There are at least two theories that explain ghost sightings as being something other than the lingering spirits of those who have died. The first theory seems to have been pretty widely accepted — or, at least, considered — as the nineteenth century became the twentieth. Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “Playing with Fire” (1900) illustrates it in fictional form, but the best nonfiction presentation of the theory that I’ve found is in Thomson Jay Hudson’s The Law of Psychic Phenomena: A Working Hypothesis (1892).
Hudson’s book provides an interesting spin on the conscious/subconscious mind that Sigmund Freud propounded. According to Hudson, the subconscious or, as he calls it, the subjective mind is capable of creating ghosts. Furthermore, the subjective mind of an entranced spiritualist medium can telepathically cooperate with another person to create an apparition. Don’t get the idea, though, that such apparitions are experienced only by the party or parties engaged in creating them. No, in his chapter titled “Phantasms of the Dead,” Hudson explains:
[T]he subjective personality of man possesses the power to create phantasms, or visions, which in many instances are visible to the objective senses of others. . . . It is true that some of the visions may be merely perceived subjectively, but not all. Many cases are reported where the phantasms have been perceived by more than one person at the same time, and others have been perceived under circumstances that leave no doubt that the percipient was in completely normal condition, and saw the visions objectively. (287-88)
Hudson then uses this to explain spirit photography. When not faked, those photos show us physical manifestations created by someone’s subconscious, perhaps someone’s memory of his dearly departed Auntie Mae rather than Auntie Mae herself. It’s an interesting compromise between “seeing what one wants to see” and confronting proof of the afterlife.
Hudson next applies this theory to ghost sightings. Let’s say someone dies. Better yet, let’s say someone dies violently. That someone then broadcasts a telepathic message. Some people receive that message and see the dead person’s horrible death reenacted. To support this claim, Hudson dwells on the notion that ghosts don’t reply to a living person’s questions. He insists that ghosts “are apparently never able to enter into a general discussion of matters outside of one dominant idea which called them into being. The history of all phantoms, so far as our reading extends, confirms the statement” (299).
Hudson might be a bit overly confident here, but let’s move on.
Another theory explaining that ghosts aren’t manifestations of the dead comes from Robert Hugh Benson, who though the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, became a Catholic priest. In other words, it seems Benson had no problem rocking the boat. He also wrote plays and prose fiction (including some science fiction), and had an interest in ghosts. His article “Phastasms of the Dead,” published in a 1912 issue of the Dublin Review, sets forth his theory that ghosts might not be what some people assume.
Benson first works through other theories about ghosts, including the telepathic one argued by Hudson. Setting up his own theory, he next establishes his beliefs (i.e., the premises on which his deductive logic rests), including this:
I am convinced, from quite other reasons than haunted-house stories, that material objects are able to receive, to retain, and to give out again, under peculiar circumstances, definite impressions which they have received from a mental and intelligent source. (53)
In paranormal lingo, this is known as psychometry. Picture a psychic clutching and glaring at a ring to glean information about the person who wore it. (If you liked the last Conan Doyle tale, you might try his “The Leather Funnel” , which deals with psychometry.) Benson applies this idea to an example of a house wherein a murder has occurred. Given the intensity of such an act, he asks if it’s not feasible that “the very walls, and ceiling, and floor, and bedhangings, and furniture should receive a certain impression of the horror? and that they should retain it?” It only takes someone to sleep in that same room, then, to sense those stored impressions in the form of a ghost (60). The priest ends his essay by asking for consideration of the possibility that he’s onto something and affirming his willingness to ponder other explanations. It’s a fascinating essay to read, and a nice “recap” of it is available in Current Literature — interestingly, under the heading “Science and Discovery”!
These works are included alongside many, many more on my bibliography titled Ghostology 101: Recommended Reading.