There is usually agreement among psychical researchers that when someone refers to an apparition, he or she is generally speaking of a "ghost" that is known to the percipient, rather than some ethereal unknown presence. Among the most common and universal of all psychic phenomena is that of the "crisis apparition," that ghostly image which is seen, heard, or felt when the individual represented by the image is undergoing a crisis, especially death. A familiar example might be that of a man who is sitting reading in his home in Dearborn, Michigan, who glances up from his newspaper to see an image of his father, dressed in his customary three-piece business suit, waving to him in a gesture of farewell. The percipient is startled, for his father lives in Austin, Texas. However, within the next few minutes the telephone rings, and it is a call from his sister in Austin, informing him that their father has just passed away.
Some psychical researchers have theorized that at the moment of death the soul is freed from the confines of the body and is able to soar free of time and space and, in some instances, is able to make a last, fleeting contact with a loved one. These projections at the moment of death betoken that something nonphysical exists within humans that is capable of making mockery of all accepted physical laws—and even more importantly, is capable of surviving physical death.
Documented stories of such apparitions may be found in the literature of all eras and all cultures. Images of loved ones who have come to say farewell, to offer comfort and solace before their transition to another plane of existence, appear to rich and poor alike.
On the night of June 11, 1923, Gladys Watson had been asleep for three or four hours when she was awakened by someone calling her name. As she sat up in bed, she was able to discern the form of her beloved grandfather leaning toward her. "Don't be frightened, it's only me. I have just died," the image told her.
Watson started to cry and reached across the bed to awaken her husband. "This is how they will bury me," Grandad Parker said, indicating his suit and black bow tie. "Just wanted to tell you I've been waiting to go ever since Mother was taken."
The Watsons' house was next door to the Lilly Laboratories in Indianapolis, Indiana. The bedroom was dimly illuminated with lights from the laboratory. Grandad Parker was clearly and solidly to be seen. Then, before Gladys Watson had awakened her husband, Grandad Parker had disappeared.
Mr. Watson insisted that his wife had had a nightmare. He told her that her grandfather was alive and well back in Wilmington, Delaware.
Gladys Watson was adamant that she knew that she had seen Grandad Parker and that it had been no dream. He had come to bid her farewell.
It was 4:05 A.M. when Watson called his wife's parents in Wilmington to prove that the experience had been a dream. Mrs. Parker was surprised to receive the call. She had been up most of the night with her father-in-law and had been waiting for morning before she would let the Watsons know that Grandad had passed away at 4:00 A.M.
Watson had been awakened by the fully externalized apparition of her grandfather at approximately 3:30 A.M. Indianapolis time. Her husband had gotten out of bed and made the telephone call at about 4:05 A.M. Grandad
Watson wrote an account of her experience for the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (Vol. LXV, No. 3) in which she mentioned that both she and her husband were children of Methodist ministers "…schooled against superstition from the time of their birth."
When Watson was asked by an investigator for the ASPR whether the experience of hearing her grandfather speak could be compared to hearing someone in the flesh or to hearing with one's "inner ear," she answered that it had been as if Grandad Parker had been there in the flesh, speaking in a soft, yet determined voice.
Watson's father, Rev. Walter E. Parker, Sr., corroborated his daughter's story in a letter to the ASPR in which he wrote, in part, that Gladys had always been his father's favorite grandchild and that they had promised to let her know if and when Grandad became seriously ill. (He made his home with them.) "He took sick the day before. We called the doctor and thought he was going to be all right. The end came suddenly around four o'clock in the morning. We were going to wait until later in the morning to get in touch with Gladys. I believe sincerely in the truth of this experience as my daughter writes it."
John Frederick Oberlin (1740–1826), the famous pastor, educator, and philanthropist, literally transformed the whole life of the Bande-la-Roche valley in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace. Shortly after the clergyman's arrival in the district, he expressed his immediate and earnest displeasure regarding the superstitions of the natives. Oberlin became especially agitated over the villagers' reports concerning the apparitions of dying loved ones. The new pastor resolved to educate the simple folk, and he launched a vociferous pulpit campaign against such superstitious tales.
In spite of his orthodox denial of apparitions, the reports of such phenomena continued unabated, and Oberlin was honest enough to admit that he was beginning to feel his dogma crumbling around him. In 1806 a dreadful avalanche at Rossberg buried several villages, and the reports of visions of the dying appearing to loved ones became so numerous that Oberlin at last came to believe that the villagers were indeed perceiving spirits of the departed.
In Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World (1848), Robert Dale Owen relates that Oberlin came to believe that his wife appeared to him after her death. The clergyman maintained that his wife's spirit watched over him as though she were a guardian angel. Furthermore, Oberlin claimed that he could see his wife's spirit, talk with her, and make use of her counsel regarding future events. Oberlin compiled extensive manuscripts that described in detail a series of manifestations in which his wife appeared to him and dictated information regarding life after death. Oberlin became convinced that the inhabitants of the invisible world can appear to the living, and we to them, and that we humans are apparitions to them, as they are to us.
The question that may remain is whether the percipients of apparitions actually observe a discarnate entity, which occupies an objective area in time and space, or whether they perceive the result of a successfully implanted telepathic message-image, which had been transmitted at the moment of death by the dying loved one. The witnesses themselves, however, insist that their experiences cannot be dismissed as only dramatic devices of their imaginations.