The Strange Story of the Cornell Ghost Experiments

Throughout the very strange history of paranormal research there have been many leaps, as well as stumbles. After all, this is uncharted territory we are entering here, trying to get to the bottom of the phenomena that skirts out past the boundaries of understanding and eluding conventional science as we know it. Yet there have been no shortage of people who have tried to shed light on our understanding of such things, utilizing all sorts of methods and techniques, and one of these is a very prominent researcher of all things weird, who at one point thought that a good experiment would be to intentionally haunt a cow pasture, graveyard, and X-rated movie showing with artificial ghosts.

Throughout the latter part of the 20th century, one of the big names in the field of paranormal research was the British parapsychologist and intrepid explorer of all things bizarre, Anthony Donald Cornell. He was a prominent member and eventual president of the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research (CUSPR), where he was involved with studying and investigating all manner of realms of the paranormal and the strange, including hauntings, poltergeists, mediums, telepathy, and clairvoyance, traveling the world and writing numerous books and countless articles on these matters, as well as appearing in TV documentaries and shows. Cornell is well known in the paranormal field as being a pioneer in approaching his investigations with in a clinical way, with a scientific attitude and the aim of collecting hard evidence through the use of all sorts of equipment specifically designed for the purpose, including monitoring and detection equipment, special cameras, advanced computing and audio-visual capture devices, and various other paraphernalia and gadgets. He revolutionized the field with techniques still used by ghost hunters today, and came up with myriad strange experiments using all manner of fancy equipment, but perhaps his weirdest experiment was one he pulled off with nothing more than some like-minded individuals and a white sheet.

In 1960, Cornell and his team embarked on an experiment to test out not whether ghosts existed or not, but how people would psychologically react to seeing one. To do this, Cornell sought to artificially induce a paranormal experience and evaluate how that affected the witness, to this end coming up with a series of experiments on “apparitional observation and findings.” The idea was that they would simulate a ghostly encounter and then see if the witnesses considered it a true paranormal phenomenon, something more mundane, or just ignored it. The way he approached it was rather novel, as rather than relying on advanced special effects techniques or anything like that, Cornell planned to do it the old fashioned way, by dressing in a white sheet and traipsing about trying to scare the crap out of people.

The first experiment of this kind was carried out at a cow pasture near King’s College, where he and his team set up a “ghost walk” near a pedestrian path. Cornell got dressed in his sheet to pose as what he called the “experimental apparition,” and then proceeded to pop out at a moment when he might be seen by passerby, move to a mound, and then duck behind it to “disappear,” only to reappear again to move to the next mound to vanish again. On some occasions he would walk about in the sheet and then covertly shed it to become yet another pedestrian walking along, and all of this was carefully observed by his assistants. They would be rather disappointed, as it seems as if most people either weren’t paying attention or just simply ignored the “apparition,” with Cornell noting “although it was estimated that some 70-80 persons were in a position to observe the apparition, not one was seen to give it a second glance or to react in any way.” Cornell was flabbergasted that so many people could so thoroughly miss seeing the “ghost” and not react at all, although some cows apparently followed him around. He assumed that perhaps a cow pasture was just not where most people were expecting to see a ghost in the first place, so for his next experiment he chose a different venue.

For their next try, they set up shop in a creepy cemetery at St Peter’s Church, which was far more fitting for a traditional ghostly encounter. They chose the location partly because of its spooky ambiance, and partly because many people passed it on the adjacent public road, giving them plenty of opportunities to frighten those passing by. Cornell got dressed up in his sheet and then went about lurking in the dim cemetery and occasionally moaning whenever someone passed, but again the results left a lot to be desired. Once again, most of the approximately 142 people who were estimated to have been in a position to see the experimental apparition simply kept on walking, driving, or biking by, with the others definitely not reacting as if they’d seen a ghost. Several people thought it was a crazy person running around in a sheet (not far from the truth, perhaps), while others assumed it was some art project. Not one person thought it was an actual ghost, with many witnesses pointing out how they could clearly see Cornell’s legs and feet poking out. It was far from the results Cornell had hoped for, so he changed the venue once again for what is perhaps the most well-known of this particular series of experiments.

Although the reasons may be forever lost to time, after a cow pasture and a graveyard, Cornell this time chose to haunt a movie theater that just happens to have been playing an X-rated film at the time, reportedly because he did not want to unintentionally scare any kids. Despite his two previous failures, Cornell was still sticking with the simple white sheet approach, and this time he wanted to be sure that the apparition was truly seen and impossible to ignore. To this end he planned to actually step out and walk right across the stage in front of the screen in the full light of the projector. During the beginning of the movie he walked out in his sheet and slowly walked right across the screen while bathed in light and then walked right on back, spending enough time in front of the audience’s rapt attention that everyone must have seen him. What would their reaction be? Would they think they actually saw a ghost?

Like the two previous experiments, this one too turned out to be a failure. When surveyed afterward it was found that a good portion, around half, of the audience had not registered anything unusual at all, completely unaware that the ghost had even passed. The ones who did see it did not attribute it to the paranormal, although some of the other ideas were just as bizarre, such as one witness who thought they had just seen a polar bear and another described seeing a woman in a coat, neither of which looks remotely like a man stumbling around in a white sheet. Still others thought the projector had malfunctioned or even that it was part of the show, but not one of them reported that they had seen a ghost. Once again, the experiment had failed to provide any useful observations. So what was Cornell’s takeaway from all of this? Why, that ghosts were realer than he had ever thought before. Wait, what?

Cornell reasoned that because none of the people in his experiment had noticed anything paranormal, or had even noticed anything at all, it was because real ghost sightings had a little extra something to them. To him it couldn’t possibly have been that he was a guy in a white sheet, but rather because real apparitions possessed a certain “psi factor” or “telepathic stimulation” as he called it, some indefinable energy which humans could sense and which marked genuine hauntings. He came to the conclusion that this was why no one had reacted to his experimental apparition, and so those who had truly reported seeing a ghost must have been truly affected by a real entity. Cornell would not only take this to be evidence that ghost reports must be the real thing, but also that such sightings may even be underreported. That’s quite a conclusion to come to from just a few experiments messing around trying to spook people in a white sheet and having nothing happen at all.

Interestingly, this all lines up well with a psychological phenomenon that wouldn’t really come into discourse until years later. It involves a human cognitive quirk referred to as “inattentional blindness.” It more or less equates to not seeing the trees for the leaves, so to speak, and is not so much a problem of not paying attention as it is to focusing on one thing so much that we become blind to details in the background. In recent years this has been widely discussed, and there are many videos that show off this odd effect. In one famous video a group of people are tossing a ball around and a gorilla walks by in the background in plain view, yet with many who watch the video not even realizing it. You can try it out yourself here, although it works better when the viewer is not aware of what is going on beforehand. It is amazing how many people actually don’t see it on a cold viewing. There is another video in which a newscaster actually has his clothes change during the course of the broadcast and most people don’t even notice, as well as countless others like this. They all explore the same thing. Viewers are so absorbed with watching one thing that they don’t pay attention to the surrounding details, creating a sort of functional blindness. So if someone is, say, walking along concentrating on where they are going, or focused on an X-rated film, this phenomenon would explain why many did not notice the “ghost.” So the experiment was a success in that it was an early documentation and real world demonstration of this effect decades before it would actually enter psychological discourse, when in 1998 psychologists Irving Rock and Arian Mack “discovered” it.

Regardless of Cornell’s rather questionable conclusions reached on this particular series of experiments, over the course of his long career in the paranormal he would change his opinions on many things. For instance, he would gradually come to the conclusion that most ghostly phenomena did not exist outside of the witness’ mind, being rather misidentification, imagination, hoaxes, pranks, or unconscious or deliberate fraud and trickery. By the time he retired from active paranormal investigations after suffering a stroke in 2004, Cornell believed that only a handful of the hundreds of hauntings and ghost cases he had pursued defied explanation or were possibly paranormal. In the end he became more of a debunker in later years, although he did believe there was something strange going on, and he did firmly believe that psychokinesis, telepathy, and other psychic powers are real. Indeed, he became a strong proponent and originator of the idea that much of the more difficult to explain paranormal phenomena such as poltergeist hauntings were actually caused by psychic energy projected by people, most of the time unaware that they are even doing it.

Sadly, Cornell passed away in 2010, but his legacy has lived on, and many of his groundbreaking methods and theories have managed to persist right up into the present day. There is no doubt that Anthony Donald Cornell made his indelible mark upon the world of paranormal research, so it is rather entertaining and curious to know that he carried out such a weird series of experiments. A man in a white sheet posing as a ghost in a cow pasture and X-rated theater? It certainly goes down as a rather odd, but honest attempt to get to the answers we all seek.

This article first appeared at MU.

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