Might This Be The Best Way To See A Ghost?

Reflections from a psychomanteum

By , Columnist

I’m sitting in a blacked-out room, gazing into the empty depths beyond a mirror’s surface, waiting for a spirit to appear. The only source of light is a small candle behind me, throwing flickering shadows onto the darkened walls and ceiling, and the overall effect is more than a little eerie.

To be honest, I’m a bit nervous here. My memory is traitorously exhuming thoughts of creepy Japanese girls with hair-cowled faces, of the Bloody Mary legend, and of countless slasher films in which a mirror suddenly reveals your killer standing just behind your shoulder. What the hell am I doing here?

I’m in what’s called a psychomanteum, also known as an “apparition booth”, the idea of which is based upon the Ancient Greek oracles of the dead. Those who wished to consult with the departed would gaze into a reflective surface, such as a pool of still water, and let their surroundings slip away. As they entered an altered state of consciousness, the surface would become a mystical conduit into the spirit realm, or a means of evoking imaginary visions if you prefer to think in those terms.

In more recent times, the psychomanteum was reinvented by Dr Raymond A. Moody, author of the best-selling book Life After Life, and it has been used by researchers to generate apparitional experiences in the laboratory. Not that I’m sitting in anything as grand as a laboratory: this psychomanteum is simply something I’ve bodged together at home.

It was easy enough to do because, in essence, a psychomanteum is nothing more than a dim, quiet room containing a comfortable chair facing a mirror. The mirror is positioned slightly above your seated head height so that its reflection shows the wall just above and behind you, and a candle is often placed behind your chair as a source of flickering light.

The aim is to create an environment which can help to induce a state of trance. As you gaze into the unknown depths beneath the mirror’s surface, your eyes lose focus and - hopefully - apparitions will appear.

Dr. Moody cautions that the process is not one to be taken lightly, and so I suppose I should say something here along the lines of “Don’t try this at home.”

As I sit at home, ignoring my own advice, various distractions bother me. There’s a niggling ache in my lower back and across my shoulders; it’s always there but it’s something I don’t normally notice for precisely that reason…

From several streets away comes the Doppler-shift of a speeding police siren, followed soon after by the practically subsonic thumping of a passing car’s stereo system…

It’s surprising how much illumination one candle can give out…

After around ten minutes I have the impression of a small, yellowish circle appearing, and a sense of a very faint silhouette inside that. The image ebbs and flows, and slightly resembles a person standing in front of a light at the end of a long tunnel. It puts me in mind of reports of a tunnel of light in so-called Near-Death Experiences, or of some reports of “alien abduction” in which the abductee is seemingly pulled on board a spaceship along something like a tractor beam.

Is there really something there? It’s extremely faint and my critical brain pushes to the fore, demanding to know if I’m reading too much into what are really very vague patterns in the shadows. And even those exist for a only few moments before I again become conscious of where I am, my eyes prick, I blink, and the room snaps back into focus.

Apparently, a commonly reported psychomanteum experience is that the mirror turns into a sort of window, which becomes filled by swirling clouds, in which visions then appear. These can be intensely vivid and, on occasion, can even emerge from out of the mirror and into the psychomanteum itself. Unsurprisingly, this is said to be a profoundly meaningful experience for the person involved, with some becoming convinced that the apparitions thus encountered are real, independent spirits rather than products of the unconscious.

A few nights later I try again.

The mirror greys out and my surroundings drop away. In front of me is a swirling grey mist with a tiny point of darkness in the centre. I have the impression of a far-off black hole at the end of a foggy wormhole. Or is it a glimpse of the Eye of Sauron? That last thought is unexpected enough to pull me back into the everyday world. I try to will the earlier image back into existence but can’t quite succeed.

Perhaps I’m not cut out for this scrying lark. Then again, achieving success would probably involve far more than the tiny effort I’ve put in so far. Maybe practice would bring rewards as I get better at allowing myself to enter the necessary state of consciousness.

There are practical refinements I could make too. My attempt at a psychomanteum was a rather makeshift affair, cobbled together on a whim by draping some dark sheets over the walls. If I were to take this further it would be worth investing a little time and expense to create a properly blacked-out and better sound-proofed chamber.

There’s one more thing I’d definitely do next time and that’s switch my phone off before trying to enter a trance. I forgot on the second night - and very nearly visited the spirit realm via the direct route.

Images: radiant guy on flickr, kkalyan on flickr, Paradiso Canto by Gustave Doré, piccadillywilson on flickr.

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James Clark is a freelance writer based in deepest, darkest south London, UK. His latest book, "Haunted Lambeth", exploring ghosts and legends from the London Borough of Lambeth, is due out in February 2013.

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