Whether you're spending the night in a drafty mansion or huddled under the covers of your own bed, one thing is clear: you’re sure you’ve just seen a ghost. It may be pitch black in your bedroom, and sure, you may have just finished a particularly spooky movie, but still — there's definitely something floating in the corner of your eye. You blink your eyes, but the figure’s still there. A ripple of fear runs down your spine — and maybe it should. Experts have revealed one reason why we think we see ghosts, and it’ll make it much harder for you to rationalize the things that go bump in the night...
Ghosts, ghosts everywhere!
Ghost stories have long rippled across the country – every state in America comes with its own classic tale of the supernatural. Some say that the spirit of Kate Morgan still traipses the halls of the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, California. Meanwhile, The Stanley Hotel in Colorado has so many haunting occurrences that it gave Stephen King the idea to pen the classic horror novel The Shining.
What did they actually see?
Of course, for every potential ghost story, there’s a hypothesis devised to explain what actually happened. Because there's no way these people actually stumbled upon a real paranormal being... right? Well, experts have come up with a slew of conditions that might lead us to see or feel the presence of a supposed spirit. One entry on that list might indeed explain away a haunting, albeit in a very scary way.
Living in a haunted house
According to a 2012 poll conducted by HuffPost and YouGov, about 45 percent of people believe that ghosts can return from “the other side.” A similar survey led by Realtor.com found that nearly one-third of the population would be open to living in a haunted house. Luckily for them, plenty of properties across the country are alleged to have such spooky energy.
The Hotel Del Coronado
And it always comes down to the properties' dark histories. Take the Hotel Del Coronado, for instance. On Thanksgiving Day in 1892, Kate Morgan checked into the Hotel Del Coronado in California. She and her husband Tom had traveled from Los Angeles to the coastal city, but he didn’t accompany her to the ornate lodging. It’s believed the pair may have had an argument on the train ride there.
A couple of tricksters
Normally, Kate and Tom had no trouble traveling together – it was the other passengers who had to keep their wits about them. The husband-and-wife team would trick people into thinking they were siblings so that Kate could flirt with unsuspecting men as they played cards with Tom. Then, he’d swindle them with his sleight-of-hand games.
She was abandoned
But the Morgans’ Thanksgiving trip hustle didn’t go as planned, which allegedly left Tom angry. He ditched his wife at the Orange train station, and they never saw each other again. This left Kate to check into the Hotel Del Coronado alone, which she did on November 24. Quickly, though, she began to feel unwell, asking hotel staff for wine and even shots of spirits.
Kate's mysterious death
Four days later, Kate left the hotel and traveled to San Diego, where she purchased a pistol. Sometime between then and the next morning, she died. Hotel wireman David Cone discovered her body on the stairway descending towards the beach. A single bullet wound had pierced her right temple, and a gun lay by her side.
Did she stick around?
Yet Kate’s death still creates intrigue for multiple reasons. For one thing, people still speculate as to whether the fatal wound was self-inflicted or if someone else killed her. On top of that, Hotel Del Coronado’s guests have long reported seeing her supernatural silhouette, and have experienced strange phenomena which have been attributed to her ghostly presence over the years.
A trickster in life and death
Visitors who check into Kate’s former Hotel Del Coronado room have reportedly noticed the lights flickering and fixtures swinging. Some have allegedly watched as an enshrouded figure rips the sheets from the bed. One woman claimed to have seen the figure of Kate mirroring her every move as she unlocked the door to her room.
Kate vs. Marilyn
Some say that Kate’s ghost has targeted Hotel Del Coronado’s gift shop, too, and for a very specific reason. In 1958, Marilyn Monroe filmed Some Like It Hot at the southern California resort. After that, they began to sell Monroe-related merchandise in the gift shop – and Kate supposedly didn’t react well.
The green-eyed ghost
Kate’s ghost supposedly ripped books from their shelves and knocked over souvenir mugs – but they always landed right side up. Hotel Del Coronado historian Christine Donovan told reality TV show Weird U.S., “I think Kate might have gotten jealous when some of the attention was taken away from her.”
The famously-haunted hotel
Of course, Kate’s story endures, and guests still request to say in her former room at the Hotel Del Coronado. It’s far from the only famously haunted accommodation in America, though. Another lodging with a similar alleged energy inspired a frightening work of literature – and, later, one of the scariest films of all time.
King's horrible nightmare
In 1974, Stephen King checked into the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, with his wife, Tabitha Spruce. As he slept in his hotel room that night, a horrible nightmare played out in his subconscious. In it, he saw a possessed fire hose chasing his son down the hotel’s hallways. When he woke up, he smoked a cigarette and, by the time he had finished it, he had the outline for what would become The Shining.
The very loyal chambermaid
King’s scary experience was just a dream, though. Other guests at the Stanley Hotel reportedly dealt with worse. It’s said chambermaid Elizabeth Wilson continues to haunt the hotel, where she worked until she died at age 90. Before then, though, a horrible tragedy had almost taken her life: she nearly died when a gas leak caused an explosion in the hotel.
Just doing her job
Wilson lived on and continued working, and some say she remains at the Stanley Hotel post-mortem. Some guests claim to have seen her hovering around and slipping through closed doors. Sometimes, unmarried pairs who slept at the hotel could feel a strong force between them in bed. And solo male travelers have even found their bags packed for them and left in the hallway at the end of their stays.
Of course, more places than just hotels have experienced haunting presences within their premises. Delaware City’s Fort Delaware used to imprison captured Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Nowadays, tourists who trek through the military landmark sometimes say they see ghostly figures of these jailed men.
Cold spots and cannon blasts
On top of that, tourists will sometimes take snapshots at Fort Delaware. When these photos are developed, they sometimes seem to feature Confederate ghosts among the tourists. Other people have reported feeling cold spots on the premises or hearing cannon sounds, despite how the Civil War ended more than 150 years ago.
Several strange occurrences
Even restaurants aren't immune to paranormal happenings! Detroit’s The Whitney operates inside a mansion that once belonged to a wealthy logging merchant. He and his wife died there, and, since then, ghost hunters have reported several strange occurrences on the premises. The sounds of a piano playing, unexplained knocking on the mansion walls, and unattributed voices have echoed through the restaurant.
...does he eat the donuts?!
Meanwhile, at Albuquerque’s KiMo Theatre, tragedy struck in 1951 when a boiler exploded in the lobby. A six-year-old boy named Bobby Darnall died in the blast, but he allegedly continues to make appearances on the premises to this day. In exchange for his good behavior during shows, the theater has made it a tradition to leave out donuts for him during its performances.
Imagination vs. Reality
All these strange experiences bring us to our main question: have people actually glimpsed departed souls, or is something more logical at play? Experts have pinpointed a few conditions that might cause people to think they have witnessed paranormal activity when, in reality, it’s just a trick played by their body or the environment in which they find themselves.
Sometimes, a ghost sighting could actually mean that a person has entered a hypnagogic state in which their body remains asleep after their mind has woken up. “Waking dreams,” as experts call them, have been the rational explanation for people seeing such extraordinary beings as aliens, dead people, and, of course, ghosts.
Paralyzed by fear
Senior research fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Joe Nickell told British newspaper The Sun in 2017 how terrifying such visions could be. Nickell described, “They’ll often see the entity coming into their room standing by their bed or trying to choke them and they’re not able to move or talk or scream or do anything.”
Exhaustion plays a part
On top of that, Nickell said, the brain might produce a vision of ghosts in those who suffer from insomnia. He explained, “The mind is not at its sharpest when we’re tired or lost in thought. People are more prone to see a ghost when they are in an altered state of consciousness. Wandering through a spooky place while you’re tired is a good recipe for a ghost.”
Lack of oxygen
What’s more, even the air we breathe – or lack thereof – might also cause a supernatural vision. When the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, a person could experience hallucinations or other sensory distortions. The medical term for this condition is cerebral anoxia, and it often explains why people have unbelievable out-of-body or near-death sensations.
Watch out for mold
Brandon Alvis, founder of the American Paranormal Research Association, explained that specific substances could also cause these visions, too. He said, “We also believe that people frequenting abandoned buildings with large amounts of mold and other hazardous elements can trigger cerebral anoxia, be that [on] a small or large scale. This would lead people to believe that they are experiencing something supernatural.”
Mysterious magnetic fields
A run-in with a magnetic field could cause creepy, ghost-like sensations, too. Even the electronic devices in the average home, such as household appliances or even simple batteries, come with electromagnetic fields of their own. But such a force can create cold spots or inexplicable feelings of touch, experts say.
However, none of the above explains what happened to a woman known as Mrs. H and her family, all of whom dealt with what they perceived to be a supernatural presence. In 1912, she, her husband, and their children moved into a run-down house that had sat empty for a decade. And that was when the strange sensations started.
It's right behind you...
First, Mrs. H and her husband began to feel depressed in their new home. Their shared state of mind gave way to exhaustion and headaches, which affected both them and their children. Then, Mr. H started feeling as though a presence lurked on the property. Sometimes, he sensed it standing right behind him.
Then, ghostly figures began to appear before the family, standing in their dining room and even at the foot of their bed. Mr. H reported that one of the specters wrapped its fingers around his neck and squeezed. After that unnerving experience, the house’s new occupants reached out to the house’s former owners — who admitted that they, too, had experienced such supernatural sensations.
A sinister culprit
Luckily for the family, however, their patriarch happened to mention the strange goings-on to his brother. His sibling had just so happened to read an article about a family who went through the same fear and torment. And, as the brother recalled, those people had later realized that they weren't being haunted at all — they were being poisoned.
Seeing and feeling things
It wasn’t a ghost behind the poisoning, though. As the brother recalled, the first family had been breathing in carbon monoxide released into their home by a broken heater. The constant inhalation of the gas had left them tired and mournful, and they kept seeing and feeling ghostly presences in their home.
An old furnace
A doctor came to the family abode to corroborate what the father had learned and, lo and behold, the medic soon realized the home had an extremely old furnace in the basement. The faulty device had failed to send its dangerous fumes up the flue, instead releasing them into the family’s living spaces and slowly poisoning them.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
And, although this all happened in 1912, it’s thought that carbon monoxide poisoning remains one of the main causes of ghost sightings. As toxicologist Albert Donnay explained on the Chicago radio show This American Life, “[It] can cause all manner of hallucinations: audio, visual, feeling strange things on their skin when there was nothing there.”
The silent killer
And, much of the time, those suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning have no clue that the dangerous gas is leaking into their home. It has neither smell nor color, so many people breathe it in without knowing. As such, carbon monoxide poisoning kills more than 500 Americans annually, according to The Sun.
Those who survive an ordeal with carbon monoxide poisoning don’t always walk away scot-free, either. Long after their exposure to the gas, sufferers might experience impaired memory, altered behavior, and even reduced brain function. And that all happens after they have dealt with the perceived presence of a poltergeist.
Real and imaginary demons
The good news is that it’s possible to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning – and the ghost sightings that come with it. Nowadays, you can purchase a carbon monoxide detector that will alert you if the poisonous gas seeps into your home. Of course, in 1912, the H family didn’t have such a luxury in battling their demons.
But the H family did receive some good advice from their doctor. He suggested that they leave their old house, at least until the heating system was fixed. They listened to his advice and, when they returned, something extraordinary happened: all of the “ghosts” had disappeared.
A rational explanation
Indeed, modern-day men and women who think they have seen or felt ghosts around them might do well to bear in mind this salutary tale. Even today, carbon monoxide poisoning continues to create terrifying imagery, as can insomnia, electromagnetic fields and cerebral anoxia. The more you know, the easier it can be to explain away what appears to be paranormal activity.
Keep your eyes open...
Still, not every alleged interaction with a ghost will be a side-effect of a health issue, and only a handful of cases can be traced back to carbon monoxide poisoning. Sometimes, a brush with the supernatural could be just that – an inexplicable, otherworldly experience. And those stories keep alive the idea that the spirits of those lost linger around us long after they’re gone.