Dr Johnson, Scratching Fanny in Cock Lane

The Age of Reason was put on hold for a few months in 1762 while the nation pondered the case of Scratching Fanny, the ghost of Cock Lane. A man named Richard Parsons was trying to get rid of a creditor named William Kent. To do so, he tried to frame him for poisoning his wife Fanny (who had actually died of smallpox). Scratching sounds heard in the house were said to be the ghost of the deceased Fanny, crying out for retribution. Rumours of ‘Scratching Fanny’ spread across London and Parsons was soon doing a roaring trade charging admission to those wanting to hear the ghost, including Oliver Goldsmith and Horace Walpole. Fuelled by a sensationalist press, the mob was soon baying for Kent’s execution.
A local minister demanded an investigation and eventually the Lord Mayor appointed a commission that included Dr Johnson as an unlikely ghostbuster. The commission’s investigations, which included a candlelit vigil around Fanny’s coffin, soon exposed Parsons' 12-year-old daughter Betty as the perpetrator. She had been making the mysterious noises with a piece of wood concealed under her nightdress. Betty had been put up to it by her father, who was pilloried and later imprisoned. William Kent was cleared. The artist William Hogarth’s print ‘Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism’ contains many allusions to the Cock Lane Ghost.
Cock Lane’s other claim to fame is as the place where the Great Fire of 1666 finally burnt itself out.

Pepper's Ghost

One of the simplest and most popular ways to trick people into thinking they've seen a phantom is known as Pepper’s Ghost. Dating all the way back to 1584, it has been employed extensively in the entertainment industry, particularly theatres and amusement parks. Despite its age people are still convinced by the illusion today - and the secret to its success is its simplicity, because all you need is a pane of glass.

Nowadays most people who witness this spectacle attribute its effects to holograms or other high tech wizardry – but the principle behind it is far simpler:  it is similar to the effect you sometimes get looking through a shop window, when you can see both the display inside, and your own translucent reflection in the glass.

If this trick of the light is replicated in the right environment, the appearance of a ghostly figure or object can be very convincing – especially with an audience unaware of how it's being pulled off. People would flock to theatres to see spiritualists summon phantoms from the beyond and then challenge them to a sword fight - unaware that the 'ghost' was actually nothing more than the reflection of a stage hand flailing about in the orchestra pit with a sheet over their head.

In April 2012, Pepper’s Ghost was even responsible for bringing the late rapper Tupac back from the dead to perform ‘live’ with Snoop Dogg onstage. The largest example of Pepper's Ghost currently in operation is in Disneyland. There are even practical applications for the trick – in television camera autocues, script is projected onto a plate glass in front of the camera, so the presenter can look directly down the lens when reading lines.

Who You Gonna Call?

A chimney sweep, apparently. Things like strange visions and eerie sounds, hallucinations, feelings of dread, and the sudden death of a house’s occupants are all characteristics of carbon monoxide poisoning. Some 'hauntings' have been unequivocally linked to faulty stoves and boilers which were leaking carbon monoxide into the house, and exorcised by having the chimney fixed.

Another theory is that some reports of ghosts could be caused by unusual magnetic fields triggering reactions in the brain. Jason Braithwaite, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Birmingham, is investigating the psychology of paranormal experiences and beliefs and sees them as part of the normal operation of the brain. The stimulation of neurons in the brain by magnetic pulses is sometimes used to treat depression, and the thesis is that the same effect makes some people prone to mystical experiences when exposed to weak magnetic fields, either from electrical devices or natural background conditions.

The Grim Reaper

In 1960 at Haslemere Home for the Elderly, three residents died when a hooded figure with a scythe appeared staring through the window and beckoning to them. It turned out that it was another resident, 87-year-old Harry Meadows, dressed up as the Grim Reaper. The institution was closed soon afterwards.


Is it just a mist, or does it have arms and legs?

Pepper's Ghost Illusion

Bushmen believe that aardvarks have supernatural powers because, as burrowers, they are in touch with the underworld.

Windsor Castle is supposed to be haunted by Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Charles I and George III.

A 'grimoire' is a magician's book for calling up spirits.

The Afrikaans for candyfloss is spookasem (ghost breath).

THOMAS CARLYLE (1795-1881)

No ghost was ever seen by two pairs of eyes.

In 2009, 1 in 5 Americans claimed to have seen a ghost.

In July 2013, more people in Britain believed in ghosts than supported the Labour Party.