Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Ghost Stories

by Conroy

A ghost on the stairs?
This past Sunday, in anticipation of Halloween, CBS’ Sunday Morning featured a segment on ghosts and haunted places. I, incredulous as always, was stunned to hear the following statistic: 40% of Americans believe in ghosts and fully half of them (20% of Americans) believe they have actually seen or experienced a ghost (!). Needless to say, I’m unsettled (if not entirely stupefied) by the fact that 60 million of my compatriots seem to, well, either have suffered some sort of delusion or actually believe in the ridiculous. Still, ghosts, or the idea of ghosts, has too 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’t exist, at least in the appear-as-a-phantasmal-presence-in-a-dark-corridor-out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye type of way. Believers would label me a skeptic, but my disbelieving position is the majority view (thankfully), so let’s set that as the perspective of the rest of this post. “Ghosts” is an interesting and enduring cultural-religious conceit not an actual phenomenon.

Ghost Stories
Currently, the most popular movie in American theaters is Paranormal Activity 3, a prequel to the very effective original, a word-of-mouth hit from a couple of years ago. This movie 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) cost almost 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 cost well under one million dollars (maybe a lot less) and grossed $250 million worldwide. And ghost stories are the subject of big-budget blockbusters as well (some serious, some not): the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, The Sixth Sense, Ghost, and Ghostbusters, for example. The lasting popularity of ghost movies means something.

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 of the Dead to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. By Dante in the Divine Comedy, Shakespeare in Hamlet and Macbeth, Dickens in A Christmas Carol, Henry James in The Turn of the Screw, and Oscar Wilde in The Canterville Ghost. Modern examples include Joyce’s Ulysses, and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (even if the ghosts in Ulysses are just, to paraphrase Hamlet, in the mind’s eye).

I think you can also see how elemental the idea of ghosts is by the many 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 lame costumes). Everyone knows of ghosts, whether that be Casper the Friendly Ghost, the surprisingly effective Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World, the over-sweet Boo Berry cereal, the sometimes heroic and sometimes funny (sometimes neither) Space Ghost, popular (sadly) television shows following “ghost hunters,” and advertised lists of what must be hundreds if not thousands of reputedly “haunted” places in the U.S. alone. The bottom line is that for most Americans the idea and symbology of ghosts is familiar, in a casual almost unmindful way.

So why the ubiquity of ghosts in our culture, especially since most people 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 or another by a (likely) majority, that there may be more to life in general, and human life in particular, than the biological. That sentience, consciousness, is more than the product of billions of neurons communicating through electro-chemical processes 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, our awareness, our mind, exists separate from our corporeal being. It’s a short leap to believe that when the body dies the spirit lives on.

Of course this idea bleeds into well-established religious beliefs. In Christianity, the soul passes on to heaven, or hell, or in Catholic doctrine, is trapped in purgatory for a time. It’s another short step, though non-dogmatic, to believe that a soul suffering in purgatory, or somehow “trapped” could inhabit the physical world.

What’s crucial however, isn’t the belief that souls of the dead exist within or interact with our universe – as surprisingly widespread as that belief appears to be – but that the idea that souls could act this way is so well understood it’s almost intuitive. Ask someone what a ghost is and they could answer without confusion: a spirit of the dead.  Whether they believe in the idea is less crucial than that they have internalized the concept.

And that overlaps strongly with religion, the human activity that relates humanity to spirituality; the existence beyond the physical. That spirituality is manifested by the divine (God, angels), or the ghosts of the dead, or malevolent demons. Religion is a powerful or even central belief in many people’s lives. For the broader culture, religious symbolism, dogmas, and worldviews influence a substantial part of our society. Among the purposes of religion is to provide a meaning of life, of origins, of the afterlife. These concepts are inseparable from the supernatural, from spiritualism

Another factor, and not unrelated, is fear. Fear of death and what comes after, if anything at all. In that way ghosts provide hope. There is an existence beyond death (just hopefully not as melancholy and repetitious as what fictional ghosts seem to experience).

But there’s another kind of fear. That deep evolutionary fear meant, I suppose, to keep us alive; the fear of the dark, of the unknown, of the powerful. This fear can make your mind play tricks on you. See shadows in the night; hear strange noises in the silence. Most people have probably read one of those chain emails where there is a sequence of sentences littered with misspellings. Yet you read them without confusion, not even noticing the errors. Your brain took the extra step of rearranging reality into something understandable. The same process can lead the brain in moments of fear-heightened awareness to transform a random sound into a voice or stray lights into a vision. To create something out of nothing – to make a ghost out of thin air (which is a surprisingly apt definition 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 so popular? People like to be scared, and when the story is done right, ghosts are one surefire device that can send that shiver up your spine and butterflies fluttering in your stomach. Whether it’s Paranormal Activity or The Exorcist, the plot is preposterous, but that doesn’t stop us from being genuinely affected; there’s some deep evolutionary response that this type of story awakens. Demons are make-believe, but they sure can frighten me.

The psychological experience/reaction/explanation leads directly to a biological phenomenon that I’ve written about beforehypnagogia. Or that state on semi-consciousness when a person is aware but neither asleep nor awake. From personal experience I can attest to the disconcerting, strange nature of this experience. Strange sounds, feelings of a “presence,” and weird physical sensations can combine to really unnerve you. Yet upon waking, the nature of a hypnagogic experience becomes clear, or maybe not. Perhaps an extremely vivid experience can seem like reality, and an 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 a living off of “contacting the dead.” Mediums claim a connection to the paranormal, an ability to talk to ghosts. This is another widespread fictional device, but the fact that mediums, more correctly called charlatans, exist in real life is absurd. How cynical is it to take a person’s money, conduct a phony séance, and lie about speaking to a deceased relative or friend? I can hear the counterargument about cosseting the sad and providing closure or moral support to the 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 to give them a forceful piece of my mind.

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