1883 Report on Haunted Houses

Summary of the first report on haunted houses from 1883 by the Society for Psychical Research...

1883 First Report on Haunted HousesAfter being formed in 1882, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) created six committees, one of which investigated claims of haunted houses and apparitions. The first summary of their findings was published in 1883 and tells of the procedures and challenges encountered with exploring such cases. Ghost investigators, today, should build upon these methods of thorough, multiple witness interviews and, of course, questioning and collaboration.

The 1883 report by SPR begins by explaining their approach, especially toward how they would investigate haunted houses and accounts of ghosts:

"In order to place ourselves in a favourable position both ofr obtaining such opportunities and for judging of their value, we have thought it desirable to begin by making a systematic collection, from trustworthy sources, of evidence bearing upon the subject of our researches. Our labours in this direction have been fruitful beyond our expectation; we have obtainted a large mass of testimony, which we are endeavouring to render as complete as possible by further inquiries. Whenever we can, we question our witnesses personally, and take down their testimony from their own lips. In other cases we conduct a cross-examination of by letter."

The report continues by detailing the SPR committee's process for investigating each account of ghost sighting and haunting:

"...we, of course, begin by tracing every story to the fountain-head. But we do not consider that every first-hand narration of the appearance of a ghost, even from a thoroughly trustworthy narrator, gives us adequate reason for attempting further investigation. On the contrary, our general principle is that the unsupported evidence of a single witness does not constitute sufficient ground for accepting an apparition as having a prima facie (prima facie meaning to be accepted as correct unless proven otherwise) claim to objective reality."

The SPR committee also set a precedence for how to distinguish a ghost sighting from a hallucination, something important for paranormal investigators, today, to take note of:

"To distinguish any apparition from an ordinary hallucination, such as those recorded by Abercrombie, Brewster, Carpenter, and others, it must receive some independent evidence to corroborate it. And this corroboration may be of two kinds; we may have the consentient testimony of several witnesses; or there may be some point of external agreement and coincidence - unknown, as such to the seer at the time, - (e.g., the periodic appearance on a particular anniversary, or the recoginition of a peculiar dress), to give to the vision an objective foundation. As regards the first of these two cases, there is a distinction to be drawn, which is of the greatest importance, though commonly neglected. It may often happen that several persons misinterpret the same phenomenon in the same manner, exemplifying what is called 'collective delusion.' But neither science nor the common experience of life has produced any undoubted cases analogous to what, in this department has been designated 'collective hallucination' - that is, the observation and identical description by several persons of an appearance having no basis in reality. The only case known to us which warrants the description of collective hallucination is the effect sometimes produced by the mesmerist upon his subjects - a case obviously abnormal."

The Society for Psychical Research committee assigned the haunted house studies made a very important point: there are no proven cases of a collective delusion or hallucination, meaning that multiple witnesses seeing the same ghost are probably not hallucinating, especially if they are describing the same details independent of one another's suggestion. Although a collective delusion may be possible, group hypnotism being a form of this, it remains that multiple witnesses of the same ghost or haunted activity is the strongest evidence in favor for the existence of ghosts and spirits.

1883 Haunted Houses report page 2 (cont'd.)