Are Ghosts and Spirits Real? Psychology Fails to Explain the Paranormal
A favorite destination for drinks and food, Abigail’s Grille and Wine Bar, formally known as Pettibone’s Tavern, may provide more than the traditional spirits. The bar and grille has long been the site of several paranormal investigations and a favorite haunt, so to speak, of mediums and amateur ghost hunters. The site became so well known that the previous owners held ghost tours of the attic and the basement as well as a few seances for paranormal enthusiasts. Of all the haunted locations in Connecticut, Pettibone's Tavern, now Abigail's Grille and Wine Bar, is among the most famous and most popular (D'Agostino, & Nicholson, 2011).
Those who reside in Connecticut, as well as many more who have dined there while visiting the state, have reported a number of unusual events they couldn’t explain. Through the years, a number of people, many who were unfamiliar with the story of the tavern and its resident spirit, left in a hurry, stating the restaurant “simply wasn’t to their taste.” Waiters and hostesses noted, however, that during such rapid exits, the departing patrons appeared quite pale and some seemed even a bit shaky.
Some complained that the restaurant was just too cold to dine in comfortably despite the heat being set at a balmy 73°. Others were heard to mumble something about ghosts, disembodied voices, and spectral figures. Those who have worked there, however, have said that the paranormal activity at the restaurant never felt like it was dangerous. They believe the ghost is simply communicating her desires the only way she now can.
Paranormal Events and the Ghost of Abigail
While the new management was skeptical about supernatural activity occurring in the bar and grill, the odd behavior of the patrons of Pettibones Tavern was still attributed to their having come into contact with the ghost of Abigail. In fact, other regular patrons didn't seem the least bit nonplussed when diners suddenly fled from the establishment. Those living in Simsbury, Connecticut, simply took such behaviors in stride and continued their meal.
Many paranormal experiences attributed to the ghost of Abigail reoccurred over time and the legend of the Bar and Grill grew until diners often came prepared. Cold drafts emanating from behind the lit fireplace resulted in nearby diners donning wraps. Similarly, ladies took jackets with them when visiting the upstairs bathroom as the temperature was known to sometimes drop for no reason. Increases in cold air is a common characteristic attributed to paranormal activity and the presence of a ghost.
Diners and staff shrugged off disembodied voices which called their name, sometimes seeing it as an indication of favoritism shown by the spirit. A soft ghostly tap on the shoulder was seen to be an expression of comfort for those experiencing difficult times.
When the iron grill-work door in the wine grotto, which was allegedly kept locked at all times, slowly swung open and wine bottles suddenly slid from their racks to shatter on the floor in the upstairs bar, few took more than a cursory look. Those sitting in the area simply moved elsewhere so the glass could be swept up and the splashed table which sits in front of the grotto could be cleared and reset. After several such occurrences, the table was removed so that nothing stood near the wine storage area, reportedly to prevent guests from ruining their garments should the shattering bottles bear red wine. Actually, there was more concern about possibly upsetting the tavern's resident ghost.
When I lived in Simsbury, I resided a few blocks from the Pettibone’s Tavern and was able to speak with a long time staff member shortly after the table was moved. I was told in an undertone that the response had resulted from a unanimous decision of the staff working upstairs. The individual dropped his voice lower, they had concluded that it was possible that Abigail simply didn’t care for a table placed in front of the grotto and that the ghost was expressing her displeasure.
The upstairs staff experienced far more paranormal activity related to Abigail’s ghost than those in the rest of the Tavern. Sudden drops in temperature, furniture seemingly shoved with no one nearby, and rowdy, unpopular guests having utensils suddenly drop off the table, and in one case, a side of mushrooms suffering the same fate, were not unusual. These types of supernatural events were publicly chalked up to poor insulation despite the building inspector denying this and uneven floor boards, despite the floor proven to be level.
This ghostly activity would continue until staff made a decision about what Abigail was objecting to and corrected it or annoying patrons refused to set foot inside ever again. It became common lore that when you dined at Abigail’s, you behaved properly and were well-mannered, especially to the staff. It has been said that Abigail felt a certain protectiveness toward them.
There was an accepted explanation for why the upstairs seemed to experience more paranormal activity related to the alleged haunting compared to other parts of the building. The second floor is where Abigail’s spirit was said to actually reside most of the time. While she haunted the entire building, the second floor was where her bedroom was located and where she died a brutal death at the hands of her husband. When further investigations was done and descriptions of the structure detailed from the time when Abigail lived there, it was discovered that the wine grotto stood almost precisely where her bed was located. One can understand, given that it literally became her deathbed, that her ghost might take offense at patrons coming too near.
The ghost also appears to have a mischievous side to her nature according to the Examiner.com. They reported that the spirit seems to enjoy moving tables and rearranging the furniture after closing. Candles and fireplaces that have been extinguished prior to the staff leaving for the night have been seen to relight themselves. There have been numerous reports of individuals strolling by the structure long after it had closed for the night and, looking in a window, seeing glowing shadows produced by the candles lit on each table. This has led to questions about the presence of more than one ghost haunting the structure. Frequently, Abigail has been said to appear in the women’s restroom mirror, though in a spectral form that does not seem to terrify visitors (Bendici). Her ghost has reportedly been seen by numerous guests and employees alike through the years, many of whom return to the Tavern, reporting to have become attached to the spirit.
Historical Background of Haunted Tavern
Previously known as Pettibone’s Tavern for over 200 years, the building built in 1780 during the American Revolution has hosted many travelers and locals alike, including George Washington, Ethan Allen, and John Adams, who stayed there during their travels. Sold to new owners after a fire all but destroyed it, the restaurant and bar is simply called Abigail’s now, named after its resident ghost.
The structure was originally built as a residence for Jonathan Pettibone Jr., and his young wife and later became a tavern and hostile for travelers. Evidently, the Pettibone’s didn’t reside in the home for many years, due to the violent events that reportedly resulted in the current spectral inhabitant. Over the years, it has alternated between residence and tavern, though it hasn’t served as a residence for a number of decades.
According to official documents (Hoadly, 1895), Abigail Pettibone was married to a sea captain named Jonathan Pettibone, Jr., who was absent for long stretches of time. Never knowing how long she’d be alone for or if her husband would come back each time he left, Abigail became lonely and took solace in the arms of another man.
Returning unexpectedly one evening, the captain was said to have entered his residence and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Upon entering the bedroom, he found Abigail together with her lover. In a rage, he was reported to have murdered them both with an ax. It is understandable why Captain Pettibone chose not to remain in the home following this incident. However, according to legend, Abigail did, though not in physical form. She remained in spirit form, becoming a ghost that would continue to haunt the structure from that time forward (Revai, 2006).
Other Reports of Paranormal Activity From When the Structure Was an Inn
A number of other reports have been made to staff and reporters about paranormal activity at Abigail’s when it was still an inn. A number of people who stayed upstairs before it was converted to a bar reported having different supernatural experiences.
One common story told over the years by independent individuals as well as families had several people see the vision of a young girl sitting on the edge of someone’s bed and awakening them because she was crying for her mother. Individuals who experienced this said they knew she was a ghost but didn’t know who she was, adding she didn’t seem malicious and they felt more sorry for the spirit than anything else.
A couple of families who returned to the area years later went back to the establishment after it had become a restaurant. They were stunned upon seeing the picture which had been hung of a young Abigail, recognizing her as the same spirit girl each had seen years before. Upon looking into these stories, each time this paranormal activity occurred, it was in the room previously identified as Abigail’s
The other experience reported several times from the time the restaurant was still an inn came from different people, none of whom were aware of the building’s history. Those who stayed in a particular room often felt very uncomfortable asking to be moved. They insisted they couldn’t sleep, always felt cold, and that they had seen a woman’s form in the room. Some reported this form as being more solid and real looking, while others stated they were certain it was a ghost or apparition of some kind. It was later determined that these reports all involved a room in the back area where the women's restroom is now.
Other Spirits, Ghosts, or Apparitions
The tavern is believed by many who have observed figures that don’t fit Abigail’s appearance to have more than one resident ghost or spirit. The most frequently viewed additional spectral figure is that of a child. Those who live in Connecticut and have visited the tavern have often stated that while perhaps they hadn’t seen evidence of Abigail or any other apparitions, they felt as if “a presence” was watching them at various times throughout their meals.
According to various sources, the structure that houses Abigail’s is a hotbed of paranormal activity. However, no one who has reported either seeing or experiencing a sensation attributed to Abigail or any other specters or simply having sensed “a presence” has ever reported feeling threatened or frightened. If anything, many believe Abigail appears to those in need of solace or comfort and associate any other supernatural phenomena with similar benign or positive intent (Zwicker, 2007).
I had dinner there in the mid 1970s. While we were waiting for our table to be ready, we saw a glass fly off the table. It was about a foot away from the edge of the table. It seemed to just jump into the air. We mentioned it our server and he just nonchalantly said, "Oh yes, that’s our resident ghost Mrs. Pettibone." So, I’m a believer.— D. S., Restaurant Patron
Efforts to Prove or Debunk Claims of Paranormal or Supernatural Activity at Abigail’s
Quite a few paranormal groups have investigated the tavern, including the renowned Atlantic Paranormal Society or T.A.P.S. team (aka "The Ghost Hunters"), whose investigation was televised. TAPS found no visible proof of ghosts, although they did record high electromagnetic fields in parts of the tavern. They stated that these fields may explain the odd feelings and experiences so many people have reported while visiting the structure.
Others have pointed out that electromagnetic fields have been the most commonly utilized method of detecting the presence of ghosts. This is due to the belief ghosts can generate these fields. The ability of spirits who have no physical body to affect physical objects has also been attributed to ghost’s manipulating the electromagnetic field in the vicinity. So regardless of the Ghost Hunters' inability to record any visually observable phenomenon of ghosts at the Tavern, many have pointed to their visit as scientific proof that the place is haunted.
Another investigation was carried out by members of the Paranormal Research Organization of Florida (PROOF), who claimed that there were two different ghosts or spirits residing at Abigail's. They stated that one was a female aged 28 to 34. The other they said was a male spirit of indeterminate age.
The PROOF team spent three nights with electronic recording equipment. According to their official documents, "The investigators reported the feeling of being watched, and having witnessed 'shadow people' or energy masses moving about the basement and second-floor dining area."
Traditional Psychology Theories Fail to Explain the Supernatural or Paranormal
Given its unscientific nature, while it may seem outside the area of psychology, psychological theories related to the paranormal have been put forth and investigated. Traditional psychological theories are based on the idea that paranormal and supernatural experiences of ghosts and spirits can be explained logically by the characteristics of the person reporting the experiences. For example, an early theory asserted that those who believed in paranormal activity also believed they had little control over the events in their lives (Adams & Shea, 1979). To help them feel less anxiety over their lives, they find explanations of causation for major life events in powerful others. However, the implication that they attributed such external causes to ghosts or other paranormal phenomena would appear more frightening and anxiety inducing than comforting.
Another researcher added to the previous theory, stating that those who believe they have experienced paranormal activity and strongly believe in the supernatural are individuals with a strong need to be able to explain the world around them even when it seems impossible to do so. The theory states that the ability to attribute the inexplicable to something paranormal to provide an explanation even if the specifics are lacking, makes such individuals feel less anxious (Irwin 1992). This theory seems to lack logic in that it’s just as easy to say, “I know there was a reason for what just happened even if I don’t know what it is,” or to attribute it to God or a greater being, not ghosts. Additionally, all of us like to be able to explain the world around us, so this doesn’t differentiate those who believe they’ve experienced paranormal or supernatural phenomena from those don’t.
Others have theorized that believing one has experienced a paranormal event is associated with being in a negative mood which is associated with less ability to think critically (Kreiner, 1995). Dudley (1999), furthers this theory stating, “Since the absence of critical thought is linked to labeling events as paranormal, it follows that a negative emotional state could lead to a greater likelihood that we will think we are experiencing something that is supernatural, or to an increased willingness to accept claims of the paranormal.” Unfortunately, this theory simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. After all, there are a large number of people who are in a negative mood state on any given day yet there's no evidence that all or even a significant number of them experience any type of paranormal activity.
Some researchers have pointed out that individuals with psychiatric diagnoses, in particular psychosis, are more likely to have reported paranormal experiences (e.g. Thalbourne, 1998). This also fails the logic test since if someone reports weird or unusual experiences that most individuals don’t share, such as seeing ghosts, the automatic assumption of mental health professionals will be the individual is hallucinating. This will likely result in a diagnosis of psychosis. Even if many similar reports were documented in the same location this would not change except to substitute or add the condition of a shared delusional system. So if those who report seeing otherwise sensing the presence of a ghost or spirit are believed to be psychotic then the psychology literature would show that those who report paranormal experiences are often psychotic.
There is a paranormal entity in the building. They don't mean any harm to anyone, but they have abilities, such as audible voices, creating hot and cold drafts, and moving objects. It's like you're just standing around working, and you hear your name called, and then turn around and there's nobody there.— Markus Lehofer, former manager of Abigail's
Parapsychology Also Fails to Adequately Explain Ghosts and Spirits
The area of psychology that examines phenomena that are excluded from or inexplicable by traditional scientific investigation is called parapsychology. Examining such phenomena as hypnosis and mental telepathy, parapsychology also considers the existence and explanation for supernatural or paranormal activity like ghosts, poltergeist and spirits.
Parapsychologists have developed three theories regarding people experiencing ghostly phenomena. The first regards the power of suggestion. Studies have shown that when people are told a location is haunted they are more likely to perceive the presence of spirits or ghosts. Suggestion has been shown to lead to the perception of paranormal experiences in general, including seance happenings, paranormal key bending and psychic readings. The power of suggestion has been found to be particularly strong when it coincides with a person’s existing beliefs (Dagnall, Drinkwater, Denovan & Parker, 2015). This theory however, doesn’t explain the numerous reports of individuals experiencing paranormal activity who had no prior knowledge or information about the presence of any supernatural beings. It also fails to explain the experiences of those who perceive ghosts or spirits in locations where they haven’t been previously reported.
The second explanation involves electromagnetic fields and infrasound. According to this theory paranormal experiences are due to the presence of electromagnetic fields. Research has shown that applying electromagnetic energy to the temporal lobes of the brain could produce ghostly experiences, such as feelings that a presence existed or a sensation of being touched. It has been noted that areas believed to be haunted do have irregular and unpredictable magnetic fields. However, most people who investigate ghosts because they believe in them, say that ghosts produce these fields so this just supports the presence of spirits. Infrasound or audio frequency below the range of human hearing has also been used to explain such bizarre sensations (Parsons, 2012). For example, in the presence of music with infrasound people report sensations like chills down the spine, feeling nervous, feeling overwhelming waves of fear, uneasiness or mournful emotions.
The third theory parapsychologist have developed to explain hauntings and supernatural experiences involves toxic or fungal hallucinations. These occur when a person is exposed to toxic substances such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and pesticides or fungus such as toxic mould. This has been used to explain why hauntings often occur in old, mouldy buildings (Wolf, 2015).
The main takeaway here, is that even parapsychology theories do not look at reports of ghosts or spirits as real phenomena reflecting the presence of a being after death. They attempt to provide logical scientific explanations for these phenomena. The main problem with this approach is that these theories may very well be correct and account for some of the experiences people have regarding ghost, spirits and poltergeist. Yet as with any type of statistical research, the findings may be significant but not account for a number of individuals in the sample. This means that even in the research sample there is a substantial group whose experiences cannot be explained by the theory.
Additionally, just because you can generate experiences similar to what is reported by people who believe they have had a genuine paranormal or supernatural experience, this doesn’t mean that that is what accounts for those who believe they have actually experienced such things. I may be able to cause you to feel chills, distress, anxiety and a sense of foreboding by running my fingernail down a blackboard. But while these may be commonly experienced sensations of those who believe they have been in the presence of a ghost, this doesn’t mean perceived hauntings are caused by someone running their fingernails down a chalkboard.
The reality is that the existence of paranormal or supernatural experiences and of ghosts, poltergeist and spirits cannot be addressed currently, at least scientifically, given no methodology exists to do so. Perhaps some day we will develop technology that makes this possible and we will be able to determine whether paranormal activity is real or simply imagined.
Yet the inability to adequately study such phenomena doesn’t necessarily mean the question is pointless or that it might not be seen to have significance in our world today. If nothing else, the controversy suggests the importance of respecting subjective experience both from a personal and a professional or research standpoint.
It is likely we will have to accept that paranormal experiences may not ever be able to be proven or disproved. We must realize that each of us sees the world and the possibilities within it differently. We also define reality and undoubtedly perceive things somewhat differently in ways that cannot be determined or quantified.
For example, the way ten people perceive the color red may be subtly or not so subtly different. Yet given the impossibility of describing how red appears to us verbally we will assume we all see red exactly the same way. Comprehending that there is likely no such thing as objective reality and coming to value the diversity of the human experience and perception will ultimately render the question of whether or not ghosts are real moot. When all is said and done, knowing and respecting what another person is experiencing and at times being unable to know what they are truly experiencing while still respecting it, is often far more important that asking who is right or wrong about the nature of reality.
For all those who believe they have seen, heard or felt the presence of the ghost of Abigail or experienced other paranormal activities in the building now housing Abigail’s Grille and Wine Bar, as Freud would say, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Though I wouldn’t recommend anyone referring to Abigail as anything so crass as a cigar. They might just find a bottle of wine shattering at their feet.
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© 2018 Natalie Frank