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A Ghostly Encounter on New Year's Eve, 142 Years Ago

December 31, 2018

One of the earliest surveys conducted to find out how common apparitional experiences are among the general populace was done as far back as the latter part of the 19th century. Known as the "Census of Hallucinations," it was carried out by the early members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in England, who (with the help of volunteers) had asked 17,000 ordinary British citizens about whether they'd ever seen the vivid impression of another person, or had heard another person's voice, when that particular person wasn't physically present in the surrounding area at the time. Roughly one out of every ten citizens surveyed had said "yes, I've seen or heard something like that," offering one of the earliest poll indications that ordinary people can (and do) spontaneously experience things of a spectral nature from time-to-time. [1]

Some of the citizens who responded to this survey were willing to elaborate on the kinds of ghostly encounters they'd had, and one of them was Miss C. L. Hawkins-Dempster, who reported a crisis apparitional experience with a rather curious aspect that had apparently taken place on New Year's Eve just over 140 years ago (in the transition from 1876 to 1877). She recounted the experience [1, Case #338.20] in the following manner:

I ran downstairs and entered the drawing-room at 7:30 p.m., believing that I had kept my two sisters waiting for dinner. They had gone to dinner, the room was empty. Behind a long sofa I saw Mr. H. [a friend of hers] standing. He moved 3 steps nearer. I heard nothing. I was not at all afraid or surprised, only felt concern as [to] what he wanted, as he was in South America. I learnt next morning that at that moment his mother was breathing her last. I went and arranged her for burial, my picture still hanging above the bed, between the portraits of her two absent sons.

I was in the habit of hearing often from [Mr. H.], and was not at that moment anxious about Mrs. H.'s health, though she was aged.
[1, pp. 261 - 262]

Miss Hawkins-Dempster told one of her sisters about the experience immediately after it happened, before they had heard the news that Mrs. H. had indeed died that same day.

Later on, SPR member Frederic Myers further interviewed Miss Hawkins-Dempster about this experience she'd had. He noted that the experience was:

...well remembered by both sisters. The decedent was a very old lady, who was on very intimate terms with them, and had special reasons for thinking of Miss C. Hawkins-Dempster in connection with the son whose figure appeared. He was at the other side of the world, and almost certainly had not heard of his mother's death at the time.

The figure was absolutely life-like. Miss Hawkins-Dempster noticed the slight cast of the eye and the delicate hands. The figure rested one hand on the back of a chair and held the other out. Miss Hawkins-Dempster called out, "What can I do for you?", forgetting for the moment the impossibility that it could be the real man. Then she simply ceased to see the figure.

She was in good health at the time, and her thoughts were occupied with business matters. [1, pp. 262 - 263]

The experience was also examined by Frank Podmore (one of the SPR members involved in carrying out the Census of Hallucinations) in his classic 1894 book Apparitions and Thought-Transference [2]. He pointed out a similar kind of crisis case reported to the SPR in which a woman witnessed the spectral figure of a male acquaintance at the time that he was attending to his mother on her deathbed. In pondering a way to possibly account for curious cases like these (where the spectral figure is not of the dying person, but rather of someone related to him/her), Podmore offered up the following thought:

I should be disposed to explain these narratives as instances of the misinterpretation of a telepathic message. I should conjecture, that is, that the [telepathic] impulse received from the dying woman, instead of giving rise, as in an ordinary [crisis apparition] case, to a hallucination of herself, called up in the percipient's mind, whether through the operation of associated ideas or from some other cause, the image of a near relative. Indeed, seeing how potent is the influence of associated ideas, it is perhaps a matter for wonder that such miscarriages do not more often occur. It should be stated that, beyond their rarity, there is no special reason to mistrust stories of this type. Their distinguishing feature is not apparently of a kind which appeals readily to the imagination [i.e., it doesn't seem to reflect the stereotypical notion of an apparition of the dying that most people readily think of]. Indeed, by most persons the want of precise correspondence would probably be regarded as a serious blemish in the story. Certainly cases of the kind occur rarely, if at all, among second-hand and traditional narratives. [2, p. 304]

While it may seem a bit out of the ordinary in light of its curious aspect, Miss Hawkins-Dempster's spectral encounter could potentially offer some rather valuable insight on the role that telepathy (and other forms of ESP) might play in helping to facilitate some detailed apparitional experiences. Although telepathy is stereotypically thought of as the transfer of a direct mental image (relating to a certain telepathic target) from a "sender" to a distant "receiver," it turns out that the telepathic impressions "received" by the "receiver" do not always correspond precisely with the details of the target itself [3]. Instead, the impressions seem to correspond indirectly (or imprecisely) with the target in an associative way.

The meaning of this might become clearer if we take a look at an example from one of the experimental test sessions on telepathy where this has been observed. The "receiver" in this particular session had described the telepathic impressions that he/she was receiving of the target as follows:

I see the Lincoln Memorial...and Abraham Lincoln is sitting there. It’s the 4th of July...all kinds of fireworks. Now I’m at Valley Forge. There are fireworks....And I think of bombs bursting in air...and Francis Scott Key... [4]

The randomly-selected target that the "sender" was viewing during the test session was later revealed to be an image of George Washington (resembling the portrait of him seen on the U.S. one-dollar bill). As can be seen from the "receiver's" description, only a few of the details (e.g., Valley Forge) correspond precisely with George Washington, while the rest arguably do not. Yet, the latter do happen to correspond in an indirect (or imprecise) manner, given the close symbolic association that Washington has (in many people's minds) with the American Revolution and U.S. patriotism. This same kind of associative link has been observed at times in other telepathy test sessions, as well [see, e.g., some of the "receiver" impression samples given in Ref. 5].

This seems to indicate that rather than "receiving" impressions which correspond precisely to the target, some people may occasionally "receive" telepathic impressions which indirectly correspond with the target instead. Perhaps a similar thing occurred in Miss Hawkins-Dempster's experience, where the spectral figure she saw of Mr. H. had indirectly corresponded to the target (Mrs. H.'s death, in this case) through the associative link (that exists in her mind) between Mrs. H. and her son, Mr. H.

Perhaps along these lines, Podmore may have been on to more than he realized. If we take his conjecture a bit further (for the sake of discussion), one might argue that this associative link aspect could hint at the involvement of memory in ESP experiences, when it is recognized that associative links is one of things which helps to meaningfully tie information together in learning, memory, and recall. [6] As the late William Roll (the PRF's first research director) had suggested, perhaps memory is not only useful for learning and remembering information in our ordinary waking lives; it might also be useful for conveying information in ESP. [7] As he once 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 [one of the prime brain areas involved in memory] where ESP chooses whatever fits the occasion. When the ESP target is a visual scene, the response may be a visual image or it may be an auditory impression. Or ESP may take the form of a string of words or guesses. ESP is multi-modal. [8, p. 13]

Seemingly in line with his suggestion, there are various lines of anecdotal and experimental evidence which seem to suggest that memory is tied with ESP [7, 9 - 11]. If that is so, then perhaps memory may be one of the things which helps facilitate detailed spectral visions [8-9] and maintain residual "traces" of the past that people reportedly experience in hauntings. [12; see also the previous PRF blog entry on this topic]

On this basis, one might wonder about the possibility that in some instances, the "borrowed (memory) garb" which ESP selects to fit the occasion doesn't quite fit perfectly (like most apparel ideally should), but still carries enough of an indirect association with the target to get its general meaning across to us. Could that be what is happening in apparitional experiences like Miss Hawkins-Dempster's? The answer still remains uncertain at this point, although it's an intriguing possibility to think about.

It also turns out that this is not the only crisis apparitional experience which took place on New Year's Eve; a previous entry in the PRF blog also looked back upon another reported encounter with a crisis apparition that occurred at the end of 1926.

The PRF wishes everyone a bright and promising outlook for the new year!


References & Notes:

[1] Sidgwick, H., Johnson, A., Myers, F. W. H., Podmore, F., & Sidgwick, E. M. (1894). Report on the Census of Hallucinations. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 10, 25 - 422.

[2] Podmore, F. (1894). Apparitions and Thought-Transference: An Examination of the Evidence for Telepathy. London: Walter Scott, Ltd.

[3] While the terms "sender" and "receiver" inherently imply that some kind of signal transfer process is involved in telepathy, it should be recognized that this largely remains to be an assumption at this point. Thus, usage of these terms in this post is simply for the convenience of distinguishing the two participants in a telepathy test, and shouldn't be taken to mean that such a process is indeed at work here (hence the reason for the terms being in quotation marks).

[4] This example comes from the sample of ganzfeld telepathy test session audio recordings available on the CD-ROM computer program Psi-Explorer: A Voyage into the Universe of Psychic Phenomena by Mario Varvoglis (UGM-IGK Multimedia, 1996).

[5] Honorton, C., Berger, R. E., Varvoglis, M. P., Quant, M., Derr, P., Schechter, E. I., & Ferrari, D. C. (1990). Psi communication in the ganzfeld: Experiments with an automated testing system and a comparison with a meta-analysis of earlier studies. Journal of Parapsychology, 54, 99 – 139.

[6] Baddeley, A. (2004). Your Memory: A User's Guide. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books.

[7] Roll, W. G. (1966). ESP and memory. International Journal of Neuropsychiatry, 2, 505 - 521.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[10] Palmer, J. (2006). Memory and ESP - A review of the experimental literature. European Journal of Parapsychology, 21, 95 - 121.

[11] Stanford, R. G. (2006). Making sense of the "extrasensory" - Modeling receptive psi using memory-related concepts. European Journal of Parapsychology, 21, 122 - 147.

[12] 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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