One of the most influential--and scientific--ghost hunters is Gertrude Schmeidler, a professor at City College in New York City. Professor Schmeidler began her career as a psychologist. However, she began to develop an interest in the field of extra-sensory perception (ESP), which in the broadest sense includes the subject of ghosts.
By her account, the wildest paranormal experience she ever had involved a parapsychology class she was teaching. One day, Dr. Michael Grosso visited her class and brought along a piece from a helicopter that had crashed in South America. The accident had killed the pilot.
Without telling the class anything else, Dr. Grosso passed the part from student to student and asked each one to relate any impressions they received from the part. Perhaps the students would have ESP regarding the helicopter crash.
When it was Schmeidler's turn, she suddenly thought of high snowy fields in the Andes. She couldn't imagine, however, that a helicopter would fly in an atmosphere so thin. When everyone had had a turn, Grosso confirmed that Schmeidler and some of her students had been right; the helicopter had crashed in the snowy Andes.
Then, without warning, a bell in the classroom building began to ring at irregular intervals. It wasn't the beginning or end of the class, nor was it a fire drill or alarm, since those bells had a regular sound to them. Schmeidler, who had taught in the building for many years, had never heard the bell ring that way before. Since it never rang that way again and since no one could explain the odd occurrence that day, she wondered if the irregular ringing had anything to do with the helicopter part? Could the pilot's ghost have been trying to convey a message?
Such a possibility would be difficult to prove.
But that has not stopped Professor Schmeidler from investigating hauntings in very precise and scientific ways. Her first published investigation concerned a haunted house.
“I think my house is haunted,” a friend told Schmeidler on March 24, 1965. “Are you interested?”
“Tell me more,” Schmeidler said.
So her friend, who has remained nameless, told Schmeidler that for the last five years she had lived in a sixty-year-old house. During the previous two and a half years, she had become aware of a presence in the house. She had not seen anything, but she felt someone's spirit. She had been skeptical at first, since she didn't see--only sensed--a ghost. But the more it occurred, the more she was able to define the presence. He--for she believed it was male--was perhaps forty-five years old and meek, gentle, and somewhat anxious. She had determined that the ghost wasn't related to any particular time of day, but it was related to only certain parts of the house. And the feeling she experienced when it was nearby frightened her. In fact, on a recent afternoon, when she had been playing the piano while alone in the house, she had become so frightened by the ghost that she ran outside to escape.
As the haunting continued, her daughter also experienced the same feeling. Once, she thought she had seen a vague black form on the stairs.
"I didn't tell you about this earlier,” the friend told Schmeidler, “because I thought I was imagining it.”
Even when her daughter began to confirm her mother's experiences, she didn't tell Schmeidler because “we pick up things from each other.”
But two experiences convinced her to tell Schmeidler about the haunting. First, her son, who supposedly knew nothing about the haunting, began to have the same feeling, and he was not known for being intuitive. Then, a visiting friend, who was told about the haunting, said, “You're just making it up! It's ridiculous!” She paused a moment, before adding, “But if you do feel something, I know where it is." Then she pinpointed the precise spot where the mother, the daughter, and the son had sensed the presence most often. This was enough to send the woman to her friend Gertrude Schmeidler.
Professor Schmeidler, who had never investigated a haunting before, agreed to look into the matter. However, by the beginning of April 1965, Schmeidler's haunted friend told her that she had spoken to the ghost.
“I told him not to come back anymore. The children and I are sure that the ghost is gone now.”
Schmeidler was still interested in conducting the experiment. Perhaps her friend was wrong about the ghost’s disappearance. Even if she wasn't, the ghost's previous presence might be detectable. In order to prepare her experiment, Schmeidler completed a series of three steps.
First, she had a set of accurate plans made for each floor of the house: the basement, as well as the first, second, and third floors. The mother, daughter, and son were each given a copy of the plans and asked to mark as precisely as possible each place where they had felt the ghost's presence. Afterwards, a researcher who was unfamiliar with the haunting or the purpose of the floor plans was asked to divide the floor plans into half-inch square blocks. In all, there were 326 blocks when he finished. The blocked floor plans would be used in Schmeidler's experiment.
Second Schmeidler developed a questionnaire based on' the personality of the ghost. She included adjectives that the family had used in their descriptions of the ghost as well as adjectives that the family had not used. Finally, Schmeidler decided to investigate the haunting by using sensitives; that is, people who are more sensitive to paranormal happenings.
She located nine sensitives, seven women and two men who thought they would be able to detect the presence of a ghost. Schmeidler believed that if the sensitives experienced the same feelings' as the family regarding the ghost's location and personality, such a presence might be real.
Between April 11 and May 25, the sensitives visited the house one at a time, always accompanied by a researcher. The family was never at home, and Schmeidler herself checked to make sure that lights were turned on and appropriate doors opened. She also made sure that the family had not left any messages, such as “The ghost was seen here.”
At the beginning of each tour of the house, a sensitive was handed a set of floor plans and instructed:
Mark each place where you feel the haunting. Make your marks very, very specific . . . . When you come out the back door with your marked floor plans, go to the garage. There you will be given the adjective checklist and lots of blank paper for you to add whatever you choose.
In this way, each sensitive walked through the house, marked the floor plan, and completed the adjective checklist.
What did they find?
Ghost location: Two of the sensitives were able to detect a ghostly presence in almost the exact locations as the family had reported.
Ghost personality: Four sensitives were successful in matching the family's description of the ghost. Their descriptions included such adjectives as: calm! gentle, peaceable, quiet, mature, obliging, patient, trusting, and submissive. Interestingly enough, the two successful sensitives on the ghost’s location were not successful in determining the ghost's personality.
Was the house haunted? Schmeidler couldn't say from her experiment. She worried that the sensitives had developed certain feelings based on the furnishings and the lighting in the house. She was also concerned that the sensitives, rather than detecting the presence of a ghost, might have simply been reading the minds of the haunted family--even though they were absent from the house. Schmeidler also wondered, if the house was haunted, who was haunting it. Although she tried to determine if a dead person was somehow related to the house or its building site, she was unable to do so. Since no one had actually seen a ghost or found a message from one, there were no clues to its identity.
One sensitive, Mrs. Eileen J. Garrett, reported after her house tour, “There is no ghost.” She went on to say that Schmeidler's friend “might be producing the shadows” herself. Schmeidler, too, wondered whether her friend had somehow created the ghost in her mind.
Pioneering Ghost Hunter Gertrude Schmeidler was unable to answer this question, but she paved the way for future scientific investigations into the nature and substance of hauntings.
Copyright © James M. Deem. Originally published in Ghost Hunters (Avon, 1992). All rights reserved.