Many people claim to have experienced a ghost and some of these individuals have presented photographic evidence to support their claim. In addition, certain buildings have developed a reputation for being haunted, with witnesses repeatedly reporting unusual phenomena (such as feeling cold, hearing strange noises, or seeing an apparition) in specific areas of the building. I have carried out four projects that have examined potential scientific explanations for these phenomena.

Hampton Court Palace (1999)

Hampton Court Palace has been home to many British monarchs over the past 500 years and is now a popular tourist attraction. Like many historic buildings in Britain, it also has a considerable reputation for being haunted, with many witnesses claiming to have experienced the ghost of Catherine Howard. Fifteen months after her marriage to King Henry VIII in 1540, Catherine Howard was found guilty of adultery and sentenced to death. Legend suggests that upon hearing the news, Catherine Howard ran to the King to plead for her life, but was dragged back along a section of the Palace now known as ‘The Haunted Gallery’.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the Gallery had become associated with various unusual experiences, including sightings of a ‘woman in white’ and reports of inexplicable screams. I was contacted by Palace staff in early 2000 because several visitors had reported experiencing ‘ghostly’ phenomena in the Gallery, including a strong sense of presence, a feeling of dizziness and sudden changes in temperature.

I put together a team of researchers to explore possible rational explanations for these experiences. This investigation generated a great deal of media attention, in part, because it was the first time that researchers had examined allegedly paranormal phenomena at a British Royal palace.

The team comprised of myself, Caroline Watt and Paul Stevens (then both from Edinburgh University), and Emma Greening and Ciarán O’Keeffe (then both from the University of Hertfordshire).

The study involved over 600 members of the public walking through the Gallery and noting down their location whenever they experienced any unusual phenomena. At night, these locations were monitored using a range of equipment, including thermal imagers and geomagnetic sensors.

The locations in which people consistently experienced unusual sensations were consistent with historic reports of the haunting. These experiences did not seem to be the result of people’s previous knowledge about these locations, although people who believed in the existence of ghosts reported more experiences than disbelievers. Some of these experiences were caused by natural phenomena, such as subtle draughts and changes in air temperatures, and there was tentative evidence linking the locations in which participants reported their experiences with certain types of geomagnetic activity.

This work is reported in:

Wiseman, R., Watt, C., Greening, E., Stevens, P. & O’Keeffe, C. (2002). An investigation into the alleged haunting of Hampton Court Palace: Psychological variables and magnetic fields. Journal of Parapsychology, 66(4), 387-408. Download here.

Wiseman, R., Watt, C., Stevens, P., Greening, E. & O’Keeffe, C. (2003). An investigation into alleged ‘hauntings’. The British Journal of Psychology, 94, 195-211. Download here.

The Edinburgh Vaults (2001)

Edinburgh’s South Bridge was constructed in the late eighteenth century and consists of several huge stone arches supporting a wide road. A series of ‘vaults’ were built into the Bridge’s arches to house workshops, storage areas and accommodation for the poor. Unfortunately, ineffective water-proofing and overcrowding meant that by the mid-nineteenth century the vaults had degenerated into a disease-ridden slum. The area was abandoned during the late nineteenth century, but rediscovered and opened for public tours in 1997.

During these tours, many people have experienced many unusual phenomena, including, for example, a strong sense of presence, several apparitions and ‘ghostly’ footsteps. As a result, the vaults have acquired an international reputation for being one of the most haunted parts of Edinburgh. In 2001, I conducted an investigation into the vaults as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival. The experiment was carried out by the same team of researchers that conducted the study at Hampton Court Palace.

Some of the underground vaults have a reputation for being haunted and others do not. Participants who were unaware of the reputation of the vaults were asked to spend time in one of the vaults and report any unusual phenomena that they experienced.

Results revealed that participants consistently reported unusual sensations in the vaults that had a reputation for being haunted. People who believed in ghosts reported more experiences than disbelievers, and the number of experiences reported in each vault was related to certain environmental factors, such as air movement and the size of the vault.

This work is reported in:

Wiseman, R., Watt, C., Stevens, P., Greening, E. & O’Keeffe, C. (2003). An investigation into alleged ‘hauntings’. The British Journal of Psychology, 94, 195-211. Download here.

Houran, J. , Wiseman, R. & Thalboume, M. (2002). Perceptual-personality characteristics associated with naturalistic haunt experiences. European Journal of Parapsychology, 17, 17-44. Download here.

Infrasonic (2003)
Some researchers have suggested that infrasound (very low frequency sound waves below about 20Hz) might be present in certain allegedly haunted locations and be responsible for people feeling uneasy.

In 2003, I teamed up with engineer and performer Sarah Angliss to test some of these ideas in an unusual mass participation experiment. The research team also included Richard Lord and Dan Simmons (then National Physical Laboratory), Ciarán O’Keeffe (then Liverpool Hope University) and musician ‘GéNIA’.

Our study took place as part of a specially staged concert of contemporary music performed by GéNIA at the Purcell Room, London. During the concert, the auditorium was twice flooded with infrasound. At various points the audience were asked to describe any unusual experiences that had whilst listening to the music.

The results suggested that the infrasound boosted the number of strange experiences reported among the audience, even among those who were unaware of its presence. Unusual reports included a sense of coldness, anxiety and shivers down the spine.

SciGhostsThe Science of Ghosts (2009)
This study also formed part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, and involved the public submitting ‘ghostly’ photographs for analysis. The best of these images were then posted on the project website, and visitors were invited to comment, and to vote on whether they believed the photographs contained a genuine ghost.

This project attracted international media attention, resulting in hundreds of photographs, millions of hits on the website and over 250,000 votes cast.

The majority of the images showed mysterious-looking orbs, mists, figures and faces. Orbs can be caused by the camera flash reflecting off tiny dust particles, mists can result from condensed breath in front of the lens, long exposures can create ghostly figures, and apparent faces are often people seeing patterns in random shapes.

The ‘winning’ photograph (as in the one that most people believed contained a genuine ghost) was taken at Tantallon Castle in Scotland. The photographer was unaware of anyone in the opening, and says there were no manikins or staff in period costume at the venue. Skeptics argue that the figure might be an unnoticed visitor, an odd reflection of light against the wall, or digital manipulation.

We undertook a site visit to Tantallon Castle and discovered that the public can access the area occupied by the figure.  We were able to recreate a similar image (see below), and so it’s possible that the original photograph simply depicts a rather unusually dressed member of the public.

Further details about the project are available at


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