Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Shadow People

We all know the feeling - you are minding your own business, perhaps you are doing some housecleaning, perhaps you are out for a walk, perhaps you're driving home after a long day, and you see something out of the corner of your eye. Something black, moving, and seemingly intelligent. It's just there for a split second, a shadowy form, human in shape, but with no distinguishable features other than it's dark hue. You turn to get a better look, and it is gone. Perhaps you have a feeling of fear or dread on seeing it. Regardless, you know that, whatever it is, it isn't good.

Some people claim to have seen more than just the split-second image in their peripheral vision. Stories abound of people seeing figures that look like living, 3-dimensional shadows. Sometimes these figures appear to be following or attempting to interact with the witness, at other times they appear to simply be passive observers. On occasion, they even appear to be trying to do harm. Although typically they are solid black with no distinguishable features, there are some that appear to have red, glowing eyes.

Although sometimes seen during the day, these strange creatures are typically spotted at night. Often, the witness feels a sense of fear or dread upon seeing them, and often there is a strong sense that these creatures are here to do damage to us or our world.

Commentary: This one is a bit of a departure from the stories that I normally post in that it's more a phenomenon than a specific story. I had tried to find a specific story that could be tied to a particular time and/or place, but always found Shadow People were either shoe-horned into existing stories about haunted places, or were simply mentioned as "a weird thing happened to me" stories without the location being relevant and often not even mentioned.

Still, even if it breaks the mold a bit, I wanted to find a way to include Shadow People on this site because they are rapidly becoming an important piece of our ghost story folklore, and I find the stories really damn creepy. Really, I find few things more shiver-inducing than walking down a dark road while listening to someone talk about their encounters with Shadow People.

That being said, I don't actually believe in Shadow People. Not in the least. So, what do I think is going on? Well, this quote from's entry on Shadow People provides some useful information:

Those who are experiencing and studying the shadow people phenomenon say that these entities almost always used to be seen out of the corner of the eye and very briefly. But more and more, people are beginning to see them straight on and for longer periods of time. Some experiencers testify that they have even seen eyes, usually red, on these shadow beings.

As does this one from the Shadow People Archives:

Sometimes it appears as the mere silhouette of a person, usually male, but generally lacking any other characteristics of gender. However, in no way does the description end there. There are “hatted” shadow beings, hooded shadows, cloaked ones, and solid or wispy, smoky types. Some are seen only from the waist up. Others clearly have legs that are seen fleeing from their observers. They dart into corners, through walls, into closets, or behind television sets, bushes, and buildings. Sometimes they simply fade into the dark recesses of the night. Lacking in the description is one common denominator unifying the many different types of shadow people that enter our world…except that they are “intensely dark.” But even then, there are exceptions.

So, for quite some time, reports seem to have been of vague shadowy images viewed out of the corner of the eye, sometimes accompanied by a feeling of dread. Over time, however, people have begun describing seeing more intense encounters. The descriptions of these entities are extremely varied, but are beginning to become standardized into a few typological categories.

Let's take this one apart, shall we. And let's start with the nature of vision and memory.

Our eyes have large blind spots, and we are constantly unconsciously scanning in order to make out what is in the world surrounding us. Since we can't look at everything at once, our brain has to fill in the gaps between scans of an area by supplementing the image with information that has either already been gathered, or else tries to fill-in-the-blanks with semi-related information. Most of the time, this works so seamlessly that we don't notice it, but sometimes it doesn't, and we will see things - just for a split second - that shouldn't be there. It's a common phenomenon, and it happens to all of us. This pretty easily accounts for the majority of "black shapes that were there until I turned to look at them" whether people label them "Shadow People" or not*.

The accompanying feelings of fear and dread can also be explained naturally. It's startling when we see something moving where we thought that there was nothing, thus fear is generated. There are also more than a few different things that can mis-fire in the brain of a perfectly normal, sane person that can result in hallucinations and/or feelings of dread, see this article in Science Now for an example.

Many encounters with Shadow People, much like many ghostly encounters in general, occur while a person is in bed, either about to fall asleep or waking up from sleep. Again, knowing a bit about how our brains work (and how our bodies prepare for and revive from sleep) explains most of these cases. As described in this journal paper, it is perfectly normal for people to experience hallucinations - with vision, sound, and even emotion - in the period surrounding sleep. It's common for someone to insist "I know that I was awake" when this is pointed out - but the truth is that we often can't consciously tell when we are completely awake (and therefore not prone to sleep-related hallucinations) and when we are not completely awake. Add to this the fact that it is very common for people to dream that they have woken up and experienced something, and it can be difficult to figure out what actually occurred and what did not (I have had such experiences myself). So, again, a common line of evidence doesn't actually stand up to scrutiny.

Now, let's look at memory. Most people think of memory as functioning more-or-less like a computer's hard drive: data is coded, and then retrieved more-or-less intact when we need it. Turns out, that this isn't even vaguely how memory works (see here, and here). Memory is a much more active process, and we are, in essence, re-creating a memory each time that we call it up and usually end up either adding things to it or taking things away from it, the end result being that memories that we don't think about too often are more accurate than memories that we think about frequently.

It gets worse, though. In addition to our brains monkeying around with our memories every time we recall them, experiments have demonstrated that we are prone to having false memories implanted by simple suggestion. Some of these false memories can even become extremely vivid - to the point that the person with the false memories will remain convinced that the event actually occurred even after the method by which the memory was created has been explained.

And remember, these problems with memory apply to perfectly healthy, normal, honest, and sane people. This is not pathological, it's just the way that our brains work.

When you add our weird way of handling vision to the way in which our brains handle memories, it begins to seem pretty likely that many, probably most, cases of Shadow People in which the witness truly believes what they saw can be cracked up to oddities of human vision combined with the cludginess of human memory. Add to this the fact that, with the Internet, people can easily come across other people's stories, and you can see how a memory of one thing can begin, over time, to conform to a "group consensus" memory. This common social phenomenon would pretty easily explain why the variation in Shadow People stories seems to be shrinking, people are remembering more intense encounters, and a few specific "types" of shadow people are becoming the norm.

What about the other examples of people seeing Shadow People? Can I explain all of them?

Well, it's really not necessary. There are many, many different ways that the stories can come about - from honest misperception to people intentionally making stories up, and when you throw in a small number of people who actually are suffering from some mental pathology the mix gets pretty thoroughly screwy - and so you simply have to accept that there are probably many different origins for many different stories. You can find the root cause of individual stories, and probably find patterns that allow you to explain a wide variety of stories (such as what is described above), but there's always going to be at least one or two stories that don't fit that explanation, and so you'll have to figure out what happened in those cases. Hell, some people may even have seen something truly strange, but it's hard to separate the signal from the noise.

This, of course, hasn't stopped a large number of crackpots from developing a large number of psuedo-scientific explanations. If you type "Shadow People" into Google, you will be inundated with talk of "extra-dimensional beings", time travellers, and so on. All of the people talk of these things as if they are completely reasonable, without ever stopping to consider what terms such as "extra-dimensional" even mean**. Essentially, people interested in Shadow People have begun spinning explanations of this phenomenon without A) stopping to figure out if there is even a phenomenon needing explanation, and B) stopping to figure out if their explanations even make sense or are even vaguely plausible using the concepts to which they themselves are appealing. And so, we get some rather long treatises on the nature of something that may not actually exist using explanations that are cobbled together from pop-culture misunderstandings of physics and mathematics.

...and people wonder why I just stick to the stories and don't get into the research.

*I have had a recent experience with this myself. Not long back, I was driving home from southern California. It was late at night, and I was tired and had been driving for five hours straight. Off to my left, I saw a massive shape, a large 4-legged creature that was completely black, come chargin towards me. I swerved (thankfully there was nobody else on the road near me) to escape, and a split second later realized that my eyes and brain, in their fatigued state, had translated the movement of the trees and the black nightime sky into an image of a pure-black beast rushing towards me.

**Hint - it's a term that comes from mathematics and is applied to physics via that route. The way that Shadow People enthusiasts use the term doesn't actually make a lick of sense and owes far more to comic books than to physics.

Sources: Science Now, Podcast, Shadow People Archives,, Journal Article (on hallucinations in normal, sane people), Wikipedia, Radio Show (warning, this one is pretty damn crazy)

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