Of ancient terrors, the most persistent are ghosts.
We’ve been fretting about ghosts, feeding and fleeing them, honoring and exorcising them, just about forever.
The human concept of an afterlife has been around for at least 78,000 years, so it follows that belief in untethered souls is at least that old. Some 7,000 years ago, the Sumerians worked hard to make the dead comfortable in their graves so they’d stay there. Two thousand years later, the Classical Greeks kept their dearly departed well supplied with food and wine, lest they should come to feel neglected and take it out on the living. By Medieval times, the ghost had been downgraded to a sad and silent shade, clad in tattered gray rags, shuffling impotently about the twilight in atonement for sins committed in life.
In this our modern age, belief in ghosts remains robust, extending to every continent, country and culture, and the post-dead are at least tacitly recognized by virtually every modern religion. Just so we’re clear, a ghost is properly defined as the manifest spirit or apparition of a dead person. Vampires are not ghosts, nor are werewolves, neither of which get much popular traction anymore. Witches are not ghosts, and are little feared these days since they’re more apt to turn you into a compulsive recycler than a toad. Demons are not ghosts, being of non-human origin. And what’s a goblin, anyway? Would you know a goblin if you saw one? Either way—not a ghost.
The scientific community insists that there is no, none, zip, zero reputable evidence for the existence of ghosts. It contends that ghosts are psychological figments proceeding directly from our uncertainty about what lies beyond this mortal coil. Frightening or not, we find comfort in the idea that there could be a second act. And, according to the compass and protractor brigade, ghosts serve as convenient scapegoats for strange and seemingly unexplainable phenomena that could surely be explained by anyone in horn-rimmed glasses and a lab coat.
Whatever the reason, and patronizing scholarly reassurances notwithstanding, more than half of Americans profess a belief in ghosts, and 20 percent believe they’ve encountered one in person. Interestingly, only 15 percent of believers admit to being afraid of ghosts, while more than 25 percent of non-believers say they would “probably not” spend the night in a place reputedly haunted. The latter will be relieved to know that New York requires home sellers to disclose purported haunting in all cases, and realtors in New Jersey must do so if asked. Nine other states—none of them Colorado—mandate that potential homebuyers be apprised of recent deaths on the property.
Further muddying our spectral waters, evidence exists that belief in ghosts can be situational. In one university study, researchers assembled several groups of people and sent them under pretense to diverse locations where they were asked to answer a slew of apparently unrelated questions. About 40 percent of those filling out their questionnaires in shopping malls and public parks by day responded to the question “Do you believe in ghosts?” in the affirmative. That number shot up to more than 60 percent among participants dispatched to cemeteries and derelict buildings by night. The disparity prompts researchers to conclude that humans may have a strong subconscious tendency to believe in ghosts that’s normally suppressed by the conscious mind, but pops up like a mushroom under spooky conditions.
It would seem that those conditions have been improving. Between 2015 and 2019, the ranks of believers grew by about 25 percent, and it’s almost doubled since 2020. Psychologists ascribe much of that suddenly soaring statistic to (what else?) COVID-19. Unsettled by the abrupt disruption of familiar and dependable social structures, we’re seeking stability in less structured supernatural ones. As it happens, both spiritualists and paranormal investigators cite quarantine as the cause, but for different reasons. Spiritualists suspect that the constant presence of living people in their faces, not to mention the pandemic-inspired remodeling boom, has provoked previously retiring ghosts into revealing themselves. Paranormal investigators, who’ve seen business expand up to 400 percent in the last three years, believe that people sitting around the house alone all day have had entirely too much time to misinterpret their home’s every creak, whisper and groan.
On the off chance that your settling foundation actually is a ghost, you needn’t be alarmed. English author Roger Clarke, considered by many the last word on things ghostly, divides the phantom population into eight distinct species:
—Elementals are ghosts of long residence that are bound to a specific place. As much a static part of the landscape as independent entities, they rarely if ever interact with the living.
—Traditional ghosts are spirits of the dead who frequent places that were significant to them in life. They can, and often do, make themselves known to the living, often as glowing orbs.
—Mental Imprint Manifestations are echoes, ripples, residual energies that remain in the wake of some terrible event, like an accident or a murder. Forever set on automatic replay, they perform the same action, or display the same images, over and over forever and ever.
—Most often presenting a familiar and sympathetic face, Crisis Survival Apparitions visit the living in times of mortal peril. They’re typically reported by the grievously ill and soldiers on the battlefield.
—Time Slips are ghostly, but not properly ghosts. They’re images without consciousness, visual projections from a previous time or era.
Like time slips, Ghosts of the Living don’t quite fit the definition. They are duplicate reflections of living people that act independently of, and are usually unknown to, the original.
—Haunted Inanimate Objects are nonliving things that are able to move and/or impose themselves on the physical world. Examples could include an empty rocking chair rocking, or a television that turns on and off by itself.
—Poltergeists (literally “noisy ghosts”) are able to move physical objects, often violently, and almost invariably do so in the presence of a single living person, typically a teenage girl.
By cursory review, we see that the only type of ghost that could conceivably do you harm is the poltergeist, except that reported poltergeist activity is so routinely and completely debunked that even Clarke can muster little confidence in the classification.
If you believe in ghosts, you have nothing to fear from them. If you don’t believe in ghosts, you have nothing to fear from changing your mind. And if you’re not sure what you believe, spend some time in a graveyard after dark.