Sunday, October 31, 2010

How the scientists stole Hallowe'en

Here's some classic X-Files dialogue from an episode called "How the ghosts stole Christmas":

Mulder: [alarmed at a noise] Shhh! What was that?
Scully: [irritably rational] These are tricks that the mind plays. They are ingrained clich├ęs from a thousand different horror films. When we hear a sound, we get a chill, we, we- we see a shadow and we allow ourselves to imagine something that an otherwise rational person would discount out of hand.
[Mulder just continues up the dark staircase. Frustrated, Scully pulls out her flashlight and follows him]
Scully: [continuing to rationalize nervously] The whole, Mulder- the whole idea of a benevolent entity fits perfectly with what I'm saying, that, I mean, that a spirit would materialize or return for no other purpose than to show itself is silly and ridiculous. I mean, what it really shows is how silly and ridiculous we have become in believing such things. I mean that... that we can ignore all natural laws about the corporeal body, that... that we witness these spirits clad in their own, shabby outfits, with the same old haircuts and hairstyles, never aging, never- never in search for more comfortable surroundings... it actually ends up saying more about the living than it does about the dead.
Mulder: [only half-listening] Mmm-huh.
Scully: [clearly rattling on in fear and nervousness] And Mulder, it doesn't take an advanced degree in Psychology to understand the unconscious yearnings that these imaginings satisfy. You know, the... the longing for immortality, the hope that there is something beyond this mortal coil, that we might never be long without our loved-ones... I mean, these are powerful, powerful desires. I mean, they're the very essence of what makes us human... the very essence of Christmas, actually.
[a door nearby suddenly opens on its own with a loud creak]
Mulder: [breathless; whispering] Tell me you're not afraid.
Scully: [breathless also, but stringent] All right, I'm afraid. But it's an irrational fear.

And now, just in time for Hallowe'en, a scientist has proven just how irrational that fear is*...

...or has he?

Well, the explanation satisfies me... partially.

Certain sound frequencies have been shown to induce feelings of "unexplainable dread, chills and depression". And now it's also been shown that these vibrations can be "powerful enough to resonate with the average human eyeball, causing "smeared" vision. This is a phenomenon where the eye vibrates just enough to register something static -- say, the frame of your glasses or a speck of dust -- as large, moving shapes".

After solving the problem of a "haunted" lab by removing a vibrating fan that was emitting such infrasound waves, the researcher in question "went on to test this explanation for ghostly apparitions in the cellar of a nearby "haunted" abbey. According to the locals, as soon as someone would step into the cellar they would freeze up, see strange gray ghosts and have to leave because of nausea. Vic discovered that the shape of the cellar, the hallway leading to it as well as nearby factories all contributed in making the haunted cellar a perfect resonating chamber. The vibrations created were exactly 18.9Hz and were most powerful at the threshold of the cellar, where most people became sick and terrified".

So, an explanation for "haunted" buildings where many people have independently experienced the same feelings of dread and sightings of unexplained entities. Right?

Well, like I said, I'm only partially satisfied. The most interesting and compelling ghost stories I've heard have involved people seeing things much more specific than grey blobs. And this explanation doesn't cover the famous Roman soldier ghosts from my home town of York. As I've said before, my own (extremely dubious) interpretation is that we sometimes see glimpses of things that happened in the same place at a different point in time, due to flaws in the space-time continuum or some such. But that doesn't stop me from getting spooked when someone's telling stories around a campfire...

(And while we're on the subject, the viral video of a "time traveller" using a "cell phone" in a Charlie Chaplin video from 1928 is NOT an example of this phenomenon.  Who the fuck would the person be talking to, and how the hell would they get reception without towers and satellites?! This explanation seems much more likely.

Hilarious comments from my Facebook friends when I posted the "time travel" video:

"We were looking at this last night, and think that the phone call went like this: "I did it! I went from 2002 to 1928! I can prove it - I'm in a Chaplin film *right now* and it's all over YouTube in 2010!"


"1) shes not holding anything in her hand
2) The bloke has far too much time on his hands
3) all of caths points (the same ones I made above)
4) Does nobody think they had mad old women in 1928 who went around muttering to themselves? hell, I look that half the time."

Anyway, the infrasound explanation of hauntings and ghosts is perfect. It should thoroughly satisfy those who wish to remain sceptical, while leaving enough gaps for those who wish to remain entertainingly spooked at Hallowe'en.

Happy Hallowe'en from Pied Piper and the Disco Bunny! May it be as spooky (or as rational) as you were hoping!

(Better shot of my costume, with rats on my shoulder and hat. I had more running down my leg, too. I also discovered that black cherry vodka mixed with coke tastes like Dr. Pepper. Mmmmmmm).


*H/T GrrlScientist, who tweeted the link


  1. X-files .... sigh ... how I miss that.

  2. Yeah, me too. I recently finished watching all the episodes from the beginning, in order, and when it was good it was really, really good! I always liked the comedy episodes much better than the conspiracy ones, and the Christmas ghosts one was a good example.

    Too bad the last movie was so blah.

  3. oh, that last movie, did I even see that? Can't remember ...
    It is still totally on my to-do-in-life-list to watch all X-files and all Friends in a couple of 90-nostalgia weeks.

    I also meant to say that I like the low frequency theory as it explains earthquake terror :)

  4. I don't think you need any explanations for earthquake terror other than "the earth is quaking"!

    The latest movie was the one with Billy Connolly as the psychic ex-priest. I love love love Billy Connolly, and I love the X-Files, so I was super excited. But it kinda sucked.

  5. I'm such a wimp, I got the spooks just from reading about a frequency that resonates my eyeballs. Aiiiiii, abomination! Not of the lord! Squee, squee.

  6. LOL! Are you one of those people who can't bear to wear contact lenses, by any chance? :)

  7. Me, my husband and two of his friends went and watched the Blair Witch Project when it came out. None of us were particularly scared by it, but we ended up talking about weird, unexplained or creepy shit (ex. finding a dead body on a trail) that happened to us. One of the other guys called later that night in tears because he was so scared to be home by himself. He never lived that down.

  8. LOL! I bet!

    I saw the Blair Witch Project on opening night too. It had been so over-hyped, the cinema was packed to the gills and roasting hot (air conditioning is not usually needed in an unfashionable cinema in Glasgow), and I just didn't find it scary at all. Mildly creepy, yes, but not scary.

    I watched it on TV a few years later. When I was at home alone, a week after my first Canadian camping trip.

    It scared the living daylights out of me.

    BTW, my sister is called Claire. Whenever she says anything nasty about someone , I like to go "ooooh! Claire bitch project!".


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