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Arthur Conan Doyle: Ghost Hunter


Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle

Portrait of Doyle by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1893

The author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries was also an avid paranormal investigator with a few ghostly experiences of his own

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will forever be famous as the creator of that keen and intrepid detective, Sherlock Holmes. Apart from those mysteries, Doyle also had a profound interest in the unexplained and the paranormal. He was, after all, also the author of The Lost World, Tales of Terror and Mystery, and Through the Magic Door among other flights of fantasy.

After the death of his wife Louisa in 1906, followed closely by the deaths of his son, brother, two brothers-in-law, and two nephews, Doyle found refuge from his depression in the Spiritualist movement, which promoted the belief that the living could actively communicate with the dead. He attended many séances and befriended several of the well-known psychic mediums of the day. He was affiliated with the Spritualists' National Union, and was a prominent member of both The Ghost Club and The Society for Psychical Research. He even opened The Psychic Bookshop in 1925 in London.

Although he considered himself an open-minded skeptic when it came the paranormal, he might have been too eager to believe in some cases. His most embarrassing proclamation was, perhaps, that the photos of what became known as The Cottingley Fairies were genuine and stood as proof of psychic phenomena. The pictures were taken by two young girls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, who claimed they played with the fairies near a garden stream. The "fairies" were nothing more than paper cut-outs.


Although he spent many years exploring and investigating the possibilities of psychic phenomena and life after death, Doyle admitted that he only had a few personal experiences that he could categorize as unexplained, or at least "curious." The experiences are noteworthy, however, and he wrote about them in his 1930 book, The Edge of the Unknown.


The first was an incident that we might recognize as sleep paralysis, or "old hag syndrome," in which the victim awakens to find himself unable to move and often senses a strange presence in the room.

In Doyle's case, he wakened in the bedroom of his home in Crowborough. "I was lying with my back to the room," he wrote, "acutely awake, but utterly unable to move." And he had the "clear consciousness that there was someone in the room, and that the presence was not of this world."

But Doyle's sleep paralysis story has a decidedly ghostly twist. He heard footsteps approaching him from across the room and felt that the presence was near and bending over him. He then heard a loud whisper that said, "Doyle, I come to tell you that I am sorry."

Although this visitor did not divulge his name, Doyle was convinced he knew who this ghost was. "It was a certain individual to whom I had tried to give psychic consolation when he was bereaved," wrote Doyle. "He rejected my advances with some contempt and died himself shortly afterwards. It may well be that he wished to express regret."

Of this encounter, Doyle also expressed an interesting explanation for this sleep paralysis: that a spirit, when it needs to materialize on the physical plane, must draw its energy from a material source. He was that source. In other words, he was rendered immobile because the spirit drew his energy in order to manifest.


Arthur Conan Doyle might have actually seen a pair of ghosts on another occasion. He had heard that a neighborhood church had the reputation for being haunted, so he set off to investigate with his wife, two sons, a daughter, and two friends. They arrived at the old church at 10 p.m. and were greeted by an elderly lantern-carrying villager who led them in.

They seated themselves in the stiff wooden stalls of the choir section, "which the ancient monks once occupied." On the other side of the nave was the altar, lit only dimly by the lantern. Then the lantern was extinguished and they sat in the darkness seeing only the strange shifting shadows and dim illuminations caused by the little light filtering in from the high clerestory windows.

For two hours they sat in the dark on the uncomfortable seats. Suddenly, something began to materialize. "Roughly twenty feet from me," Doyle wrote, "there was a dull haze of light, a sort of phosphorescent cloud, a foot or so across, and about a man's height from the ground."

The others in Doyle party also saw this apparition. "The light glimmered down," he continued, "and hardened into a definite shape - or I should say shapes - since there were two of them. They were perfectly clear-cut figures in black and white, with a dim luminosity of their own. The coloring and arrangement gave me a general idea of cassocks and surplices [the vestments worn by priests and altar boys]."

Just as Doyle's wife called out loudly to the figures, "Friends, is there anything which we can do to help you?" - the apparitions vanished. Doyle later found out that others had seen ghosts in this same church on different occasions.

Next page: The Concealed Papers; The Charmouth Ghost

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