Here Is What You Need Know About Seeing Ghosts And Other Haunting Experiences

Psychologists Jim Houran and Brian Laythe describe what constitutes Haunted People Syndrome.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 17, 2022

A new study published in Spirituality in Clinical Practice explains that an individual experiencing hauntings and ghostly experiences may have 'Haunted People Syndrome.'

I recently spoke to psychologist Brian Laythe to understand the symptoms and precursors of this syndrome. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Could you give a brief overview of your particular field of psychology and Haunted People Syndrome?

Jim and I with other colleagues have just finished a five-year research program which culminated in twenty peer-reviewed research papers and is synthesized in our recent book "Ghosted."

Our goal was to foster adversarial collaboration between diverse backgrounds of both belief and research expertise to foster model building and a better understanding of hauntings and related phenomena.

Haunted People Syndrome (HPS) was one of the primary theories built out of our research. We propose five general predictions for HPS, namely:

  1. Both transliminality and paranormal beliefs mediate anomalous experiences
  2. "Dis-ease" (distress and unease) facilitates anomalous experiences
  3. Anomalous experiences tend to be contagious to involved parties of a haunting, fostering anomalous experiences that spread to others
  4. The meaning-making or narrative created around haunting experiences is influenced by personal backgrounds and beliefs
  5. Anxiety and distress regarding hauntings is a function of the nature, closeness, and spontaneity of anomalous experiences

HPS recognizes that much of the reports of hauntings and the people involved in them can be successfully modeled by treating the events of hauntings as "symptoms" purely in a labeling sense.

Just like symptoms of the flu, the severity of the diagnosis is a function of the degree and rarity of symptoms and their length.

We apply the exact same model to haunting experience, only we treat ongoing events related to hauntings as symptoms that stack and create greater degrees of "dis-ease" (distress and unease) as a function of the severity and number of haunting symptoms reported.

This sentence in your research stuck out to me: "There are many psychosocial and clinical facets to ghostly perceptions, so we take these anomalous experiences seriously but not necessarily at face value." Could you elaborate on what you meant by this statement?

Jim and I have found that dealing with hauntings requires approaching the field from an interactionist framework.

As such, we are simply recognizing the abundantly evident fact that the events that occur in our lives (paranormal or otherwise) are heavily shaped by our beliefs, culture, and previous experience, particularly when we are trying to make sense of these experiences.

Thus, the statement "not at face value" is the recognition that haunting phenomena are complex intertwined phenomena involving personality, ideology, culture, and previous experience towards making sense of an event or series of events deemed "haunting."

Could you walk us through the concept of transliminality and why it is an essential part of parapsychology? Does transliminality play a role outside the context of hauntings? (Let's say altered states of consciousness or out-of-body experiences)

Transliminality (i.e. thin boundary structure) is a trait originally developed by Michael Thalbourne.

It essentially represents a thinner boundary between the conscious self and unconscious self, as well as the outside environment. As such, information from any of these three sources tends to pass more easily with a person high in transliminality.

The state and trait nature of transliminality have documented relationships with creativity, imagination, fantasy traits, disassociation, and temporal lobe lability.

In parapsychology research, it has been previously associated with extra-sensory perception, and, due to its relationship with fantasy proneness and dissociation, out-of-body experiences, and visionary-like experiences in general.

According to your research, an individual's psychological set and what influences it can determine the occurrence and nature of a ghostly experience. Could you take us through all the influences that prime a person for a haunt-type episode?

In our research program, we quickly found that hauntings were almost always a mixture of the right people within the right environment.

This was a recognition from our HPS components above that a person's beliefs or ideology, as well as the ideologies of involved social groups, play a heavy role in the interpretation of the core experiences involved in haunting phenomena.

One of the more interesting findings that we have come across is that the core experiences associated with a haunting have also been found in accounts of imaginary friends and gang stalking.

The core phenomena experienced stay the same, but the interpretation of these events (as either haunting, spooky imaginary friends, or a gang stalking account) is a function of the person's worldview and belief system.

As such, we are currently of the mindset that there is a core set of perceived phenomena in high strangeness accounts that are generally interpreted by the person and invested friends and witnesses into a meaning-making account of the phenomena as a haunting, or related case of "high strangeness."

But, if we're looking for strong predictors, it is transliminality and new age paranormal beliefs that are the strongest predictors of haunting experience, while standard personality traits and personality components are not predictive when you control for the interrelationships among these variables.

What advice would you have for an individual who has recently gone through a haunt-type experience but is struggling to come to terms with it?

In these sorts of experiences, knowing that your experience is actually not uncommon, and has some predictable components is often helpful.

First off, people may encourage the individual to overly dramatize a spiritual interpretation, or conversely, ridicule the individual for their "crazy" experiences. This interpretation process can be negative, as some experients of this phenomenon can develop beliefs about the occurrences being a punishment or their fault.

However, our HP-S model and research suggest that having just one paranormal experience is unlikely. In the cases we have seen, long histories of a variety of subtle and sometimes overt paranormal experiences are common.

Further, the phenomena experienced tend to be both subjective (internal to the person, e.g., sensed presences, or somatic touches or marks) and objective (external to the person, e.g., objects moving, or apparitions caught by technology).

Obviously, this is the most controversial characteristic of HP-S, but we would note that our model remains predictive regardless of the reader's personal preference for mainstream or paranormal explanations.

In other words, proving the paranormality of an object moving due to psychokinesis is a separate debate and process from our HPS model.

If there was one thing you could change about peoples' perception of ghostly episodes or if there was one thing you would want everyone to know about the same, what would it be?

Ghostly episodes, shamanic experiences, and general high strangeness have been well documented throughout history, and over 100 years of modern empirical psychology show they are not going away despite changes to our society's zeitgeist.

As such, these experiences are common, and people who experience them should have them treated seriously, as the HPS model suggests the liminal nature of the experiences can be shocking, and sometimes anxiety-provoking to the individual.

As such, denial of these people's experiences is not beneficial to their well-being.

Clinical professionals certainly do not tell people with anxiety or depression that their experiences are not "real" or valid. At the very least, HPS is a valid cross-cultural commonly experienced phenomenon and should be treated as such.

How do you hope your research might influence intervention efforts?

It is our hope that clinicians treating patients with various disorders can recognize haunting experiences as exceptional experiences related to a bevy of socio-cultural factors as opposed to overt signs of psychosis, which frankly, has almost always been a poor skeptical explanation.

Haunting experience rates vastly outnumber the combined percentage of all disorders that facilitate delusion or hallucination combined.

Further, the cognitive and affective symptomology of psychotic disorders are notably absent from most HPS cases, yet the reporting by a patient that they have seen an apparition is sometimes wrongly interpreted as psychosis despite a lack of general symptomology.

Treating clinicians, by working with the patients' existing worldview and experience, have ample opportunity to examine these exceptional events for underlying meaning and relevance to the client's functionality and well-being as a whole.

Where do you see research on this topic going in the future?

We hope that over time, academics will drop the philosophical debates in favor of further research and predictive models that can be tested and compared so we can further understand and predict the haunting experience.

For our part, we hope to start exploring transliminality in the context of religious and ritual practitioners, who regularly and purposely invoke these types of phenomena.

We strongly suspect these groups have developed significant mental processes and methods for facilitating their transliminality towards spiritual/experiential goals.

Further, we hope to test and further confirm the HP-S model, both in case studies, as well as collaborating with clinical psychologists to address how to include and incorporate haunting and religious experiences into meaningful and beneficial therapeutic experiences.