Ghosts: The Dead among Us

Charles F Emmons. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Framing Ghosts

Problematic is the first word to say about ghosts in modern Western society. As Buse and Stott (1999) state in the introduction to their edited volume Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History, “It is safe to say that to be interested in ghosts these days is decidedly anachronistic” (p. 1); they also note, “It is now frivolous to believe in ghosts” (p. 3). Of course, they go on to argue the importance of the ghost concept in theoretical realms, language, literature, and history. Nevertheless, they take for granted that the Reformation dismissed (for Protestants) the notion of ghosts returning from purgatory, and that the Enlightenment made the very idea of ghosts seem irrational to most moderns.

Whether ghosts are frivolous on any level is debatable, as we shall see. How seriously we should take ghosts, and how they represent the dead or people’s ideas about the dead, are questions that depend importantly on how we frame the idea of “ghosts.” Among the possible frames are normal science, parapsychology, comparative cultural studies, folklore analysis, collective behavior research, literary analysis, and mass-media and popular-culture studies.

The View from Normal Science

Because ghosts are defined as returning spirits of the dead, they fall under the perspective of surviving consciousness, or the soul, a topic considered paranormal or religious and therefore either denied or ignored by mainstream science. Currently, the most important social control agent of normal science in the United States is the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), which publishes the magazine Skeptical Inquirer. Articles about ghosts are not common in this publication, in contrast to articles debunking spirit mediums, which appear frequently. Perhaps this represents CSICOP’s greater concern about living people (mediums) whom the organization considers to be fraudulent performers of the paranormal.

One example of a skeptical treatment of ghosts may be found in Kastenbaum’s 1995 book Is There Life After Death? (pp. 109-39), in which the author, a clinical psychologist, plays the dual roles of “advocate” and “critic.” In his role as critic in a chapter titled “No Chance of a Ghost,” he presents a number of mundane explanations for ghost reports: fraud, illusion, hallucination, wishful thinking (need-determined perception), and mental illness. Then, postulating for the sake of argument that some ghost experiences may be paranormal, he argues that they may represent telepathy or some other form of ESP rather than survival of the spirit. In this discussion Kastenbaum reveals his parapsychological bent; CSICOP would not ordinarily grant the slightest possibility of anything “paranormal.” So clearly, for normal science, the presence of a “ghost” represents a mistake, an illusion, or evidence of some form of deficiency in experience, not something to be taken seriously by educated and enlightened people.

Parapsychology and Apparitions

Parapsychology, a field that began in 1882 with the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in London, focuses largely on spirit mediumship (see Emmons 2003) but is also concerned with ghosts or apparitions (the latter term avoids the assumption that such perceptions are caused by “real” ghosts). Parapsychology may be described as a scientific perspective applied skeptically (ideally) to allegedly paranormal psychical events not accepted in normal science.

Since J. B. Rhine influenced parapsychology to move largely into the laboratory in the 1930s and 1940s, studies of spontaneous forms of psychic phenomena (known as PSI) have waned. The field has placed more emphasis on experiments concerning extrasensory perception and psychokinesis (PK) and less emphasis on studies of spirit mediums, apparitions, and hauntings. (For discussion of theoretical developments in the study of apparitions, see especially Tyrrell 1963; Rogo 1974; Rhine 1981; Emmons 1982. For recent studies of apparitions and hauntings, see Maher 1999, 2000.)

As in parapsychological studies of spirit mediumship, the stickiest issue in the study of apparitions has been the survival hypothesis, the idea that souls or spirits are responsible for the phenomena. Parapsychologists have generally explained ghosts as nonphysical, mental dramatizations of ESP images. But are these images sometimes sparked by telepathy from the dead, or do they appear only through telepathy and clairvoyance among the living? There are also physical effects in hauntings, such as moving objects and electromagnetic disturbances, that are generally separate from whatever apparitions may also occur in such places; this raises the issue of whether the agents of paranormal physical effects are living (a “poltergeist focus”) or dead (Maher 2000).

To outsiders, it may seem strange that survival is such a contested issue. After all, both ESP among the living and communication with the dead qualify as “paranormal” or outside the confines of phenomena recognized by normal science. However, parapsychologists have attempted to stretch the boundaries of normal science to include the study of PSI, an as-yet unmeasured force that is postulated as the cause of measurable paranormal effects. ESP is seen as analogous to normal perception; PK is seen as analogous to normal motor activity. Survival of the spirit, however, postulates the existence of a consciousness that escapes death and exists independent of the physical body.

This viewpoint reveals that mainstream parapsychology is attempting to join mainstream science, in which the material world is all there is, and mysterious (but real) forces are merely considered to be beyond our ability to measure using current scientific instruments. In this sense there is really nothing “paranormal.” Seeing ghosts as personalities who have escaped physical death goes beyond Western science and into the realm of spirituality or religion, which scientists see as a nonrational, even irrational, survival of pre-Enlightenment thinking.

This seems to leave ghosts out in the cold as far as science—even the parascience of parapsychology—is concerned. It would appear that we need to move on to social science for an analysis of the importance of ghosts in the real world. However, before we abandon the ontological question (the question of whether ghosts are “real”) altogether, it is fair to say that the survival hypothesis is still suspended in parapsychology, even if most parapsychologists are loath to embrace it for fear of seeming unscientific.

It is also important to say that there are some impressive data supporting the interpretation that many apparition experiences do not have mundane explanations (including, for example, hoax, illusion, hallucination). Such “evidential cases” are essentially of two types: those in which multiple witnesses who are uncontaminated by mutual influence report the same strange events (given that it is unlikely that multiple persons would have the same hallucination independently) and those in which witnesses provide paranormal information (such as details of a death that the witness of an apparition could not have known about). In my own study of ghost experiences in Hong Kong and China, I found apparently frequent evidential cases as well as many common features of the apparition experience between China and the West in spite of cultural differences (Emmons 1982).

Thus the dismissal of questions of the existence of ghosts as “frivolous” may be rather cavalier. It would be fair to say that parapsychology has collected some interesting data about apparition experiences that are not easily discounted. However, even if adherents of normal science generally recognized such experiences as worthy of study, there would still be a shortage of testable “paranormal” theory at this point.

Hess (1993) provides a more general discussion of these issues, explaining the conflicts among the knowledge subcultures of normal science, parapsychology, and the New Age. Goode (2000:117-37) reinforces the point made here that mainstream parapsychologists cling to the model of the scientific method and prefer to explain PSI as normal. However, normal science rejects parapsychology partly because parapsychology fails to provide either consistent replication or material theoretical explanation for PSI, and partly because it is labeled as a deviant science (which isolates its work from the normal scientific community).

Ghosts In Comparative Cultural Perspective

Having crossed the divide between natural science and the social sciences, I can now safely discuss the social importance of ghosts scientifically without fear of being ridiculed as “frivolous.” This is typical of academic boundary maintenance regarding matters nonrational. Whereas religion has been out-of-bounds to science since the late 19th century, with parapsychology representing heresy, social scientists have been assigned the task of understanding religion and other nonrational pursuits as socially constructed natural phenomena. This means that we can take up the topic of ghosts as socially constructed dead people among us. What are they doing here, and what social roles do they play?

Answers to such questions are complex and varied. First of all, there is cross-cultural variety, with the elements connected nonetheless by some interesting cultural universals. Ghosts—that is, the returning spirits of dead humans—are commonly if not universally thought to have emotional ties to concerns in their predeath existence. Such concerns might include unfulfilled social expectations, violent death, and improper burial, but they may also involve more positive attachments to surviving relatives and friends (especially when the living need them). From a sociological perspective, one might characterize these attachments in terms of social norms and social control. For example, suicide violates social norms, and those who commit suicide may end up wandering about as ghosts. Dying before one’s time or in a socially inappropriate way violates expectations. The violation may also be on the part of the living—for example, murderers or people who fail to bury the dead with respect may be haunted by ghosts acting as agents of social control. The dead among us have important jobs to do. (This is not to deny that they may play trivial roles as well, a point I return to in a later section.)

For those who are inclined to think of ghosts as trivial or frivolous, either because of childhood memories of Casper the Friendly Ghost or due to ridicule from normal science, I offer a comparative perspective on ghosts from a non-Western culture that takes ghosts seriously and for granted: China. In traditional China, as in other complex societies, there is no single, simple view of ghosts. Different beliefs, based on principles of yin and yang, ascribe to individuals anywhere from 2 to 10 different souls or soul elements (Emmons 1982:16-17). If the nature of the soul is not crystal clear, neither is the nature of the place souls go to after death. Chinese religion is an eclectic, tolerant mix of animism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Consequently, the Chinese heaven and hell are conceived of as consisting of various numbers of levels, annexing, for example, the Buddhist Western Paradise to the ancient concept of Supreme Heaven. The influence of Buddhism also adds reincarnation to the system, confusing some spirit mediums as to whether they can contact people’s dead relatives in the other world if they died long ago and have since returned as other, living humans.

All of this eclecticism tends to blend a variety of phenomena, so that in China, “ghost stories” may include miscellaneous gods, demons, fox fairies (who change into beautiful women), and other elements. As China’s dominance spread Chinese culture elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia, local folklore was also added to the mix; in Japan and Korea, for example, ghost beliefs are very similar to those in China.

One thing is certain: Among Chinese, ghosts are commonly thought to return to earth, especially during the Hungry Ghost Festival (Emmons 1982:23-26). Throughout the entire seventh lunar month, Chinese believe that hungry ghosts wander the earth in search of nourishment, especially those who have no one to worship them properly or who have died violent deaths. During this festival, food and entertainment are provided for all (living and dead), and people set out food and burn paper effigies of money and material goods (in modern Hong Kong, these goods might include automobiles) for their own ancestors on the eve of the full moon, the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month.

This festival is only the high point of a general system of ancestor worship in which Chinese burn incense and set out food and other items, sometimes on a daily basis, on a family altar (Emmons 1982:19-20). Chinese ghosts are most important as relatives who can improve the health and financial success of their descendants in exchange for proper worship. In the past, ancestor worship was most significant among commoners in those parts of south China that practiced wet-rice cultivation, because this system supported the solidarity of the lineages or clans that tended the fields as corporate entities.

In a 1980 random-sample survey of urban Hong Kong residents, I found that an amazing 72% still practiced at least some ancestor worship (Emmons 1982). Some 53% of those practicing ancestor worship said that they believed in ghosts, compared with 43% of those who did not practice. It is somewhat surprising that the percentage believing in ghosts was not higher, given that ghosts are a central part of ancestor worship, both in China and in other cultures of the world. One possible reason the percentage reporting belief in ghosts was not higher may be that it is considered unlucky to discuss the subject. When asked whether they believed in ghosts, some of the individuals who were surveyed responded with remarks such as “Oh! Why do you ask me about such things?!” Seeing a ghost may be considered an omen of one’s impending death. And, of course, improperly worshipped spirits come back as agents of social control to haunt the living who have done them wrong either before or after their death. In Chinese crime fiction, apparitions and clairvoyant dreams often provide the living with information that brings the murderer before the magistrate (Emmons 1982:22).

Complex belief sets about ghosts and various types of beings that we might attempt to categorize as ghosts are not confined to China and the rest of Asia. In the West, ancient Greece and Rome borrowed ghost concepts from other cultures, creating both cultural diversity and fluid categories of ghosts (Johnston 1999; Felton 1999:xiii). As in Japan, the Greeks and Romans also tended to blend the supernatural exploits of human ghosts with those of the gods. Moreover, there was diversity of opinion in ancient Greece and Rome about the existence of ghosts. According to Felton (1999), “Some ancient Greeks claimed to see ghosts, whereas others, such as the Epicureans, were highly skeptical, trying to find material explanations for such phenomena” (p. xiii). This parallels the modern United States, with its variety of religious and secular views of ghosts, including the debunking perspective of CSICOP and normal science. At any rate, ghosts were popular characters in Greece and Rome, especially in classical theater productions (Felton 1999: xiii-xvii).

Among the great variety of folk beliefs about ghosts in ancient Greece and Rome was the belief that ghosts would stay away from living people with freckles (Felton 1999:5). This seems to have been based on the Roman belief that freckles had negative magical value. The Greeks and Romans also apparently thought that ghosts were to be found at crossroads (a belief that is still part of modern lore). Iron was believed to provide protection from ghosts and to be useful for imprisoning them; this may be the foundation for the notion that ghosts drag chains behind them. Some Greek and Roman spirits appeared at midday, often to deliver supernatural warnings (Felton 1999:6-7). However, they were more likely to appear at night, especially at midnight, a time associated with death and dreams.

The reasons for the dead to return as ghosts in ancient Greece and Rome were similar to those in modern Western folklore. These included to extract revenge or punish the living, to reward and comfort the living, to complete unfinished business (e.g., to locate wills or treasures for the living), and to request proper burial for themselves (Felton 1999:8-12).

Anthropologists have tended to frame the discussion of ghosts and spirits in Native American societies within the framework of shamanism (see Emmons 2003). For example, Algonquian shamans known as “flyers” portrayed a mythical bird that communicated with and sometimes became possessed by the spirits of the dead (Burland 1970). However, accounts of Native American ghosts have also been interpreted in terms of social control functions and spiritual causes of illness (Henderson 1981). Honigman (1945) has reported on Navajo and Sarsi beliefs about ghosts visiting people just before death and guiding their relatives to the land of the dead, as well as characteristics of ghost experiences (e.g., the appearance of whirlwinds and balls of fire, whistling and tapping sounds).

Ghost Folklore and Collective Behavior

Of course, there is an overlap between a cross-cultural perspective on ghosts and the study of ghost folklore. In this section, I focus on some of the literature on ghost folklore and on collective behavior studies of rumor. Rumor and folklore perspectives are useful to combine in the study of ghosts because they can both be contrasted with firsthand ghost reports, which are of interest to parapsychologists (and “ghost hunters”).

In folklore studies it is generally not an issue whether the content of the lore is “true” or not. However, it is worth noting whether the people who relate the lore assume that it is true. Ghost stories told as if true are ordinarily referred to as legends as opposed to tales, which tellers and listeners assume to be at least somewhat exaggerated for dramatic effect.

Montell (1975:90), for example, found that only 3 of 175 tellers of ghost narratives in his Kentucky study indicated disbelief in ghosts. These legends came out of a “cultural matrix” in which parents and grandparents told ghost stories to frighten children into obedience, and ghost stories were part of community entertainment. Common elements in these ghost legends included night or darkness, hills, roads, houses, graveyards, and horses (as sensitive to ghosts) (pp. 90-92). Purposes for the ghosts’ returning included their being upset at improper burial or postmortem disturbance of the grave site or grave robbery, their desire for retaliation or revenge or to expose guilty parties, their need to search for or reveal hidden money, and their desire to look in on family or friends (pp. 93-94). Note the similarities between these reasons and those mentioned above for Greek and Roman ghosts.

In contrast to the Appalachian traditional ghost lore pattern described by Montell, Ellis (2001:117-41) discusses ghost stories collected at a Pizza Hut in central Ohio in the late 1970s. Instead of being told uniformly as if they were true, these “fast-food ghost” narratives involve combinations of “amazed” and “rational” intonations that allow for varying interpretations of experience, including suspended judgment about a rational view of the world. The social context allows for safe contemplation of these possibilities.

Another approach to ghost lore is the literary/historical analysis of a large body of related material. Bennett’s article “The Vanishing Hitchhiker at Fifty-Five” (1998) provides an example of this approach. As Bennett notes, more than a half century of analysis has failed to discover the origin of the “vanishing hitchhiker” stories. In fact, these stories are now more widely distributed and varied than ever before. The basic story involves a ghost who appears in corporeal form on the highway on the anniversary of her or his death and gets a ride from or gives directions to a stranger passing by in a car or carriage. Only later, upon returning to the spot where he or she last saw the direction giver or dropped off the hitchhiker, does the driver learn from someone that the individual had died previously, often by suicide or some other unnatural means. This motif also overlaps with other centuries-old motifs about road ghosts, “token-leaving phantoms” (e.g., the ghost leaves a sweater in the driver’s car), ghosts who give directions, and ghosts who roam because they died unsatisfactory deaths.

Analysts in the social/behavioral science tradition are likely to look for social and psychological functions in folklore. For example, Tangherlini (1998) examines Danish legends about ghosts in which ministers deal with threats from ghosts. These legends illuminate the role of the minister and the level of respect that ministers enjoy in the community. They also underline the extent to which Danes commonly believe that ghosts represent a supernatural threat instead of being benevolent. Alan Dundes (1998) gives a fascinating psychological interpretation of “Bloody Mary in the mirror” rituals, in which “prepubescent” girls stand in front of mirrors and look for the apparition of “Bloody Mary.” There are many variants, but Dundes argues that they all center on a symbolic fear of first menstruation.

In my own work, I have explored ghost stories in Hong Kong in terms of both folklore and the related collective behavior process of rumor (Emmons 1982). My basic motivation for examining Chinese ghost lore and rumors was to contrast these with firsthand reports (also collected in the study). A cross-cultural comparison between the Chinese firsthand ghost reports and those gathered in the West in the parapsychological literature indicated great similarities, both in the lack of physical features and in terms of “abnormal features of perception” (such as the ghost appearing transparent, lacking color, or lacking feet). These data, along with the presence of evidential cases (with multiple witnesses and paranormal information), gave cross-cultural support for the parapsychological theory that the apparition experience is a form of ESP rather than anything physical and is not always merely the product of hallucination. In contrast, the folklore and rumor ghosts did have physical features, and stories about them showed evidence of fictitious elaboration through group communication processes.

Folklore motifs about ghosts, both Chinese and Western, involve both malevolent and benevolent returns (Emmons 1982:94-108). Some Chinese examples of the malevolent include the avenging ghost of an unjustly executed man and the ghost who sucks the breath of the living. Some benevolent ones (found in both Chinese and Western lore) are the dead mother who returns to suckle her child and the ghost who comes back to give counsel. The most significant difference between Western and Chinese ghost folklore lies in the lack of Western examples involving ancestor worship. For Chinese, the tendency is to fear visits from the dead, because they tend to be associated with hungry ghosts who are restless because they have not been receiving satisfactory ancestor worship. If you take care of your ancestors properly, they tend to stay in the underworld.

Nevertheless, both Chinese and Western ghosts often act as agents of social control. Having the capacity to perform physical effects may violate the parapsychological theory of apparitions, but it makes ghosts more convincing moral agents in folklore. They punish deceitful sweethearts, spouses, and kin; they accuse or kill their murderers; and they guard buried treasures or prevent thefts. The grateful dead reward those who have buried them properly and tend their graves (in China), honor the brave, and sometimes pay howdy calls to deserving relatives.

Relatively recent Hong Kong folklore about ghosts (from the past half century) includes Japanese-occupation ghosts who haunt buildings known to have been under Japanese control during World War II. Probably second most popular are ghosts in hospitals, problematic places for Chinese in regard to death, even in healthier modern times. Cinema ghosts are also popular, especially in movie-theater bathrooms. Other categories include ghosts in live theater or Chinese opera, water ghosts of drowning victims, and ghosts who push people in front of cars. Right in front of one elementary school, a second grader received minor injuries from being knocked down by a car. Some of the children at the school attributed the accident to ghosts, because it happened during the Hungry Ghost Festival (Yu Lan Jit). One girl explained that such things happen during the Yu Nan Jit (“Run-Into-Disaster Festival”). (For fuller discussion of Hong Kong ghost folklore, see Emmons 1982:98-108.)

Many of these recently formed legends, or at least certain variants, are very close to rumors, having spread as “true” accounts among relatively small numbers of people. In my 1980 study, I traced one such ghost legend or rumor from several tellers back to the source (Emmons 1982:109-16). Several students related versions of a story about ghosts in a high-rise building on the campus of Hong Kong University. All of these versions emanated from one professor, who had told his class about the elevator ghosts. He actually intended the story as a folktale (which he made up, based loosely on previous reports about the elevator), and it contains elements typical of fictitious stories about apparitions (physical effects on the operation of the elevator and a very long conversation between the ghost and a living occupant of the elevator, something very rare in firsthand accounts). In one version of the story, the ghost in the elevator is a student who had wanted to emigrate to Canada and who had committed suicide when forced to leave school due to bad grades. The students who heard the professor tell the original story, and subsequent spreaders of the rumor, took it to be true. As a rumor, it went through all the classic changes: leveling (becoming shorter), sharpening (with essentials remaining), and assimilation (modification to fit the attitudes of the teller as well as cultural expectations). This ghost legend assimilated by taking on typical concerns of Hong Kong college students: the pressure to succeed in college, suicide due to failure, and emigration to North America.

The Ghost as Literary Device

If ghosts in folklore often carry cultural meaning, demonstrating common concerns and acting as supernatural agents of social control, it is not surprising that they are used in like manner in literature. In both folklore and literature, ghosts can also have entertainment value. There are, after all, many uses for the dead.

Among the best-known examples of ghosts in Western literature are those in Shakespeare’s plays, especially Macbeth and Hamlet. As Rogers (1949) notes, “Occultism in the Shakespeare plays…is always presented as the truth” (p. 179). Just as in traditional Chinese literature, Shakespeare’s ghosts never turn out to be mere hoaxes or hallucinations uncovered at the end to appease rationality. They are integral to the pieces in which they appear and usually reinforce moral principles.

Supernatural warnings and sanctions are also prominent in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge sees the ghost of his partner Marley punished for greed and becomes resocialized in time to avoid a similar fate. If we choose, we can agree with the initially skeptical Scrooge that his visions are due merely to indigestion and conclude that his guilty conscience has transformed him in his dreams.

Smith (2001) discusses the ambiguity in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Although the story strongly implies that Brom Bones perpetrated a hoax in order to frighten his rival, Ichabod Crane, we are left with the possible interpretation that it really was the Headless Horseman who spirited Crane away. In spite of the cultural prejudice against a “childish” or “primitive” belief in the supernatural in Irving’s time, stories that allowed for the possibility of ghosts were more exciting and popular.

Writers also use ghosts as a literary “trope”—that is, in a metaphorical, nonliteral sense. Johnson (1999) provides good examples of this in his discussion of the “specter of Communism” (Marx and Engels) and the metaphorical uses of ghosts in the novels of Breton and Bataille.

Mass Media and Popular Culture

Not all of the written forms of popular culture about ghosts stress their social control function, but many do. For example, in a group of 14 ghost stories in six American comic books collected in 1979, all 14 stories involved moral justice in the outcomes, all 14 ghosts in the stories were malevolent or conflict oriented, and in 8 of the stories the ghosts performed some type of physical effects. In one, for example, a phony psychic composer writes a piece of music supposedly channeled from the spirit of Beethoven. The ghost of Beethoven himself returns on the night of the work’s concert premiere and brings down the concert hall’s chandelier, which lands on the perpetrator of the fraud and kills him (Emmons 1982: 95-97).

Another comic-book ghost genre involves nonmalevolent ghosts; Casper the Friendly Ghost is the best known of these (Emmons 1982:96). Casper floats and flies and does minor physical effects; he can dive under the ground but can also be captured and confined under “ghost-proof” glass. The magical, fantasy adventures in which he becomes involved are neither moralistic nor malevolent; they are only humorous.

By contrast, ghosts in some of the popular literature in Hong Kong tend to be presented for shock value more than for humor or for purposes of teaching morality. Of course, we should not take the moral lessons offered by the products of U.S. popular culture too seriously; they tend to be inserted because they suit the producers’ ideas of poetic justice or for their disclaimer value (so that the producers can avoid complaints from moralists). Even in humorous Hong Kong ghost comics, the ghosts look horrible—they are never cuddly, like Casper. Hong Kong films also sometimes feature farcical, horrible-looking ghosts. There is also a ghost genre of cheap pulp fiction for adults, short stories in which the most common motif is sexual intercourse between a living male and a female ghost who appears real, even beautiful, at least on the night before the morning after. This is the traditional Chinese “fox fairy” motif.

Another aspect of the popular culture of ghosts is popular belief in ghosts. As noted earlier, in my survey of Hong Kong in 1980, I found that more than 50% of those interviewed said that they believed in ghosts (Emmons 1982:274). The traditional centrality of ghosts in Chinese culture, especially in relation to ancestor worship, makes this relatively high figure understandable. In comparison, a Gallup poll in 1978 found that only 12% of adults surveyed in the United States believed in ghosts (Emmons and Sobal 1981:304)

Unfortunately, there are no longitudinal data available to allow us to explore changes in the rates of belief in Hong Kong since 1980. In the United States, however, the Gallup Organization has asked the same question about ghost belief in subsequent years, and the data reveal steady increases: up to 25% in 1990, 28% in 1991, 33% in 1999, and 38% in 2001 (Newport 1999; Newport and Strausberg 2001). It is difficult to know how much of this change is due to the general upsurge in belief in life after death in the past few decades, but the Gallup data show very little difference in ghost belief by how important religion is to the respondent (Newport and Strausberg 2001). In fact, the 1978 Gallup data showed that belief in the paranormal tended to be higher among people who claimed to have no religion at all; of those with no religion, 23% said that they believed in ghosts, compared with 12% of all respondents (Emmons and Sobal 1981:304).

Gallup data also show increases in the proportions of Americans who believe in most other paranormal phenomena in the past decade: haunted houses, from 29% in 1990 to 42% in 2001; mental communication with the dead, from 18% in 1990 to 28% in 2001; witches, from 14% in 1990 to 26% in 2001; extraterrestrials visiting Earth, from 27% in 1990 to 33% in 2001 (Newport and Strausberg 2001). However, the proportions of those who say they believe in ESP and related phenomena have shown no increase, for the most part, and the proportion of those saying they believe in possession by the devil declined, from 49% to 41%, over the same period.

One might suspect, although it is difficult to demonstrate, that increased belief in the paranormal among Americans is related to the popularity of television shows and films that involve such subjects. One indirect indication that this may be the case is that belief tends to be much more frequent among younger people, the same group that makes up the main audience for media culture. For example, in the 2001 Gallup poll, 46% of 18- to 29-year-olds stated belief in ghosts (38% of all ages), and 58% of them believed in haunted houses (42% of all ages) (Newport and Strausberg 2001). Belief drops off dramatically over age 50 (29% of those over 50 report believing in ghosts, and 32% believe in haunted houses). However, even 29% of the older group believing in ghosts is a very high figure compared with the 12% overall who said they believed in 1978 (Emmons 1982:274). Of course, in 1978 those people who are now over 50 were 23 years younger, many of them in their 20s and 30s and consuming media about the paranormal by then.

One example of current popular media representations of ghosts may be found in Mark Nesbitt’s series of five collections of ghost reports and stories titled Ghosts of Gettysburg (1991, 1992, 1995, 1998, 2000). Before the publication of the first of these books in 1991, there was very little discussion in the media of ghosts in Gettysburg, in spite of the general belief in American culture that ghosts haunt scenes of violent death. Since the mid-1990s, several television programs based largely on Nesbitt’s books have aired nationally; some of them have played on cable stations dozens of times.

McAdams (2000) discusses the phenomenon of the Travel Channel’s including programs about the paranormal, one of which is titled Places of Mystery. According to McAdams, Travel Channel executives made the decision to run programs on hauntings (including one about Gettysburg) and aliens based on their concern about ratings. If it seems odd to categorize certain forms of the paranormal as travel, it is worth noting that those who program the Travel Channel recognize that real travelers watch little television, but armchair travelers like to see places of fantasy and mystery vicariously.

Real tourism also features trips to haunted places. Nesbitt runs his own “Ghosts of Gettysburg Tour,” and other enterprises have arisen to offer similar kinds of experiences. “Ghost tours” may be found in many historic places, including battlefields.

The subject of allegedly haunted property intersects with another institution aside from tourism: real estate. According to an article in Hotel & Motel Management, New Hampshire law requires the seller of any hotel in that state to disclose the presence of any known ghosts to prospective buyers. The Seller’s Property Information Report form used by the New Hampshire Association of Realtors asks, “Are you aware of any supernatural occurrences that may affect the value of the property? If yes, explain” (quoted in Marshall 2000). Whether the popularity of hauntings in the mass media makes such property more or less valuable is an empirical question.

At this writing, perhaps the most widely publicized debate about the paranormal in popular media centers on the Harry Potter books written by J. K. Rowling. Some fundamentalist Christians have condemned the books for providing children with information about the occult that might socialize them into communicating with ghosts and performing witchcraft (Breznican 2001). A Gallup poll conducted in 2000 found that only 7% of adults familiar with the Harry Potter book disapproved of them; 52% approved, and 41% no opinion. However, 12% of conservatives disapproved of the books, compared with only 2% of liberals (Jones 2000).

Clearly, the individuals on the two sides of this debate are operating from different frames. Some fundamentalist Christians see ghosts and other paranormal phenomena as real and dangerous, as being of the devil. In contrast, many people who are involved in spiritualism or new spirituality (the New Age) see the paranormal as real but substantially good. Interviews with Rowling (Breznican 2001) and with children who have read the books tend to support the frame that the Harry Potter stories are fantasy and not to be taken literally.

The debate over Harry Potter, however, highlights the question of how seriously people take the paranormal, ghosts included. In modern America, Halloween provides the prime example of pop-culture paranormal. Over the millennia,Halloween has transformed from a harvest festival during which the spirits of the dead were understood to return, analogous to the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival (Emmons 1982:23-26), to mainly a junk-food festival for children. In polls conducted in 1985 and 1999, 69% of American adults surveyed said that someone in their families would be giving out treats on Halloween. However, 12% said that they were opposed to celebrating Halloween on religious grounds, with “these objections … most common among conservatives and Republicans” (Newport 1999). This seems to indicate that some Americans do indeed take Halloween seriously and literally, but negatively, as some view Harry Potter.

Another example of not seeing Halloween as a harmless fantasy can be found in an article published in Parents Magazine titled, “Why Halloween Scares Preschoolers” (Kutner 1994). The article’s author points out that very young children have difficulty separating fantasy from reality and may therefore be frightened by extreme costumes: “Your child needs to know that ghosts are imaginary” (Kutner 1994:77). It is interesting to note that debunkers say the same thing about ghosts to parapsychologists (and the rest of us).

There is one more side to the popular culture of ghosts that deserves mention: the subculture of “ghost hunters.” In my own limited participant observation in the Gettysburg area, I found that ghost hunters constitute a multifunctional interest group that combines amateur science, adventure, and sociable interaction. This subculture overlaps with the subculture of battle reenactors and comes close to being a part of parapsychology. Its relationship to parapsychology is similar to the relationship between amateur UFO study groups and more professional researchers in ufology (Emmons 1997:96-101).

A recent Internet search using the keyword ghost turned up 11,376 sites; the keyword apparition resulted in 928. About one-third of the “ghost” sites had to do with other meanings of the word ghost, as in ghost town or Holy Ghost, but a great many were relevant to the ghost interest subculture. These included Web sites run by ghost hunter groups organized in particular geographic areas. “Apparition” sites tended to be related to religious visions, as in the case of Marian apparitions.

Some ghost-related Web sites are organized by individuals who attempt to be “professional,” in the sense that they make their livings from selling ghost books (their own and those written by others), giving ghost tours or organizing ghost outings, and selling electronic “ghost detection” equipment. Vandendorpe (1998) gives examples of such ghost-hunting devices. Many search for anomalies in temperature changes and for unexplained images on film, whereas others are designed to detect magnetic, electrical, and/or radio/microwave variations. The sellers of some devices claim that their equipment can capture electronic voice phenomena on cassettes or on digital recorders. Vandendorpe notes that although some ghost hunters are skeptical of the motives of the “professionals” (who are involved for profit), even part-time amateurs often use detection equipment, such as digital cameras for taking photographs that yield unexplained spots of light or “orbs” that may represent the presence of spirits. Sometimes their photographs contain images that are interpreted as human forms (ghosts).

Another element in the ghost hunter subculture is the use of psychics or mediums to attempt contact with the spirit world. Ghost hunting often combines psychic and technical approaches. This is in the spirit of parapsychology, attempting to bridge science and religion (or spirituality), even if ghost hunters are seldom trained parapsychologists. The few parapsychologists who actually do field studies of hauntings tend to point out that any photograph by itself is of little use as evidence without accompanying reports from witnesses.


It is clear that there are many ways of framing ghosts. In a scientifically ideal context, we ought to be able to suspend judgment and learn from them all. However, we are haunted by the ghosts of the clash between science and spirituality, between rationality and religion. It is difficult to take ghosts seriously in Western academe without becoming subject to ridicule.

If scholars and scientists were not so haunted, we might construct a theory of cultural elaboration in which we could look for some basis for ghosts in experience, then see how this experience becomes framed variously by human cultural constructions. It would still be difficult to ascertain what that basic experience is. At least debunkers and parapsychologists alike could agree that many apparition experiences are illusions, dreams, hallucinations, and other mental phenomena not necessarily related to physical reality. It is the allegedly evidential cases that become problematic.

Agreeing to suspend judgment about those cases, we could then move to an appreciation for the cultural variation in ghost cultures, finding the differences between Chinese and Western ghosts, for example, rooted in different forms of economy and social organization. At the same time, we might be impressed by how many cultural universals there are throughout world societies—for example, the use of ghosts as supernatural social control. Other patterns show up in ghost narratives collected at various times and places by modern folklorists, literary analysts, and mass-media scholars who examine ghost motifs and their social/psychological functions.

However we study ghosts, they still involve death, the dead among us, and their many uses. In spite of the official rationality brought about by and since the Enlightenment, ghosts are not really dead. Even in Western societies, with their extremes of normal science and popular culture, there is still some lingering, haunting ambiguity about death and the Headless Horseman.