In this second chapter of the mini-series on apparitions we are going to discuss one of the most common phenomena – what are technically known as “crisis apparitions”. And, when I say “common”, I really mean common. It is my own experience – and the experience of anybody involved in psychical research – that, once peole you’re talking to understand that you take paranormal experiences seriously, every other person has a story to tell. That in itself, for me, is evidence that people really have weird, inexplicable experiences. Let me briefly explain.
Critics and skeptics say that people imagine seeing ghosts. Perhaps – the say – people see something fleeting, a totally natural phenomenon, and with the help of an overactive fantasy they add details, they mix in memories from Hollywood movies and stories heard when they were children, and they create entirely fictional stories. Why? To look good, to look interesting in the eyes of others. This seemingly intelligent explanation is a travesty of reality. What really happens is that people have experiences that they themselves often find shocking. Not terrifying (as we have seen in the last article), but shocking as they rock the foundations of what our senses and common sense tell us about reality. For instance, that people – especially dead people – do not appear out of thin air. And, once they’ve had such experiences, they are extremely reluctant to tell them, because they fear being taken for idiots or visionaries. So, there certainly are no “brownie points” to be gained in telling a ghost story, and if people admit having experienced one it generally mean that they did have one.
Is this enough to prove that such experiences are real? No, at this point I am only saying that people do see ghosts, they do have such experiences, they don’t invent them. Therefore we go back to the title of this mini-series: Are ghosts real?
And, at this point, enter crisis apparitions. And, let me start with a tiny story heard from my own brother in law during Easter lunch, just a few weeks ago. Not a fully blown crisis apparition, but a perfect example of the kind of stories that emerge when people feel “safe” in telling them. This particular story dates back some 40 years. Bruno, my brother in law and a very, very passionate soccer fan, is attending a crucial match in San Siro, one of most celebrated soccer stadiums in the world, in Milan, Italy. Sixty, seventy thousand rapturous fans are cheering the teams, and the atmosphere is white hot. Halfway through the second half, Bruno has a piercing thought: “I have to go home, because dad is dead.” He leaves the stadium at once, jumps on his Honda motorcycle, rushes home. Sure enough, his father had passed away half an hour earlier, at the exact time when he had the piercing thought in San Siro stadium.
This is an interesting story, one which is already difficult to explain away as coincidence or fantasy, but it is not a real apparition – there was no ghost. Crisis apparitions, on the contrary, are fully-blown apparitions: people do see ghosts, and often talk to them. But there’s a crucial, most intriguing catch: these ghosts appear at the moment the person dies, or shortly thereafter, when the experiencer did not know the person had died. The next couple of stories, carried by CNN in 2011, are typical examples of this kind of events, which have been told in almost exactly the same terms by experiencers all throughout human history. The first story goes as follows:
Nina De Santo was about to close her New Jersey hair salon one winter’s night when she saw him standing outside the shop’s glass front door.
It was Michael. He was a soft-spoken customer who’d been going through a brutal patch in his life. His wife had divorced him after having an affair with his stepbrother, and he had lost custody of his boy and girl in the ensuing battle.
He was emotionally shattered, but De Santo had tried to help. She’d listened to his problems, given him pep talks, taken him out for drinks.
When De Santo opened the door that Saturday night, Michael was smiling.
“Nina, I can’t stay long,” he said, pausing in the doorway. “I just wanted to stop by and say thank you for everything.”
They chatted a bit more before Michael left and De Santo went home. On Sunday she received a strange call from a salon employee. Michael’s body had been found the previous morning — at least nine hours before she talked to him at her shop. He had committed suicide.
If Michael was dead, who, or what, did she talk to that night?
“It was very bizarre,” she said of the 2001 encounter. “I went through a period of disbelief. How can you tell someone that you saw this man, solid as ever, walk in and talk to you, but he’s dead?”
Today, De Santo has a name for what happened that night: “crisis apparition.” She stumbled onto the term while reading about paranormal activities after the incident. According to paranormal investigators, a crisis apparition is the spirit of a recently deceased person who visits someone they had a close emotional connection with, usually to say goodbye.
And here is the second story:
Simma Lieberman said she’s experienced that ominous feeling and has never forgotten it — though it took place more than 40 years ago.
Today, Lieberman is a workplace diversity consultant based in Albany, California. In the late 1960s though, she was a young woman in love.
Her boyfriend, Johnny, was a mellow hippie “who loved everybody,” a guy so nice that friends called him a pushover, she said. She loved Johnny, and they purchased an apartment together and decided to marry.
Then one night, while Lieberman was at her mother’s home in the Bronx, the phone rang and she answered. Johnny was on the line, sounding rushed and far away. Static crackled.
“I just want you to know that I love you, and I’ll never be mean to anybody again,” he said.
There was more static, and then the line went dead. Lieberman was left with just a dial tone.
She tried to call him back to no avail. When she awoke the next morning, an unsettled feeling came over her. She said it’s hard to put into words, but she could no longer feel Johnny’s presence.
Then she found out why.
“Several hours later, I got a call from his mother that he had been murdered the night before,” she said.
Johnny was shot in the head as he sat in a car that night. Lieberman thinks Johnny somehow contacted her after his death — a crisis apparition reaching out not through a vision or a whiff of perfume, but across telephone lines.
She’s sorted through the alternatives over the years. Could he have called before or during his murder? Lieberman doesn’t think so.
This was the era before cell phones. She said the murderer wasn’t likely to let him use a pay phone, and he couldn’t have called after he was shot because he died instantly.
Only years later, when she read an article about other static-filled calls people claimed to have received from beyond the grave, did it make sense, she said.
Johnny was calling to say goodbye.
“The whole thing was so bizarre,” she said. “I could never understand it.”
Are the thousands upon thousands of such stories that are available in the psychical research literature enough to establish that ghosts are real? Perhaps not, or not entirely. Far-fetched explanations such as “Super Psi” (psychical powers much superior to the ones demonstrated in the laboratory) may explain some of the features of crisis apparitions. What is certain, however, is that the commonplace explanations that see apparitions as mere fantasises or hallucinations are blown right out of the water.