(Note: This article appeared previously in a different format on SWIFT, the newsletter of the James Randi Educational Foundation, July 2009)
I saw a ghost.
Or maybe it was a spirit. I was a young teen, maybe 13. In the dark of night, something caused me to waken. Moonlight poured through a window covered only by thin yellow curtains, giving the room a honey-colored glow. The house was built in the early 20th century, and like many small houses of that time, the room had doorways on either side, one leading into a living area and the other into an adjacent bedroom. My little brother was gently snoring on the adjacent bed.
My mother stood near the foot of the bed, wearing the simple cotton housecoats which she preferred in hot summers. Her hand on her chest, she was muttering, or perhaps moaning. I could not tell if she was speaking words, but I sensed she was in distress, or pain.
Although I tried, I could not rise out of the bed, or speak. I was frozen in position, on my back. I struggled, I willed myself to raise an arm or find a voice, but I remain motionless and speechless. My mother was no longer in the room, and I fell asleep. At no time was I frightened or even puzzled by what was happening.
My grandparents owned this little house, and had moved it to a lake, where it served as our family vacation spot. The spot was remote - a 20 minute drive over private dirt roads that were seldom maintained, and another 20 miles to a small town that feature a hospital with a half-dozen beds. When I woke up the next morning, my aunt said that my grandparents had taken my mother into the hospital during the night.
As I helped myself to breakfast, I remarked to my aunt that Mom had tried to tell me she was going to the hospital, but that I had been half-asleep and didn’t understand what she had been trying to tell me. Aunt Sherry stopped in mid-bite. “Your mother never came into your room. I was with her while she was dressing. She didn’t want to wake you or your brother. We never opened the bedroom doors.”
I gave this episode little thought. I had been awake, I had been unable to move, and I had apparently been dreaming. In recent years, however, when I read stories of people’s belief in ghosts, spirits, ESP, alien abductions, and visits by angels, I have come to understand how real these events might seem. I’m not without imagination, but even as a young girl I was rational and logical. I understand about lucid dreaming, sleep paralysis, coincidences, the subconscious. I may have overhead people talking though the door, or my mother’s voice, and in a hypnagogic state, incorporated those noises into my dream. I don’t believe that my mother was appearing or trying to communicate with me, through supernatural means.
As skeptics, we tend to immediately dismiss such tales with rational, scientific disdain. Skepticism is a process, and we are supposed to be open to valid evidence and willing to change our minds when the facts support it. I dismiss these stories, not because I’m arrogant in my belief about the nature of such apparitions, but in the same way that I expect cars to remain on the proper side of the highway or that I don’t like tomatoes: I’ve evaluated the evidence so many times that I have concluded that tomatoes are not going to start tasting like pears and that under normal conditions car drivers are not going to arbitrarily choose directions. I don’t feel a need to personally test each and every report of the paranormal, especially when the story is so similar to countless others that have been disproved. However, as skeptics who wish to educate and inform, we need to find a way to listen to these stories and use them to offer, albeit gently, alternative explanations.
Recently, I was in a small group of women who I did not know well. One of them began to tell a story of her own mother having a near-death experience (NDE). Her mom had been revived at the hospital, and reported the well-documented sensations of floating, of watching the medical staff working on her, of seeing her pastor and hearing him tell her “come back, you have more work to do here.”
I was overjoyed to hear this story! I had never actually met someone who had an NDE (or been abducted, or contacted by a spirit), and thought “here is my chance!” But I quickly realized that anything I might say would be perceived as an attack, so I waited for a while before bringing up some of the research where hospital staff have placed pictures or words on top of equipment, to see if the “floating body” had noticed them, about the commonality of the NDEs with oxygen deprivation, all without referring to her story. I separated the instruction from the event, and while she may continue to believe her mother was called back to Earth by God, I gave her some things to think about. I put some doubt in her mind, and doubt can be a good thing.
(By the way, Mom was in the hospital for a couple days, and remains corporeal 40 years later.)
- Why out-of-body and near-death experiences don’t prove God
- Book Review: ‘The Scope of Skepticism’ (randi.org)