The Strange Tale of an X-Rated Haunting

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Cambridge-based parapsychologist AD Cornell conducted a set of experiments designed to study how seeing a ghost affects people. Cornell believed in ghosts, but that was tangential to the experiments. The first experiment had Cornell himself dressing as a ghost with a sheet pulled over his head, appearing and disappearing behind mounds in a cow pasture, while his assistants observed passers-by. The second experiment was in an urban cemetery. He even had assistants standing around ready to respond in case of emergency.

Such precautions proved unnecessary. Between pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists, Cornell estimated that approximately 142 people would have been able to witness the apparition, but only four gave clear indications of having seen it. Under questioning, it emerged that none of them believed they had witnessed anything remotely paranormal. The first person described the apparition as “a man dressed as a woman, who surely must be mad” another assumed that it was “an art student walking about in a blanket”. Two witnesses, when questioned together, did realise that the Experimental Apparition was probably intended to simulate a paranormal event, but went on to note that the effect was spoiled because “we could see his legs and feet and knew it was a man dressed in some white garment”.

Did Cornell give up because he obviously did not make a good ghost? No, he conducted the third experiment in a movie theater showing an X-rated film. He figured people would pay more attention there, especially if he stepped right in front of the screen (and also there would be no children to be traumatized). You can guess how that stunt turned out. Nevertheless, Cornell published his findings, which indirectly led to new experiments by other, more rational scientists to study human attention and perception. Read about Cornell’s ghostly shenanigans at BBC Future.   
(Image credit: Flickr user Lynn Friedman)

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