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  • Bryan Williams

Haunted Holidays

In one of last year's PRF holiday blog entries, we'd taken a look back at an old and long-forgotten holiday custom from the 19th century that has recently begun to receive some attention again (and has thus "returned from the dead," so to speak): This was the traditional custom of telling ghost stories at holiday time.

Some people might initially find it hard to believe that such a custom even existed, given that in modern Western culture, Halloween is largely considered to be the most common (and some might even argue, the most appropriate) occasion for telling tales of a spectral sort. But as an article appearing on the website for Smithsonian magazine in December of 2017 had pointed out: "Telling ghost stories during winter is a hallowed tradition, a folk custom [that] stretches back several centuries, when families would wile away the winter nights with tales of spooks" [1], in a time long before radio, television, and Internet videostreaming were common forms of entertainment. And as parapsychologist and psychical research historian Carlos Alvarado once pointed out in a holiday blog entry he posted back in 2014 [2], shades of this old custom can even be found within the annals of psychical research, due to the efforts of British author, journalist, & editor William T. Stead (1849 - 1912). In December of 1891, Stead had devoted a special Christmas issue of the Review of Reviews (one of the magazines he edited) entirely to written accounts that people had given of spontaneous encounters they'd had with apparitions, which he'd titled "Real Ghost Stories" [3]. A number of apparitional cases - many of which had been carefully collected, examined, and documented by the early members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in England - were summarized within its pages. This special Christmas issue turned out to be so popular with the readers of Review of Reviews that it reportedly sold out within two days of its publication [4]. Realizing from this that the public was highly interested in this topic, Stead set about putting together a second special issue that he released a year later on New Year's Eve, entitling it "More Ghost Stories" [5]. In addition to providing a number of other accounts of spontaneous apparitional experiences, this special New Year's issue also contained a section covering reports of allegedly haunted houses, both in England and abroad. In keeping with the old tradition of telling ghost stories at holiday time, let's take a brief look here at an archival case of an alleged haunting that appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in April of 1888 [6]. It first came to light through the correspondence provided by a young woman known as Miss S., who lived with her mother in an allegedly haunted home located in an English country village. During their first four years of living there, Miss S. and her mother reportedly experienced a number of unusual phenomena that included:

  • various phantom noises (such as footsteps, voices, bangings, and the sound of furniture being shifted around in other rooms) that seemed to have no clear source;

  • strange behavioral displays by their pet terrier;

  • occasional apports; and

  • the repeated apparitional sighting of a female figure at the top of the second floor landing.

Miss S. described one encounter she'd had with the apparition in the following manner: I was coming down the passage, one afternoon, about half-past four. I saw a fair-haired girl standing at the top of the stairs. It was dusk. I did not notice her face, but supposed it to be the maid; she was dressed in a greyish or mauve dress, such as would have been very common for servants some years ago. As we were in mourning at the time, I was surprised that the girl should have had on a coloured dress when she knew it would be against our wish. In a minute or two I went downstairs and found the maid, [dressed] as usual in black; nor had she been upstairs. [6, p. 244]

This apparition was seen in the same area by other family members and visitors to the home, as well. One such instance was also described by Miss S., involving her friend Miss Blencowe:

In October, 1886, I was, one afternoon, quite alone in the house. My mother and the maids were out, but I sent for Miss Blencowe to come and stay with me. Before she came, I had locked the doors (three) leading into the garden, leaving only the hall door unlocked. We were sitting in a little room out of the hall, when I thought I heard someone walk across the hall. Thinking it must be the gardener, who, unable to get in at the back door, had come through to unfasten one of the pantry doors. I went out to make sure, and, I suppose, to see what he wanted; but the hall was empty, and the pantry door leading into the garden locked. I went back and sat down a second, and a third time. I thought someone was in the house. I said to my friend, "I must go upstairs and see if all be safe; I am afraid someone is in the house." Miss Blencowe followed me. I went into the rooms, closing the doors and windows as I went. When I came out of my own room, I said to Miss Blencowe (without looking around), half in fun, "It must be the ghost." I then went down the back stairs, and back to our room where we had been sitting. When we got there, Miss Blencowe said to me, "What do you mean by saying it is the ghost?" I answered, still half in fun, "This house is haunted." Miss Blencowe said, "Is it haunted by a woman dressed in mauve, and does she stand at the top of the stairs?" Wondering what she meant, but never thinking for a moment she had seen anything, I said, "Yes, it is; but why do you ask?" She said, "I have seen such a figure." She then went with me and showed me the place where I had seen the girl some time before." [6, pp. 244 - 245]

In her own personal account of the evening, Miss Blencowe described her encounter with the figure:

October 1st, 1886, 6 p.m., I was spending the afternoon with Miss S...There were only ourselves in the house, Mrs. S. and the maid being [away] from home for a few hours. We were startled by the banging of doors, so much so [that] we thought we would go round the premises and fasten the doors, even going into cellars to satisfy ourselves that all was safe. We then returned to the kitchen and turned our attention to making some coffee, but not finding all the necessary things, Miss S. went up to her room to fetch the store-room keys. Being quite dark, she lighted the gas, I having followed her, she left me in the room, going down the back staircase to the kitchen. I called to her to know if I should turn the light out, and stood between the door and the passage while waiting for [her] reply.

I saw the figure of a young girl, dressed in a lilac print dress, about 5 ft. 3 in. in height, standing on the top of the front stairs, looking in the direction of where I stood. The principal thing I noticed about her was the whiteness of the parting of her hair, and the peculiar colour of her gown.

I looked at her till she gradually faded away, not feeling the least bit frightened, but only intensely cold and numb while she was visible. After the disappearance of the figure, I went down and told Miss S. of the occurrence. She then said it was one of the ghosts I had seen. [6, p. 245]

Two particularly intriguing things seem to emerge from Miss Blencowe's reported encounter: First, some of the details she gave regarding the ghostly figure's appearance (e.g., it being 5'3" in height, wearing a mauve dress) closely match those described by other witnesses who'd seen the figure on separate occasions. Second, it seems from the accounts that Miss Blencowe had witnessed the apparition before she was aware of the home's reputation for being haunted (having been told of it by Miss S. only after the encounter). If that is so, then this suggests that her sighting (and subsequent description) of the ghost was not likely to have been due to the effects of suggestion and expectation, where any prior knowledge of the ghost might've shaped her perceptions of it (such that it biased her towards seeing - or imagining - the same figure that others had seen & described).

It's also rather intriguing that Miss Blencowe reported a cold, numbing feeling that seemed to last for as long as she had the ghost in sight. Similar kinds of cold feelings have been occasionally reported by other witnesses, as well [e.g., 7, p. 73; 8, Ch. 16]. While they are sometimes mentioned (or alluded to) in the ghost stories of folklore, such feelings do not seem to be an overly common feature of reported ghostly sightings - a survey conducted by British researchers Celia Green and Charles McCreery of around 850 apparitional experiences had found that only around 18% of them involved sensed changes in temperature [8, p. 80]. It is also not clear whether these feelings might reflect an actual objective shift in the temperature of the surrounding physical environment (presumably associated in some way with the ghost's materialization), or whether they might be a purely subjective sensation that simply stems from anxiety or a perceived sense of coldness.

Another encounter with the apparition reportedly involved the family's maid Emilie:

December 10, 1887 - Not feeling well, I was lying in bed about half-past eight in the morning. Emilie came into my room in a hurry and asked what was the matter, as I was knocking about the furniture. I told her I was not doing anything of the kind, as I was in bed, I could not be. About 20 minutes passed and she came up again to know if I called, saying someone had called her three times. Soon after, my mother came in to speak to me; there was no one else in the house but the German maid, and she was downstairs. In a few minutes Emilie ran back into my room, looking frightened, and saying she had seen a figure standing on the top of the stairs, dressed in white, which she thought to be my mother till she heard her talking in my room. [6, p. 246]

One of the sightings, also involving the maid Emilie, apparently took place on New Year's Eve, as Miss S. recounts:

Last New Year's Eve, December 1887, my mother, Emilie, and I were in the drawing-room putting up some brackets. Suddenly, Emilie ran to the door saying someone was standing on the top of the stairs. I followed her, but no one was to be seen. It would have been quite impossible for any human being to have gone downstairs so quickly; we could see up the passage and down the stairs. [6, p. 247]

Emilie succinctly described her experience in the following manner:

I was in the drawing-room a little after six on New Year's Eve, and I saw a figure dressed in light things (I thought it was the cook) standing on the top of the stairs, looking down. She had her hand up, beckoning me. I ran to the door, but no one was to be seen. In that second no one could have got out of sight. [6, p. 247]

While it isn't clear from the accounts whether the female apparition was ever identified or whether it had any actual connection to the house itself, it is interesting that multiple witnesses reported seeing the figure on separate occasions in roughly the same area of the house (namely, the area around the top of the stairs), as this may suggest that the apparition was localized to some extent to that particular area.

Assuming that these encounters took place as recounted, might this apparition have represented some kind of psychic "trace" or "remnant" that was somehow associated with that area? It's difficult to say for certain, although it is a notion which could (indirectly) be put to the test in similar haunting cases where the apparition seems to be localized to a specific area, using the statistical approach developed by parapsychologist Gertrude Schmeidler [9] in the 1960s. In such an approach, psychics are asked to individually walk through an allegedly haunted location in an attempt to psychically "sense" the specific areas where a ghost has been seen (and/or the witnesses have said that they've had unusual experiences). Whenever they "sense" such an area, the psychics are asked to mark it down on a floor plan of the location. Later on, the areas marked by the psychics are statistically compared against the actual areas indicated by the witnesses themselves, to see if they correspond to a degree beyond what would be expected purely by chance alone. Investigations conducted by parapsychologist Michaeleen Maher [10] using this approach have produced notably significant results, perhaps offering an initial hint that there may be something to such a notion. Additional investigations along these lines will be necessary in order to further explore this notion and its possible implications.

The PRF hopes that there will be a bright outlook for everyone in the coming year (& decade)!



[1] Dickey, C. (2017, December 15). A plea to resurrect the Christmas tradition of telling ghost stories. Online article available from the Smithsonian magazine website: Accessed December 18, 2017.

[2] Alvarado, C. S. (2014, December 27). Ghosts and the like for Christmas: William T. Stead's Real Ghost Stories. Online article available from the author's "Parapsychology: News, History, and Research" blog: Accessed January 2, 2015.

[3] Stead, W. T. (Ed.) (1891). Real ghost stories: A record of authentic apparitions. Review of Reviews Vol. 4 (Special Xmas Issue). London: Publishing Office of the Review of Reviews.

[4] Stead, W. T. (Ed.) (1891). "Real Ghost Stories" and its sequel, "More Ghost Stories." Review of Reviews Vol. 4, No. 24. p. 574.

[5] Stead, W. T. (Ed.) (1892). More ghost stories: A sequel to "Real Ghost Stories." Review of Reviews Vol. 5 (Special New Year's Issue). London: Review of Reviews Editorial Office.

[6] SPR Literary Committee. (1888). Cases supplied to the Literary Committee - 314. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 3, 241 - 252.

[7] Tyrrell, G. N. M. (1953/1961). Science and Psychical Phenomena/Apparitions. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books.

[8] Green, C., & McCreery, C. (1975). Apparitions. London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd.

[9] Schmeidler, G. R. (1966). Quantitative investigation of a "haunted house." Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 61, 137 - 149.

[10] Maher, M. C. (1999). Riding the waves in search of the particles: A modern study of ghosts and apparitions. Journal of Parapsychology, 63, 47 - 80.

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