Are ghosts the dreams of the dead?

Frederic William Henry Myers

As a paranormal researcher, I've always admired the work of Britain's Society for Psychical Research because of the society's commitment to finding scientific and logical explanations for the unexplained. Since its founding in 1882, the SPR (as they are known today) has extensively studied everything from psychic abilities to run-of-the-mill hauntings, reporting their findings in a series of publications and journals. The so-called paranormal investigators of today would be well-advised to study these old reports and journals, since they offer valuable insight into the world of the unknown. Unlike today's "ghost hunters", the members of the Society for Psychical Research do much more intensive scholarly research into the paranormal than the men and women who try to make a name for themselves with night vision cameras, EVP recordings and a YouTube channel.

One of the most notable early members of the Society for Psychical Research was one of its founders, Frederic W.H. Myers. Myers, a Cambridge graduate who became the president of the SPR in 1900, is remembered for his philosophical and psychological approach to the unknown. In fact, it has been written that Myers' work directly influenced several "fathers of modern psychology", including Carl Jung.

One of Frederic Myers' most intriguing theories implies that ghosts are not spiritual entities at all but, rather, the dreams of the deceased projected onto the physical realm. He published 50 pages of research based on this theory, which appeared in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research journal in 1890.

Since we don't have the space (or permission from the SPR) to re-print Myers' entire study verbatim, we've decided to re-print an excellent article on Myers' theory which appeared in the March 21, 1890, edition of the Pittsburgh Press.

The Dreams of Dead Men: A ghost said to be the dream of the dead projected to the scenes of active life.

F.W.H. Myers in the latest issue of the "Proceedings of the (English) Society for Psychical Research" devotes 50 pages to "Recognized apparitions occurring more than a year after death". They consist of a collection of well authenticated ghost stories, upon which Mr. Myers bases a theory that apparitions are in reality the dreams of the dead men, and can be explained scientifically by the analogy of telepathy.

Mr. Myers dismisses as unscientific the popular conception of a ghost as dead person permitted to communicate with the living, says W.T. Stead in the Review of Reviews. His definition of a ghost is that it is a manifestation of persistent personal energy, or that it is a residue of the force of energy which the man generated while he was still alive, which clings to the locality in which he spent his existence. He argues plausibly that the best key to the laws governing the phenomena of apparitions is most likely to be suggested by studying the laws which govern the manifestation of spirits while in the flesh.

"Two such laws, I believe, exist. In the first place, I believe that telepathy-- the transference of thought through other than sensory channels-- exists both as between embodied spirits and as between embodied and disembodied spirits. I hold that apparitions after death result from the continued exercise of the same energy by the spirits of the departed. And in the second place, I regard it as analogically probable that ghosts must therefore, as a rule, represent, not conscious or central currents of intelligence, but mere automatic projections from consciousnesses which have their centers elsewhere".

This is somewhat obscure, but it is better illustrated by the extraordinary story of the well-authenticated discovery of a skeleton by a revelation in a dream:

"A man is murdered in a bedroom of a Scotch farmhouse. His body is carried out and hastily buried in the open field. For 40 years the murdered man retains some consciousness of this tragedy. He broods over the fact of his death in that room, his interment in that stony hillock. At last the bedroom is occupied by a man sensitive to the peculiar influence which (on our hypothesis) these broodings of diseased persons diffuse. The dream of the dead passes into the dream of the living; it persists in his mind with the same intensity as in the murdered man's own imagination. The purpose once achieved- the discovery made- the obsession ceases.
"And at any rate this conception of a dead man's dream- of a probably unconscious gravitation of some fraction of his disembodied entity toward his old associations- a flowing of some backwater of his being's current into channels familiar long ago- will serve to supply a fairly coherent conception of the meaning of those vague hauntings into which, as we have seen, our narratives of recognized post mortem apparitions imperceptibly glide."

The story of a dead man's dream is as weird as any professional wizard ever invented. It is somewhat difficult to translate the conception into language which can be understood by those not familiar with the technical phraseology of psychical researches. But if we might make a bold effort we should say that it amounts to a theory that a man does not die altogether and pass totally into a different state of being. A certain shadowy semblance of himself lingers behind, which, when the dead man elsewhere dreams of his old life, assumes a more palpable shape, and occasionally becomes visible to the eyes of mortals, as the slender filament of the incandescent lamp becomes luminous when the electricity is turned on.

Of this, several extraordinary illustrations are given by Mr. Myers. One story is told by an American commercial traveler, which describes how his sister appeared to him nine years after her death, at noonday. The peculiarity of this ghost was that the brother saw upon the sister's face a red scratch which he had never seen during her lifetime. He hastened home and told the story to his parents. His mother was at once thrown into a state of profound consternation, and confessed while laying out the corpse she had inadvertently scratched its face and had hidden the fact from every human being until the apparition of her daughter's ghost bearing the scratch on her cheek compelled her to confess what had happened.

Another story tells how an old Lady Carnarvon, who died in 1826, appeared in her house at Petworth some 11 years later. A very curious story is told in Dale Owen's "Footfalls" of a washerwoman's ghost who persistently haunted another woman for several nights, urging her to go to a priest who would pay 3s. 10d. which she owed to some one not mentioned. Following up this clew, it was found that she actually did owe 3s. 10d. to a grocer. The sum was paid and the hauntings ceased. The ghost of Voltaire is said to have been seen writing as lately as 1867, in the Chateau de Pragins, near Nyon, in Switzerland. Mr. Myers suggests that in many of these cases the apparition is due to something like the working out of a post-hypnotic suggestion.

"Thus we man concieve a murdered man, for instance, as feeling persistently that he ought not to have been murdered-- that his existence should still be continuing in his earthly home. And if his apparition is seen in that home, we need not say that he is condemned to walk there, but rather that his memory or his dream goes back irresistibly to the scene to which in a sense he feels that he belongs. I say "his memory or his dream" but it is of course possible that neither word may suggest a close parallel to what actually occurs. There may be a deeper severance in the personality of the dead.

"There is nothing per se improbable in the idea that our personality-- so much more fractionable even during our earthly life that we were wont to imagine-- should be susceptible, when liberated from the body, of still profounder divisions. For the present, however, it seems better to keep to more familiar analogies, and to use the word "dream" as the widest term available; though, of course, without assuming that the decedent is on any way asleep".

It is evident that, if Mr. Myers is right, we shall have to reconstruct the whole of our theory of personality.