- This article is about the paranormal. For other meanings, see Ghost (disambiguation).
Reputed ghost of a monk. Taken in a church in England
Ghosts are the supposed apparitions of the dead. A ghost is often thought to be the spirit or soul of a person who has remained on Earth after death. Every culture in the world carries stories about ghosts, but its beliefs vary substantially across time and place, with disagreements both as to what ghosts are and whether such things exist in reality.
Beliefs about ghosts
Ghosts are often depicted of a human size and shape, but typically described as "silvery", "shadowy", "semi-transparent", "fog-like", or similar. Sometimes they do not manifest themselves visually, but in terms of other phenomena, such as the movements of an object, spontaneous throwing of a lightswitch, noises etc., which supposedly have no natural explanation.
In the West, those who believe in ghosts sometimes hold them to be souls that could not find rest after death, and so linger on Earth. The inability to find rest is often explained by unfinished business, such as a victim seeking justice or revenge after death. Criminals sometimes supposedly linger to avoid Purgatory or Hell. It is sometimes held that ghosts reside in Limbo, a place, according to non-orthodox Catholic doctrine, between Heaven and Hell where the souls of unbaptized infants go.
In Asian cultures (such as China), many people believe in reincarnation. Ghosts are those souls that refused to be 'recycled' because they have unfinished business similar to those in western belief. Exorcists can either help a ghost to be reincarnated or blow it out of existence. In Chinese belief, apart from being reincarnated, a ghost can also become immortal and become a demigod, or it can go to hell and suffer for eternity, or it can die again and become "ghost of ghost".
Both the West and the East share some fundamentals about ghosts. They may wander around places where they frequent when alive, or where they have died. Such places where ghosts frequent are known as "haunted"; the rounds they go on are known as "hauntings". Ghosts do not have a physical body like human beings. They often wear the sort of clothing in which they would have been seen when alive.
Buddhist Samsara includes the concept of the Hungry ghost realm. Sentient beings in that realm are referred to as Hungry Ghosts because of their attachment to this world. Asuras are also refered to as "fighting ghosts".
While some accept ghosts as a reality, many others are skeptical of ghosts' actuality.
Skeptics may seek to explain ghost sightings by applying the principle of Occam's razor, which argues that the simplest adequate explanation for any event or phenomenon is the most likely explanation.
This usually means that first, the sincerity and motive of the person reporting will be called into question. For example, lingering of ghosts is typically associated with seeking justice or revenge. Ascribing such motives and powers to dead people could be interpreted as a scare tactic directed at those who might consider murdering someone.
Second, the possibility of a hoax or con will be considered, with the reporting person assumed to be the victim. It seems possible that, sometimes, the telling of ghost stories might have been a way for secluded communities to scare off intruders. It is also conceivable that, when unsuccessful, this tactic could have been backed up by more or less elaborate setups with members of that community playing ghosts.
Third, explanations grounded in knowledge about human physiology will be proffered. For instance, the appearance of ghosts is often associated with a chilling sensation and pale, semitransparent figures. But a natural animal response to fear is hair-raising which can be mistaken for chill. The visual aspects of ghost reports could also be accounted for by human physiology: the peripheral vision is very sensitive in detecting motion, but does not contain much color or provide focused shapes; therefore, a moving curtain or other movement outside the focused view can create a strong illusion of an eerie figure. The natural occurrence of infrasound, which are sounds below human auditory frequencies (below 20 hertz), could possibly explain the notions of feeling a 'presence' in the room, or unexplained feelings of anxiety or dread, as certain infrasonic frequencies are known to have these effects on the body. The frequency of 18hz is known to cause the human eye to vibrate, which can make pale forms appear in the peripheral vision.
Psychological factors are also often cited as natural explanations for ghost sightings: susceptible people might be prone to exaggerated interpretations of perceptions when visiting a site of unpleasant historical events.
It seems likely that the real estate with the most distinguished ghosts as rumored tenants is the Tower of London, which is reported to be haunted by:
Several other ghosts are said to make the Tower their home; phantom troops of soldiers reportedly appear there, as well as a lady in mourning with no face.
The city of York in England is also reputed to be a centre of ghostly manifestations.
The White House in Washington, DC is said to be haunted by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln and by several lesser spectres. The ghost of the Roman Emperor Caligula was said to haunt the Lamian Gardens of Rome, where his body had been hastily and unceremoniously buried after his assassination.
In the Biblical account of the Witch of Endor, King Saul of Israel has the witch conjure up the ghost of the prophet Samuel to consult him on his precarious situation. The prophet's spirit gives the king no assistance, and foretells his doom instead.
Ghosts in fiction
In many stories, ghosts are often depicted as haunting the living until a certain desire is met or some grievance was settled by the haunted.
In Shakespeare's play Hamlet, a ghost taking the form of Hamlet's recently deceased father appears to Prince Hamlet one night. The ghost says that he was in fact murdered by his brother Claudius, who now (by virtue of having married Hamlet's mother Gertrude) occupies the throne. The ghost exhorts Hamlet to take revenge on Claudius. When Hamlet sees the ghost, he is not sure if it is in fact his father's spirit, or a demon whose aim is to deceive him. Julius Caesar's ghost appears to Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to warn Brutus of his impending defeat.
There are ghost superheroes who fight for justice, such as DC Comics' The Spectre and Deadman.
In the Ghostbusters film and television cartoon, the protagonists use special technology of their own design to hunt and capture/exile the ghosts they encounter.
In Ghost in the Shell, ghost is a word used to describe a person's inner being, similar to the concept of a soul.
Other famous ghosts in fiction include the Headless Horseman, who appears in Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn visit a haunted house in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Algernon Blackwood was a British writer who is well known for writing ghost stories. Other authors in the field include M. R. James, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, H. R. Wakefield, and E. F. Benson.
Theatre productions sometimes feature ghosts. One way to make the phantom appear on stage is Pepper's ghost technique.
External links and references
- Skeptic's Dictionary on ghosts (http://skepdic.com/ghosts.html)
- The Shadowlands: Ghosts and Hauntings (http://theshadowlands.net/ghost/)
- The Institute of Paranormal Research (http://www.iopr.org.uk)