6 Scientific Explanations for Ghosts

iStock
iStock

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.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 of the Best Halloween Costumes for Your Dog

Amazon/Chewy
Amazon/Chewy

Although trick-or-treating might look a little different this year, there’s no reason why you (or your favorite pet) still can’t celebrate Halloween in style. To help you get in the spooky spirit with your four-legged housemates, we’ve rounded up some of 2020’s best—and cutest—costumes for your dogs. Whether your little monster wants to pay homage to their favorite horror movie or simply don a festive sweater, one of these costumes is guaranteed to earn them an extra treat or two.

1. Taco Dog; $19-$20

Rubie's/Amazon

Dogs and tacos are two of the internet's favorite things, so why not combine them into one? This delightful costume features a sombrero headpiece and taco bodysuit that includes all the necessary taco fixings, like lettuce, cheese, meat, tomatoes, and guac. The costume sizes range from small to XL, so no matter if your dog is best described as a mini taquito or a beefed-up burrito, they'll be able to find a perfect Halloween fit.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Wonder Woman and Superman; $15-$25

Rubie's/Amazon

All dogs are superheroes, even if their most valiant feat is greeting you at the door when you come home. Your pet can show off their inner helper in one of these officially licensed costumes from DC Comics. The Wonder Woman costume features the superheroine’s signature emblem on the back, with a sweet tiara and tutu completing the look. The Superman costume, meanwhile, is fitted with a dramatic cape that’s sure to get them an extra bone or two when going for their evening walk.

Buy it: Wonder Woman and Superman on Amazon

3. Hogwarts Outfit; $15-$16

Impoosy/Amazon

“Yer a wizard, Sparky!” Impoosy’s Hogwarts-inspired costume takes the magic of Halloween to the next level. The set has an adjustable Velcro cape, striped tie, and a pair of glasses so your pet can embrace their inner boy-who-lived (lightning bolt scar not included). As a fun bonus, the costume comes in four different colors, so your pet can sport their house colors in style … after trying on the Sorting Hat, of course.

Buy it: Amazon

4. U.S. Mail Carrier; $18-$19

California Costume Company/Amazon

If you’d rather dress your dog up as a real-life hero, try a U.S. Postal worker. Postal workers deliver the mail in spite of snow, rain, and sleet, and this clever costume will allow your pet to honor the workers who are as faithful as man’s best friend. California Costume’s Mail Carrier ensemble has a combined shirt and front legs piece with attached “arms,” which hold your dog’s special delivery via Velcro. Show your appreciation for your dog's service with a spoonful of peanut butter (your real mailperson might actually like that, too).

Buy it: Amazon

5. Any Star Wars Costume; $6-$28

Rubie's/Amazon

The Force will be with your four-legged friend this Halloween. The Star Wars collection from Rubie's has looks for all of your favorite characters, including R2-D2, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Yoda, and more. If your pet doesn’t exactly love dressing up for the holidays, the collection also includes smaller items like this Yoda ears headpiece, so they can still get in the spirit even without a full getup.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Where’s Waldo?; $25-$29

Rubie's/Chewy

Your pet will stand out in the crowd in this adorable Where’s Waldo? costume. Featuring Waldo’s iconic red and white striped sweater, beanie, and glasses, this officially licensed set is perfect on its own or for matching with a two-legged human. The hat and felt glasses include an elastic chin strap and adjustable ear loops, so your pup will stay stylish and comfortable all night long. They might not be wandering around a crowd of 500 people like their bookish counterpart, but at least they'll look great while social distancing.

Buy it: Chewy

7. Fair Isle Halloween Sweater; $14-$16

Frisco/Chewy

Whether your pet wants to keep it more casual this year or have an excuse to celebrate for the entire month of October, Frisco’s Fair Isle sweater will put the “howl” in their Halloween look. The orange and black sweater is embellished with traditional Halloween images—ghosts, Jack-O’-Lanterns, skulls, cats, bats, and gravestones—that are much more endearing than they are spooky. The sweater also contains a leash hole, so your furry pal can show off his look both inside and outside the house.

Buy it: Chewy

8. Pennywise; $18-$22

Rubie's/Chewy

There’s nothing more fun than playing with your pet, but this terrifying Pennywise costume might just make you think twice. With its sickeningly cheerful tassels and buttons, orange wig, and plush “balloon,” this costume might even scare you if your pet wears it for too long. If It isn’t your thing, check out these Freddy Kreuger and Chucky-inspired costumes to add some extra fright to your night.

Buy it: Chewy

9. Jack Skellington; $20-$22

Rubie's/Chewy

This look is the opposite of a nightmare before Christmas. Disney’s officially licensed Jack Skellington costume from Rubie’s Costume Company highlights The Pumpkin King’s classic outfit, which includes a pinstriped jacket, bat bowtie, and headpiece with a printed image of Jack’s smiling face. Despite Jack’s Christmas obsession, this look embraces his trademark style. This is Halloween, after all.

Buy it: Chewy

10. Headless Rider; $18

Frisco/Chewy

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of America’s most infamous ghost stories. Celebrate Washington Irving’s beloved folktale by turning your pet into the headless horseman’s ghoulish accomplice. This is a great option for pets who might not like getting dressed up, but who feel comfortable wearing simple thunder jackets or shirts. Simply fasten the cape around them via hook-and-loop fasteners, and presto! They’re automatically the companion of a plush, headless terror (terror being relative, in this case).

Buy it: Chewy

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.