True Ghost Stories

Life is full of ghost stories that turn out to be true

As a child, I loved ghost stories. I still do, but I particularly appreciate those that turn out to be explicable. One of my favorites is of the Fire Dog of Asu, which was related in George Plimpton’s outstanding edited collection of narratives by members of the Explorer’s Club.

The story of the Fire Dog is related by an exploration team who investigated the legend among some Pacific Islanders of a terrifying, bloodthirsty gigantic dog that roamed through the jungle and glowed in the dark. Shortly before the arrival of the team on the island, a man died of a heart attack, apparently due to terror caused by the fire dog. (Yes, this all sounds eerily like The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the Fire Dog of Asu is a non-fiction story).

The team of explorers investigates the part of the jungle where the beast is rumored to live. As night is falling they arrive at a beach. Here they find a cave in which they hear the snuffling and growling of a large animal. They feel paralyzed with fear as a glowing beast emerges from the gloom, charging straight at them.

The narrator of the story is too frozen with fear to fire his gun; other members of the team fire wildly and miss. But one fellow with ice water in his veins shoots accurately several times and the monster falls.

It turns out to be an enormous, feral, wild boar. The ocean side cave in which it lives is regularly saturated by a tide full of phosphorescent algae which has soaked into the beast’s fur and made it glow in the dark.

My own true ghost story is less dramatic. On a wintry day I put on my overcoat and walked out on to my narrow front stoop to wait for the bus. I then heard three ghostly raps on my front door, directly behind me. I turned and saw nothing. I went inside to see if my roommate was playing a trick on me, but he was gone.

I went back outside and resumed my position. The ghostly raps came again, not 6 inches behind my back. I turned again and searched. Nothing was touching the door. There was no stick, bird, rock, piece of porch furniture or anything else that could have made the noise.

I resumed my post and the ghostly raps came again. But then a thought occurred. I took off my overcoat and found that its heavy hanger had fallen off as I pulled it out the closet, becoming lodged in the hem at the back. When my back was to the door, the wind had blown the wooden hanger back and forth, causing the ghostly raps on the door. But when I had turned to look for what was causing the knocking, of course I found nothing because the hanger was behind me on the tail of my coat.

Ever had a true ghost story experience? Would love to hear it if so.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

11 thoughts on “True Ghost Stories”

  1. I have not had a ghost experience but have seen a ghost photograph that I wonder about. My high school Latin teacher showed all of her classes a ghost photograph she had taken in England in her slide show about the Romans in Britain. The pictures shows an Elizabethan woman with a ruff on a modern street. She appeared to be black and white and sat lower in the frame because the street had been lower at the time she lived. It was a remarkable photograph.
    My teacher claimed it had come back from the photo lab like that. She went in and asked them what had happened. They said that the picture had come out like that. The picture had been taken sometime in the 1950s or 1960s. I saw it in 1973. My Latin teacher was single and did not appear to have an interest in special effects photography at the time. She retired in 1973 and died in about 2000. She had a great love of Great Britain and established the Boar’s Head Holiday festival at her Episcopal church in downtown Cincinnati. If the photograph was a fake, I’d like to know who did it and how.

  2. Not my own, but one that stuck in my mind when I read it.

    The first wife of the great physicist Richard Feynman died tragically of TB after only 2 years of marriage. Feynman was working at Los Alamos on the atomic bomb, and was called to her bedside. He sat with her as she took her last breaths.

    The nurse noted the time of death: 9:21

    Spookily, later Feynman noticed the clock in the room has stopped at exactly 9:21

    Being a materialist, Feynman came up with an explanation: the clock had given trouble before and the nurse probably picked it up to verify the time, upsetting its inner workings and stopping. Inference to the best explanation?

    1. Simpler explanation: the troublesome clock stopped some minutes before the death,
      no-one noticed, and the nurse wrote down the time of death from the already-stopped

      1. An obvious case of “overdetermination” – both explanations provide a wholly naturalistic, non-supernatural framework to explain the phenomenon.:)

        You might even argue that since your explanation requires less assumptions, it is the most logical. But it does not have a reason for the clock stopping. Presumably, if it had stopped for a long time, it would have been noticed before as Feynman spent some time with his dying wife. That explanation requires the clock to stop on its own accord “reasonably close” to Arline Feynman’s last moment. Feynman’s explanation explains both the clock stopping and the odd coincidence, and is the most satisfying.

        1. I think it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other: in both cases, the clock has
          to be prone to stopping (but that’s an observed fact, since the clock *did* stop);
          in my explanation, all we need is that the clock stopped in the few minutes before
          the death (maybe 10 minutes would be a small enough discrepancy that no one would notice
          it – especially not Feynman himself, who in addition to dealing with the sickness and
          death of his young wife, was also working flat-out leading the computation group of
          the Manhattan project in order to win the war …). In Feynman’s explanation, the clock
          does indeed stop at the right time, but we have to invent two facts not actually observed –
          first, that the nurse picked up the clock in order to check it (and why would she do that ?
          you can read a clock without picking it up); and second, that the clock happened to be
          sensitive to being picked up. Neither of those seems probable; and neither one is supported
          by evidence.

          1. I didn’t mention that Feynman (who was talented with things mechanical as well as mathematical) had tinkered with the clock when it gave trouble before. He knew enough about it’s inner workings to make his explanation the more plausible.

  3. One sleepless night in my first apartment I was kept awake by a muffled chirp. It was a solitary sound that peeped once every so often, not a constant babble. Perhaps it was the building settling. But occurred too regularly and was too high-pitched. It couldn’t be a cricket because it was too infrequent. And after it went on for several weeks I had my doubts a cricket could survive that long inside a wall — in January no less. I isolated it to somewhere in the hall above my head but could not figure out what was causing it. I had my very own ghost. What a cool apartment!

    Then Spring came and it stopped. I figured the ghost must have moved on to other quarters. It was nice while it lasted. Life continued and I never thought about it again. Until it came back with Winter.

    After much head scratching I finally figured out that the hallway had a false ceiling and apparently the contractor didn’t bother to remove the smoke detector that was already mounted. The battery had long since died but the colder temperatures lowered the resistance enough for the device to emit it’s “change my battery” signal.

    1. The lower temperature may have lowered the resistance but it also would reduce the output from that battery. Surely you have gone out to start your card in very cold temperatures only to hear “arrrrrah arrrrah”. If you waited until later in the day when temperatures increased the car might start. (You can sometimes “warm” the battery by turning on the headlight for 5 minutes or so. The warmer battery may then be able to start the car.) (Yes, there are some other effects like higher viscosity oil due to the cold.)

      In other words, I am skeptical of your analysis.

  4. I have a friend who received either an empty fax or an empty text/email at the time of a relative’s death, from the relative, who was thousands of miles away. I didn’t ask about the details though.

    I am definitely in the there’s-more-out-there camp, though I also think there is usually a simpler explanation.

    It is just *wrong* to leave in a fire alarm. So, so wrong. Mine began chirping this morning and chirped a while even after I yanked out the battery. No idea why. It’s stopped though.

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