Parapsychologist discusses ghosts and hauntings

By Carleen Boyer

Writer

Dr. Rich Robbins, Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences, gave a presentation entitled “Ghosts and Hauntings: Decide for Yourself,” aiming to provide an unbiased opinion of why hauntings and other phenomena occur, this past Monday, Oct. 24.

Robbins, a certified parapsychologist, began his presentation by giving a historical background  of hauntings and ghosts. According to Robbins, the word “ghosts” comes from the Old English word “gast,” which literally translates to “life force.”

“Unfortunately, most of what we know about ghosts is from sensationalized media,” Robbins said.

The presentation contained of a number of photos that captured various ghost-like apparitions and Robbins told the history and legend of each photograph.

“The old pictures with images of potential ghosts were just plain spooky.  There was nobody altering the photos back then, the technology was not there.  I don’t know what else could explain the clearly defined, ghostly images,” Matt Cohen ’12 said.

In one particular photograph, a group of airmen posed for a photograph. One of the men in the squadron, Freddy Jackson, had been killed just two days prior. When examined closely, observers could see the ghostly face of a man that looked like Freddy Jackson standing behind one of the men.

Robbins also distinguished hauntings from ghosts. A haunting, he said, is “the idea that there has been an imprint on the environment, and that such an emotional event occurred that it’s somehow recorded by the environment.” The environment then “plays back” this “recording.” Robbins gave Gettysburg, PA as an example of a haunting.

Another phenomenon associated with ghosts is known as the electronic voice phenomenon (EVP). This occurs when recordings are taken at haunted places, and in later listening, a ghostly voice appears in the sound file. To some audience members, the EVP seemed to provide proof of the existence of ghost.

“Some of the EVPs make me think that it might possibly be real. Maybe the ghosts talk quietly in these recordings because they think that some of us might understand them,” said audience member Casey Donahoe, age 12.

In order to present both sides of the story, Robbins gave naturalist explanations of hauntings. Using his background in psychology and other fields, Robbins used examples such as sleep paralysis, blind spots, motion illusions and psychological projections to explain ghost-related phenomena.

Robbins used psychological reasoning as well as things such as electromagnetic fields and infrasound that could explain such phenomena. He spoke of a team of researchers that consisted of engineers, physicists, architects and other professionals that scientifically analyzed Eastern State Penitentiary, which is considered one of the most haunted places in Philadelphia. Using a naturalist lens, the researchers explained many of the phenomena that occur there scientifically.

To conclude the presentation, Robbins gave a list of haunted places on campus, including Hunt Hall and Roberts Hall. He urged those in the audience interested in conducting ghost hunts to be as scientific as possible.

“The results are only as good as the researchers conducting the experiments,” Robbins said.

“Being able to see the science behind a lot of the theories allowed me to decide which theories of hauntings seemed plausible, and which ones didn’t,” Jeff Finegan ’14 said.
By presenting both the scientifically explained and the unexplained, Robbins encouraged those present to decide for themselves about ghosts and hauntings.

The Bucknellian’s Q&A with Dr. Robbins

Q: What initially sparked your interest in hauntings and ghosts?
A: It was my experiences growing up when I was a kid; my parents moved into a house in Bloomsburg. I think I was two or three, but lived there until I was 15. The local urban legend story was that a gentleman hanged himself in the basement and was haunting the house. We had strange things happening in the house. For instance, my brother claims to have heard a conversation in the corner of his room, and my father said he saw a figure walk behind him in the mirror. The TV would randomly change channels as we were watching. Going through high school, I thought that I wanted to be a ghost hunter. When I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I started looking around for grad programs and wrote to the big names in parapsychology. They told me to pursue a “legitimate” area, get a degree, get a job and do this on the side, so that’s what I did. I got a master’s [degree] in experimental psychology and a Ph.D. in social psychology, but as I was doing everything, I continued to keep up on books and journals in the area of parapsychology. I took a course in the APRF and they “certified” me as a parapsychologist.

Q: How has your background in psychology helped you to look at hauntings from a naturalist perspective?
A: I have a very strong background and training in experimental methods and in experimental psychology but then also social science research in general. I know about the effects that medications and drugs have on our perception. I know about things like the need for conformity, the need to belong to a group, the power of suggestion. I think all of these things combine from psychology, social psychology, physiological psychology and research methodology. It allows me to be more of a scientist looking at the phenomenon than a believer going in and looking at the phenomenon.

Q: What is your personal stance on ghosts, and does this influence your presentation?
A: I have to admit that when I first started I was a believer, and I wanted to do this to prove that there were such things as ghosts, and then I went through my education and my training and so forth and I became more agnostic. As a scientist, I want to see the proof and I want to do all of the critical thinking things like considering the source, and verifying the source and having baseline data to compare things to. I would need some definitive proof, and again rule out all natural causes to be able to say that there’s something supernatural going on. Even today, even if we were to rule out all natural causes and theories, again there might be something we don’t know and in 20 years we might have the technology to say, “Wow, we used to believe that ghosts were dead people, but really, it’s this, and now we know this.” I’ll probably be agnostic until I die and then I’ll know the truth.

Q: When did you begin doing presentations on ghosts and hauntings?
A: I did my first presentation here, and it was very basic, and every year I’ve added more stuff. I never had the opportunity at other places, and I’ve even designed a course in parapsychology. I just happened to be talking to Kari Conrad. We were talking about other things and she came in and saw my office and all my stuff and I told her about my interest in ghosts. I said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do a presentation a week before Halloween?” It’s something I’ve wanted to do but I’ve never had an opportunity to do it until I was here.

Q: What’s the best advice you can offer to those investigating ghosts and hauntings?
A: I think [the best advice I can give is to] be skeptical. Also, don’t go in believing, be scientific and consult people who know. For example, if there is a history of something going on in [a certain] house, get a legitimate history of the house. Maybe talk to a geologist or a physicist about environmental things. Look up as much information as you can on hauntings and ghosts. It’s difficult if people don’t have the scientific methodology, research and backing. Just be skeptical and be as scientific as possible. What you think may be a paranormal experience, a geologist or physicist might be able to explain.

Q: What do you hope that audience members will take from this presentation?
A: I think the main thing is, don’t be a blind follower or believer, and consider all possibilities. Don’t just presume that it’s all true and remember that TV and movies are made for ratings and to make money, which doesn’t mean they’re always the best proof. These shows make [hauntings and ghosts] seem common when in real life these events are rare. Again, just be skeptical, and don’t take for granted or simply believe what you see on TV. You can study anything as long as you study it scientifically.

 

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