Picture this: It’s 1960. You’re settling in to enjoy an X-rated film at a local theater, minding your own business, when suddenly, a man appears draped in a sheet and wanders back and forth across your line of sight. Would you find this spooky? Or just incredibly weird and annoying? Or would you even notice at all?
Over at the BBC, experimental psychologist Matthew Tompkins writes about a faintly ridiculous experiment by parapsychologist A.D. Cornell, who, in 1960, decided to try manufacturing what appeared to be a supernatural experience by “haunting” unsuspecting people, to see how they responded. He started by wearing a white sheet in two somewhat obvious environments: a cow pasture and a cemetery. Most who came by didn’t buy it, though; only four of 142 possible witnesses seemed to spot him, and none of them were sold:
The first person described the apparition as “a man dressed as a woman, who surely must be mad” another assumed that it was “an art student walking about in a blanket”. Two witnesses, when questioned together, did realise that the Experimental Apparition was probably intended to simulate a paranormal event, but went on to note that the effect was spoiled because “we could see his legs and feet and knew it was a man dressed in some white garment”.
He decided to try a third time. He wanted somewhere everyone was focused on something, and he was concerned about upsetting children. Hence an X-rated movie—or at least, the trailers beforehand. Cornell wandered around for a full 50 sublimely ridiculous seconds. Still, no luck scaring anyone:
46% of the respondents had failed to notice the Experimental Apparition when Cornell first passed in front of the screen, and 32% remained completely unaware of it. Even the projectionist, whose job was to watch for anything unusual, reported that he had completely failed to notice the apparition. Those that did see ’something’ were not particularly accurate in their descriptions. One person reported seeing a woman in a coat, another thought they had seen a polar bear, and another believed that they had observed a fault in the projector. Only one person accurately described a man dressed in a sheet pretending to be a ghost.
“Cornell ultimately concluded that such failures to see should be attributed to an absence of a ‘subtle psi-factor’ or ‘telepathic stimulation’ that would normally correspond with a ‘genuine’ haunting,” according to Tompkins. “He goes so far as to suggest that the number of ‘true’ hauntings may actually be grossly under-reported.” Hmmm.
Tompkins has a point, which is that Cornell’s results are a pretty good illustration of the modern principle of “inattentional blindness”—if your attention is focused elsewhere, you can miss a parapsychologist in a sheet attempting to pass as an actual, literal ghost.
Mostly, though, you just really need to appreciate the visual of a man in a sheet attempting to “haunt” a screening of an X-rated film, circa 1960, somewhere in Britain. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.