October is a month flooded with ghost images and stories. You might even know that what we call Halloween is rooted in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in—go figure!). The Celts lived about 2,000 years ago in what is now Ireland and northern France. Samhain was a time when people felt especially close to dead relatives and loved ones whose friendly spirits were welcomed for dinner, given treats, and provided with lit candles to help them find their way back to the spirit world.
Shortly after Halloween is Dios de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. In Hispanic culture, November 2nd is the day when the spirits of loved ones can return to the living world to visit with family and friends.
In late August or early September (depending on the lunar calendar), many Asian cultures celebrate the Ghost Festival or the Hungry Ghost Festival. During this week or month, depending on the country, celebrants not only honor their dearly departed but attempt to appease the spirits of the vengeful dead.
But Are Ghosts Real?
Lots of people think so!
- On 11/27/21, People wrote that 63% of respondents “to a recent survey” said they believe in paranormal activity of some sort and 57% of Americans believe in ghosts specifically.
- On 11/28/21, based on a different survey, USA Today said 40% of Americans believe in ghosts and 20% said they’ve seen one.
- And according to an 11/28/21 article in The New York Times, a 1990 Gallup Poll reported 25% believed in ghosts.
- In their 2005 poll, 32% of respondents said they believed in ghosts.
- A 2019 IPSOS poll reported 46% of respondents were believers.
One might speculate about reasons for the apparent increase in the number of ghost believers over the decades.
Although these numbers are data, they are not proof!
But let’s back up a bit….
What Is a Ghost?
Oxford Language defines ghost (noun) as “an apparition of a dead person which is believed to appear or become manifest to the living, typically as a nebulous image.” But is that what all those survey respondents believe in? Not necessarily.
Some people believe there are categories of ghosts: poltergeists, residual hauntings, intelligent spirits, or shadow people.
What’s the Evidence?
Elva Zona Heaster Shue, the Greenbrier Ghost
Elva Shue died in 1897, and the death was ruled to be of natural causes during childbirth. Mary Jane Heaster, Elva’s mother, later told a judge that the ghost of her daughter appeared before her to accuse her husband of murdering her. Elva’s body was exhumed, and signs of strangulation were found on the corpse. Erasmus Shue, Elva’s husband, was convicted of her murder
Actually, there is nothing that scientists agree is evidence in support of ghosts existence. Benjamin Radford, 6/19/21, posted “Are ghosts real?” on livescience.com, considering this question in depth that I have summarized here.
For one thing, there are no clear, definite, agreed upon criteria. The presence of a spirit might manifest as a vision, an unexplained sound or light, a dream appearance, even a change of temperature or a light breeze, a cold spot in a hallway, a door closing for no apparent reason, keys or other objects missing or moved—virtually any unexplained happening/perception.
Contrary evidence is often based on logic and the physical world as we know it. How can an ephemeral being pass through walls, for example, but also lift or move furniture? Why do ghosts appear clothed? If the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living, why don’t murder victims just tell someone who did it?
But perhaps the evidence just hasn’t been found yet.
Do People—Many People—Just Need to Believe in Ghosts?
The belief that the dead remain with us in spirit is an ancient one, documented everywhere from the Bible to “Macbeth.” Many people are comforted by the belief that the spirits of dead loved ones look out for us, or support us in our times of need.
Some people do not accept that life as we live it is all there is to human existence. Consider the various religions that postulate life-after-death possibilities, whether those be reward/heaven vs. punishment/hell, reincarnation/rebirth, or something else.
For some, believing that spirits linger is a way of not accepting that a loved one is truly gone.
And for some, the need for closure/understanding might drive them to ghosts as an explanation of anything otherwise inexplicable.
BOTTOM LINE: The lack of scientific support for the reality of ghosts is unlikely to separate believers from their beliefs. The sheer variety of ways ghosts/spirits are thought to manifest themselves means one can always find experiential “evidence” that supports one’s belief.