Astrology

Astrology, the idea that the stars are influencing your life, is completely fake.

Humans have been following the movements of the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars for thousands of years. Using this celestial information to understand the seasons and the passage of time is logical. Using this information to predict the future or explain human personalities, is not logical (but understandable). People want to understand why things happen, the world can be scary, and finding some system in the stars is an attractive idea. A relatable narrative is more appealing than unpredictable chaos so it’s understandable that people would look to astrology (like how people fall for conspiracy theories).

While there are different kinds of astrology, the shared basics is that they use complex series of real astronomical calculations combined with made-up traits assigned to different constellations/alignments/times to “gain insights” into the workings of the world. The Western astrological system is rooted in Hellenistic astrology from the Mediterranean around 200-100 BCE (which itself is based in the much older Babylonian astrology). It’s from Hellenistic astrology that we get the Zodiac, horoscopes, star signs, and the kind of astrology we typically encounter in blogs and newspapers.

Despite millennia of study & measurements, nobody is any closer to explaining why astrology is supposedly real.

Bunk

That said, astrology is completely fake. It’s pseudoscience, superstition, hooey. To start, there’s no reason a distant configuration of stars which looks vaguely like a crab or a bull would have any relationship with the events on Earth. But even if there was some kind of relationship there would need to be a force connecting us to these heavenly bodies, affecting us here on Earth. Science hasn’t found or been able to measure any kind of force at work. Neither gravity nor electromagnetism work like this. Maybe there is some unknown other force, that remains strong yet undetectable, interacting with us from distant stars trillions of miles away which has yet to be discovered.

Another problem is that astrological assessments/predictions should be at least consistent if not accurate. In 1985 scientist Shawn Carlson conducted a double-blind experiment with astrologers to match personality test results to natal charts (essentially their zodiac symbols). If personality types are immutably governed by the stars, matching a zodiac sign to a participant’s corresponding personality type should be easy. It was apparently not easy, as astrologers performed about the same as pure chance. Worse, the astrologer participants performed poorly in even finding their own personality profiles.

Maybe astrology succeeds despite the human failings of astrologers. Time twins, people born at the same time on the same day sometimes even in the same hospital, should have similar personalities. Unfortunately there is no correlation at all. Even without astrologers being involved astrology is inconsistent.

Part of the blame for astrology lies with its adherents who believe astrology is real. Paranormal skeptic James Randi conducted an exercise where he gave detailed horoscopes to a class full of students. Most of the students said the horoscope they received were quite accurate. The trick was that Randi gave the same horoscope to everyone in the class. What the students in Randi’s experiment fell for was the Barnum effect.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum effect (aka the Forer effect) is found in fortune telling and astrology where an assessment/reading seems to be about you but in reality can apply to almost anyone. These are statements that have been carefully worded to be specific and yet universal. For example, one might say that …

“You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.”

In fact these statements are part of what psychologist Bertram Forer gave to his test subjects as part of his 1948 study. When assessing the accuracy of these statements, participants in Forer’s experiment gave an average rating of 4.3 out of 5 (5 being the most accurate). It turns out every student was given the exact same statements. Horoscopes and other astrological readings frequently use the Barnum effect to seem specific to you but in reality can apply to almost anyone.

Confirmation Bias

Another way astrology can seem real is through confirmation bias. Believers remember the predictions that came true more than the ones that didn’t. When someone has an emotional desire for a certain outcome they can respond more favorably towards the evidence that supports their beliefs and dismiss or undervalue contradictory evidence. Selectively remembering the horoscopes that came true can make astrology seem real, even thought it’s not.

Believers in astrology tend to be of lower intelligence and more narcissistic than non-believers. A potential “self-centered worldview” (with a shaky understanding of science) could help to explain why some people find astrology so attractive.

Ultimately astrology is inconsistent, inaccurate, and unable to explain why any of it is supposedly happening. From Cicero to modern scientists we have compelling arguments and mountains of scientific evidence showing again and again that astrology isn’t real. As professor Ivan Kelly of the University of Saskatchewan wrote, “Astrology is part of our past and has undeniable historical value, but astrologers have given no plausible reason why it should have a role in our future.”

Added bonus: one famous believer in astrology was President Ronald Reagan. Astrologer Joan Quigley (the Rasputin of the Reagan White House) regularly consulted her star charts to advise the president on a host of matters. She advised the president on when to deliver speeches, when to have presidential debates, when he should schedule his cancer surgery, and even when to land Air Force One. It was generous of the Christian Moral Majority to overlook Reagan’s pagan beliefs.

Zombies: Sadder Than You Think

The concept of Haitian zombies was used as a threat to keep slaves working.

Before Haiti was an independent country it was the French colony of Saint-Domingue where they produced sugar, coffee, cotton, and other goods. The French brought more than a million West African people to the colony as slaves, more than any other colony in the Caribbean. Slavery in Saint-Domingue was particularly brutal – most people were poorly fed, they worked 12 hour days, pregnant slaves frequently didn’t live long enough to have babies, torture was common. Life expectancy was about 3-6 years with about half of the enslaved people of Saint-Domingue dying within the first few years of arriving.

The brutal conditions of Saint-Domingue left the enslaved people hoping that, in death, their souls would return home to West Africa.

Haitian Vodou & Zombies

The Code Noir was a 1685 decree that outlined how slavery was to be conducted in the French empire. Among other things it stated that slaves were prohibited from practicing African religions and instead were forcibly baptized into Catholicism. What resulted was Haitian Vodou, a religious blend of West African beliefs (practiced in secret) given a veneer of Catholicism.

Part of this belief system was the idea that, upon dying, you would return to lan guinée (ie. Guinea, or West Africa). Their idea of heaven was to escape the slavery of Saint-Domingue and to simply go home. Feeling the allure of going home some people decided to escape slavery on their own terms. As such suicide was very common Saint-Domingue.

Initially suicide was seen as a viable way of getting to lan guinée but at some point there was a change. At some point (oral tradition is murky on when/how) suicide was prohibited and the punishment for committing suicide was that you’d be a slave forever – you’d become a zombie. The zombies of Haitian Vodou are not the Western pop culture shambling brain-eating zombies. The Haitian zombie was someone whose soul had been captured, denied entry to lan guinée, and was turned into an undead field hand with no chance of escape. Plantation slave-drivers used this to their advantage threatening slaves that if they killed themselves they would be turned into zombies to work forever under the control of a bokor/sorcerer. Unlike today what was feared was the threat of becoming a zombie, not the actual zombies themselves.

1929’s White Zombie was the first zombie movie. It used some Haitian Vodou beliefs but took significant artistic license.

White Zombie

Over time the zombie concept evolved and changed. The sensationalistic 1929 William Seabrook travel book The Magic Island introduced voodoo and zombies to mainstream Western culture. This inspired the 1932 film White Zombie, which was the first zombie movie. White Zombie stars Bela Lugosi as the villainous Murder Legendre (a bit on the nose) who’s a bokor enslaving people as zombies to be his henchmen and to work in his sugarcane mill. White Zombie used Haitian Vodou ideas but with a lot of artistic license. Later zombie stories dropped the Saint-Domingue threat of eternal slavery, then they dropped the bokor master commanding the zombies. Aside from being mindless undead creatures, the zombies of today have little resemblance to their sadder more terrifying origins.

Added info: following the Haitian revolution of 1791–1804, the 1883 Haitian Criminal Code outlaws the practice of turning someone into a zombie.

The Necronomicon

The most famous magical book of occult knowledge that sounds real, but isn’t.

Possibly the most famous book that doesn’t exist, the Necronomicon is a fictional book of dark magic invented by weird fiction / horror author H.P. Lovecraft. First mentioned in 1924’s The Hound, the Necronomicon is part of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, a dark collection of cosmic horror, ghouls, inter dimensional monsters, and unspeakable evil all set in an uncaring indifferent universe. The best interpretation of the name “necronomicon” is “book considering (or classifying) the dead”. Supposedly written in 738 CE by Abdul Alhazred (who was later eaten alive by an invisible monster in broad daylight), the Necronomicon is a dark book of forbidden knowledge and most Lovecraft characters who read it come to horrible ends.

Lovecraft felt to produce terror a story had to be “… devised with the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” As such the Necronomicon is very much treated as if it were a real book. Lovecraft enjoyed making his fictional world seem believable. For example, in a list of real books he would throw in a few real-sounding fake ones (such as the Necronomicon) – blurring the line between reality and fiction. Similarly he wrote that there were copies of the Necronomicon held by 5 world institutions: the British Museum, Harvard, Bibliothèque nationale de France, University of Buenos Aires, as well as Miskatonic University … which is a fictional school set in the equally fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts. Again, including a fictional creation in a list of real places making something fake seem real.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon can be found in a host of movies, books, comics, and more.

Crawling Chaos

Part of the appeal of the Necronomicon (beyond the spooky name) is that, like all good suspenseful horror, Lovecraft gives the reader just enough details to understand the idea of the Necronomicon but the exact contents (or even a good physical description of the book) are left open to your imagination. This vagueness also kept the door open for future expansion of ideas. Soon other authors began to include the Necronomicon in their work, and so it spread.

Today the Necronomicon has gone beyond the works of Lovecraft & his friends and has appeared in countless other projects. It’s in books, movies, cartoons, comics, video games, music, etc, each with their own take on exactly what the Necronomicon is, but it’s always a book of dark magic. It’s in the The Evil Dead series, it’s in an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, Mr. Burns mentions it at a meeting of republicans in The Simpsons, it’s the name of a German thrash metal band, it’s the name of H.R. Giger’s first collection of artwork, Michael Crichton and Stephen King have both referenced it, etc. The book of the dead lives on, spreading its tentacles across dark fiction. Cthulhu fhtagn.

Added info: The fictional Arkham Asylum in the DC Universe, where many of Batman’s foes are frequently locked away, was named after the fictional Lovecraft town of Arkham, Massachusetts.

Mr. Burns has Bob Dole read from the Necronomicon.

In a cleverly titled episode The Collect Call of Cathulhu, the Ghostbusters discuss that the Necronomicon will be on display at the New York City Public Library.

Vampires & Arithmomania

According to folklore, vampires have an obsessive compulsion to count.

The idea of an undead creature murdering and/or consuming the living is found in a host of cultures around the world. Some of these monsters are cleverly cunning while others are mindless killing machines, but the general vampiric themes are shared. Our modern idea of vampires is largely based on the 1897 Bram Stoker novel Dracula, which in turn took ideas from Romanian folklore.

The Final Countdown

One curious component of vampiric folklore in Slavic down through Greek cultures is the vampire’s obsessive compulsive need to count things. Vampires were said to have arithmomania and needed to count things and actions. People took advantage of this by scattering seeds, salt, grains of rice, or whatever else they had in tiny sizes & large numbers, on the floor of their houses. An intruding vampire would then have to count each seed/grain giving the homeowner time to escape or, if it took the vampire long enough, the sun to rise and vanquish the undead intruder. Similarly it was believed vampires would count all of the holes in a fishing net leading to nets being sometimes hung by the entrances of homes. It was also tradition to spread seeds/grain in a cemetery on the grave of a possible vampire so, upon rising from the grave, they would be kept busy through the night counting and stay away from the living.

Strangely this obsession with counting wasn’t always limited to vampires. In parts of Italy it was believe that witches had a similar affliction. On the Eve of St. John’s Day you could defend yourself from a witch by giving her a red carnation because she would have to count the petals giving you time to escape. In America some felt witches had to count the holes in sieves, leading some to hang them by their door.

I Love to Count

Ultimately this compulsion to count things is the joke behind Count von Count on Sesame Street. He’s a vampire who loves to count and teaches children numbers. Like the Slavic vampires of folklore he is driven to count anything he sees. It’s a joke hidden in plain site.

In the X-Files episode “Bad Blood” a drugged Mulder defends himself against a vampire by throwing a bag of sunflower seeds on the floor.

Abracadabra

The magic word with a magical/medical past.

The exact origin of abracadabra is unknown but what is known is, before its modern usage by stage magicians, it was used as a real magical incantation. The earliest documented instance is the 2nd century medical text Liber Medicinalis by Serenus Sammonicus. As physician to the the Roman emperor Caracalla, Sammonicus prescribed wearing an amulet with the word abracadabra written on it to cure malaria.

A 13th century version of the 2nd century medical text Liber Medicinalis by Serenus Sammonicus showing abracadabra written in triangular form.

Abracadabra’s use in healing magic may have to do with its possible etymologies. One possibility is that it comes from the Hebrew “ebrah k’dabri” or “I will create as I speak”. Or it may have come from “Abraxas” the mystical word/god from the Gnostic belief system. One language it’s not from is Aramaic (which the internet likes to say it is). Often quoted as coming from “Abra Kadabra” meaning “May the thing be destroyed”, this false Aramaic etymology became a popular internet “factoid” because J.K. Rowling used it as the basis for her “Avada Kedavra” spell in the Harry Potter series (a spell that does not cure malaria … or anything else).

Abracadabra became a popular protective magical word to cure a variety of ills. One application was to write abracadabra out 11 times but each time removing the new last letter, forming a triangle pointing down. This could be written on parchment and worn around the neck, or carved into a pendant of some kind, but the idea was the same – you used the word to summon protective spirits. As you worked your way down, abracadabra would disappear and hopefully so would your illness.

In a metal pendant or written on parchment, abracadabra in triangular form was said to have protective / healing powers.

From Real Magic to Stage “Magic”

Over the millennia, as our scientific knowledge grew, we learned more about medicine and our belief in magic diminished. In general we no longer rely on magic to cure/protect us from the unknown. Our scientific understanding of the world leaves little room for magic; in a similar way to how we no longer have sea monsters on our maps. Magic went from being a highly-regarded area of study, to fun entertaining tricks illusions with rabbits in hats, decks of cards, sleight of hand, magic wands, etc. Similarly, abracadabra went from being a real magic word to being a performative word for stage magicians.

Added info: In A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe mentions that some citizens of London, so desperate for relief from the plague in 1665, took to writing abracadabra in the triangle design on the doors of their homes. The Victorians took to the triangular abracadabra pendant as Western esotericism became popular. Today you can still find abracadabra pendants, should you want a little extra magical protection from the viruses of today.

Conspiracy Theories

Belief in conspiracy theories comes from a desire to make sense of complex or troubling events. They try to reduce the anxiety and confusion generated by things that are hard to understand and/or don’t fit with one’s world view.

The Jews of Medieval Europe were often believed to have committed a variety of nefarious plots. From being responsible for the death of Jesus, to poisoning water wells during the Black Death, to a sinister association with money (which serves as a foundation for later conspiracy theories), the Jews have been victims of conspiracy theories for thousands of years. Scapegoating marginalized peoples is common in conspiratorial thinking. Solving why conspiracy theories are so attractive to so many people is complicated.

Out of Control

Conspiracy theories are a way of making sense of events that are hard to understand. Humans dislike uncertainty, so having an explanation (however flawed) is more attractive than doubt. Uncertainty generates anxiety and stressful times only serve to increase the number of people turning to conspiracy theories as a way to alleviate their anxiety.

For example, there are numerous conspiracy theories surrounding coronavirus – it was engineered by the Chinese government, or it was engineered by Bill Gates, or it’s being spread by 5G cell phone towers. The 1889 global influenza pandemic (the “Russian flu”) was blamed on electric lights, telegraph poles, and even just electricity in general. What’s old is new again. People are afraid of a deadly virus that isn’t fully understood and so they blame a new technology that they also don’t fully understand.

Fighting the 1889 influenza pandemic, or fighting the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, for years medical professionals have also had to fight conspiracy theories.

The world is largely out of our control and major world events can remind us of how little control we have. Conspiracy theories give a feeling of control to people who feel anxious about a situation they can’t control. Many events are the complex result of a confluence of factors, and sometimes things just happen at random. Neither of these make people feel good. Complexity is not the soundbite people want. Instead it is much more attractive to believe in a simplistic fictional narrative where there are clearly defined good guys and bad guys and you can blame the bad guys for what’s happening. People like easy to understand stories rather than complicated chaos. In having a target to blame, a conspiracy theory believer can take action and have some degree of control rather than being powerless to a complicated abstract concept.

Humans are also pattern recognition machines. Unfortunately we also imagine patterns where there are none. Gamblers and sports fans see streaks and patterns where mathematically there is nothing more than normal chance. People who see non-existent patterns in normal life are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. In conspiracy theories people construct connections and see patterns where there are none in an attempt to create a story that feels better than uncertainty.

Humans are pattern recognizing machines, but sometimes we find patterns that don’t exist.

All Kinds

While people who believe in conspiracy theories come from all economic levels, genders, political affiliations, and racial backgrounds, there are a few patterns that exist. For one, people who believe in one conspiracy theory are statistically more likely to believe in additional unrelated theories. Also, belief in conspiracy theories is fueled by the anxiety of not understanding why things happen, and the people who are most likely to not understand things are the less educated.

While conspiracy theories range from the small to large, major world events are more likely to be the focus of conspiracy theories because the effects of such events are so impactful. People want big meaningful events to have equally big and meaningful explanations. This is proportionality bias. The JFK assassination is the focus of numerous conspiracy theories, but the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan is not. Even though both events are similar in nature, for most people nothing really resulted in the failed assassination of Reagan and so a simple explanation was sufficient. For the JFK assassination however, the idea that one deranged person could cause so much chaos wasn’t a big enough answer for such a big event.

On the Inside

Ultimately believing in conspiracy theories is about belief – it is not about facts. People who believe in conspiracy theories have an insular and circular logic that shields them from the real world. Facts that contradict a conspiracy theory are met with suspicion and are thought of as part of the conspiracy. People like information that feels right, not necessarily is right. Further, the absence of proof to support a conspiracy theory can be seen as proof of the conspiracy theory. It’s an echo chamber shielded from reality.

In 2016 Dr. David Grimes created a formula for how long a conspiracy could realistically stay a secret before being exposed to the public. The more people involved, and the more time that passes, the more likely that someone will say something. For example, the moon landing involved around 411,000 NASA employees. As of today it is extremely unlikely that the moon landing was a hoax because it would have meant that almost half a million people were sworn to secrecy and not a single one of them ever let anything slip for decades. Grimes’s formula demonstrates just how unlikely it is for most conspiracy theories to be true. Information wants to be free. But belief in conspiracy theories continues.

The QAnon conspiracy theory started around 2017. It has since grown into a wide-reaching network of beliefs including a pedophile ring run by celebrities & liberals who are controlling the media, secret deep-state government operations, aliens, human sacrifice, and (wouldn’t you know it) the only person who can stop it all is Donald Trump.

Unraveling

Conspiracy theories are contradictorily both known and unknown. The believer has secret knowledge but also lacks any real evidence. That a conspiracy could have been partially leaked but no real evidence is revealed is very unlikely. But believers are not deterred because conspiracy theories aren’t about facts.

In an age of unprecedented access to information some people have sought emotional refuge in baseless fictional narratives. Conspiracy theories are a symptom, but not the cause, of ignorance. It is easier to prevent a conspiracy theory from taking hold than to change someone’s mind once they believe. For those who already believe, psychologists say it is better to treat the root cause of a believer’s ignorance than to try and dissuade them from a particular conspiracy theory.

So whether it’s the suspicion of witches, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Communist red scare, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, crop circles, water fluoridation, Area 51, the Royal Family assassinated Princess Diana, 9/11 was an inside job, chemtrails, Obama wasn’t born in America, QAnon, flat earth theory, the deep state, anti-vaxxers, or that coronavirus is being spread by cell phone towers … knowledge from reliable sources and improving critical thinking skills are the best ways to reduce belief in conspiracy theories.

That Mitchell and Webb Look satirize conspiratorial thinking.

Jack-o’-Lanterns

The Jack-o’-Lantern is an iconic part of modern Halloween but its origins are in much older traditions.

Humans have been hollowing out vegetables to use as lanterns for at least 10,000 years. The Māori of New Zealand use the word “‘ue” for both “gourd” as well as “lampshade.” While the jack-o’-lantern is Irish in origin, the pumpkin is a New World vegetable. So before 1492 the Irish used other vegetables to create makeshift lanterns, and one Irishman in particular used a turnip.

Jack of the lantern

Stingy Jack, Drunk Jack, Jack of the Lantern – his name varies about as much as his story does. The common thread among the variations of this folk tale is that Jack was a jerk. A bad drunk, or a liar, or both, Jack generally made trouble for the people of old Ireland. Eventually the devil came for Jack but, clever as Jack was, he talked the devil into going for a drink before taking him to Hell. Jack convinced the devil to turn into a silver coin that he could use to pay for the drinks (again, Stingy Jack). Once in coin form Jack put the devil in his pocket beside a crucifix, torturing the devil. He released the devil on the condition that the devil go away for some period of time – some versions say 1 year, others say 10. Eventually the devil came back for Jack but, incredibly, was tricked again. This time Jack asked for one final taste of this life and tricked the devil into climbing up an apple tree to fetch an apple. Once in the tree Jack either carved a cross in the trunk, or he placed a cross at the foot of the tree, but either way he trapped the devil up in the tree. This time the devil agreed to go away forever and to never take Jack’s soul.

Eventually Jack died and was obviously refused entry into Heaven, but as per their agreement the devil refused him entry to Hell. So Jack was forced to forever wander between worlds. To light his way in this shadow world of existence, the devil gave Jack a burning coal which he placed inside a turnip as a lantern. This was the first jack-o’-lantern.

Samhain lanterns

The Halloween we know has its roots in the ancient Irish pagan festival of Samhain. A Gaelic harvest festival marking the end of the pagan year and the start of the new year, Samhain is the beginning of the dark half of the year. Festivities begin at sunset on October 31st and go through the night to November 1st. This one evening is believed to be especially supernatural where the boundary between this world and the spirit world is blurred. The ghosts of the deceased as well as the supernatural fairy folk (the aos sí) are said to temporarily cross over into our world. To appease these spirits, and for protection from any tricks they may play, the ancient Irish would light bonfires, prepare special meals, and perform sacred rituals. Making lanterns from hollowed out vegetables was also believed to help ward off evil spirits.

Eventually the Samhain lanterns and Jack’s lantern came together. Jack-o’-lanterns supersized to pumpkins as early as 1834 as Irish immigrants brought the custom to America. Today most pumpkins grown in the United States and the United Kingdom are grown solely for decoration. Despite being high in fiber as well as vitamin A, most pumpkins are never eaten. Billions of pounds of pumpkins are thrown in the trash each year after serving as seasonal decorations.

So after your jack-o’-lantern wards off the evil aos sí during Samhain, find a second use for that pumpkin as food.

“Haunted” Houses

The feelings associated with haunted houses can be explained with science.

Chemical Spirits

Fear, the chills, seeing visions that disappear, hearing things without a source – some people also have headaches, nausea, temporary paralysis, a feeling of weakness and or dizziness. These are all classic signs of a haunted house … and carbon monoxide poisoning.

As far back as 1921 there has been a connection between “haunted” houses and carbon monoxide. Dr. William Wilmer published an account of his patient, “Mrs H.”, in the American Journal of Ophthalmology. Mrs. H., her family, and her servants moved into a large mansion and over time suffered a whole host of paranormal fear-inducing experiences. After months it was discovered that the furnace in the basement was pouring fumes containing carbon monoxide into the house instead of up the chimney. Upon fixing the furnace all symptoms of the “haunting” ended. This is not an isolated incident. As recently as 2005 a woman reported seeing a ghost in her shower, but it turned out that her visions were caused by a newly installed water heater that was leaking carbon monoxide.

When carbon monoxide enters your body it attaches itself to your red blood cells preventing oxygen from attaching to the cells and being delivered to your organs. This lack of oxygen is what affects your brain into seeing & hearing things that aren’t happening (among other effects).

The Fear Frequency

Another feeling in a “haunted” house is an overall sense of dread – a fear with no known source. People say they can feel a presence, that there is something in the room with them but they can’t see it. This too can be explained but instead of an invisible gas it’s invisible sound waves.

Infrasound are sound waves just below the range of human hearing. Even though we can’t hear infrasound we can feel it. The low wave vibrations of infrasound can cause panic, fear, disorientation, and it can even vibrate your eyeballs into seeing something that isn’t there. In 1998 British engineer Vic Tandy was the first to connect infrasound and “hauntings” in his paper Ghosts in the Machine published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. The Warwick lab he was working in at the time was said to be haunted, where people would feel uncomfortable, scared, and occasionally see a shape move in the room. It turns out this was all the result of a 19 Hz infrasound wave coming from the lab’s newly installed extractor fan. They fixed the fan and the “haunting” stopped.

So before you call 555-2368 to bust your ghosts, turn to science for a more logical explanation.

The Headless Horseman

A legend of a headless horseman and the need to cross a body of water for safety isn’t unique to Washington Irving.

Washington Irving’s 1820 story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow centers around an encounter with the headless horseman (a Hessian soldier of the Revolutionary War who rises from the grave at night in search of his head, which was shot off by a cannon). After attending a harvest festival at the Van Tassel house our protagonist, Ichabod Crane, is pursued in the night by the headless horseman. Crane’s one chance of safety is to cross the Pocantico River because the headless horseman’s power ends at the boundary of the river. As Crane and his horse Gunpowder cross the bridge the horseman gives one last attack by throwing his own head at Crane (or so the story goes).

Headless Riders

Irving’s story is an American classic but it’s also part of a larger tradition of supernatural headless horsemen. The British Isles and Northern Europe have a variety of spectral headless riders but one of the most famous are the dullahans of Ireland. The dullahans are a kind of sinister magical creature. They’re dress in black, riding black horses (who are also headless in some versions), and when they stop riding it’s only to announce the name of someone who is about to die. Their decapitated head, which they carry in their hand, is said to have magical sight and speaks the name of the person to die. In their other hand they crack a whip made of a human spinal cord.

In some parts of Ireland a dullahan doesn’t ride a solitary horse but instead is the headless coachman of the Cóiste Bodhar, the death coach. The death coach rides to pick up someone who is about to die and carry them to the afterlife.

A dullahan as imagined by Ryan Van Dongen

Take Me To The River

In The Legend of Sleep Hollow Ichabod Crane’s one chance of safety is to cross the bridge and reach the other side of the river. This supernatural nighttime chase, and trying to reach the other side of the river, is similar to Robert Burns’s 1790 poem Tam o’ Shanter. In the poem, the titular Tam o’ Shanter has ended an evening of drinking at the pub and sets out into the night on his horse Meg. As he is riding along he sees an old abandoned church with light coming from inside, so he stops to take a closer look. Inside is a satanic witches’ sabbath complete with the Devil playing bagpipes.

Upon seeing a witch in a nightshirt that is just a bit too small, an intoxicated Shanter comments aloud, which is heard by the supernatural creatures. The lights go out and what follows is a daring chase where Shanter has to reach the other side of the River Doon. Like the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow, the witches won’t cross the river and so Shanter’s only chance of survival is in making it to the other side. As he gallops across the Bridge of Doon a witch pulls off Meg’s tail.

A detail from Tam o’ Shanter and the Witches, with Tam looking in from the window

Added info: Beyond being an inspiration for Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Tam o’Shanter is also the naming inspiration for the Scottish hat of the same name. The Bridge of Doon, aka the Brig o’ Doon, is the inspiration for the name of the 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon and its fictional town that appears once a century.

Tam o'Shanter inspired the name of the Scottish hat as well as the name of the 1947 Broadway musical Brigadoon. In this image is the Tam o'Shanter hat and the Brigadoon record cover.

Ghosts As Sheets

Ghosts represented as sheets come from the tradition of burial shrouds.

For thousands of years, unless you were wealthy, you weren’t buried in a coffin. Most people were buried in other ways and one of the most common was in a shroud or sheet of some kind (the original green burial). Coffins didn’t become common in Europe until the 18th century. So until then there were a variety of different kinds of shrouds but the basic idea was that the deceased was wrapped in cloth and lowered into their grave.

In this context, the idea of seeing a sheet/burial shroud walking about in the dark is terrifying. This is the origin of ghosts being portrayed as sheets – it’s from the understanding that a deceased person in their burial shroud was out of the grave and back from the dead.

Ghost Impersonators

In 19th century Britain impersonating a ghost by dressing in a sheet became both a prank fad and a real problem. At best a prankster would wear a sheet, run around at night, and generally frighten people in humorous ways. At worst it was a way to terrorize and assault women. There are even a few incidents of these “ghosts” frightening people out of their homes, leaving the house temporarily free to be burglarized (the original Scooby-Doo villains). It was also used in mid 19th century America by the Ku Klux Klan who pretended to be the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, come back to terrorize the people of the south.

This motif of ghosts being represented as moving burial shrouds/sheets found its way into entertainment by way of the theater in the late 19th century. The ghosts of the stage would be in white sheets, move silently, and generally do the spooky things we think of today. Early animated cartoons portrayed ghosts in a similar manner, most notably with Casper the Friendly Ghost (who is shroud-like). Today the motif is fairly harmless and pretty ubiquitous. You see it in the iconic Ghostbusters logo, the ghosts in Pac-Man, Boo from the Mario games, the ghost mascot of Snapchat (aka “Ghostface Chillah”), Boo Berry cereal, the ghosts of LEGOs, Halloween Tootsie Pop ghosts, etc. The burial shroud ghost continues to live on.

A collection of pop culture sheet ghosts.