6 Scientific Explanations for Ghosts

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A surprising number of people believe in ghosts. A 2017 survey by Chapman University found that 52 percent of Americans believe places can be haunted by spirits, an increase of approximately 11 percent since 2015. An earlier UK survey found that 52 percent of participants believed in the supernatural. But there may be a more scientific basis to things that go bump in the night than a restless afterlife.

Here are six logical explanations for that ghostly presence in your house.

1. ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELDS

For decades, a Canadian neuroscientist named Michael Persinger has been studying the effects of electromagnetic fields on people’s perceptions of ghosts, hypothesizing that pulsed magnetic fields, imperceptible on a conscious level, can make people feel as if there is a “presence” in the room with them by causing unusual activity patterns in the brain’s temporal lobes. Persinger has studied people in his lab wearing a so-called “God Helmet,” finding that certain patterns of weak magnetic fields over someone’s head for 15 to 30 minutes can create the perception that there’s an invisible presence in the room.

Some subsequent research has pushed back on this theory, arguing that people were responding to the suggestion that they would feel a ghostly presence, rather than to the electromagnetic field. However, Persinger counters that this experiment followed very different protocols than his own research [PDF]. Other scientists have also found that environments that have a reputation for being haunted often feature unusual magnetic fields.

2. INFRASOUND

Infrasound is sound at levels so low humans can’t hear it (though other animals, like elephants, can). Low frequency vibrations can cause distinct physiological discomfort. Scientists studying the effects of wind turbines and traffic noise near residences have found that low-frequency noise can cause disorientation [PDF], feelings of panic, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, and other effects that could easily be associated with being visited by a ghost [PDF]. For instance, in a 1998 paper on natural causes of hauntings [PDF], engineer Vic Tandy describes working for a medical equipment manufacturer, whose labs included a reportedly haunted room. Whenever Tandy worked in this particular lab, he felt depressed and uncomfortable, often hearing and seeing odd things—including an apparition that definitely looked like a ghost. Eventually, he discovered that the room was home to a 19 Hz standing wave coming from a fan, which was sending out the inaudible vibrations that caused the disorienting effects. Further studies also show links between infrasound and bizarre sensations like getting chills down the spine or feeling uneasy.

3. MOLD

Shane Rogers, an engineering professor at Clarkson University, has spent the past few months touring reportedly haunted locations looking for not-so-paranormal activity: mold growth. Preliminary research indicates that some molds can cause symptoms that sound pretty ghostly—like irrational fear and dementia. “I’ve watched a lot of ghost shows,” he tells Mental Floss. He began to wonder “if there’s some kind of link there, where we might be able to explain why people are having these feelings.” So far in the data collection process, “it’s hard to say whether that’s a contributing factor or not, but anecdotally we are seeing these [toxic molds] exist in places that are haunted," Rogers says.

4. CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING

In 1921, a doctor named W.H. Wilmer published an odd story about a haunted house in the American Journal of Ophthalmology. The family who lived in this haunted residence, called the H family in the medical literature, began experiencing weird phenomena when they moved into an old house—hearing furniture moving around and strange voices in the night, feeling the presence of invisible specters. They report being held down in bed by ghosts, feeling weak, and more. As it turned out, a faulty furnace was filling their house with carbon monoxide, causing aural and visual hallucinations. The furnace was fixed, and the H family went back to their lives, sans ghosts.

5. SOMEONE ELSE SAID IT WAS REAL.

In a 2014 study, Goldsmiths, University of London psychologists had participants watch a video of a “psychic” supposedly bending a metal key with his mind. In one condition, study subjects watched the video with a “participant” who was actually working with the researchers and professed to see the key bending. Those subjects were more likely to report that they saw the key bend than subjects who were paired with someone who asserted that the key didn’t bend or said nothing. “One person’s account can influence another person’s memory,” study co-author Christopher French tells Mental Floss. If someone else confidently asserts that they saw the ghost, it might influence a fellow eyewitness to believe they saw it, too.

6. WE WANT TO BELIEVE.

"There is a motivational side to belief in ghosts,” French explains. “We all want to believe in life after death. The idea of our mortality is one we are not generally comfortable with.” Confirmation bias holds powerful sway over our perceptions. “We find it much easier to believe evidence for something we want to believe anyway,” he says.

What is Wassailing, Anyway?

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iStock

It’s easy to think that wassailing is some cozy wintertime tradition that’s fun for the whole family. After all, there’s a jaunty, wholesome Christmas carol about it! But the truth is, if you ever see a minor out wassailing, you may want to call his or her parents.

The word wassail has many meanings. For centuries, it was a way to toast someone’s good health. Before the Battle of Hastings in 1066, English soldiers reportedly sang:

Rejoice and wassail!

(Pass the bottle) and drink health.

Drink backwards and drink to me

Drink half and drink empty.

But, in England, wassail also denoted the alcoholic beverage you imbibed during that toast—an elixir of steamy mulled mead or cider. Sometimes, wassail was a whipped dark beer flavored with roasted crab apples.

Wassail was usually slurped from a communal bowl before, during, and after big events and holidays. It was supposedly on the menu during Lammas Day, a pagan autumnal harvest holiday that involves transforming cornhusks into dolls. It was also imbibed on Twelfth Night, a January holiday that involves lighting a fire in an orchard, dancing, and singing incantations to apple trees in hopes of encouraging a bountiful harvest.

By the Middle Ages, the practice of sharing a giant bowl of wassail—that is, the practice of wassailing—evolved from a holiday celebration to a form of boozy begging. “At Christmastide, the poor expected privileges denied them at other times, including the right to enter the homes of the wealthy, who feasted them from the best of their provisions,” Robert Doares, an instructor at Colonial Williamsburg, explained. The poor would either ask to sip from their rich neighbor’s wassailing bowl or would bring their own bowl, asking for it to be filled. According to Doares, “At these gatherings, the bands of roving wassailers often performed songs for the master while drinking his beer, toasting him, his family, his livestock, wishing continued health and wealth.” The original lyrics of Here We Come a-Wassailing are quite upfront about what’s going on:

We are not daily beggars

That beg from door to door

But we are neighbours’ children

Whom you have seen before.

Not all rich folk were happy to see wassailers at their doorstep. One 17th century polymath, John Selden, complained about “Wenches … by their Wassels at New-years-tide ... present you with a Cup, and you must drink of the slabby stuff; but the meaning is, you must give them Moneys.”

Misers like Selden may have had a point: Since alcohol was involved, wassailers often got too rowdy. “Drunken bands of men and boys would take to the streets at night, noise-making, shooting rifles, making ‘rough music,’ and even destroying property as they went among the wealthy urban homes,” wrote Hannah Harvester, formerly the staff folklorist at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York. In fact, boisterous wassailers are one reason why Oliver Cromwell and Long Parliament passed an ordinance in 1647 that essentially banned Christmas.

By the 19th century, wassailing would mellow. Beginning in the 1830s, music publishers started releasing the first commercial Christmas carols, uncorking classics such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel. Among them were dozens of wassailing songs, including the circa 1850 Here We Come a-Wassailing and dozens of others that are now, sadly, forgotten. As the custom of caroling became the dominant door-to-door pastime, alcohol-fueled begging dwindled. By the turn of the 20th century, carolers were more likely to sing about libations than actually drink them.

But if you’re interested in engaging in some good, old-fashioned wassailing, the original lyrics to Here We Come a-Wassailing are a helpful guide. For starters, ask for beer.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.

Don’t be shy! Keep asking for that beer.

Call up the butler of this house,

Put on his golden ring.

Let him bring us up a glass of beer,

And better we shall sing.

Remind your audience that, hey, this is the season of giving. Fork it over.

We have got a little purse

Of stretching leather skin;

We want a little of your money

To line it well within.

Screw it. You’ve sung this far. Go for it all, go for the gold, go for ... their cheese.

Bring us out a table

And spread it with a cloth;

Bring us out a mouldy cheese,

And some of your Christmas loaf.

Thirsty for your own wassail? Stock up on sherry and wine and try this traditional recipe from The Williamsburg Cookbook.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Holiday Window Display Designers

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iStock.com/andykazie

For decades, lavish holiday window displays at department stores have been one of the first signs of the season. But have you ever wondered how the designers behind the windows create those enchanting arrangements? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into making the holiday windows so magical at this time of year—from the best way to arrange lights to the pre-season all-nighters.

1. Every holiday window has a purpose.

The holiday windows are supposed to make you feel something, says Jacques Rosas, New York-based artist, founder, and CEO of Jacques Rosas, which does holiday window installations in stores such as Godiva, Elizabeth Arden, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Whenever Rosas is working on a window, he asks about the personality of the store, what they’re imagining, favorite decorations, traditions, and more—all starting with what they sell. “I try to pull settings that have nostalgia for them,” Rosas says. “I think the magical part is the nostalgia.” He loves the feel of an old-fashioned Christmas—last year, he decked out one store window with handmade stockings, old ornaments, and a real train.

2. You won’t see many Christmas trees in the store windows.

A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

At least not any real Christmas trees, Rosas says. Usually, the windows are hot, dry places, so any live trees would dry out and die. They could also catch fire, so a lot of the newer buildings won’t use them even if they could create the right environmental conditions. “We tend to use a lot of fake stuff,” Rosas says.

3. You also won’t see any products.

While store windows throughout the year are supposed to sell products, this time of year is all about the entertainment, says David Spaeth, CEO of Spaeth Design, which does holiday windows for Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. Sure, you may see a product or two in some of the windows (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule), but this is the time to seduce customers with gorgeous snowflakes or pretty (fake) trees instead of fantastic outfits.

4. But you will see lights.

A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Lights are what draws customers to the windows, and they can really make the displays pop. But you’d be surprised at how few lights will make a big splash, Rosas says. “There’s not a lot of lights—that’s a big mistake,” he says. "If you do too many, the reflection will play tricks on the viewer, and you won’t actually be able to see anything but lights.” Instead, he uses a few perfectly placed lights that bounce off each other. Rosas also tends to use plenty of wood composite, fiberglass, bark, paper, and plastic to create his scenes. But don't be surprised to spot other wacky items in holiday store windows, like Lite-Brite (yes, the retro toy), coffee stirrers, and even taxidermy. Anything goes when it comes to creating the perfect holiday window.

5. They plan ahead.

When the holidays start dying down, these designers are just getting started on the following year, says Michael Bednark, owner of Bednark Studio, a Brooklyn-based fabrication studio that is responsible for some of the Macy’s holiday windows throughout the country. Design talks start in January, and by March, the ideas are set. It takes two more months to figure out rendering, and the summer months are for fabrication (building the physical elements). Installation starts even before Halloween—by about mid-October, Bednark says.

6. They have working habits comparable to vampires.

Ever wonder how holiday windows pop up like magic? That’s because the artists work through the night to put them up so that they’ll appear in the morning. Installation for the simpler windows usually takes six to eight hours, Rosas says. “We have to be like wizards,” he explains.

7. Some windows can take weeks to install.

A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

A regular window display is an overnight job, but the team working on the Macy’s windows pre-builds them inside the shop. There’s a fake window inside every single Macy’s store, filled with the entire holiday window display. “We pre-build inside the shop so we can make sure that everything fits,” Bednark says. The pre-build takes about four weeks. If it’s a go, it’s moved into the regular window, which takes three weeks.

8. To make it look perfect, the artists touch every light.

The reason store windows look amazing while your holiday display might look just passable is because these designers really pay attention to the details. “When you decorate a tree, or you’re doing your lights and everything, the secret to really nice displays is to touch and adjust each branch, each light, and position everything as if everything was its own individual thing,” Rosas says. “That’s the secret to styling.”

9. When the season is over, the displays are usually tossed.

Some stores will re-use the decorations in-house, but many will toss them because the décor is so unique. Basically, they don’t want to wear the same outfit two days in a row, Spaeth explains.

10. The holidays aren’t their only busy season.

People love holiday store windows, and they’re great for business. But these artists are busy year-round, Rosas says. In addition to doing store window displays for every season, they also decorate show rooms, do trade show displays, and even create sets for TV shows and product launches. In Rosas’s studio, they have two 7500-square-foot spaces, and they use these for creating fake store windows or for marketing experiences. For example, a yogurt company may hire Rosas to use that studio to build an entire yogurt set as a backdrop for a yogurt product launch. The yogurt company would then invite members of the media to the room, where they’d take pictures and do interviews. “We try to inspire people to write about [the company] there,” Rosas says.

11. If you want to replicate the look, get out your checkbook.

A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

To hire a professional display artist to do your holiday windows, expect to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per window, depending on the number of details and amount of work it will take, Bednark says. In other words, making this kind of magic doesn't come cheap.

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

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