So you’ve had an encounter with a ghost. All of a sudden the air turned cold; a light flickered; a shadowy figure floated in a dark corner; when you asked if you were in the presence of a spirit, the Ouija planchette in your shaking hand dragged itself toward “YES.” Naysayers be damned, you know you’ve been contacted by the other side. What do you do?
In 2019, a YouGov survey found that 45 percent of adult Americans believe in ghosts. And whether or not you count yourself in that camp, people do have stories about spooky experiences they simply cannot explain. According to that same YouGov survey, about 36 percent of Americans say they’ve actually felt the presence of a spirit or ghost.
Take, for instance, Kristen Lee, a reporter in New York and a former staffer at Jalopnik. She had a stark encounter with something creepy about a decade ago, while visiting her then-boyfriend Anthony at his family’s home. The house had been in the family for a couple of generations, and Anthony and his siblings had long felt uneasy about the second floor.
“They couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but they always felt something weird upstairs, like a presence,” she says. “They always told stories about the second floor, like how they would hear noises.”
One night, when Lee was hanging out in Anthony’s room on that infamous second floor, something strange happened. “We were sitting on the floor watching TV, and without warning, he just stopped talking,” she says. “He held up his arm, and all the hairs on his arm were standing straight up. The next second, we hear typing coming from down the hallway, like those analog keyboards with that spacebar noise that doesn’t quite sound like anything else.” There was a room with a computer and a keyboard right across from Anthony’s, but no one else was home.
When Lee and Anthony told Anthony’s dad about it the next day, he was unimpressed. “He was like, ‘Oh, you heard the typing? I hear that all the time,’” she says.
Lee has no explanation for the typing. “No house noise I’ve ever heard ever sounds like a keyboard typing,” she says. “I was fucking terrified.”
If you have a similar encounter—or an even spookier one—here’s what to do.
Know that it’s probably not a ghost
It’s true that we don’t have definitive proof that ghosts don’t exist, and far be it from me to dissuade a true believer. But there are some scientific explanations for paranormal encounters. People don’t necessarily see ghosts as much as they sense a ghostly presence, and researchers say that has more to do with a neurological response than anything Stephen King might cook up.
For instance, as Gizmodo reported in 2015, research suggests humans think they’re experiencing a ghost encounter when they come into contact with certain super low sound frequencies—even if the the sound isn’t audible, the vibrations could create feelings of fear or dread. Some researchers have also found that unusual electromagnetic fields can trick a person’s brain into believing they’re being haunted. And, as NBC reported in 2009, sleep paralysis is a common ghost fake-out; sometimes, before or after a REM cycle, the wires in your brain get crossed and create weird hallucinations or “waking dreams,” which sometimes manifest in the form of ghosts or intruders.
One of the most compelling theories about why we sometimes sense something spooky is “feeling of presence,” or FoP, as defined in 2014 by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. The research team, led by neuroscientist Olaf Blanke, linked sensing an outside presence to lesions or damage on three brain regions—the temporoparietal junction, the insula, and the frontoparietal cortex. Those three regions play a role in integrating outside sensory perception with a bodily reaction, and if all three have some damage, it can create a mind-body mismatch that could make you feel like you’re experiencing a ghostly presence.
Check your space for toxins like mold or excess carbon monoxide
If you’re convinced your house is haunted, it’s possible the culprit is a little more of this earth. Dr. Shane Rogers at Clarkson University has been researching whether certain toxic molds can cause hallucinations that make people think they’re experiencing a haunting.
“Places that are ‘haunted’ are often places where you might find mold,” Clarkson says. “There are many different kinds of molds that are out there, and some of those molds release toxic compounds that can be problematic in people. Those compounds can cause sensitivity reactions or mycotic infections or reactions within immune systems of people, and there are different outcomes related to that that might be related to [hauntings].”
Like IRL ghost hunters, Clarkson and his team have been going to different places where people have been reporting hauntings and taking samples of air quality and doing an investigation of potential mold around basements or other places where they might find it.
“We still have more work to do, but what we’ve been finding is that indeed, there seems to be a relationship between the presence of mold and places that are reported haunted, versus places that are not,” he says. Clarkson hasn’t figured out which molds specifically are causing reported hauntings, but “it certainly seems that there might be a relationship there,” he says.
Another potential culprit? Carbon monoxide poisoning. Century-old research has found a connection between excess carbon monoxide and hallucinations that make people believe they’re experiencing paranormal activity. Needless to say, carbon-monoxide poisoning is extremely serious—so if you’re experiencing the unexplainable, make sure your carbon monoxide detector is in good working order.
Again, there’s no evidence against the existence of ghosts, and if you are absolutely certain your spooky experience wasn’t manufactured via toxic substances or neurological damage, you’ll have to stop thinking scientifically and start thinking spiritually. The most important thing to do if you see or sense a ghost is not to panic. Just as there’s no proof that ghosts exist, there’s also no proof that ghosts can cause you harm.
Emily Grote, a Brooklyn-based psychic and medium, says she’s not a fan of ghostly encounters, despite her career in contacting the other side. “I had a glut of them a few years back that coincided with a very stressful time in my life,” Grote writes in an email, adding that “extreme stress (both good and bad) can cause a thinning of the veil between where we are and where they are.”
If you see or experience a ghost, Grote writes, just chill. “Panic just makes you feel bad and they’re not here to do you harm (most of the time). They (generally speaking) are human or spritely energies that want to play—to be seen—to create mischief. They aren’t so different from you and me.”
According to Grote, ghosts—like roommates or (most) romantic partners—respond well to boundaries. Grote suggests setting boundaries using tools like telepathic communication or prayer. Sage, a common supernatural cleansing tool, can work too, as can a spray made with essential oil and distilled water.
“The point is not the tool, the point is your intention—via prayer that you speak when you are actually doing the saging,” Grote writes. “You end your saging prayer with an ask of the spirit to Go Toward the Light. Bear in mind, this usually needs to be done repeatedly.”
Emily Gaudette, a writer and podcaster in New York who says she’s certain she’s being haunted by the ghost of her former neighbor, says she found spiritual cleaning helpful in setting boundaries with the spirit.
“Ever since she died, and while our new neighbors have been gutting her apartment and deeply remodeling, I’ve seen all kinds of weird things,” she writes, describing flickering lights, frequent nightmares, and her endlessly barking dog. “The vibe got so clouded and dark in our house that I cleaned everything and bought some crystals (selenite for each doorway and window, obsidian all along the one wall).”
What really helped, though, was setting verbal boundaries. “While home alone, I told the flickering lamp out loud, ‘You are welcome to move through this house as long as you do not hurt us or our dog. If you become a problem, I’ll have to ask you to leave,’” Gaudette writes. “Me finally speaking to her was the thing that helped. Our dog sleeps through the night, and I haven’t had those nightmares.”
Grote notes that while setting boundaries with a ghost can feel scary, “know that you have the upper hand—because you have human form.”
Tell the ghost to leave you the hell alone
Sometimes, it’s important to be direct. Kotaku Editor-at-Large Riley MacLeod has had several potential paranormal encounters, including one while living on a former WW2 rescue boat.
“I lived in a little room below deck, and every night around the same time I would hear this splashing, scrabbling sound outside that would get closer and closer and then disappear right about where it reached my bed,” he writes. “Eventually I mentioned it to my boat mates, and they were like ‘Oh yeah, we hear it too, at the same time and in the same place every night!’”
MacLeod tried to write it off the weird sound with a more rational explanation—a duck, a rat, a “very punctual monster,” but it didn’t make sense to him that he and his boat mates would repeatedly hear the same sound at the same time night after night. Eventually, they came to the conclusion they were dealing with a WW2 boat ghost, and they decided to tell it to go away.
“A bunch of us got together and lit some candles and we were like, ‘Hey ghost, we’re sorry you had a bad encounter with this boat, but it’s not a rescue boat anymore. We own it now and we can’t help you, and well, you’re dead, so you should stop trying to get on this boat,’” he writes. After that, the sounds stopped.
Make peace with the ghost and move on
When all else fails, the best advice comes courtesy of one Samantha Jones, from Sex and the City: “Confront the ghost, acknowledge its presence, release it.” Does it work? Who can say. But Samantha’s never really been wrong.