Weird Wednesdays: The science of haunted houses

In this Sept. 27, 2013, file photo, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is shown. The penitentiary took in its first inmate in 1829, closed in 1971 and reopened as a museum in 1994. The site is mentioned in the book "Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places." (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Haunted houses, or locations that are otherwise considered bewitched, unhallowed, possessed or infested with spirits/demons/malevolent forces, are nothing new to human culture. In the Victorian age, the rise of spiritualism served as a launching pad for so-called “haunted” mansions.

Even in the supposed Age of Reason, there are still shows about ghost hunters running around with shaky camera and “ectometers” harassing the spectres of creepy old houses and blurry iPhone photos of purported “spirits” that look suspiciously like people in white sheets with an Instagram filter over them.

What are the symptoms of a haunting? The things that go bump in the night, of course, as well as strange visions, cold spots, odd noises as as knocks or creaks, objects moving on their own, feelings of dread, lights flickering and/or walls dripping green slime.

While all of these things can be attributed to ghosts, there’s a perfectly scientific explanation for all of them—I know, boring, right? Read on!

To start, you’ll notice that a lot of haunted locations have the same characteristics: They’re old creepy houses that often haven’t been inhabited for some time or have gone through a string of owners.

While you could argue that these locations are simply more ghost-friendly—I mean, what ghost would want to haunt a Big Y or a newly-built condo?—It also means that these places have creaky floors, or a foundation that’s still settling. Recent construction, roadwork, age, small earthquakes and even underground streams can all contribute to a house making odd noises during the night.

Which brings us to our next point—why do haunted houses instill such a sense of fear and dread in even the hardiest of ghostbusters? The answer—vibrations!

Sound itself is caused by vibrations in the air. A ukulele string will vibrate with a high frequency when strummed. A bass-baritone’s voice will vibrate at a lower frequency. While animals such as dogs, cats and elephants can hear at very low or high frequencies, we humans are pretty tone-deaf compared to them.  Frequencies that are too low or high can’t be detected by the human ear.

While we might not hear them, low frequencies can still affect us. There is a certain frequency that, while undetectable by us, can cause feelings of nausea, unexplained dread, dizziness and a tendency to see greyish objects out of the corner of your eye. Sound familiar?

This “Fear frequency” has been found to be emitted by old pipes or vibrating sheet metal within the walls of old houses—hot spots for “hauntings.” Dogs are actually able to hear the vibrations, which often causes them to freak out, a behavior typically blamed on paranormal activity.

Vibrations of a different kind are also responsible for another “ghostly” phenomenon—moving objects. In 2013, workers at the Manchester Museum in England reported an ancient Egyptian statue that turned itself around every night, despite nobody having touched the statue.

The statue, however, wasn’t cursed—unless you consider a wobbly base a curse. Turns out, vibrations from a nearby highway were causing the statue to turn and move in its case, similar to how a rag put on top of a washing machine will fall off during the agitation cycle. Mystery solved!

While a haunted house might be fun jaunt to go on with friends, any ghosts you see there are probably in your own head. The human mind is a highly susceptible thing, after all, and you’ll find that people often “see” what they want to see.

Oh, and as for the walls oozing green slime? They always do that. Have a happy, safe and non-vibrational Halloween, everyone!


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.