I am pleased to post this guest blog from my friend and colleague Dr. Andrew Nichols. I know you will find it a fascinating article!
The Phantom Zone: Altered States and Paranormal Experiences
FAUST: “Come, I think hell’s a fable.” MEPHISTOPHELES: “Aye, think so still, till experience change thy mind.”
Christopher Marlowe – Doctor Faustus
As a parapsychologist I am often asked if I have ever been really frightened during an investigation. I have certainly spent many nights in dark cellars, dusty attics and deserted European castles, but I can honestly say that I have rarely experienced anything which I found particularly scary. I have personally witnessed apparitions and poltergeist activity on several occasions, and although these experiences were startling and fascinating, I never regarded them as personally threatening. Most haunting investigations are rather tedious, and involve hours and hours of waiting for something…anything, to happen. However, some years ago I suffered a particularly terrifying sleep-related experience following my investigation of a poltergeist disturbance.
The case involved the phenomena typically associated with such events; unexplained movement of objects, percussive sounds emanating from the walls and ceiling of the home, and (somewhat unusual) sightings of amorphous, shadowy apparitions. The ‘epicenter’ of the phenomena appeared to be an 11 year-old girl with emotional problems. The family believed their home was haunted by a “demon.” In view of subsequent events, I am forced to admit that the family’s simple religious explanation may be closer to the truth than my ‘scientific’ one.
I have investigated a number of such cases during my four decades of psychic research, and – like most academically-oriented parapsychologists – had always tended to attribute such disturbances to unconscious projection of paranormal energies from a human agent, described in parapsychological jargon as recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (RSPK). My experience with this case led me to seriously reconsider the ‘spirit hypothesis’ as a possible explanation for some haunting and poltergeist cases, and to re-evaluate certain cases of alleged ‘demonic possession’ as well.
I had gone to bed along with my wife after a day of investigation at the home of the poltergeist-infested family. Some time in the early morning I ‘awakened’ to find myself in the midst of an out-of-body experience. I found myself floating face down about four feet above my physical body. I could clearly see the details of my sleeping body below, lying on my back, and my wife sleeping on her side facing away from me. I had a couple of OBEs previously, but none as vivid as this one. I was delighted, and wanted to maintain this wonderful sensation as long as possible. As I hovered there in mid-air, I was contemplating an attempt at ‘astral-travel’ to discover if I could project my etheric body to some distant location. At that moment, the experience turned into a terrifying struggle for my sanity, and – corny as it sounds – my soul.
Unexpectedly, the eyes of my sleeping body below me opened. The eyes (my eyes!) were completely black. No pupils, no iris, no sclera. Just pools of blackness staring up at me. I knew instantly that those eyes could seeme, although I was also certain that my floating astral body would have been invisible to anyone else standing nearby. I knew with absolute certainty that something had taken possession of my body, and that the thing – whatever it was – could see me perfectly well. My body below grinned at me. It seemed to be enjoying my terror, and I was instantly aware of two things: first, I knew I had to get back into my body very quickly, or I would be forever displaced by this entity which, I had absolutely no doubt, was evil. Somehow (telepathy?) I also knew that this thing intended to harm my wife.
I began to struggle to re-enter my body, and the feeling was like pushing against an invisible barrier, similar to the feeling one gets when trying to force two magnets of opposing polarity together. This struggle to reincorporate myself was the last thing I remembered until I suddenly found myself back in my physical body. Except I was no longer lying supine in bed, but was crouching over my wife with my hands around her throat as she fought to break my grip, screaming at me to “wake up!”
After we both regained some degree of composure, I explained to her what I had experienced, and she described her version of the story. She was awakened by the sounds of me groaning and muttering what sounded like a foreign language which she did not recognize. She assumed I was having a nightmare, and when she tried to awaken me, I attacked her, my eyes wide open and apparently growling at her like a rabid dog. She said that the voice which emanated from my body was deep and gravelly, totally unlike my own, and the expression on my face she described as “leering and hateful.” My attack only lasted for a few seconds before I came to myself again. Now, my wife is no shrinking violet. She has for many years suffered a husband who spends his time ‘chasing spooks’, but this was really too much! She informed me sternly that if my episode had lasted for a few more moments, she would have treated me to a broken nose. To this day I am amazed that I didn’t land in jail, find myself hauled into divorce court, or at least spend the rest of my married life sleeping on the couch. However, my long-suffering spouse seemed to take the experience in stride, although I assure you she slept with one eye open for some time afterwards. Thank God there have been no recurrences of this condition of ‘possession.’
So, was I actually ‘possessed’ by some dark spirit? I am a long way from being convinced, although I confess I can’t dismiss the possibility either. I can’t state with scientific certainty that this experience was anything other than a particularly vivid and horrific nightmare. I have no witnesses other than my wife, and no evidence that this was anything other than subjective. Certainly my psychologist colleagues would dismiss the incident as a dream – a variation of the ‘night-terror’ syndrome, possibly induced by anxiety associated with my involvement with the poltergeist case. Psychoanalysts would probably also speculate that repressed hostility toward my wife was at the root of the experience. I cannot offer any evidence to contradict these explanations, but the experience was so terrifying, so real, that I can’t help wondering if the Spiritualists’ interpretation of possession is closer to the truth. Their conclusions are drawn from centuries of practical experience, unlike the armchair savants of academia and other self-appointed arbiters of reality.
My purpose in relating this personal anecdote is to illustrate several important points about the nature of paranormal experiences. First, such experiences are inherently transformative.In my case, my tendency to ascribe most such experience to purely psychological factors has significantly decreased. Although I still believe that many paranormal experiences have conventional explanations, I am far more prepared to accept seemingly spiritistic phenomena at face value, even if the bulk of the evidence is subjective eyewitness testimony. I have never been particularly religious, and I can’t say that this experience has converted me to a regular church attendee. However, I am far less skeptical than I once was, and I believe my ability to assist my clients who are experiencing paranormal occurrences has been enhanced by my ordeal. Whether my case constitutes actual spirit possession is questionable. But I have no doubt that my experiencewas identical to that of possession as reported throughout history.
The second important point illustrated by my experience is the crucial role played by altered states of consciousness in paranormal-type experiences. I was asleep prior to the onset of my experience, which naturally would lead the skeptics to attribute this event to dream-imagery. Western science – grounded in philosophical materialism – regards dreaming as a type of hallucinatory experience (i.e. false sensory perceptions); a type of drama orchestrated by the subconscious mind during sleep. However, mystical and occult traditions have always asserted that dreaming is a gateway to alternate realities, and a means by which discarnate spirits communicate with humans. To most scientists this stance is regarded as superstitious nonsense, but there is persuasive evidence from parapsychology to support the claim that dreams and related states are more than just the product of brain physiology.
For decades, the best evidence for psi (ESP) from the laboratories of experimental parapsychologists has been obtained through the use of a mild sensory-deprivation technique known as Ganzfeld. This method induces a state of consciousness similar to hypnagogic states experienced at the onset of sleep, or hypnopompic states experienced while awakening, a type of ‘waking dream.’ This suggests that such altered states may be conducive to actual paranormal experiences – by allowing our minds to tap into alternate realities, perhaps even the ‘astral plane’ of occult tradition.
Another line of evidence comes from case studies of reported paranormal experiences. It is evident that the bulk of paranormal experiences occur during nocturnal dreaming or similar states such as the twilight zone of hypnagogia described above. Even psychic phenomena which occur with the percipient wide awake often seem to be associated with a state of reverie (daydreaming), when the conscious mind is occupied with some habitual and repetitive task, such as washing dishes or folding clothes. All of us experience such altered states fairly regularly, including the type of dissociation known as ‘highway hypnosis’ experienced while driving an automobile.
These facts emphasize the importance of carefully considering the role of altered states of consciousness in paranormal experiences of all kinds. Some paranormal investigators feel that this undermines the case for such experiences being ‘real’ rather than imaginary. This is not the case. It is quite possible for paranormal experiences to be subjective and genuinely anomalous. My approach to psychic phenomena these days is from the perspective of ‘humanistic parapsychology’, which acknowledges the meaning and value of subjective experiences, and is less reliant on scientific standards of evidence demanded by mainstream scientific method and laboratory-based experimental parapsychologists. Unlike laboratory experiments, the human psyche is not subject to mathematical laws.
Dr. Andrew Nichols is Director of the American Institute of Parapsychology, and has been a professor of psychology for many years. He holds a doctorate degree in clinical psychology and is the author, co-author or editor of more than fifty research papers, popular articles and books on paranormal topics, including Ghost Detective: Adventures of a Parapsychologist (2004, Cosmic Pantheon Press, Harper’s Ferry, WV), Haunted Houses(2006, Capstone Press, Mankato, MN), and Ghosts, Spirits, & Hauntings (2011, New Page Books, Pompton Plains, NJ). Andrew has investigated more than 600 cases of reported haunted houses and poltergeists, and in 1999 was co-recipient of the only academic grant ever awarded to study hauntings, awarded by the Psychological Institute of the University of Freiburg, Germany. Andrew currently lives in Gainesville Florida, where he maintains a private practice in parapsychology, providing counseling for individuals experiencing psychic or paranormal occurrences.
NOTE: There is an entire chapter devoted to Dr. Nichols and his work in John Kachuba’s book, Ghosthunters: On the Trail of Mediums, Dowsers, Spirit Seekers and Other Investigators of America’s Paranormal World.