Here’s a little-known factoid to share during the upcoming Halloween season — haunted houses are a scientific reality. That conclusion comes from my three decades of dedicated research on “ghostly episodes,” that is, manifestations attributed to ghosts, haunts, or poltergeists. To be sure, it is well documented that there are certain places around the world, private and public, where independent people consistently report anomalous experiences that cannot be reasonably explained by fraud, mental illness or otherwise conventional principles in psychology or physics. So, there’s certainly “something” going on that deserves serious study.
But for all the continued popularity of paranormal documentaries and ghost-hunting TV shows, it is surprising (and sad) that science’s understanding of haunted houses has not kept pace with the public’s intense interest. Of course, it’s not for a complete lack of trying. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, ghosts and kindred phenomena were a hot-button research topic in parapsychology. Now, interest in the “dirty test tube” that is fieldwork has arguably waned in favor of more “controlled” studies with mental mediumship. That is unfortunate, because studies of haunted houses and who has ghostly experiences has amazingly diverse implications for other academic disciplines, with the most obvious being environmental-evolutionary psychology.
Environmental psychology is all about the bidirectional influences of settings and spaces on people’s cognitions and behaviors (Jelić et al., 2016). Some authorities, like Frank McAndrew (2020) have argued that haunted houses are purely a psychological phenomenon rooted in how people perceive and react to certain architectural layouts or physical factors in the ambient environment. Environmental psychologists refer to these collective attributes or logistics as “space syntax,” which is logical to assume can be related to some aspects of witness reports in haunted houses (Jawer et al., 2020). That said, one recent study in the popular journal Frontiers in Psychology actually reviewed the last 20 years of hard science to determine to what extent known physical variables [i.e., electromagnetic fields (EMFs), infrasound, air quality, lighting levels, or temperature] can explain reports of haunted houses.
The research team—which included me and Public Parapsychology’s own Annalisa Ventola—discovered that environmental research on haunts is relatively sparse in the literature and that the available studies have found null or conflicting results. Our study ultimately concluded that discrete factors like EMFs, infrasound, air quality, and lighting levels likely played a role in select cases, but that the two most promising areas of future study of ghostly experiences were (a) “Environmental Gestalt variables” (i.e., holistic or collective environmental effects that define the overall “mood or vibe” of a space), and (b) “Social environments” (i.e., the influence of broad social norms and specific interpersonal dynamics on the adoption or spread of perceptions and cognitions).
Still, there’s obviously more to haunted houses than meets the scientific eye. And since parapsychologists and traditional scientists don’t seem ready, willing, or able to conduct new field research, it seems that amateur paranormal investigators are desperately needed to serve as citizen scientists to fill the gap. In that spirit, the same research team responsible for the Frontiers in Psychology study of haunted houses also wrote a new book called Ghosted! Exploring the Haunting Reality of Paranormal Encounters that (a) discusses the results of a five-year research program into ghosts and haunted houses and (b) shows with simple “DIY” examples and tactics how citizen scientists, like members of the Public Parapsychology community, can help us finally crack the code. That “haunted houses” exist is a scientific fact, but how they work indeed remains a scientific mystery.
References (and recommended further reading)
Dagnall, N., Drinkwater, K., O’Keeffe, C., Ventola, A., Laythe, B., Jawer, M. A., Massullo, B., Caputo, G. B., & Houran, J., (2020). Things that go bump in the literature: An environmental appraisal of “haunted houses.” Frontiers in Psychology, 11, Article 328. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01328
Jawer, M. A., Massullo, B., Laythe, B., & Houran, J. (2020). Environmental “Gestalt influences” pertinent to the study of haunted houses. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 84, 65–92.
Jelić, A., Tieri, G., De Matteis, F., Babiloni, F., & Vecchiato, G. (2016). The enactive approach to architectural experience: A neurophysiological perspective on embodiment, motivation, and affordances. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, Article 481. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00481.
Laythe, B., Houran, J., Dagnall, N., Drinkwater, K., & O’Keeffe, C. (2022). Ghosted! Exploring the haunting reality of paranormal encounters. McFarland & Co.
McAndrew, F. T. (2020). The psychology, geography, and architecture of horror: How places creep us out. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 4, 47–62. https://doi.org/10.26613/esic.4.2.189