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Illustration For Washington Irving's The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. Artist: Frederick Simpson Coburn (1871-1960.)

Illustration For Washington Irving’s The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow. Artist: Frederick Simpson Coburn (1871-1960.)

What Does A Ghost Look Like?

Aalthough we don’t know for certain whether ghosts are real, we do know what they look like thanks to scientific surveys of 1,800 people who claim to have seen them. The surveys were conducted in 1968 and 1974 by Britain’s Institute of Psychophysical Research, and the results were reported in the 1975 book Apparitions, by Celia Green and Charles McCreery.

The researchers found that over 80 percent of ghosts were in the form of people, with the remainder taking the shape of animals and, occasionally, inanimate objects. The vast majority of animal ghosts were cats.

One surprising result of the surveys was that, rather than being transparent or translucent, most ghosts were described by people who had seen them as opaque—in other words, solid enough to block the view of whatever was behind them. The majority of apparitions also contained some color. However, a minority of ghosts are translucent or transparent, and it is also common for an opaque ghost to fade to transparency as it begins to disappear.

A few people who have seen ghosts report that even though their apparition appeared quite solid, they still were able to see objects behind it. A further wrinkle is that a ghost will sometimes appear solid from a distance, but grow increasingly transparent as it approaches its viewer. Some witnesses said their perception of the ghost was sharper and more detailed than it would have been had they been viewing a real person, animal, or object under the same conditions.

The vast majority of people who have seen human-appearing ghosts report them as walking, standing, or sitting just as living people do. Well over half of the respondents said they saw their ghost move—though sometimes the ghost seemed to glide rather than walk, changed locations without seeming to cross the intervening space, or even floated through the air.

Finally, apparitions do not always appear as full-figured. Rather, people sometimes see nothing but the head, head and hands, head and shoulders, or even just the eyes of a ghost. By contrast, a type of apparition known as a time slip can appear surrounded by an entire stage set of period furniture, vehicles, animals, and people.

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