A Walk with William James, Part 10: Ghostbusting with William James (Part 1 of 2)

I don't believe in ghosts. However, I'm strangely fascinated by parapsychology. I love the X-files and I love good ghost movies like The Sixth Sense.

Because of this I've always fantasized about putting the following ad in the Abilene Yellow Pages:

Richard Beck, Ph.D.
Experimental Psychologist and Paranormal Investigator
Do you believe your house is haunted? Had an encounter with a ghost, poltergeist, or apparition?
Then call us at 1.800.I GOT BOO

I could then spend weekends with a group of fellow-volunteers meeting all kinds of interesting people. I mean, how fun would this be?

Two things make me qualified to be a paranormal researcher. First, I have experience. A few years ago, during a summer session, I was lecturing on the difference between science and pseudoscience. While doing the compare and contrast of the two I stated, as an example of pseudoscience, that paranormal research has all the trappings of science (e.g., high-tech equipment) but it really isn't science. This led to a conversation about ghosts. Well, here in Abilene we have a ghost light in Anson, the Anson light, which is found in the small town of Anson just north of Abilene. You drive to Anson, hang a right at the only light in town, hang the next right and then take a right at the graveyard. You go down a dirt road about a mile until you reach a crossroads. At the crossroads you turn around facing the way you came, back toward the graveyard down the road. You then flash your lights and wait...

Soon a ghost light will appear way down the road. It is even said to move around in a willo-the-wisp fashion.

The ghost story I've heard (and there are many versions of this) is as follows:

There was a young boy who got lost in a snowstorm. His mother, in her grief, went out searching the night for him with a lantern. They both never return. The Anson light is the illumination from the mother's lamp still searching the night for her lost son.

It's an interesting story but wildly implausible on meteorological grounds! I've never seen a snow STORM in West Texas.

Regardless, this light is famous in Abilene. Anyway, in this conversation about ghosts with my students they start talking about their experiences out in Anson. Ever the skeptic, I declare that if I, the scientist, would go to Anson I'd solve the mystery in 30 minutes. They take me up on the challenge. So, one night I found myself with four students driving to Anson with the ghostbusting equipment I could find at my house: Two-way radios, binoculars, and a video camera.

Once at the location we actually do see the ghost light off and on for three hours that night. And, failing miserably, we could not determine the source of the light. However, the night was not a total loss. We did make a few findings and did test a few hypotheses:

Beck Paranormal Investigations
Case File #1: Anson Light

Finding #1: Apparently, you can film a ghost light.
When we arrived there was a group of highschool students there (as you can imagine this is a very famous hangout spot). As I pulled out my video camera to film the light a kid from the group says, "You can't film the light. It won't show up on film." Scoffing, I film anyway when the light appears. And, upon returning home, show my wife the video. So, you CAN film a ghost light. (And why not? If photons are activating the rods and cones in my eyes those same photons can affect film and light sensors, right?)

Finding #2: You don't have to flash your lights.
When you go out to Anson you are told you need to flash your lights to summon the ghost light. Well, you don't. We sat there for three hours with the light coming and going and never once flashed our lights.

Finding #3: The light doesn't move.
You are often told that the light moves around. It doesn't. What it does do is fade in and out. Its brightness changes but it doesn't move around.

Finding #4: The light isn't coming from cars passing the graveyard.
The main hypothesis we tested was this. Some people say that the ghost light is car light reflected off the gravestones. That is, as cars are driving past the graveyard it has been supposed that their lights are reflecting off a gravestone deflecting the light 90-degrees up the dirt road where you are sitting at the crossroads.

So, with the two-way radios we sent a team to the dirtroad turn-off leaving another team at the crossroads to watch the light. We were about a mile apart. Well, the light came and went during a span of 60 minutes and it was often there without a car in sight. Conclusion: The ghost light isn't reflected car light from the graveyard.

End Case File

That is the sum of our findings. We never did find out the source of the ghost light. But we did make some headway. I do have a theory about the light, but have yet to go out and test it. Regardless, I think this experience qualifies me as a paranormal researcher.

My second qualification is this: I've published on the paranormal.

More precicely, I've published on beliefs in the paranormal. You can see it here: Beck, R. & Miller, J.P. (2001). The erosion of belief and disbelief: The relationship of belief in the supernatural with belief in the paranormal. Journal of Social Psychology, 141, 277-287.

This is one of my worst publications. I don't really like it. But there it is. I did this study my first year out of my Ph.D. program. I had been doing tons of clinical (i.e., mental health) research and was getting bored by it. So, I wanted to do something really quirky and different. Thus, one day I was in line at the supermarket and looked over at a copy of those fake newspapers that has stories like "My baby is an alien" or "Bigfoot discovered dancing at LA night club." Looking at this paper, I smirked and thought to myself, "Who would believe this stuff?" And then it dawned on me. Believing in God, miracles, angels, prayer, or demons seems pretty incredible as well. Is there a difference in believing in angels versus believing in ESP? Thus the paper was born.

After I published this quirky paper I moved on to more "important" research. But amazingly, this paper has had an interesting history. Every year I still get requests from around the world for copies of it (not many, but one or two). Further, people have actually cited this paper in subsequent research. My favorite citation is this: Callaghan, A. (2003). Paranormal belief as a psychological coping mechanism. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 67, 200-207.

Why is this my favorite citation? Well, the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research is the journal for The Society for Psychical Research, the oldest and most prestigious parapsychology association in the world. And guess who was a past president of the SPR? You guessed it.

William James.

More in my next post...

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5 thoughts on “A Walk with William James, Part 10: Ghostbusting with William James (Part 1 of 2)”

  1. oh my goodness, I started reading your blog before bed but couldn't finish it. (not that its boring or anything) I went to bed and dreamed of this little girl ghost in my house.
    Let me tell ya..my van was always full of little middle school boys going to Anson lights and this one bridge that was freakin scarey outside of Hawley (torn down now) and of course the haunted house down by Treadaway. My good friend Mark Weathers even staked out there and when me and the boys got up the nerve to go up the stairs he and friends screamed from the bedrooms. Man, those boys ran but my Sam stood by me and Mark came out and we were laughing .. my son couldn't believe I had gotten him so good then we were asking where the girl was that was screaming and they said there was no girl with them then we all ran out of the house...hmmm..good times.

    have you seen What Lies Beneath..oh man, the best ghost movie ever!!

  2. I like you RB. You make good graduation speeches, you do a great job playing a genuine, loving, non-melodramatic Jesus for BTMP, and you seem to be a great family man. P.S. I have a good story and theory about/involving Anson lights and cows.

  3. Beverly,
    Great story! Haven't seen What Lies but now got it coming on NetFlix!

    I like you too Zach Sheets. I'll catch up with you about the Anson story.

    (And thanks for thinking my Jesus was non-melodramatic! I try not to be.)

  4. i have seen the light, too. sometimes it does move, seeming to cross the road to and from the cemetery. there is a website that says the light is from cars driving south on highway 277, north of Anson. personally, i think it's a ghost...

  5. Lol, I'm from Northeastern Oklahoma and we have an identical phenomenon, but we call it "the spooklight"--all with the same procedures as well. You have to flash your lights, you can't tape it with a cell phone or it won't show, you have to be quiet, etc. These things seem to be rather common throughout the United States. I have heard of one in Indiana, also...

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