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  • Writer's pictureBryan Williams

The Haunted Road: Revisiting a Case from the Annals of Psychical Research

Popular cultural stereotypes tend to most often associate hauntings with houses (something that's even inherent in the term haunt itself, as it derives from the same lingual root as the word home [1, p. 151]), although it seems that just about any localized area of physical space can have the potential for being labelled as "haunted," based on the repeated sightings of ghosts and other unusual experiences that people say they've had within that particular area over time. Thus, even open spatial areas such as grassy fields, roads, and walkways might occasionally receive such an odd reputation. Though many claims of reputedly haunted fields, roads, and walkways appear to be based primarily on local (and largely unsubstantiated) cultural folklore, there are a few other select cases which might seem rather intriguing for one reason or another. One of these cases can be found in the annals of psychical research from the turn of the 20th century, which concerns reports of a spectral male figure in dark clothing being sighted by multiple witnesses along a particular country road on separate occasions. The detailed personal accounts given by two young sisters, Miss M. W. Scott and Miss Louisa Scott [2], were concisely summarized by psychical researcher Frederic Myers [3] in the following manner:

[Miss M. W. Scott's] first experience was in May 1892, when, walking down a short [hill] on her way home, she saw a tall man dressed in black a few yards in front of her. He turned a corner of the road, being still in view of her, and there [he] suddenly disappeared. On following him around the corner, Miss Scott found a sister of hers [Louisa Scott], also on the way home, who had just seen a tall man dressed in black, whom she took for a clergyman, coming to meet her on the road. She looked away for a moment, and on looking towards him again, could see no one anywhere near. Miss Scott, on overtaking her [sister], found her looking up and down the road and into the fields in much bewilderment. It appeared that they had not seen the man at exactly the same moment nor in exactly the same place, but from their description of the surroundings [being wide open fields, with a few hedges along the road that were too high to jump over and too thick to hide in; see Ref. 2, pp. 148 - 149], it seems impossible that it could have been a real person, who had contrived to get away unnoticed. In July of the same year [and] at about the same place, Miss Scott, walking with another of her sisters, saw a dark figure approaching them, dressed in black, with a long coat, gaiters, and knee-breeches, a wide white cravat and low-crowned hat; the sister also saw the upper part of the figure, which seemed to fade away into the bank by the side of the road as they looked at it. Again in June 1893, walking alone on the road in the morning, Miss Scott saw a dark figure some way in front, which she recognized as the apparition when she got nearer to it. She made a determined effort to overtake it, but could not get nearer than a few yards, as it then seemed to float or skim away. At length, however, it stopped, turned around, and faced her; then moved on a few steps, and turned and looked back again, finally fading from her view by a hedge. She was able to notice fully the details of the dress - knee-breeches, black silk stockings, and shoe-buckles - like the dress of Scottish clergymen about a century before. [3, Vol. II, pp. 396 - 397; see also Ref. 4, pp. 154 - 156]

In addition to herself and her sisters, Miss Scott mentioned that the same black spectral figure was also independently seen on the same road by several other witnesses on three separate occasions: On the first occasion, two girls were said to have been startled by the sight of the figure appearing before them while they were picking wild strawberries along the bank beside the road. While hurriedly running up the road, the girls looked back momentarily and "...saw the figure still standing, and while they looked he gradually faded away." On the second, some boys were said to have seen the figure "...coming up close beside them, [before it] instantly melted into space" [2, p. 148]. And on the third occasion, Miss Mary Irvine, a young local governess, spotted the figure walking back & forth along the road before "...stopping as if he were speaking to a man who was cutting the [roadside] hedge at the time" [5, pp. 299]. The man cutting the hedge seemed to take no notice of the figure. As Myers pointed out: "In [this] case it will be seen that there is no evidence whatever for the identity of the apparition; the whole force of the case rests on the repetition of the [spectral] appearance, and its being seen independently by several different persons" [3, Vol. II, p. 399]. And indeed, based on their descriptions, it is notable that the witnesses all seem to have been seeing roughly the same type of figure within the same localized area at different times. Similar degrees of consistency among the reports of independent witnesses have also been found in at least a few other notable cases of haunting-type apparitions [e.g., Ref. 6], and assuming that this consistency is not the result of confabulation (as would happen if the witnesses shared stories with one another soon afterward) or any prior knowledge they might've had of the folklore & reputation of the area [7], then this would seem to suggest that the witnesses were all perceiving (or "responding" to) something associated with the area itself - something seemingly in line with the concept of a haunting. Although it doesn't seem to be a very strong one from a purely evidential standpoint (largely owing to the inability to verify that the spectral figure actually represented someone known to have had a connection with the road sometime in the past), this haunting case might still be considered rather intriguing because when some of its details are examined a bit closer, they might possibly offer us a few insightful hints about apparitions and the manner in which they are experienced. One of the first things that stands out is the semi-collective nature of the Scott sisters' sightings of the figure, something which is also roughly in line with other instances of ghostly figures being collectively witnessed by more than one person [8], and which argues against the possibility that their experiences were mere hallucinations or delusions. Incidentally, one might further notice that the semi-sequential nature of the first sighting by Miss Scott and her sister Louisa in May 1892 (where one sister apparently saw the figure right after the other [2, p. 147]) is a bit reminiscent of a similar kind of semi-collective, sequential sighting that occurred in another notable haunting case - namely, that of the well-known Cheltenham (aka., "Morton Ghost") case, where four members of the Despard family all saw the spectral widow, one right after another [9, pp. 317 - 318]. Another detail worth noticing in the original witness accounts [2 & 5] is that nearly all of the reported sightings of the spectral figure in this case took place either in daylight or in the early evening hours before dusk, when there was still enough light to see. As pointed out in a previous blog entry [10], there have been a number of cases where sightings have taken place under these conditions, and this case is yet another of them, suggesting that the popular (and largely folkloric) assumption that ghosts only appear at night or under conditions of darkness is likely to be misguided. A few details mentioned in the witnesses' accounts also seem to give us a bit of hint as to their state of mind at the time they spotted the spectral figure: When she'd had her morning encounter with the figure in June 1893, Miss Scott recalled that "...I was not thinking of the apparition at the time, he not having been seen for months previous to this visitation" [2, p. 150]. And on the occasion when she and her other sister had seen the figure, Miss Scott stated: "We were both talking upon indifferent subjects and putting the ghost as far from our thoughts as possible..." When looking back on this later, she came to realize: "This ghost always appears when our thoughts are bound up in something else, but if the opposite, then we are sure not to see him, and many persons who have accompanied up [and] down the road in hopes of seeing him have, like ourselves, failed to do so..." [5, p. 301]. Similarly, at the time that their apparitional experience occurred, a number of other witnesses were found to have been in a state of mind where their thoughts weren't focused toward having an encounter with an apparition, but were instead preoccupied with other matters: For instance, in their 1975 case survey, British psychical researchers Celia Green and Charles McCreery found that: "When we asked [the witnesses] whether they had any idea that they might perceive an apparition before they did, or whether it occurred without warning, 97 percent said that it occurred completely unexpectedly" [11, p. 135]. And more recently, in his 2012 survey, the late researcher Erlendur Haraldsson found "...that in almost half of the cases (46%) [the witnesses] work or engaged in some activity at the time of the encounter" [12, p. 100]. From a practical standpoint, this would seem to suggest that actively setting one's mind toward (or hoping to have) a ghostly encounter might actually be detrimental - that it might reduce the likelihood that an encounter will occur. Instead, it would seem that adopting a more passive state of mind and just letting the encounter happen spontaneously on its own may be better. Lastly, some of the details contained in the witnesses' accounts seem to reflect another characteristic of apparitional experiences [13, Apparitions, Ch. 2] - namely, that the witnesses' subjective perceptions of the spectral figure often seem to imitate normal (visual) perception. For instance, in referring to the first sighting she had with her sister, Miss Scott stated: "we had both experienced a similar sensation regarding the stranger, the only difference being that I had seen the apparition on in front, while she says he came facing her" [2, p. 147]. And when she first spotted the spectral figure coming toward her, Louisa had said: "I removed my gaze but for a second, when great was my surprise when looking up again to find that he had gone from my sight" [2, p. 149]. As psychical researcher G. N. M. Tyrrell had pointed out [13], this is a rather odd thing to find in apparitional experiences, because if the apparition is presumed to be non-physical, then it would be unclear as to why it should conform to the visual perspective and limitations of the witnesses' line of eyesight in this way. As Tyrrell had put it:

A feature of apparitions which is...less likely to attract the attention of a casual observer is that they almost invariably occupy the centre of the normal visual field. It will perhaps have been noticed that if the [witness] turns [their] head away [just as Louisa said she did]...[the witness] ceases to see the apparition. This appears so natural that it does not at first strike us that, since the normal processes of vision are not taking place, it is not necessary that this should happen. an imitative dramatic feature. [13, p. 65]

Indeed, one might argue that if the apparition is purely a mental phenomenon and not a physical one, then it might be expected to appear (and remain) in the inner "mind's eye" of the witness, no matter where the witness looks (and by that line of reasoning, it should continue to be visible even if the witness looks away or shuts their eyes). So then why does the witnesses' perception of apparitions often seem to imitate ordinary perception instead? One way in which we might possibly make sense of this is if the perception of some apparitions is mediated by extrasensory perception (ESP), which also often seems to imitate "normal" sensory perception. As the late William Roll observed:

Since ESP does not depend on the familiar senses, such as vision and hearing, it also does not result in a characteristic sensory experience. Vision results in visual images, hearing in auditory experiences, and so on for the other senses. But ESP has no experience to call its own. When ESP appears in consciousness, it comes in borrowed garb. The brain has a storehouse of used apparel in the hippocampus where ESP chooses whatever fits the occasion. [14, p. 13]

This suggests that in order to be experienced, ESP must mimic ordinary perception, only without the sensory signals directly coming in from the body's sensory organs - instead, ESP "borrows" the sensory impressions contained within our memory, which we often "re-experience" mentally whenever we remember a particular moment in our lives. And if the psychic perception of apparitions also partly involves memory, as proposed in one theoretical approach [15], then the subjective experience of an apparition might also take on the imitative form of ordinary sense perception. This line of thinking remains highly speculative at this point, but if any of it happens to be even partly correct, then it would suggest one way in which ESP (and the apparitional experience) may not be so radically different from more "normal" forms of behavior. The PRF hopes everyone has a safe and happy Halloween!


References & Notes:

[1] Roll, W. G. (1982). The changing perspective on life after death. In S. Krippner (Ed.) Advances in Parapsychological Research 3 (pp. 147 - 191). New York: Plenum Press.

[2] Scott, M. W., & Scott, L. (1893). G. 242. Collective apparition. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 6, 146 - 150.

[3] Myers, F. W. H. (1903). Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death (2 vols.). London: Longmans, Green, & Company.

[4] MacKenzie, A. (1971). Apparitions and Ghosts: A Modern Study. New York: Popular Library.

[5] Scott, L., Irvine, M. B., & Scott, M. W. (1900). G. 242 (continued). Apparition. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 9, 298 - 306.

[6] Cameron, T., & Roll, W. G. (1983). An investigation of apparitional experiences. Theta: The Journal of the Psychical Research Foundation, 11, 74 - 78.

[7] Arguably, the possibility that the reports of the witnesses might've solely been the product of local folklore would seem to be mitigated by the observation that their reports do not seem to reflect any of the local legends that had arisen surrounding that particular road (such as the rumor that a murder took place in the area, for which no corroborating evidence could be found - see Ref. 2, p. 148).

[8] Hart, H., & Hart, E. B. (1933). Visions and apparitions collectively and reciprocally perceived. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 41, 205 - 249.

[9] Morton, R. C. [Despard, R. C.] (1892). Record of a haunted house. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 8, 311 - 332.

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

[12] Haraldsson, E. (2012). The Departed Among the Living: An Investigative Study of Afterlife Encounters. Guildford, England: White Crow Books.

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

[14] Roll, W. (2006). A discussion of the evidence that personal consciousness persists after death with special reference to poltergeist phenomena. Australian Journal of Parapsychology, 6, 5 - 20.

[15] Roll, W. G. (1981). A memory theory for apparitions. In W. G. Roll & J. Beloff (Eds.) Research in Parapsychology 1980 (pp. 5 - 7). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

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