We are all haunted. If not by ghosts, by death – our inevitable death and the death of those around us.
In 1971 the British Medical Journal published a paper by W Dewi Rees called ‘The Hallucinations of Widowhood’  that detailed how 293 widows and widowers were interviewed to determine the extent to which they had hallucinatory experiences of their dead spouse, something which had not been previously investigated.The investigation found that roughly half of those interviewed reported hallucinations or illusions (e.g. non-visual experiences) of their dead spouse/spouses, and that these experiences were most common in the first ten years following the death. Rees found that gender, pre-existing depressive illness, social isolation, cultural groups, or the area the interviewee lived in (e.g. countryside, town, village etc.) didn’t play a factor in the hallucinations. Rees wrote
I know several people who’ve confided in me experiences they’ve had that convince them that their deceased husband or wife are still around – including family members who I know are sincere. I have no doubt that these are people who have had real experiences that they truly believe were caused by their dead spouse, and I have no desire to tell them otherwise.
Yesterday several media outlets wrote about Andrea Samuels who believes her deceased husband has manifested as a dark smudgey shape on a wall in her house, and that her deceased pet dog is appearing in a shape on the ceiling of her bathroom.
The apparitions Ms Samuels thinks are her deceased husband and dog are actually just damp patches that vaguely resemble the dog and a man. As humans we find meaning in randomness because of something called the Pareidolia effect. Ms Samuels interprets those shapes on her wall and ceiling as her husband and pet because of the significance those deaths have in her life. Perhaps someone else might interpret them as being someone or something else, or even as of no significance at all.
This isn’t a story that should amuse us, it is a story that should worry us. The grieving process is a long, complicated and often individual thing and sometimes thinking the ghost of a deceased loved one is in your house can help. Just as W Dew Rees stated in the introduction to his paper. Yet there are harmful delusions that can come as a consequence, but vulnerable adults and young people often have a professional networks of support in place to help them. That is how those delusions are addressed and dealt with – not through people sharing comments online, and not by ghost investigation teams. That is the main worry I have about Andrea Samuels story being reported by the press. I worry that irrational ghost hunters will get in touch with Andrea Samuels and offer to help her, when in fact their actions could be hugely unethical. Ghost researchers should not work with vulnerable adults, children, or the recently bereaved You can read a post on my personal website that details the unethical conseuences of ghost hunters who don’t work to a code of ethics.
Another worry of mine is that the papers reported how a Catholic priest visited the house and conducted a cleansing on the property at the request of Andrea Samuels. If this helps Andrea then that is great, but when a spiritual cleansing is done in a house where someone believes a haunting is taking place there can be bad consequences. A spirit cleansing adds credibility to the idea that the things being witnessed that are thought to be a ghost are indeed caused by a ghost. More often than not, those who think they are affected by a ghost will report that after the cleansing takes place the activity stops. To them the cleansing has been successful. However because of the nature of seemingly paranormal activity, and the fact that most strange experiences have a perfectly logical cause, it’s likely that the activity will happen again at some point, only this time the eye-witness will think it’s certainly a ghost doing it because the cleansing seemed to work (so it must have been a ghost) and the cleansing was done in the first place (so it must have been a ghost). Spiritual cleansing can be done by anyone, but when a religious figure does it, it adds more credibility to the proceedings, and the idea that a cleansing is needed in the first place.
We’re all haunted. If not by ghosts, by death.
 W Dewi Rees The Halucinations of Widowhood, British Medical Journal, 1971, 4, 37-41 [read online copy]