The Ghost Story in a Scientific Journal
There's definitely a time and a place for ghost stories -- around a campfire, for instance.
Tell the tale in a hushed voice barely audible over the crackling flames. Hold a flashlight to your chin to give your mouth and face a demonic glow. Pause often. Let your audience be absorbed into the story while they're being seduced by the hypnotic flames. And unless you're a talented improviser, plan out your story in advance.
You can craft your own if you're up to the challenge, but it's far easier to tell one that's tried and true, and preferably peer-reviewed! Lucky for you, such a tale exists.
The harrowing account appeared in a 1921 publication of the American Journal of Ophthalmology, penned by one William Wilmer. The tale was related to him by one of his patients, who he described only as "Mrs. H".
Mrs. H's haunting began as many do, when she and her family moved into a run-down old house. The year was 1912, and though electricity was available, the decrepit abode was lit only by the dim glow of gas lights.
Trouble started quickly.
"Mr. H and I had not been in the house more than a couple of days when we felt very depressed. The house was overpoweringly quiet."
But eerie sounds soon punctuated the silence.
"One morning, I heard footsteps in the room over my head. I hurried up the stairs. To my surprise, the room was empty. I passed into the next and then into all the rooms on that floor, and then to the floor above to find that I was the only person in that part of the house. Sometimes after I've gone to bed, the noises from the store room are tremendous, as if furniture was being piled against the door, as if china was being moved about, and occasionally a long and fearful sigh or wail."
Mrs. H was not the only person to hear the noises. Everyone in the house did, her husband, her children, and the servants.
Things got worse. She and her family succumbed to crushing fatigue, their bodies wracked by pain and headaches. Plants mysteriously withered. Ghostly apparitions appeared. Inhabitants awoke, paralyzed, to see figures calmly sitting at the foots of their beds, simply staring at them. The phantoms also haunted their waking days.
"On one occasion, in the middle of the morning, as I passed from the drawing room into the dining room, I was surprised to see at the further end of the drawing room, coming towards me, a strange woman, dark haired and dressed in black. As I walked steadily on into the dining room to meet her, she disappeared."
After soldiering through the ordeal for a number of months, everyone was at their wit's end. Abandoning the house grew increasingly enticing. Then, Mr. H's brother came to visit. After hearing their complaints, he offered a possible solution. Call a doctor, he suggested, your furnace might be poisoning you.
The next day, the family's physician arrived and confirmed his suspicions.
"[The doctor] found the furnace in very bad condition, the combustion being imperfect, the fumes, instead of going up the chimney, were pouring gasses of carbon monoxide into our rooms. He advised us not to let the children sleep in the house another night. If they did, he said we might find in the morning that some of them would never wake again."
The family and servants quickly vacated the house and saw all of their symptoms vanish. When the furnace was repaired, they all returned. The noises and ghosts did not.
"No question about it. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause all manner of hallucinations-- audio, visual, feeling strange things on their skin when there was nothing there," Johns Hopkins toxicologist Albert Donnay explained on This American Life. "People often report that they hear noises in their ears, bells ringing, rushing sounds."
If you'd rather not tell this story today, that's understandable. An evidence-based ghost story can be a bit of a buzzkill. It does, however, offer a happy -- and entirely explicable -- ending!