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Tricks of the Eye: Imagination, Hallucinations and Ghost Sightings

Sometimes, your eyes do play tricks on you.


How many times have you been sitting still (say in a parked car) and upon seeing something move beside you, (say another vehicle), scared yourself into thinking that it was your car that was actually moving? This is an optical illusion called Induced Motion, and it happens far too often to me.


How many times have you seen faces on inanimate objects or interpreted a dark shadow to be the likeness of someone watching you (or worse waiting for you)? This is a brain phenomenon called Pareidolia. According to a 2022 journal study, people who experience pareidolia may also likely experience paranormal activity



Hike in Santa Elena Cloud Forest, Monteverde, Costa Rica
Hike in Santa Elena Cloud Forest, Monteverde, Costa Rica


Why is it that we are drawn to the very things that frighten us?

Why do we enjoy being scared?


One 2021 Harvard Business Review article suggests that we crave the stimuli, want to satisfy our curiosity about the unknown (the dark side) and learn what to do (or not to do) if the unthinkable happened, while understanding that it's being achieved through a safe medium (movies, books, museums, etc.).


Part of the Salem Witch Trial Monument, Salem Massachusetts, USA
Part of the Salem Witch Trial Monument, Salem Massachusetts, USA

Some are drawn to historical dark events, reliving the truths from the past, like the Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts from 1692-1693. Thousands flock to Salem (especially close to Halloween) to tour the museums and visit the monuments and graves of those who tragically perished (or were involved).


Others want the adrenaline rush and burst of energy associated with physically putting themselves in dangerous situations, like swimming with huge whale sharks, or snorkelling with sharks (at night).


 

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Snorkelling with Whale Sharks in Cancun, Mexico
Snorkelling with Whale Sharks in Cancun, Mexico

We would not consider ourselves adrenaline junkies, but we have enjoyed the rush of ziplining between mountain tops, trekking through rainforests at night , crawling inside the tight shafts of a pyramid, and a multitude of wild animal encounters.


Regardless of the stimuli, we can enjoy being scared when we feel safe to do so.



Ziplining into the clouds, Monteverde, Costa Rica
Ziplining into the clouds, Monteverde, Costa Rica

Why do our minds consider the worst case scenario?

Why is it easier to believe the shadow is a serial killer, not a clothes pile?


According to some, there is an ancient part of our brains that is prone to catastrophizing, as a mechanism to help anticipate that saber-tooth tiger lurking around the corner (or modern day Cujo). Personally, I feel the information we've gathered through the enjoyment of "safe" horror, has provided our brains with a plethora of terrifying possibilities when staring into that dark corner.


We use this while we travel as well, opting not to travel down that dark unknown alleyway, but sometimes you find yourself in situations that do not go quite as planned. On our first road trip, we booked what we thought was a quaint farmhouse B&B, but surprised when the farm was closed, the house for sale and room littered with scary-looking dolls.


Maybe things could have been reasonably explained, but our fight or flight kicked in and we wanted to be gone as soon as possible. After a sleepless night (and possible food poisoning), we hoped our dark fears about the food were wrong and scurried away.



Creepy Doll, Farmhouse B&B, PEI, Canada
Creepy Doll, Farmhouse B&B, PEI, Canada

Why are some scary situations not so scary when they actually happen?

Is the idea of a ghost sighting more frightening than the reality?


A 2019 article in Science News, explores the reasoning behind why some claim to see/hear the presence of something supernatural, claiming that most scientific experiments only prove we can't trust what we see or hear. One possible explanation for those who claim to have seen something supernatural, is Sleep Paralysis, which is ultimately dreaming while you are awake.


The article also claims that many interpret common hallucinations, such as feeling your phone vibrate or hearing your name, as experience when it is merely perception, or rather your brain filling in the gaps.



Leamaneh Castle, County Clare, Ireland - one of the most haunted castles
Leamaneh Castle, County Clare, Ireland - one of the most haunted castles

We have always found the idea of ghosts, fascinating and exhilaratingly frightening, participating in Ghost Walks in Toronto, Jack the Ripper walks in London, and visiting places known to be haunted in Ireland.


Personally, I hold two incidents in my memory where I saw someone who may not have been there. Perhaps it was a ghost sighting, or perhaps they could be explained through Sleep Paralysis or an ancient biological drive to protect myself from the unknown, but I can say that in both incidents, I did not feel fear.


Recently, a friend of the family recounted a similar incident when visiting a B&B in Nova Scotia, waking in the middle of the night to see a figure by his bed. He too, claimed to not be afraid.



The tight burial shaft of Khufu, Giza, Egypt
The tight burial shaft of Khufu, Giza, Egypt

Could it be on some level, our brains felt safe, either with the subconscious knowledge that what we were seeing was merely a trick of the eye, or with the perception that the supernatural presence meant us no harm? Either way, the experience of visiting a haunted space or watching a scary movie proved to be much more frightening than the "reality" of a spiritual presence.


If you, like many, seek out the macabre and relish in being terrified, enjoy it safely (with the knowledge that it may be all a figment of your imagination). Or is it?

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