ONE of the strangest phenomena I’ve ever investigated is that of mass apparitions; that is, where people claim to have seen not one ghost, but hundreds.
Such incidents are well-attested. For example, at Havarah Park, near Ripley, in the year 1812, people witnessed a large army of soldiers marching by.
They were all dressed in white uniforms, save for a soldier at the forefront of them dressed in scarlet. The army, which marched four abreast and numbered in their hundreds, marched towards a nearby hill.
Before long an even larger army of soldiers appeared, similar to the first except that they wore darker coloured uniforms.
This army followed the first towards the hill, and witnesses said they had no perception that the two sets of soldiers were antagonistic towards each other.
At the top of the hill, both armies joined and marshalled themselves into one unit which had the shape of the letter “L”. They then marched down the other side of the hill and disappeared.
But this was not the end of the affair. Not long after the soldiers disappeared, large plumes of smoke could be seen in the distance, similar to that of artillery fire. The entire event was witnessed by numerous people, including a farmer called Anthony Jackson and a lad of 15 named Matthew Turner.
Both were well respected in the community to such an extent that not a single person doubted they were telling the truth.
But what did they see? The ghosts of some long-forgotten battle, spectrally re-enacting a march into oblivion? I don’t think so.
When the first “army” appeared, Turner is reported to have said to Jackson, “Look Anthony! What a quantity of beasts!” This tells us that at first the spectral “soldiers” were indistinct enough for one of the witnesses to mistake them for a large herd of cattle.
The older man, saw the apparition differently, and replied, “Lord bless us, they are not beasts – they are men!”
From that moment onwards, I think, the notion that the visual anomaly was an army of men as opposed to a herd of cattle was implanted in the head of the younger witness also.
The men saw something – perhaps low-lying fog, or mist – and their brains “read” the anomaly in a way that made sense.
One saw it as a herd of cattle, the other as an army of soldiers. This process, by which the brain tries to make sense of things it does not understand by making the witness think they are looking at something that is comprehensible, is called pareidolia.
Once the idea is implanted in the witnesses’ heads, it continues to reinforce itself. The more the two men thought they were looking at a spectral army, the more the anomaly looked like one.
There is no suggestion here that the two men – or the other witnesses – were lying.
They truly believed they were seeing an army of ghostly soldiers, but I suspect they were really seeing something normal as opposed to paranormal and simply misinterpreting it.
Of course, it’s impossible to be sure as we weren’t there at the time, but I think there’s enough doubt to make us cautious.
What is enlightening is that no one doubted the witnesses’ accounts, even though it is highly unlikely their friends and families understood the concept of pareidolia.
However, they did understand something then that some have lost sight of today: Just because a story may sound extraordinary that doesn’t give us the right to dismiss the testimony of eye-witnesses if we can’t swallow their interpretation of what they saw.
We may disagree with the nature of the event, but we have no automatic right to pontificate that it never happened at all.
Something strange indeed happened that Sunday evening at Havarah Park, Ripley, even if it wasn’t paranormal.
* Seen something odd? Tell Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org