Culture Magazine

Ghost Stories

By Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy

Ghost Stories

A ghost on the stairs?

This past Sunday, in anticipation of Halloween, CBS’ Sunday Morning featured a segment onghosts and haunted places. I, incredulous as always, was stunned to hear thefollowing statistic: 40% of Americans believe in ghosts and fully half of them(20% of Americans) believe they have actually seen or experienced a ghost (!). Needlessto say, I’m unsettled (if not entirely stupefied) by the fact that 60 millionof my compatriots seem to, well, either have suffered some sort of delusion oractually believe in the ridiculous. Still, ghosts, or the idea of ghosts, hastoo long a history and is too engrained in human culture not to intrigue.
Let me write upfront (if it isn’t already clear) that “ghosts” don’texist, at least in the appear-as-a-phantasmal-presence-in-a-dark-corridor-out-of-the-corner-of-my-eyetype of way. Believers would label me a skeptic, but my disbelieving positionis the majority view (thankfully), so let’s set that as the perspective of therest of this post. “Ghosts” is an interesting and enduring cultural-religiousconceit not an actual phenomenon.
Ghost Stories
Currently, the most popular movie in American theaters is Paranormal Activity 3, a prequel to thevery effective original, a word-of-mouth hit from a couple of years ago. Thismovie is just the latest in what is a never ending procession of ghost stories.Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s a hit: ghosts sell. Paranormal Activity (the original) costalmost nothing to make yet grossed almost $200 million in theaters worldwide.The same feat had previously been pulled off by The Blair Witch Project, a ghost-horror movie from 1999 that costwell under one million dollars (maybe a lot less) and grossed $250 millionworldwide. And ghost stories are the subject of big-budget blockbusters as well(some serious, some not): the Pirates ofthe Caribbean trilogy, The SixthSense, Ghost, and Ghostbusters, for example. The lastingpopularity of ghost movies means something.

Ghost Stories

Perhaps the most famous ghost in literature

Ghosts have appeared in our folktales and myths and finest literature,from the Bible and the Egyptian Book ofthe Dead to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. By Dante in the Divine Comedy, Shakespeare in Hamlet and Macbeth, Dickens in AChristmas Carol, Henry James in TheTurn of the Screw, and Oscar Wilde in TheCanterville Ghost. Modern examples include Joyce’s Ulysses, and T.S. Eliot’s TheWaste Land (even if the ghosts in Ulyssesare just, to paraphrase Hamlet, in the mind’s eye).
I think you can also see how elemental the idea of ghosts is by themany terms we have for them. In addition to ghost there is: spirit, phantom,spook, specter, banshee, demon, soul, shade, wraith, haunt, apparition, haint,poltergeist, and revenant. And that’s probably an incomplete list.
Every Halloween images of ghosts are used as decorations (or lamecostumes). Everyone knows of ghosts, whether that be Casper the Friendly Ghost,the surprisingly effective Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World, the over-sweetBoo Berry cereal, the sometimes heroic and sometimes funny (sometimes neither)Space Ghost, popular (sadly) television shows following “ghost hunters,” and advertisedlists of what must be hundreds if not thousands of reputedly “haunted” placesin the U.S. alone. The bottom line is that for most Americans the idea andsymbology of ghosts is familiar, in a casual almost unmindful way.
So why the ubiquity of ghosts in our culture, especially since mostpeople don’t believe they exist? I’ll attempt a few explanations:
The Metaphysical
First and foremost is the metaphysical. The idea, held to one extent oranother by a (likely) majority, that there may be more to life in general, andhuman life in particular, than the biological. That sentience, consciousness, ismore than the product of billions of neurons communicating through electro-chemicalprocesses in our brains. That something analogous to the breath that brought Adam to life exists within each one of us. This breath, the soul or spirit, ourawareness, our mind, exists separate from our corporeal being. It’s a short leapto believe that when the body dies the spirit lives on.
Of course this idea bleeds into well-established religious beliefs. InChristianity, the soul passes on to heaven, or hell, or in Catholic doctrine, istrapped in purgatory for a time. It’s another short step, though non-dogmatic,to believe that a soul suffering in purgatory, or somehow “trapped” couldinhabit the physical world.
What’s crucial however, isn’t the belief that souls of the dead exist withinor interact with our universe – as surprisingly widespread as that beliefappears to be – but that the idea that souls could act this way is so well understood it’s almost intuitive. Asksomeone what a ghost is and they could answer without confusion: a spirit ofthe dead.  Whether they believe in theidea is less crucial than that they have internalized the concept.
And that overlaps strongly with religion, the human activity that relateshumanity to spirituality; the existence beyond the physical. That spiritualityis manifested by the divine (God, angels), or the ghosts of the dead, or malevolent demons. Religion is a powerful or even central belief inmany people’s lives. For the broader culture, religious symbolism, dogmas, and worldviewsinfluence a substantial part of our society. Among the purposes of religion is toprovide a meaning of life, of origins, of the afterlife. These concepts are inseparablefrom the supernatural, from spiritualism. And spiritualism means ghosts. Andwhat rules must spiritual beings follow? Why couldn’t they appear to the livingor inhabit our world?
Another factor, and not unrelated, is fear. Fear of death and whatcomes after, if anything at all. In that way ghosts provide hope. There is anexistence beyond death (just hopefully not as melancholy and repetitious aswhat fictional ghosts seem to experience).
Ghost Stories
But there’s another kind of fear. That deep evolutionary fear meant, I suppose, tokeep us alive; the fear of the dark, of the unknown, of the powerful. This fearcan make your mind play tricks on you. See shadows in the night; hear strangenoises in the silence. Most people have probably read one of those chain emailswhere there is a sequence of sentences littered with misspellings. Yet you readthem without confusion, not even noticing the errors. Your brain took the extrastep of rearranging reality into something understandable. The same process canlead the brain in moments of fear-heightened awareness to transform a randomsound into a voice or stray lights into a vision. To create something out ofnothing – to make a ghost out of thin air (which is a surprisingly aptdefinition of what a ghost is).
Fear is also a powerful sensation. In that way it can be fun,especially if actual danger is removed. Why else is the horror genre sopopular? People like to be scared, and when the story is done right, ghosts areone surefire device that can send that shiver up your spine and butterflies flutteringin your stomach. Whether it’s ParanormalActivity or The Exorcist, the plotis preposterous, but that doesn’t stop us from being genuinely affected; there’ssome deep evolutionary response that this type of story awakens. Demons aremake-believe, but they sure can frighten me.
The psychological experience/reaction/explanation leads directly to a biologicalphenomenon that I’ve written about beforehypnagogia. Or that state on semi-consciousnesswhen a person is aware but neither asleep nor awake. From personal experience Ican attest to the disconcerting, strange nature of this experience. Strange sounds,feelings of a “presence,” and weird physical sensations can combine to reallyunnerve you. Yet upon waking, the nature of a hypnagogic experience becomes clear,or maybe not. Perhaps an extremely vivid experience can seem like reality, andan imaginary creation of the mind can become a ghost? 
Maybe one of these explanations is best, or maybe they all have some truth. Ghosts don't exist, but the idea sure seems to be in every dark corner we glimpse.
Before I leave the subject, I want to comment on the frauds that make aliving off of “contacting the dead.” Mediums claim a connection to theparanormal, an ability to talk to ghosts. This is another widespread fictionaldevice, but the fact that mediums, more correctly called charlatans, exist inreal life is absurd. How cynical is it to take a person’s money, conduct a phonyséance, and lie about speaking to a deceased relative or friend? I can hear thecounterargument about cosseting the sad and providing closure or moral support tothe living, but that’s bullshit. Surely there’s a fool born every minute,and buyer beware, but a liar’s a liar. I’ve never met one these fakes, but if I ever do, I hope togive them a forceful piece of my mind.

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