Jargon of the Paranormal
© Randolph Liebeck
Anomaly: A deviation from the expected or normal. An event or phenomenon that is difficult to classify.
Apparition: As defined in most of the literature of the field, a visual manifestation of a ghost or anomalous figure, often in human form.
Note: some researchers, including Loyd Auerbach, define an apparition as an intelligent disembodied spirit, whether visible or not. They do not apply the term to the non-interactive visual manifestations (of human-appearing figures) seen in residual hauntings (see below). This has resulted, somewhat confusingly, in two different applications of the word "apparition" in books and articles on the paranormal.
Earth Lights (also “Spook Light,” “Mystery Light”): Observed and recorded manifestations of anomalous floating lights, sometimes around areas prone to UFO and/or haunting reports. These lights have also been observed in areas immediately preceding an earthquake. Depending on the setting, folklore portrays these lights as flying saucers, ghosts, or faeries, but current research indicates they are natural plasma or ionized energy formations caused by geophysical factors. Some spook lights, however, exhibit signs of controlled movement or intelligence and do not fit neatly into this theory. Strange floating lights are also reported in haunted houses or as a component of poltergeist outbreaks, and in these cases the lights definitely seem connected to the haunting phenomena (see “Orbs,” below)
Earth Mysteries: Includes a wide range of mysterious events and artifacts with a terrestrial connection, including earth lights, geological anomalies, mysterious megaliths and structures such as Stonehenge, ley lines, crop circles, and anomalous energy characteristics that are sometimes associated with all of the above.
Ectoplasm: A filmy, sometimes elastic, sometimes luminous, substance observed to exude from a medium’s body during a séance. The substance would sometimes form into “hands” (pseudopods) that could move or manipulate objects in the séance room. This phenomena was commonly reported from the late 1800s through the 1930s. After scientists were able to catch numerous mediums engaged in outright fraud (regurgitating “ectoplasm” or pulling it out of various bodily orifices -- don’t ask), examining samples which usually turned out to be muslin, cheesecloth, or pieces of sheep’s lung, and the introduction of fraud-detecting recording technologies such as infrared photography into the séance room, the phenomenon of ectoplasm faded away from the paranormal arena. There were a couple of ectoplasm-producing mediums who were never proven to be frauds, so the jury may still be out on whether all cases were bogus, but today ectoplasm is a relic of a bygone (and perhaps more gullible) era.
In recent times, amateur ghost hunters have taken and posted hundreds of photographs showing swirling, misty spots or shapes (that may be airborne water vapor, cigarette smoke, or something truly anomalous) that they are calling “ectoplasm”. Whatever these images are of, they do not represent ectoplasm as defined in the historical annals of psychical research.
Fortean: Pertaining to any anomalous phenomena that cannot be explained by, or that challenge, the current scientific paradigm. The term can include ghost & poltergeist phenomena, earth mysteries, unexplained aerial phenomena, strange or unclassified animals, and archaeological/historical anomalies. Named after journalist Charles Fort who made a career of documenting and analyzing such events, which are now loosely referred to as Fortean phenomena.
Ghost: A popular label for a phenomenon we cannot explain. From our standpoint, a ghost is the entity, force, or discarnate intelligence behind some types of haunting phenomena. The common layman’s definition of a ghost is a disembodied surviving spirit of a deceased person. This is quite possible in some cases, but there is no proof of this (yet). A ghost may also be a residual intelligence or energy field, separate from the spirit or soul of a deceased person, which lingers behind after death. This field may or may not be self-aware or conscious as we understand the concept. If conscious, it may or may not have full cognitive capabilities. A ghost may also be a similar energy field that has at least partially detached itself from a living person and is able to act independently (sort of a secondary personality that has split off from the mind/body and exists independently in space). A ghost may also be some type of spiritual or non-corporeal entity that never existed in living human form (e.g., interdimensional). In different cases, a ghost may be any of the above, a combination of some of the above, or something completely different that we haven’t even thought of yet.
Haunting: A set of symptoms (which can include visual manifestations, tactile sensations, sensations of “presence,” smells, sounds, cold spots, and – to some degree – unexplained movement of objects, electrical disturbances, or other physical manipulations of the environment) which occur repeatedly at a location over a period of time. The phenomena appear to be a combination of hallucinatory events (e.g., a witness may see an apparition open and walk through a door, but upon later examination the door is found locked and undisturbed) and physical events.
Hauntings are divided into two main categories, Residual Hauntings and Interactive Hauntings.
Residual Haunting (also known as “Place Memory"): A haunting where the activity or visual apparition does not react to the presence of, or activities of, the witnesses. The activity is limited and repetitive in scope. The same sounds are heard in the same place. The same humanoid apparition walks down the same staircase night after night, fading away at the same spot. You can walk up to it and jump up and down waving your arms but the image goes about its business totally oblivious to you. From all appearances it seems to be a video or audio recording that plays itself over and over again, and there is no sign of an intelligent or interactive ghost being present. We suspect that past events and emotions can somehow impregnate themselves into the environment or physical structure of a building, and “play back” when environmental conditions are right and/or a “sensitive” witness is present. We suspect that a good percentage of the phenomena seen, heard or felt is hallucinatory (meaning that the visual, auditory or tactile sensory areas of the brain are directly stimulated by the recorded energy field, bypassing the regular sensory organs. The witness’s brain is being used as an audiovisual playback device). This could explain why some people can “see” a ghost while others can’t, even if they are looking at the same spot at the same time. Some people may be more receptive or sensitive to the energy field. Note: some researchers use the term “haunting” to refer exclusively to a residual haunting.
Interactive Haunting : A haunting where all indications are that an intelligent entity (ghost) is present. The phenomena can include strange sounds, images (including visual apparitions), sensations, and limited movement of objects. The force behind the phenomena demonstrates awareness of the witness’s presence by attempting to communicate, reacting to the proximity, movement or statements of the witnesses (moving away when approached, etc.) or by doing things that show constructive intelligent intent. As noted above, Loyd Auerbach and some other parapsychologists refer to an Interactive Haunting as an Apparition or an Apparitional Haunting.
Note: some researchers do not believe any hauntings involve the presence of a discarnate entity or ghost. They feel that all hauntings are residual recordings. When presented with evidence of interactive/intelligent phenomena or physical movement of objects (both of which should be beyond the capability of a simple environmental recording), they postulate that one of the witnesses actually unconsciously creates those effects through psychokinesis. This process is a variation of one of the theories behind poltergeist outbreaks, and some researchers define all hauntings with physical or apparently intelligent aspects as “Poltergeist Hauntings.”
Orbs: The internet is awash with thousands of photos of “orbs.” These circular photographic anomalies, usually showing a pockmarked “moonscape” internal structure and an apparent membrane around the outer edges, show up on indoor and outdoor shots when a flash is used with a digital camera. There are websites devoted to orb photos, and books about them. A huge contingent of ghost enthusiasts has latched onto the idea that orbs are ghosts (surviving human spirits) caught by the camera in their natural circular form. An entire mythology has developed around the concept. I have listened to a lecturer explain that white or blue orbs are happy, content spirits vibrating at a higher, enlightened frequency while reddish orbs are angry spirits. I never could quite figure out how he “knew” that. Admittedly, some of the orb photos look strange and spooky – I’ve captured a few in photographs myself.
There is overwhelming evidence, however, that most orbs are small dust particles or rain droplets that are very close to the lens and when illuminated by the camera’s flash create the classic orb shape as an imaging artefact. This can be verified experimentally. I have slapped my couch and rug with a shoe and immediately taken digital flash shots. The resulting photos (see example) show multiple, text-book classic orbs. I know for a fact these are dust particles, though some would still insist my library is host to hundreds of ghosts (apparently very content ones, on a higher vibrational plane).
Another source of orb photos, more common in the earlier days of low-resolution digital photography, was the tendency of some cameras to insert individual white pixels into black or dark areas in a photo. These pixels looked like little glowing balls.
There are some orb-like objects in photos (and videos) that do appear to be truly anomalous, but they are of a prima facie different nature than the “classic” dust orbs. Sometimes small balls of light are recorded (sometimes seen by the naked eye, sometimes not) in haunted locations. Whether seen by the eye or captured unexpectedly by the camera, these orbs seem self-luminous (no flash or video light is in use), sometimes following a trajectory that suggests intelligent directional intent, and often appear concurrently with other paranormal phenomena. An apparently separate category of strange balls of light are Earth Lights (see above), which are believed to be plasma formations generated by geophysical/tectonic stresses.
Paranormal: Anomalous events that appear to occur outside of our current understanding of scientific laws. Paranormal events are not necessarily supernatural events (see below), as the general assumption is that eventually our scientific worldview will encompass and explain them. One generation’s “paranormal” is the next generation’s “accepted science.”
Parapsychology: Parapsychology is the scientific discipline that studies apparent anomalous capabilities of the human mind, specifically Extra-Sensory Perception (telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition) and Psychokinesis (see below), as well as the possibility of the survival of the human mind/consciousness after bodily death. Within these research areas, most parapsychologists focus on ESP, with a small number studying psychokinesis, and a much smaller number studying apparitions, hauntings and poltergeists (with poltergeist research being primarily a corollary of PK research).
Parapsychology is a direct descendent of Psychical Research which, as a field of scientific study, was developed by the Society for Psychical Research in Britain in the late 19th century. Interestingly, psychical research initially focused on survival studies (ghosts and mediums) with ESP as a secondary concern. This situation was reversed as psychical research gradually redefined itself as parapsychology, which focused on laboratory ESP experiments following the lead of Dr. J.B. Rhine at Duke University in the 1930s. While there are notable exceptions, today many parapsychologists seem embarrassed by, if not downright hostile to, the concept of ghosts or survival after death.
What is a parapsychologist? A parapsychologist is a credentialed scientist who conducts structured research on parapsychological subjects, usually in an academic or private research institution setting, and who has an advanced degree (masters or doctorate) in a scientific discipline such as psychology, physics, biology or (rarely) parapsychology itself. To be eligible for full membership in the Parapsychological Association, the professional body representing parapsychologists worldwide, one is required to have an accredited doctorate degree and have conducted peer-recognized scientific research within the field.
This being the case, why do so many people who obviously don’t have the appropriate credentials refer to themselves as parapsychologists? I have encountered numerous amateur ghost hunters and enthusiasts, psychics, and writers who improperly use this title. No doubt it is a lack of awareness of the required criteria rather than intentional deception, but an amateur ghost researcher (and that includes me) should not use that title. I sometimes work with parapsychologists, but I regard myself as a Paranormal Investigator or Psychical Researcher.
Poltergeist: A category of seemingly ghostly phenomena with a distinct set of dynamics. Poltergeist cases are usually physical, with movement of objects, items being thrown or destroyed, materialization and dematerialization of matter, physical assaults, loud noises, rapping and pounding, spontaneous outbreaks of fires, etc. Most poltergeist events revolve around a specific person or persons (a "focus") and sometimes follow the focus to other locations (in contrast, most hauntings seem largely hallucinatory, have only limited physical interaction with the environment, and seem attached to a place – a “haunted house” – rather than a person).
Historically, poltergeists were thought to be a destructive ghost or demonic entity. Today, most parapsychologists feel that poltergeist activity is generated unconsciously by a living agent (the “focus”) through a process called Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis or RSPK (see “Psychokinesis,” below). The agent, due to certain psycho-social stresses and anomalies in brain/neurological function, is able to exteriorize pent up stress, frustration and rage by projecting psychic outbursts into the environment through psychokinesis. The agent is not aware they are doing this and is just as terrified as everyone else in the household.
Some parapsychologists and other paranormal researchers have noted that not all poltergeist cases fit neatly into the RSPK theoretical model and insist that, at least in some cases, we have to remain open to the possibility that an actual ghost or other discarnate entity is at work. These researchers are in the minority, but they put forward a strong and thought-provoking argument.
Psychokinesis: The apparent ability to influence or alter matter without direct physical contact (seemingly by mental intent). Abbreviated as PK, psychokinesis can involve influence on a subatomic level (Micro-PK) which is only measurable through statistical analysis (influencing the decay of subatomic particles and/or the functioning of a Random Event Generator), or on an observable scale (Macro-PK) which can include movement or levitation of objects (sometimes called telekinesis), materialization/dematerialization of objects, and other gross physical manipulations of the environment. There are various theories of how the human mind causes these effects. Historically it was suggested that some type of energy was generated by the brain or body, operating as a type of kinetic force field. While some observed events did seem to be suggestive of that, researchers have never been able to detect any type of energy emanating from the human body that could be strong enough to incite these events. The latest hypothesis is that the relatively low levels of biological energy that the body is known to produce, such as electromagnetic brain waves, somehow act as an intent-focused trigger that interacts with stronger energy fields in the environment (possibly Zero-Point Energy or some other quantum-level field) and uses this stronger energy field as the “hired muscle” to manifest psychokinetic events.
Supernatural: Phenomena that exist outside of and without regard for the laws of physics and the known natural order (such as religious miracles, alleged demonic possession, etc.)
Vortex: Somewhat similar to orbs (see above), vortexes are swirling, snake-like or tornado-shaped objects that show up in photographs. Amateur ghost enthusiasts declare (with, apparently, no supporting evidence) that these photographic anomalies represent a “vortex” - swirling energy portals through which spirits enter into our physical world.
Most of these photos appear to show camera straps or wrist cords that inadvertently pass in front of the lens at the moment the shutter snaps. Illuminated by the flash, these straps appear to have an unearthly glow and exhibit a circular, swirling (vortex-like) pattern in their internal structure. I captured a classic vortex shot once, and was very perplexed as I didn’t have a strap or cord on the camera. The anomaly was glowing, snake-like, and exhibited a repeating circular internal matrix. I was a bit let down upon close examination of the lens, where I found a miniscule fiber (about the thickness of a human hair) on the lens surface that exactly matched the position and shape of the vortex in my photo.