Ghost Real Or Not Essays

For other uses, see Ghost (disambiguation).

"Ghostly" redirects here. For other uses, see Ghostly (disambiguation).

In folklore, a ghost (sometimes known as an apparition, haunt, phantom, poltergeist, shade, specter or spectre, spirit, spook, and wraith) is the soul or spirit of a dead person or animal that can appear to the living. In ghostlore, descriptions of ghosts vary widely from an invisible presence to translucent or barely visible wispy shapes, to realistic, lifelike visions. The deliberate attempt to contact the spirit of a deceased person is known as necromancy, or in spiritism as a séance.

The belief in the existence of an afterlife, as well as manifestations of the spirits of the dead is widespread, dating back to animism or ancestor worship in pre-literate cultures. Certain religious practices—funeral rites, exorcisms, and some practices of spiritualism and ritual magic—are specifically designed to rest the spirits of the dead. Ghosts are generally described as solitary, human-like essences, though stories of ghostly armies and the ghosts of animals rather than humans have also been recounted.[2][3] They are believed to haunt particular locations, objects, or people they were associated with in life.

The overwhelming consensus of science is that ghosts do not exist.[4] Their existence is impossible to falsify,[4] and ghost hunting has been classified as pseudoscience.[5][6][7] Despite centuries of investigation, there is no scientific evidence that any location is inhabited by spirits of the dead.[5][8]


Further information: Spirit, Soul, wikt:anima, Genius (mythology), and Geist

The English word ghost continues Old Englishgást, from a hypothetical Common Germanic*gaistaz. It is common to West Germanic, but lacking in North Germanic and East Germanic (the equivalent word in Gothic is ahma, Old Norse has andi m., önd f.). The pre-Germanic form was *ghoisdo-s, apparently from a root denoting "fury, anger" reflected in Old Norse geisa "to rage". The Germanic word is recorded as masculine only, but likely continues a neuter s-stem. The original meaning of the Germanic word would thus have been an animating principle of the mind, in particular capable of excitation and fury (compare óðr). In Germanic paganism, "Germanic Mercury", and the later Odin, was at the same time the conductor of the dead and the "lord of fury" leading the Wild Hunt.

Besides denoting the human spirit or soul, both of the living and the deceased, the Old English word is used as a synonym of Latin spiritus also in the meaning of "breath" or "blast" from the earliest attestations (9th century). It could also denote any good or evil spirit, such as angels and demons; the Anglo-Saxon gospel refers to the demonic possession of Matthew 12:43 as se unclæna gast. Also from the Old English period, the word could denote the spirit of God, viz. the "Holy Ghost".

The now-prevailing sense of "the soul of a deceased person, spoken of as appearing in a visible form" only emerges in Middle English (14th century). The modern noun does, however, retain a wider field of application, extending on one hand to "soul", "spirit", "vital principle", "mind", or "psyche", the seat of feeling, thought, and moral judgement; on the other hand used figuratively of any shadowy outline, or fuzzy or unsubstantial image; in optics, photography, and cinematography especially, a flare, secondary image, or spurious signal.[9]

The synonym spook is a Dutch loanword, akin to Low Germanspôk (of uncertain etymology); it entered the English language via American English in the 19th century.[10][11][12][13] Alternative words in modern usage include spectre (altn. specter; from Latin spectrum), the Scottish wraith (of obscure origin), phantom (via French ultimately from Greek phantasma, compare fantasy) and apparition. The term shade in classical mythology translates Greek σκιά,[14] or Latin umbra,[15] in reference to the notion of spirits in the Greek underworld. "Haint" is a synonym for ghost used in regional English of the southern United States,[16] and the "haint tale" is a common feature of southern oral and literary tradition.[17] The term poltergeist is a German word, literally a "noisy ghost", for a spirit said to manifest itself by invisibly moving and influencing objects.[18]

Wraith is a Scots word for ghost, spectre, or apparition. It appeared in Scottish Romanticist literature, and acquired the more general or figurative sense of portent or omen. In 18th- to 19th-century Scottish literature, it also applied to aquatic spirits. The word has no commonly accepted etymology; the OED notes "of obscure origin" only.[19] An association with the verb writhe was the etymology favored by J. R. R. Tolkien.[20] Tolkien's use of the word in the naming of the creatures known as the Ringwraiths has influenced later usage in fantasy literature. Bogey[21] or bogy/bogie is a term for a ghost, and appears in Scottish poet John Mayne's Hallowe'en in 1780.[22][23]

A revenant is a deceased person returning from the dead to haunt the living, either as a disembodied ghost or alternatively as an animated ("undead") corpse. Also related is the concept of a fetch, the visible ghost or spirit of a person yet alive.


Anthropological context

Further information: Animism, Ancestor worship, Origin of religion, and Anthropology of religion

A notion of the transcendent, supernatural, or numinous, usually involving entities like ghosts, demons, or deities, is a cultural universal.[24] In pre-literate folk religions, these beliefs are often summarized under animism and ancestor worship. Some people believe the ghost or spirit never leaves Earth until there is no-one left to remember the one who died.[25]

In many cultures malignant, restless ghosts are distinguished from the more benign spirits involved in ancestor worship.[26]

Ancestor worship typically involves rites intended to prevent revenants, vengeful spirits of the dead, imagined as starving and envious of the living. Strategies for preventing revenants may either include sacrifice, i.e., giving the dead food and drink to pacify them, or magical banishment of the deceased to force them not to return. Ritual feeding of the dead is performed in traditions like the Chinese Ghost Festival or the Western All Souls' Day. Magical banishment of the dead is present in many of the world's burial customs. The bodies found in many tumuli (kurgan) had been ritually bound before burial,[27] and the custom of binding the dead persists, for example, in rural Anatolia.[28]

Nineteenth-century anthropologistJames Frazer stated in his classic work, The Golden Bough, that souls were seen as the creature within that animated the body.[29]

Ghosts and the afterlife

Further information: Soul, Psyche (psychology), Underworld, Hungry ghost, and Psychopomp

Further information: Ghost Festival, All Souls' Day, Day of the Dead, and Ghost Dance

Although the human soul was sometimes symbolically or literally depicted in ancient cultures as a bird or other animal, it appears to have been widely held that the soul was an exact reproduction of the body in every feature, even down to clothing the person wore. This is depicted in artwork from various ancient cultures, including such works as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which shows deceased people in the afterlife appearing much as they did before death, including the style of dress.

Fear of ghosts

Main article: Fear of ghosts

While deceased ancestors are universally regarded as venerable, and often believed to have a continued presence in some form of afterlife, the spirit of a deceased person that persists in the material world (a ghost) is regarded as an unnatural or undesirable state of affairs and the idea of ghosts or revenants is associated with a reaction of fear. This is universally the case in pre-modern folk cultures, but fear of ghosts also remains an integral aspect of the modern ghost story, Gothic horror, and other horror fiction dealing with the supernatural.

Common attributes

Another widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they are composed of a misty, airy, or subtle material. Anthropologists link this idea to early beliefs that ghosts were the person within the person (the person's spirit), most noticeable in ancient cultures as a person's breath, which upon exhaling in colder climates appears visibly as a white mist.[25] This belief may have also fostered the metaphorical meaning of "breath" in certain languages, such as the Latinspiritus and the Greekpneuma, which by analogy became extended to mean the soul. In the Bible, God is depicted as synthesising Adam, as a living soul, from the dust of the Earth and the breath of God.

In many traditional accounts, ghosts were often thought to be deceased people looking for vengeance (vengeful ghosts), or imprisoned on earth for bad things they did during life. The appearance of a ghost has often been regarded as an omen or portent of death. Seeing one's own ghostly double or "fetch" is a related omen of death.[30]

White ladies were reported to appear in many rural areas, and supposed to have died tragically or suffered trauma in life. White Lady legends are found around the world. Common to many of them is the theme of losing or being betrayed by a husband or fiancé. They are often associated with an individual family line or regarded as a harbinger of death similar to a banshee.

Legends of ghost ships have existed since the 18th century; most notable of these is the Flying Dutchman. This theme has been used in literature in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge.


The idea of ghosts can be considered a tradition for certain cultures. Many believe in the spirit world and often try to stay in contact with their loved ones.[further explanation needed]


See also: Haunted house

A place where ghosts are reported is described as haunted, and often seen as being inhabited by spirits of deceased who may have been former residents or were familiar with the property. Supernatural activity inside homes is said to be mainly associated with violent or tragic events in the building's past such as murder, accidental death, or suicide—sometimes in the recent or ancient past. But not all hauntings are at a place of a violent death, or even on violent grounds. Many cultures and religions believe the essence of a being, such as the 'soul', continues to exist. Some religious views argue that the 'spirits' of those who have died have not 'passed over' and are trapped inside the property where their memories and energy are strong.


Ancient Near East and Egypt

Main article: Ghosts in Mesopotamian religions

Main article: Ghosts in ancient Egyptian culture

There are many references to ghosts in Mesopotamian religions – the religions of Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, and other early states in Mesopotamia. Traces of these beliefs survive in the later Abrahamic religions that came to dominate the region.[31] Ghosts were thought to be created at time of death, taking on the memory and personality of the dead person. They traveled to the netherworld, where they were assigned a position, and led an existence similar in some ways to that of the living. Relatives of the dead were expected to make offerings of food and drink to the dead to ease their conditions. If they did not, the ghosts could inflict misfortune and illness on the living. Traditional healing practices ascribed a variety of illnesses to the action of ghosts, while others were caused by gods or demons.[32]

There was widespread belief in ghosts in ancient Egyptian culture The Hebrew Bible contains few references to ghosts, associating spiritism with forbidden occult activities cf. Deuteronomy 18:11. The most notable reference is in the First Book of Samuel (I Samuel 28:3–19 KJV), in which a disguised King Saul has the Witch of Endor summon the spirit or ghost of Samuel.

The soul and spirit were believed to exist after death, with the ability to assist or harm the living, and the possibility of a second death. Over a period of more than 2,500 years, Egyptian beliefs about the nature of the afterlife evolved constantly. Many of these beliefs were recorded in hieroglyph inscriptions, papyrus scrolls and tomb paintings. The Egyptian Book of the Dead compiles some of the beliefs from different periods of ancient Egyptian history.[33] In modern times, the fanciful concept of a mummy coming back to life and wreaking vengeance when disturbed has spawned a whole genre of horror stories and films.[34]

Classical Antiquity

Further information: Shade (mythology) and Magic in the Greco-Roman world

Archaic and Classical Greece

Ghosts appeared in Homer's Odyssey and Iliad, in which they were described as vanishing "as a vapor, gibbering and whining into the earth". Homer's ghosts had little interaction with the world of the living. Periodically they were called upon to provide advice or prophecy, but they do not appear to be particularly feared. Ghosts in the classical world often appeared in the form of vapor or smoke, but at other times they were described as being substantial, appearing as they had been at the time of death, complete with the wounds that killed them.[35]

By the 5th century BC, classical Greek ghosts had become haunting, frightening creatures who could work to either good or evil purposes. The spirit of the dead was believed to hover near the resting place of the corpse, and cemeteries were places the living avoided. The dead were to be ritually mourned through public ceremony, sacrifice, and libations, or else they might return to haunt their families. The ancient Greeks held annual feasts to honor and placate the spirits of the dead, to which the family ghosts were invited, and after which they were "firmly invited to leave until the same time next year."[36]

The 5th-century BC play Oresteia includes an appearance of the ghost of Clytemnestra, one of the first ghosts to appear in a work of fiction.[37]

Roman Empire and Late Antiquity

The ancient Romans believed a ghost could be used to exact revenge on an enemy by scratching a curse on a piece of lead or pottery and placing it into a grave.[38]

Plutarch, in the 1st century AD, described the haunting of the baths at Chaeronea by the ghost of a murdered man. The ghost's loud and frightful groans caused the people of the town to seal up the doors of the building.[39] Another celebrated account of a haunted house from the ancient classical world is given by Pliny the Younger (c. 50 AD).[40] Pliny describes the haunting of a house in Athens, which was bought by the Stoic philosopher Athenodorus, who lived about 100 years before Pliny. Knowing that the house was supposedly haunted, Athenodorus intentionally set up his writing desk in the room where the apparition was said to appear and sat there writing until late at night when he was disturbed by a ghost bound in chains. He followed the ghost outside where it indicated a spot on the ground. When Athenodorus later excavated the area, a shackled skeleton was unearthed. The haunting ceased when the skeleton was given a proper reburial.[41] The writers Plautus and Lucian also wrote stories about haunted houses.

In the New Testament, according to Luke 24:37–39 [1], following his resurrection, Jesus was forced to persuade the Disciples that he was not a ghost (some versions of the Bible, such as the KJV and NKJV, use the term "spirit"). Similarly, Jesus' followers at first believed he was a ghost (spirit) when they saw him walking on water.

One of the first persons to express disbelief in ghosts was Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century AD. In his satirical novel The Lover of Lies (circa 150 AD), he relates how Democritus "the learned man from Abdera in Thrace" lived in a tomb outside the city gates to prove that cemeteries were not haunted by the spirits of the departed. Lucian relates how he persisted in his disbelief despite practical jokes perpetrated by "some young men of Abdera" who dressed up in black robes with skull masks to frighten him.[42] This account by Lucian notes something about the popular classical expectation of how a ghost should look.

In the 5th century AD, the Christian priest Constantius of Lyon recorded an instance of the recurring theme of the improperly buried dead who come back to haunt the living, and who can only cease their haunting when their bones have been discovered and properly reburied.[43]

Middle Ages

Ghosts reported in medieval Europe tended to fall into two categories: the souls of the dead, or demons. The souls of the dead returned for a specific purpose. Demonic ghosts existed only to torment or tempt the living. The living could tell them apart by demanding their purpose in the name of Jesus Christ. The soul of a dead person would divulge its mission, while a demonic ghost would be banished at the sound of the Holy Name.[44]

Most ghosts were souls assigned to Purgatory, condemned for a specific period to atone for their transgressions in life. Their penance was generally related to their sin. For example, the ghost of a man who had been abusive to his servants was condemned to tear off and swallow bits of his own tongue; the ghost of another man, who had neglected to leave his cloak to the poor, was condemned to wear the cloak, now "heavy as a church tower". These ghosts appeared to the living to ask for prayers to end their suffering. Other dead souls returned to urge the living to confess their sins before their own deaths.[45]

Medieval European ghosts were more substantial than ghosts described in the Victorian age, and there are accounts of ghosts being wrestled with and physically restrained until a priest could arrive to hear its confession. Some were less solid, and could move through walls. Often they were described as paler and sadder versions of the person they had been while alive, and dressed in tattered gray rags. The vast majority of reported sightings were male.[46]

There were some reported cases of ghostly armies, fighting battles at night in the forest, or in the remains of an Iron Age hillfort, as at Wandlebury, near Cambridge, England. Living knights were sometimes challenged to single combat by phantom knights, which vanished when defeated.[47]

From the medieval period an apparition of a ghost is recorded from 1211, at the time of the Albigensian Crusade.[48]Gervase of Tilbury, Marshal of Arles, wrote that the image of Guilhem, a boy recently murdered in the forest, appeared in his cousin's home in Beaucaire, near Avignon. This series of "visits" lasted all of the summer. Through his cousin, who spoke for him, the boy allegedly held conversations with anyone who wished, until the local priest requested to speak to the boy directly, leading to an extended disquisition on theology. The boy narrated the trauma of death and the unhappiness of his fellow souls in Purgatory, and reported that God was most pleased with the ongoing Crusade against the Cathar heretics, launched three years earlier. The time of the Albigensian Crusade in southern France was marked by intense and prolonged warfare, this constant bloodshed and dislocation of populations being the context for these reported visits by the murdered boy.

Haunted houses are featured in the 9th-century Arabian Nights (such as the tale of Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad).[49]

European Renaissance to Romanticism

Renaissance magic took a revived interest in the occult, including necromancy. In the era of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, there was frequently a backlash against unwholesome interest in the dark arts, typified by writers such as Thomas Erastus.[50] The Swiss Reformed pastor Ludwig Lavater supplied one of the most frequently reprinted books of the period with his Of Ghosts and Spirits Walking By Night.[51]

The Child Ballad "Sweet William's Ghost" (1868) recounts the story of a ghost returning to his fiancée begging her to free him from his promise to marry her. He cannot marry her because he is dead but her refusal would mean his damnation. This reflects a popular British belief that the dead haunted their lovers if they took up with a new love without some formal release.[52] "The Unquiet Grave" expresses a belief even more widespread, found in various locations over Europe: ghosts can stem from the excessive grief of the living, whose mourning interferes with the dead's peaceful rest.[53] In many folktales from around the world, the hero arranges for the burial of a dead man. Soon after, he gains a companion who aids him and, in the end, the hero's companion reveals that he is in fact the dead man.[54] Instances of this include the Italian fairy tale "Fair Brow" and the Swedish "The Bird 'Grip'".

Modern period of western culture

Spiritualist movement

Main article: Spiritualism

Spiritualism is a monotheistic belief system or religion, postulating a belief in God, but with a distinguishing feature of belief that spirits of the dead residing in the spirit world can be contacted by "mediums", who can then provide information about the afterlife.[55]

Spiritualism developed in the United States and reached its peak growth in membership from the 1840s to the 1920s, especially in English-language countries.[56][57] By 1897, it was said to have more than eight million followers in the United States and Europe,[58] mostly drawn from the middle and upper classes, while the corresponding movement in continental Europe and Latin America is known as Spiritism.

The religion flourished for a half century without canonical texts or formal organization, attaining cohesion by periodicals, tours by trance lecturers, camp meetings, and the missionary activities of accomplished mediums.[59] Many prominent Spiritualists were women. Most followers supported causes such as the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage.[56] By the late 1880s, credibility of the informal movement weakened, due to accusations of fraud among mediums, and formal Spiritualist organizations began to appear.[56] Spiritualism is currently practiced primarily through various denominational Spiritualist Churches in the United States and United Kingdom.


Main article: Spiritism

Spiritism, or French spiritualism, is based on the five books of the Spiritist Codification written by French educator Hypolite Léon Denizard Rivail under the pseudonymAllan Kardec reporting séances in which he observed a series of phenomena that he attributed to incorporeal intelligence (spirits). His assumption of spirit communication was validated by many contemporaries, among them many scientists and philosophers who attended séances and studied the phenomena. His work was later extended by writers like Leon Denis, Arthur Conan Doyle, Camille Flammarion, Ernesto Bozzano, Chico Xavier, Divaldo Pereira Franco, Waldo Vieira, Johannes Greber,[60] and others.

Spiritism has adherents in many countries throughout the world, including Spain, United States, Canada,[61] Japan, Germany, France, England, Argentina, Portugal, and especially Brazil, which has the largest proportion and greatest number of followers.[62]

Scientific view

See also: Paranormal

The physician John Ferriar wrote "An Essay Towards a Theory of Apparitions" in 1813 in which he argued that sightings of ghosts were the result of optical illusions. Later the French physician Alexandre Jacques François Brière de Boismont published On Hallucinations: Or, the Rational History of Apparitions, Dreams, Ecstasy, Magnetism, and Somnambulism in 1845 in which he claimed sightings of ghosts were the result of hallucinations.[63][64]

David Turner, a retired physical chemist, suggested that ball lightning could cause inanimate objects to move erratically.[65]

Joe Nickell of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry wrote that there was no credible scientific evidence that any location was inhabited by spirits of the dead.[66] Limitations of human perception and ordinary physical explanations can account for ghost sightings; for example, air pressure changes in a home causing doors to slam, humidity changes causing boards to creak, condensation in electrical connections causing intermittent behavior, or lights from a passing car reflected through a window at night. Pareidolia, an innate tendency to recognize patterns in random perceptions, is what some skeptics believe causes people to believe that they have 'seen ghosts'.[67] Reports of ghosts "seen out of the corner of the eye" may be accounted for by the sensitivity of human peripheral vision. According to Nickell, peripheral vision can easily mislead, especially late at night when the brain is tired and more likely to misinterpret sights and sounds.[68]

According to research in anomalistic psychology visions of ghosts may arise from hypnagogic hallucinations ("waking dreams" experienced in the transitional states to and from sleep).[69] In a study of two experiments into alleged hauntings (Wiseman et al. 2003) came to the conclusion "that people consistently report unusual experiences in 'haunted' areas because of environmental factors, which may differ across locations." Some of these factors included "the variance of local magnetic fields, size of location and lighting level stimuli of which witnesses may not be consciously aware".[70]

Some researchers, such as Michael Persinger of Laurentian University, Canada, have speculated that changes in geomagnetic fields (created, e.g., by tectonic stresses in the Earth's crust or solar activity) could stimulate the brain's temporal lobes and produce many of the experiences associated with hauntings.[71] Sound is thought to be another cause of supposed sightings. Richard Lord and Richard Wiseman have concluded that infrasound can cause humans to experience bizarre feelings in a room, such as anxiety, extreme sorrow, a feeling of being watched, or even the chills.[72]Carbon monoxide poisoning, which can cause changes in perception of the visual and auditory systems,[73] was speculated upon as a possible explanation for haunted houses as early as 1921.

People who experience sleep paralysis often report seeing ghosts during their experiences. Neuroscientists Baland Jalal and V.S. Ramachandran have recently proposed neurological theories for why people hallucinate ghosts during sleep paralysis. Their theories emphasize the role of the parietal lobe and mirror neurons in triggering such ghostly hallucinations.[74][75][76][77]

By religion


Further information: Allhallowtide

The HebrewTorah and the Bible contain a few references to ghosts, associating spiritism with forbidden occult activities.[78] The most notable reference is in the First Book of Samuel,[79] in which a disguised King Saul has the Witch of Endor summon the spirit or ghost of Samuel. In the New Testament, Jesus has to persuade the Disciples that he is not a ghost following the resurrection, Luke 24:37–39 (some versions of the Bible, such as the KJV and NKJV, use the term "spirit"). Similarly, Jesus' followers at first believe he is a ghost (spirit) when they see him walking on water.[80]

Some Christian denominations[citation needed] consider ghosts as beings who while tied to earth, no longer live on the material plane and linger in an intermediate state before continuing their journey to heaven.[81][82][83][84] On occasion, God would allow the souls in this state to return to earth to warn the living of the need for repentance.[85]Jews and Christians are taught that it is sinful to attempt to conjure or control spirits in accordance with Deuteronomy XVIII: 9–12.[86][87]

Some ghosts are actually said to be demons in disguise, who the Church teaches, in accordance with I Timothy 4:1, that they "come to deceive people and draw them away from God and into bondage."[88] As a result, attempts to contact the dead may lead to unwanted contact with a demon or an unclean spirit, as was said to occur in the case of Robbie Mannheim, a fourteen-year-old Maryland youth.[89] The Seventh-Day Adventist view is that a "soul" is not equivalent to "spirit" or "ghost" (depending on the Bible version), and that save for the Holy Spirit, all spirits or ghosts are demons in disguise. Furthermore, they teach that in accordance with (Genesis 2:7, Ecclesiastes 12:7), there are only two components to a "soul", neither of which survives death, with each returning to its respective source.

Christadelphians and Jehovah's Witnesses reject the view of a living, conscious soul after death.[90]

The Talmud[91] tells of a being called a shade שד that is similar to other creatures in that it lives and dies but consists only of a form but lacks matter that forms mass, thus rendering it invisible. Since it has no physical mass it is capable of transporting itself from one end of the world to the other.


The Qu'ran describes spirits known as jinn.[92] The fishing village of Al Jazirah Al Hamra in United Arab Emirates is said to be haunted by multiple jinn.[93][94][95]


In Buddhism, there are a number of planes of existence into which a person can be reborn, one of which is the realm of hungry ghosts.[96]

By culture

African folklore

For the Igbo people, a man is simultaneously a physical and spiritual entity. However, it is his spirited dimension that is eternal.[97] In the Akan conception, we witness five parts of the human personality. We have the Nipadua (body), the Okra (soul), Sunsum (spirit), Ntoro (character from father), Mogya (character from mother).[97] The Humr people of Sudan consume the drink Umm Nyolokh, which is created from the liver and marrow of giraffes. Umm Nyolokh often contains DMT and other psychoactive substances from plants the giraffes eat such as Acacia, and is known to cause hallucinations of giraffes, believed to be the giraffes ghosts by the Humr.[98][99]

European folklore

Further information: Revenant, Necromancy, and Samhain

Belief in ghosts in European folklore is characterized by the recurring fear of "returning" or revenant deceased who may harm the living. This includes the Scandinavian gjenganger, the Romanian strigoi, the Serbian vampir, the Greek vrykolakas, etc. In Scandinavian and Finnish tradition, ghosts appear in corporeal form, and their supernatural nature is given away by behavior rather than appearance. In fact, in many stories they are first mistaken for the living. They may be mute, appear and disappear suddenly, or leave no footprints or other traces.

English folklore is particularly notable for its numerous haunted locations.

Belief in the soul and an afterlife remained near universal until the emergence of atheism in the 18th century.[citation needed] In the 19th century, spiritism resurrected "belief in ghosts" as the object of systematic inquiry, and popular opinion in Western culture remains divided.[100]

South and Southeast Asia

North India

Main article: Bhoot (ghost)

A bhoot or bhut (भूत, ભૂત, or بهوت) is a supernatural creature, usually the ghost of a deceased person, in the popular culture, literature and some ancient texts of the Indian subcontinent. Interpretations of how bhoots come into existence vary by region and community, but they are usually considered to be perturbed and restless due to some factor that prevents them from moving on (to transmigration, non-being, nirvana, or heaven or hell, depending on tradition). This could be a violent death, unsettled matters in their lives, or simply the failure of their survivors to perform proper funerals.[101]

In Central and Northern India, Aojhaspirit guides play a central role.[citation needed] It duly happens when in the night someone sleeps and decorates something on the wall, and they say that if one sees the spirit the next thing in the morning he will become a spirit too, and that to a skondho kata, which means a spirit without a head and the soul of the body will remain the dark with the dark lord from the spirits who reside in the body of every human in Central and Northern India. It is also believed that if someone calls one from behind, never turn back and see because the spirit may catch the human to make it a spirit. Other types of spirits in Hindu Mythology include Baital, an evil spirit who haunts cemeteries and takes demonic possession of corpses, and Pishacha, a type of flesh-eating demon.

Bengal and East India

Main article: Ghosts in Bengali Culture

There are many kinds of ghosts and similar supernatural entities that frequently come up in Bengali culture, its folklores and form an important part in Bengali peoples' socio-cultural beliefs and superstitions. It is believed that the spirits of those who cannot find peace in the afterlife or die unnatural deaths remain on Earth. The common word for ghosts in Bengali is bhoot or bhut (Bengali: ভূত). This word has an alternative meaning: 'past' in Bengali. Also the word Pret (Sanskrit) is used in Bengali to mean ghost. In Bengal, ghosts are believed to be the spirit after death of an unsatisfied human being or a soul of a person who dies in unnatural or abnormal circumstances (like murder, suicide or accident). Even it is believed that other animals and creatures can also be turned into ghost after their death.


Main article: Ghosts in Thai culture

Engraving of the Hammersmith Ghost in Kirby's Wonderful and Scientific Museum, a magazine published in 1804[1]
Relief from a carved funerary lekythos at Athens showing Hermes as psychopomp conducting the soul of the deceased, Myrrhine into Hades (ca. 430-420 B.C.)
Egyptian Akh glyph – The soul and spirit re-united after death
By 1853, when the popular song Spirit Rappings was published, Spiritualism was an object of intense curiosity.

Every day I experience a ghost. 

This ghost takes many different forms. Sometimes it’s a photograph uploaded to Facebook and stumbled upon at 2 or 3am, an old snapshot in which not all those photographed are still alive. At other times, the ghost is an email, a former acquaintance reaching out from beyond the grave of a friendship, attempting to channel our old selves. Occasionally, the ghost is just the buzzing of a fully-charged phone, oddly similar to a whisper. Always, the ghost is no ghost at all but rather a metaphor, a memory, a foothold between this world and one that no longer exists.

When unexpected, the ghost can startle, even frighten, and lately the rate at which they crop up has been quickening. ‘In a sense,’ wrote Leonard Woolf in his memoirs, in a quotation I think of with increasing frequency, ‘I have never become reconciled in London to the rhythm and the tempo of the whirring and the rushing cars.’ He was referring to his two centuries, a Victorian boyhood and the adulthood that followed; a life before and after the car, before and after speed. ‘And the tempo of living in 1886 was the tempo of the horses’ hooves, much more leisurely than it is today when it has become the tempo of the whirring and the whizzing wheels.’ The whirring and the whizzing years.

The pace of 2016 is even greater. The internet has done to the 21st century what the car, the telegraph, and electricity did to the 20th, compressing time and distance into a rush of too much information. Every morning I cradle my phone in bed, already overwhelmed by the ding of messages received, the swoosh of emails sent. The noise of productivity. The pace of life has changed since my childhood in the late 20th century, when I had only the slow melody of dial-up to contend with. It is quicker now, and with that pace comes the opportunity to be confronted daily with a new sense of time, one in which the past can be accessed in an instant and the dead are never really dead, just uploaded. These days I am, in a sense, haunted by the internet, and alongside that haunting there’s now a community online of people interested in more literal ghosts, with a fervour that hasn’t been seen since last century.  

Ghosts aren’t real, not exactly. But what is not real is still often believed in, and what is called belief is nothing more than the existence, however brief, of uncertainty. When it comes to belief in the paranormal, most Americans are uncertain. Nearly one in five US adults – more than 18 per cent of people polled – claim, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, to have seen ghosts, while a similar Gallup poll reveals that three out of four Americans believe in some form of the paranormal, be it ghosts or astrology or aliens or some other kind of supernatural phenomenon. On the other side of the Atlantic, a 2013 poll indicated that 52 per cent of British adults also believe in ghosts and spirits.

The numbers aren’t declining. Since the 1970s, the number of American adults who say they believe in ghosts has risen from one in 10 to one in three. At first glance, this growth seems irrational, considering that the rapid advance of technological progress was expected by many to make the world more rational and secular. But when websites such as the Wayback Machine archive websites for posterity and social media accounts linger on after our deaths, a new digital afterlife has been created, one that we can’t necessarily control. It’s this lack of control, this inability to resist the increasing speed and permanence of the digital life, that’s brought new vitality to paranormal belief. As technology grows more present, the ghost is this anxiety over the new impermanence writ large.

It has happened before. Two centuries ago, the Fox sisters dealt with the increasing speed of being human in a familiar way: they experienced a ghost.

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Hydesville, New York; a dark evening in late March, blustery and cold. For weeks, the two youngest daughters of the Fox family – Margaretta, or ‘Maggie’, aged 14, and Kate, 11 – had reported hearing a series of noises echoing every night through the rooms and hallways of their childhood home. A tapping, is how they described it, or a rapping, like knuckles against their walls and windows. That evening – March 31, the night before April Fool’s – a neighbour came to investigate and with the girls and their mother, waited for the noises to begin.

One rap, two raps – I imagine it like popcorn popping. ‘I am certain this house is haunted,’ said Mrs Fox, according to the National Spiritualist Association of Churches in a rather dramatic account of the events, ‘and some unhappy presence is here. I feel it.’ Three raps, four raps. Kate, still only 11, remember, asked the supposed spirit to mimic her finger snaps, and it did. Mrs Fox then asked it to tap out the exact ages of all her children, which it did, including that of an infant who had died years earlier. How could it have known, Mrs. Fox and the neighbour wondered, frightened. As the night continued, the girls called the spirit Mr Splitfoot, as though it were the devil, and maybe, just maybe (thought the neighbour and Mrs Fox), it was.

The Fox sisters would soon devise a corresponding system of raps and alphabet letters, allowing them to string together messages from ‘spirits’, and with this the organised Spiritualist movement, a popular folk religious movement that swept the United States and Europe from roughly 1848 to the 1920s, was born. Looking back at old photographs and mementos from the craze, it’s hard for contemporary eyes, so used to the complexities of Photoshop, to understand how anyone could have believed the crude and obviously doctored ‘evidence’ the mediums, spirit photographers, and hypnotists of the time used to trick their audiences.

The supposed ectoplasm spirits conjured up by the Scottish medium Helen Duncan, for example, were later exposed as simply dummies made of cheesecloth, rubber gloves, and magazine clippings. (In 1944, towards the end of her life, Duncan became the last person in Britain to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.) The escape artist Harry Houdini, famous for his successful crusade of debunking mediums, remarked to the Los Angeles Times that ‘it takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer’, and most of Spiritualism’s most famous personalities – the Fox sisters included – were flimflammers.

It’s no coincidence that Spiritualism arrived alongside social progress and some of the 19th century’s greatest scientific theories – Darwin’s Onthe Origin of Species, for example – nor that the Fox sisters’ first tappings were heard during the same decade that witnessed the widespread adoption of the telegraph. This was the birth of modernity, when knowledge of human nature shifted and changed, and new technologies rendered possible what was once only magic: the wireless spread of information, the representation captured by the photograph, pictures that could move before one’s own eyes. ‘Spiritualism,’ writes the communications historian John Durham Peters in his Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communications (1999), ‘explicitly modeled itself’ on the telegraph’s ability to receive remote messages.

Though the ambition of forging contact with the dead via mediums is ancient and widespread, Spiritualism’s birth as an organized practice dates to 1848, four years after the successful telegraphic link of Baltimore and Washington.

This is the thread holding all of these deceptions together: the want to believe. The desire to believe that another life exists beyond our own

So, too, did mediums such as the Fox sisters and their imitators successfully link the physical world to the fantasy of the immaterial. Also invented at this time was the Ouija board, with its spiral of letters and its planchard connecting human hand to ghost. Now anyone could be a medium, provided they had the proper accessories and as long as they believed.

Spirit photography was another, equally popular attempt to force the new technologies to accommodate old beliefs. The spirit photograph essentially relied on double exposure, a photographic technique that captures two different images in one photo, and was ‘discovered’ by the Boston-based engraver William Mumler in 1861. Mumler’s photos, like other spirit photographs of the time, are strange and deceptively mysterious: grim faces peer out from cloudy wisps that hover near the portrait subject’s shoulders or head, all culled from other photographs. In a famous Mumler portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, a tall, stretched-out figure grips the former First Lady’s shoulders, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln soldered on to that of his widow. How dearly do her eyes want to believe that something would appear, that some vision of her late husband would exist beyond the assassination; Mumler had to have known this. He, too, was a fraud.

This is the thread holding all of these deceptions together: the want to believe. The desire to believe that another life exists beyond our own, or that our loved ones who left too soon will someday contact us again. Whenever a new device or a new form of communication is popularised, ghost stories quickly absorb it, turning the rational into the irrational, the haunted, and the human. Spiritualism did this to the telegraph and the photograph, while later in the post-war 1950s, increasingly sophisticated audio recording devices led to the rise of supposed ‘electronic voice phenomenon’, or EVP – ghost recordings, essentially. The message left on the answering machine by the grandmother who’s already dead, the haunted car that killed James Dean, the cursed videotape that’s trying to kill the print media reporter (and maybe it’s a metaphor for the entire newspaper business) – when new technologies scare us, we in turn make them scary.

And this is, as it turns out, is a wildly popular formula. In Paranormal Media: Audiences, Spirits, and Magic in Popular Culture (2010), by the media scholar Annette Hill, the British television executive Richard Woolfe tells us how he commissioned the ghost-hunting reality show Most Haunted after buying a copy of every women’s magazine he could find and realising they all had one thing in common: stories of the paranormal.

In 2012, an Illinois family experienced strange appearances and disappearances in the grounds of their suburban home, as flowers, food and sand that had not been ordered began arriving, like unwanted offerings, on their doorstep. Invisible fingers traced their email inboxes and their online bills, one by one, as each of their private accounts was attacked and compromised. Though the Straters were in fact the victims of human hackers, what’s interesting about the language that Fusion used when reporting their story in October 2015 is that it was the language of an exorcism: ‘poltergeist’, ‘haunted’, a ‘digital ghost story’. Somehow, even when the culprits are flesh and blood, our anxiety concerning the speed and shape of machines and their owners’ sudden, mysterious lack of control leaks over, colouring our perceptions. The internet is nothing more than a transmitter of ghosts and their longings.

It’s only a fork in the road, after all, that separates the ghost story from science fiction, where hackers-gone-mad and computers acting of their own accord have long been familiar tropes. Also a trope: the cyborg, that Frankenstein mishmash of human and machine. Even death, which is so animal, is now taking on a strange cyborg flair, as the obituary goes digital and the information we upload online about ourselves becomes difficult, even impossible, to access.

Death has compelled social media platforms to devise policies concerning their users’ accounts, with the strange consequence that is the memorial page. Facebook’s official policy is to turn an account into such a memorial, where ‘people can save and share their memories of those who’ve passed’. Twitter will deactivate a deceased user’s account following a loved one’s official request, while YouTube and Gmail will allow friends and family to access the deceased’s accounts. Yahoo’s email users, though, are out of luck: in 2005, a Michigan man named John Ellsworth had to sue the company for the release of his deceased son’s emails. Apple isn’t innocent, either: a 72-year-old Canadian widow is currently battling with the company following its refusal to release her dead husband’s Apple account login details to her. It’s now possible to treat one’s social media feed as something akin to a digital graveyard, or a 21st century version of that medieval maxim memento mori: “Remember, you will die.”

Then there are grim forums like MyDeathSpace, its name a play on the early social networking site MySpace and its purpose the pooling of dead users’ social media accounts. The site first gained attention in 2006, shortly after its invention, and was heavily criticised; today, it still exists, and its forum members have a special predilection for compiling the profiles of the murdered, the suicidal, and overdose victims. While humans have certainly been morbid concerning other people’s deaths for centuries – public hangings come to mind – sites like MyDeathSpace have a peculiar mirror-like effect: the more you read it, the more you start speculating about your own death, and how it will be perceived. ‘My death space, as they call it,’ goes a line in the Bruce Bond poem named after the website, ‘as though it’s me / who died. A life, we know, is complex. / But death is simple. A place to talk shit, / to license grief, or barring that, kill it.’ For all of their voyeurism, speculation, and occasional, disturbing glee, sites like MyDeathSpace also have a distancing effect: yes, someone died. But it’s only real on a computer screen.

Some of us are coping with this nihilism in a familiar way: online, people are telling each other stories of their ghost experiences.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what is true or false, supernatural or true crime. What all of the stories have in common is the intent to provoke one specific emotion: fear

‘I woke up in the middle of the night,’ goes one, ‘with the weirdest feeling that someone was watching me…’ ‘My father said he’s frequently seen a woman in a white dress at the top of our stairs,’ another might begin. ‘My mum used to clean house, until she didn’t.’ ‘The patient was at the top of the bed and looked at me and said, “Don’t let them take me!”’ The tales are familiar: all the storytellers fear that their peers might consider them crazy, but they have to confess what they may or may not have seen. Mostly, they’re believed. To all ghost stories there is a pattern: someone sees something and, for at least a moment, believes.

With the rise of the internet has come a popular surge in people looking to be freaked out. The genre of stories they created, known as ‘creepypasta’ – a perversion of ‘copy paste’, the keyboard commands – take as their material the frightening, the inexplicable, and the weird. Most are assuredly made up – Slender Man, created by members of the Something Awful forum, is the most prominent example, but other famous stories include things like Ted’s Caving Page, an Angelfire website straight out of the 1990s about a spelunking trip gone wrong – but others are simple confessions, a recounting of something ‘off’ or weird that happened to the writer. Often, they draw inspiration from aspects of millennial childhoods, like a series on haunted Pokémon games that’s popular on the main creepypasta wiki.

Other sites, like the occasional paranormal-themed question on Ask Reddit, contend that their answers are true, but who knows? NoSleep, a Reddit community dedicated to what it terms ‘original horror stories’, displays the mantra, ‘Everything is true here, even when it’s not’. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what is true or false, supernatural or true crime. What all of the stories have in common is the intent to provoke one specific emotion: fear.

To be frightened, after all, is to reaffirm an essential mortality. It’s to feel the physicality of the human heart beating, human blood rushing; it’s the adrenaline that reminds us that we’re bone and breath and brain. Not every creepypasta reader believes in ghosts, but many of us need them in order to remind ourselves what it’s like to be alive. When death is increasingly digital, and when the daily round is so connected to new technologies, something about life can feel very foggy and distant. So we read a scary story, snap our laptops shut in fear, and dive under the covers, human once more, until morning comes and the tempo speeds up again.

There is no such thing as a ghost. There are only memories, and the stories of them that we tell. Still, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and swear I see a phantom. When I blink, I realise that it’s only the fickle light of my computer screen, unearthly blue and glowing.

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Rhian Sasseen

is a writer whose work has been published in Al Jazeera America, Salon and Modern Farmer, among others. She lives in Massachusetts.

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