Memory and ESP - A review of the experimental literature. European Journal of Parapsychology, 21, 95 - 121. [8] Stanford, R. G. (2006). Making sense of the "extrasensory" - Modeling receptive psi using memory-related concepts. European Journal of Parapsychology, 21, 122 - 147. [9] Stevenson, I. (1982). The contribution of apparitions to the evidence for survival. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 76, 341 - 358.

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