Happy Weird Wednesday! Let’s jump right in with a creepy tale:
February 9th, 1884.
In the higher part of the door was a glass window, and I all at once, in the darkness, saw a face looking through that window. The face was very well known to me, though for the instant I did not associate it with the original, as she was 300 miles away. I instantly opened the door, found nobody there, and then searched the ivy with which the porch and house are covered. Finding nothing, and knowing it was impossible anyone could have got away. … I at once knew the face was that of a married sister-in-law of my wife’s. I told all our family of the circumstance directly I got home, and judge of our dismay when we had a letter to say she died at the very hour I saw her. Monday was the evening I saw the face, and on Wednesday, when we were at dinner, the letter came.
—Apparitions of the Living Vol 1 p. 523
The story goes like this: when someone is in a moment of crisis, whether it be death, near-death, or just a time of great anxiety, they can project an image of themselves to a loved one. The image can speak or be silent. It can look ghostly— someone floating above the floor, shining with radiance, or resting in a coffin— or it can seem exactly like a real person visiting. Many times crisis apparitions are comforting: a beloved family member coming to say a last goodbye.
Paranormal researchers like Edmund Gurney, Frank Podmore, and Frederic William Henry Myers, who wrote Apparitions of the Living (1886), find value in crisis apparitions because they can potentially be verified. Because it’s so strange to be wide awake and vividly hallucinating, many people who experience crisis apparitions make note of the time, tell others about the visitation, and/or write it down somewhere, providing valuable evidence. Later, the date and time of death can be confirmed. Sometimes a dying person will appear to many different loved ones, which also helps to corroborate stories.
Not all crisis apparitions are visual. Sometimes they are experienced as the touch of a hand, or pain that corresponds to a loved one’s injury. People have also reported voices or tolling bells, the sound of sobbing or knocking on the wall, even a doorknob turning as if someone is trying to get into the room. Some crisis apparitions are simply an intense feeling of sadness. One woman in Apparitions reported the terrifying experience of a spectral friend climbing into bed with her (Volume 2, p. 180).
But not all crisis apparitions come from a deathbed. My favorite in the Apparitions is the following one, as it ends with a touch of humor:
It was either in 1874 or 1875. My brother was third mate on board one of Wigram’s large ships. I knew he was somewhere on the coast of Australia … I looked up, and, to my astonishment, saw my brother coming towards me from the outside door of the kitchen. … I noticed he was in his sailor uniform with a monkey jacket on, and the wet was shining on his jacket and cap. I exclaimed, ‘Miles, where have you come from?’ He answered in his natural ‘For God’s sake, don’t say I’m here.’ This was all over in a few seconds and as I jumped towards him he was gone. I was very much frightened, for I had really thought it was my brother himself; and it was only when he vanished that I realised it was only an appearance. … About three months afterwards my brother came home, and….I asked him in a casual manner if he had had any adventures, and he said, ‘I was nearly drowned at Melbourne.’ He then told me he was ashore without leave, and on returning to the ship, after midnight, he slipped off the gangway between the side of the ship and the dock. There was very little space, and if he had not been hauled up at once, he must have been drowned. He remembered thinking he was drowning, and then became unconscious. His absence without leave was not found out, so he escaped the punishment he expected. I then told him of how he had appeared to me, and I asked him the date. He was able to fix it exactly. … He had no recollection of thinking specially of me at the time, but he was much struck by the coincidence, and often referred to it. He did not like it, and often when he went away said, ‘Well, I hope I shan’t go dodging about as I did that time.’
—Apparitions of the Living, Vol 2, p. 141
And now for some spectral writing prompts!
- Raise your hand if you’re not here. Some crisis apparitions appear to whole groups of people at once. What’s creepier than that, to my mind, are the cases where everyone in a group sees or hears the apparition— except one. Various explanations are possible: the group could be pranking the poor holdout. The person might be less susceptible to either mass hallucinations or actual psychic phenomena. Perhaps they’re the only person there who doesn’t know the dying person. Or maybe the dying person just really hates that one guy and is giving him the deathly-cold-shoulder.
- Reciprocal apparitions. Sometimes visions go both ways: instead of just one person being visited by an apparition, both sender and receiver are aware of it. Cases in Apparitions describe a person in crisis talking to someone that no one else can see, and this person later relates having seen them as well. Or it works backwards: someone attending a deathbed sees the apparition of the dying person’s family gathered around. There are also auditory cases where people hear each other calling their names. Possible plots could explore what makes for a reciprocal apparition. Do the two people have to be especially close— siblings, best friends, lovers? Or are they both latent psychics? Maybe they’re actually both dying, but it’s not yet apparent in one of them?
- Scheduled apparitions. Some crisis apparitions fulfill promises: If you die, come by and let me know about it. When the visitation occurs, it can be either a momentary thing or a whole chat about how and where the person died. Possible plots here involve someone seeking proof of an afterlife, a piece of vital information being shared, or a last, sweet goodbye. On a slightly different track, it doesn’t have to be a crisis: psychic researchers have attempted to send each other apparitions under laboratory conditions, which is a good plot bunny itself.
- Mass apparitions. So what happens if a whole bunch of people die at the same time? In volume 2 of Apparitions, starting on p. 149, a case is described where an entire family died of illness over the course of a few days, and neighbors were visited with visual apparitions, and also heard a loud banging on their front door that somehow did not arouse the resident dogs. How powerful or terrifying could an apparition be if it belonged to a group of people all at once?
- Double trouble. Twin-to-twin telepathy is a popular trope. Crisis apparitions are said to be more common with twins, occurring frequently around experiences of heightened emotion, and stories are often told of twins feeling (or even showing) each other’s physical injuries. Possible plots here involve twins raised apart, twins who are rarely apart, twins who are estranged, or twins who can control their apparitions and use them to exchange messages.
- Loose lips and ships. A common story involves the mother of a shipboard soldier receiving a crisis apparition of her son at the moment of his death. The military doesn’t like to announce the loss of ships right away, but knowing that her son has died gives the mother advance notice of a sinking. What would she do with that information? Inform the other families? Press the military for details? Go to the press? Try to save other ships from befalling the same fate?
I hope you’ve enjoyed spending your Weird Wednesday here. Be sure to haunt the blog again some time!
Read other Weird Wednesday blog posts, including one on another kind of deathbed vision called A Peak in Darien
If you like stories of ghostly visions, feel free to check out Queer Weird West Tales, which contains my story The Train Ticket: A man finds himself holding a train ticket to Hell after accidentally attempting to rob a ghost train. I’ve also got a free story about psychic abilities, called You Don’t Say: When two fake psychic con men are forced to work together to solve a disappearance, they discover that one of them is actually psychic. But which one?
Sources & further reading:
Encounters at the Time of Death: Psychology Today
Apparitional Experience: Wikipedia
Do loved ones bid farewell from beyond the grave?: CNN
Gurney, E., H., M. F. W., & Podmore, F. (1886). Phantasms of the living. Cambridge University Press. Read online or download: Volume 1 and Volume 2