When Minnie Wilson, 64, was a child growing up in Bassfield, Miss., she grew accustomed to seeing things she considered supernatural.
The retired factory worker who now lives in LaGrange usually kept quiet about her otherworldly experiences, fearful that no one would believe her.
As a teenager one night, Wilson walked home from church with her then boyfriend and saw a vision in the distance she would never forget.
“Down where we lived there was no light,” Wilson said. “It was always so dark. We were walking and we had to walk a long ways to get home. As we were walking I looked across the field, and my grandmother – she was dead – when I looked across the field I saw my grandmother standing out in the field, dressed in a long white dress. When she was buried, she was buried in a long white dress. She looked like an angel to me. She was just standing there looking at me. It scared me. I grabbed my boyfriend by the arm, he knew something was wrong, but he didn’t ask me. He walked me home and I didn’t tell him because I didn’t want him to be scared walking home by himself.”
“Down South is very spooky,” Wilson said. She recalls feeling hot breaths on her back when walking in the dark.
Wilson talked about her encounters with spirits while living in Wisconsin as an adult. In one instance a spirit appeared that resembled one of her daughters who currently lives in suburban Des Plaines. The figure started calling her “Mama,” which alarmed Wilson. She is adamant that she can see spirits.
“Spirits are very real,” she said. “A lot of people don’t believe it. They look at you like you’re crazy, but I know for myself that I’ve seen a lot of spirits.”
Throughout human culture, from prehistoric cave dwellers to modern times, people have remained fascinated with the afterlife and communication with spirits. No one has really been able to prove whether spirits are real or not. But understanding how the mind may be wired for such experiences interests Peter Hancock, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida. He commends people that seek explanations for supernatural experiences.
“We tend to see faces occasionally where they’re not there,” Hancock said. “That particular phenomena is called pareidolia. You can see it for example when you look on Google and someone sold I believe a grilled cheese sandwich with the face of Jesus Christ on it for several thousand dollars. If you grill enough cheese sandwiches they’ll be a pattern in there that’s sufficiently like the face of a famous person like Jesus.”
A grilled cheese sandwich with what many viewed to be the face of the Virgin Mary sold for $28,000 on eBay in 2004, according to reports.
Science often explains such phenomena as the brain compensating for incomplete information. The underdeveloped brains of children are offered by some scientist as an explanation for why children may experience illusions. But the people who claim to experience the paranormal consider their perceptions very real.
The brain of the child is developing and expanding at a rapid pace. “But also the brain of the child is also tuned to the fact that it needs to generate approval from the adults around it. It tends to be very receptive to its environment. The child is a more complicated issue because social environment has such a larger affect,” Hancock said.
David Gallo, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, said seeing supernatural elements can be explained scientifically.
“Children have [an] underdeveloped frontal cortex, which is part of the brain that is important for an accurate memory and understanding of reality. This can leave children more prone to cognitive illusions, such as false memories,” he said. “Children also are more suggestible, which means that they might be more likely to accept a supernatural explanation for an unexplained event, especially if that explanation is provided by an authority figure [like] a parent.”
Jenny Miller, a Roscoe Village bakery manager and specialty cake consultant, said she believes she has had supernatural experiences. But she is uncomfortable letting people know that and asked that her name be changed for this story.
At age nine, Miller flat-lined in an emergency room. She had acute appendicitis.
She recalled her out-of-body experience, hovering over herself in the hospital: “I almost died. I remember the next day, saying to them, ‘I saw you there trying to help me.’ And they’re like, ‘what?’ I told them, ‘I could see you, because I was near the ceiling, and I could see myself and I could see the nurses and I could see all the doctors.’”
At the time she had never heard of anyone having a similar experience. But as an adult she became aware of people having similar near-death encounters.
As a child growing up in Massachusetts, Miller said she had the ability to know when death was arriving. At age 10 or 11 she knew that the infant her mother babysat would not live to be a week old. At age 14, while in geometry class, a feeling overwhelmed her that her mother had passed. Miller was right. Her mother died from a blood clot at 39 years old before the teenager could get home.
“I can’t tell you how I know,” she said. “It’s like a notion that was there and was so complete. That’s it. This person is going to die.” Miller said she has not anticipated anyone’s death since her youth.
She has, however, confronted what she believes to be a spirit in her 150-year-old home ever since moving in in 1992. She and her husband purchased the house from a widow of a postal worker. According to Miller, the postal worker had a heart attack on the block and died. Miller believes the spirit to be the Englishman who built the house, she said, or someone who lived there previously. Her husband believes the spirit belongs to the postal worker, though he doesn’t see it but feels its presence, he said.
Miller is open to its presence. From seeing a “charcoal-like” image walk through her home to witnessing pennies or quarters whizzing past her while watching television, she said she has have never felt disturbed by their otherworldly guest.
“The thing nowadays is [scientists] are trying to – they’ve actually been doing it since the 1800s – trying to find the science behind it,” she said. “My background is in science, I’ve studied biology, I’ve studied chemistry, so I’m kind of used to things that are real that aren’t seen. And so, that’s how I look at it.” Miller understands that her experiences may not make sense to some or be proven by science, but she said she personally knows her experiences were and are real.
“The human brain was designed by evolution to recognize familiar patterns,” Gallo said. “When the brain processes incomplete or distorted information, it often fills in the blanks based on what it assumes to be true about the world. If these assumptions are false, this can lead to cognitive errors such as optical illusions or false memories. From a scientific standpoint, seeing ghosts could sometimes result from this kind of cognitive error.”
In 1996, Logan Square chiropractor Raymond Manasia, 50, said he experienced what some may call a supernatural event.
Manasia still finds himself thinking about the event ever so often: “As I was getting into my car, I noticed an elderly woman struggling to get into the building adjacent to where I was parked. I got out of the car and asked her if everything was all right. She said that she lived there and couldn’t get into the building. She was wearing a blue coat and a black pillbox hat and cat eyeglasses, and I thought it was odd that she looked like one of my great aunts.
“I told her there was no key hole in the door, that it was probably for exit only, and was sure she had the right building. She was a little irritated when she replied that she knew where she lived. Since it was now getting dark, I went back to my car and got the flashlight from my glove box and showed her that there were no keyholes. She insisted that there had to be. I told her I was sorry I couldn’t help her, but that I had to leave. I got in my car and she continued to look for the keyhole.”
The next day Manasia said he checked the door and noticed that two keyholes were present, one on the door frame and the other just above the doorknob. He said he never saw the woman again.
Manasia said he also experienced premonitions as a child. Dreaming about relatives being pregnant before others knew, hearing footsteps when no one was around, and seeing a man who “looked like Burl Ives dressed like a genie, with a turban and curly-toed shoes.”
Business attorney and author, Roberta Grimes is interested in life after death. Grimes said that she also has spent decades studying some 200 years of paranormal experiences. She believes that time and reality are consciousness-based.
”By their own measurement,” she said, “physicists tell us that all of matter and energy makes up less than five percent of what they know exists. They just don’t know what the other 95 percent might be. People believe wholeheartedly [in what they see] because what they see hear, feel, smell is in fact real. And they know that.”
So could spirits reside in the other 95 percent of matter and energy? Grimes said no one knows, but said 27 percent of the universe is dark matter, while dark energy accounts for 68 percent. Dark energy and dark matter are called dark, according to Grimes, because “neither give off nor reflect photons of light.”
Grimes considers dying to be a continuation of life, the subject of her book “The Fun of Dying: Find Out What Really Happens Next!” In the book, she writes, “There are about seven inhabited levels of after-death reality that are separated from us and from each other only by their differing energy levels. How is this possible? It turns out that dying is a lot like changing channels.”
Scientists are trying to understand paranormal activities. In the United States, the University of Virginia established the Division of Perceptual Studies in 1967. The division is considered to be part of the university’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences. It focuses on studying “apparent paranormal phenomena” such as near-death experiences, children believing they lived in a previous life, and out-of-body experiences, according to the website.
In the United Kingdom, the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, which defines itself as a “scientifically-orientated educational and research charity,” carries out investigations and research centered on making sense of four distinct areas: earth mysteries, psychic phenomena, UFOs, and Fortean phenomena. The association, registered in London, formed in 1981 and allows anyone the opportunity to become a paranormal investigator. The website also offers a telephone number and email address for anyone seeking assistance.
In 1997, the association’s investigators stayed up all night in what was rumored to be a haunted cottage. Built between 1900-1905, the cottage’s location was not revealed, but was in the United Kingdom. They documented sounds coming from the fireplace, the atmosphere of the room suddenly becoming dreary and depressing, doors opening when they were previously closed, and hearing footsteps belonging to no one in particular, according to the report on the cottage.
“We can never see exactly through someone else’s eyes and so we don’t know that they’re not transient problems and issues,” Hancock said. “What we find is that we can find rational explanations for most things but not all things. Human beings, including scientists, don’t have 100 percent knowledge and understanding of the world because if they did it would be a very sad place.”