Stopping clocks and spooky pianos
Encounters with the uncanny
About a year ago, Kocku von Stuckrad’s mother passed away. She died of old age, so it was not unexpected. What was unexpected, though, was the fact that the two mechanical clocks that she owned both stopped, at the exact minute of her death.
What could it have meant? Von Stuckrad doesn’t really know. The professor, who specialises in spirituality, new age and other ‘modern religions’, is an academic first and foremost. ‘Still’, he says, ‘you can’t deny that these things happen. Right?’
Many people have had experiences that are difficult to explain. They tell stories of wild animals visiting people on the day their loved one is buried, or about the deceased appearing to the family or friends they left behind. They report signs by the universe or a higher force, telling them to do or not do something.
These things happen to scientists and students as much as to the rest of the world. However, the belief that they are possible is still stigmatised, Von Stuckrad says.
Psychologists explain them away by pointing to coincidence, the natural tendency of people to see cause and effect even when it’s not there, or the human mind playing tricks. But that doesn’t change the fact that such events not only leave a strong impression on those who have experienced them, they have very real effects too.
Mali, for example, now an English language and culture student at the UG, went to live with her grandmother in Russia during high school. She was supposed to stay for a year, but decided to go back to her mother in Germany after four months. Once there though, she started wavering. Should she return to her grandmother? ‘What followed were months of doubt, confusion, and turmoil. It was a huge back and forth.’
Finally, she decided to go back and sat down with her mother to book tickets to Moscow. ‘And then my laptop crashed.’
She tried again and again, but every time the computer ceased functioning right at the decisive moment. ‘I turn to my mom and I'm like: maybe it's a sign. Maybe I shouldn't go back.’
I turn to my mom and I'm like: maybe I shouldn't go back
Mali stayed in Germany, and soon after made some friends that have changed her life for the better.
It shaped her outlook on life and spirituality, she says. Mali now pays attention to ‘angel numbers’ - repetitive or predictable sequences or patterns of numbers, like 1111, 5656, or 321, that can be interpreted as signs - to determine whether she is on the right path. She also does tarot readings. ‘I believe there is a bigger force guiding us and that it shows itself in smaller signs that I can see in my everyday life.’
Artificial intelligence student Kikis had another kind of experience with the supernatural. To him, the story of his great-grandmother is of great importance. ‘After she died, every one of my family members started seeing her in their dreams. She would ask them to do certain things around the house’, he says. They were things they used to do when she was still around, like getting water from the nearby well. The family only later realised that they had been given the same tasks during the nightly visits.
A similar thing happened when his grandfather died after Covid. ‘Everyone's now seeing my grandfather and his mother basically together in their dreams asking for things.’ Kikis himself has seen his grandfather, but not his great-grandmother.
And even though he’s not convinced there’s a supernatural element to these shared family dreams, he does see beauty in them. ‘I love it because I feel like it's my family's way of dealing with death and trauma in general.’
According to Von Stuckrad, trying to find an explanation for these phenomena is not uncommon in academic discourse. ‘It’s normal to ask questions about so-called powers in nature and all these invisible things that have an impact, but we don't really understand yet’, he argues. ‘These things include spirits, how our unconscious functions, and if our brain can manifest thought into reality.’
I feel like it's my family's way of dealing with death and trauma
He also sees there's a gradual shift from more restrictive spiritual practices, like organised religion, to people engaging in 'something more playful, putting things together as it fits their own purposes and interests’, he says. ‘They ask: what works best for me to engage with a more-than-human world and with trying to make sense of my life?’
That change is reinforced by the internet, which makes it easier to connect to like-minded souls. ‘These are not solitary practitioners, they are part of a community.’
International relations student Amir knows all about that. His former roommates were all into the supernatural. One of them practised modern witchcraft, another was into alchemy, and there was a new-age spiritualist who was ‘constantly trying to interact and summon creatures from the other side’, he says. ‘And then at some point, he claimed that he succeeded in this.’
Amir is not sure whether that is true. However, he felt ‘a constant vague presence in that house’, he says. ‘I would often stop dead in my tracks while pacing around the house, because I felt a force as if there was someone occupying a space.’
There was always something in his peripheral vision too. ‘Something that you know is there.’ He hopes that this presence is not, like his roommate claimed, something sinister. ‘If he's brought in, like, a shadow demon that feeds off my dreams, I'm going to be kind of pissed about that.’
However, he doesn’t believe in the supernatural, he says. ‘The way I see it is that there is no such thing as the supernatural. There's just the natural we don't get yet. And as far as I'm concerned, maybe ghosts are part of that.’
European languages and culture student Emma has no idea what to make of her brush with the uncanny. ‘I don't know if I believe in ghosts, but I did not think of an alternative explanation.’
She vividly remembers something that happened during her last year of high school, when she was completely alone in the house on a chilly December night. She suddenly heard upbeat classical music playing. ‘It was our piano on the ground floor. I was completely shocked.’
I felt a force as if there was someone occupying a space
She called her dog, a little Norwich Terrier, to her side, but she did not go down to check on the source of the mysterious melody. ‘In horror movies they always check’, she says. ‘And that never ends well. Also, a murderer would not have played the piano.’
What happened? Emma is still racking her brain. She knows the neighbours have a piano and at first credited the symphony to them, but later realised that the house would be too far away to produce the clear sound she heard that night.
Von Stuckrad doesn’t have a clear explanation for the clocks stopping in his mother’s house, either. It could be an example of synchronicity, he says. ‘That’s when apparently unrelated events happen which have a symbolic relationship to something else.’
A similar idea exists in quantum physics, he explains. ‘There is no causality in quantum physics. If you have a quantum state, then something happens at the same time here and maybe 20,000 light years away.’
The actual reasons and explanations behind these synchronicities are as complicated as they are numerous. ‘We don't know what caused this thing and many people spend all their life trying to theorise it.’
We should broaden our horizons, the professor urges. ‘Some people say it's also unscientific to not take experiences like these seriously. Because science, if it's about anything, is about human curiosity, and trying to find explanations about what happens in the world.’