Why Do People Believe in Ghosts?
I began this article, as is my custom, by reading about my subject – in this case, belief in ghosts. Research is where the magic begins, but it’s also where everything can go most horribly wrong. You know how Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina principle states that all happy families are alike, but the miserable ones are uniquely miserable? Like that. Competently-researched articles all come together successfully the same ways; those that don’t, go off the rails with incandescent, disfiguring variety.
By the Numbers
It began with what appeared to be a straightforward statistic.
“Over 41% of Americans believe in ghosts,” I read. The size of the figure instantly gave me pause. That’s a huge number. There are, what, 332 million people in America? I whipped out the calculator app: 41 percent of 332 million is 136 million.
I thought that sounded a bit over-the-top; in the next sentence, though, there was the statistic about how many believe in demons (a higher number). I, a happy-go-lucky ghost-believer, actually scoffed at that. Then I saw that 75% of Americans believed in the paranormal… two decades ago. Surely that number is higher today (it is.)
Well… alright. Look at the blaring success of the paranormal in pop culture – Harry Potter, Twilight, et al; not strictly ghosts, but occult topics, the paranormal, and globally popular. Ridiculous numbers. Is it really such a reach from the land of Nearly-headless Nick to ghost stories of one’s own? After all, a Globe poll a few years ago found that 84% of the world’s population believe in a Deity or some form of religion; are we not more or less treading the same supernatural waters here?
What did I expect, anyway? Some simplified, biochemistry-based breakdown of the psychology of faith matters? Okay, yeah. I kind of did. I was looking for a neat, comfort-based neurochemical reason being fulfilled by belief in ghost-y stuff. Emotion, I thought, must surely defang death’s interminable, unremitting presence by returning our dead to us. If there are ghosts, then the dead are not really gone. They’re just… elsewhere. We must believe in ghosts to console ourselves about death, or mortality, or loss; we must believe to belong to our community of believers. We must believe as a survival mechanism.
Reductio ad Absurdum!
It’s not that simple.
Not all cultures that believe in the spirits of the dead sentimentalize them. And different cultures have different terms for similar entities, the concept of ghosts is more or less universal: a human who once lived, and who is now dead but still present in some disembodied way. In France they call them “saints;” Taiwan celebrates a month-long “Ghost Festival,” which begins the first day of the seventh lunar month of every year (the government even shuts down). Buddhism is more or less based on ghosts, in the form of the spirits of ancestors. And in some countries, it is generally accepted that each human will give rise, upon her death, to two ghosts, minimum; in parts of Africa, the number is no fewer than five.
Ghosts, it seems, are as much a part of the human landscape as humans themselves.
An American Haunting
But here, where we live and do business, over a hundred and thirty million of our neighbors believe the house next door, or the empty place across the street, or your funeral home, probably, is haunted by someone’s restive spirit.
Some of us want to believe life goes on somehow, that this isn’t all we get, and we do believe for comfort.
Some of us have had experiences that can’t be qualified any other way; we believe out of convenience, or process of elimination.
Some of us don’t believe, but we don’t disbelieve… the proof isn’t in, either way.
But some of us do believe, and we don’t need a reason. We believe because it’s interesting; we believe because it’s more work not to believe.
Mostly, we believe because we are, simply, part ghost.