Darryll B.D. Walsh, President GPC
They are everywhere. You can’t turn on television or watch YouTube without seeing the latest video or hearing the newest recording from an abandoned asylum or lonely graveyard. And of course your family has its own favourite ghost story or two. If not, you probably live a stone’s throw from a stop on the local ghost tour or eat at a restaurant that plays up its unsavory past.
Polls differ slightly, but a strong minority believe in ghosts. That is up dramatically in the past decade, almost certainly as result of being bombarded by television and Internet sensationalism. And we want to believe. Sixty-one per cent of people believe in an afterlife. Still, after thousands of years and the utilization of cutting edge technology we still cannot definitively say what ghosts are.
The “proofs” offered on hundreds of websites all have normal, mundane explanations. Readings on many of the instruments dedicated to ghost hunting wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in other contexts. Yet, for all these proofs to be true evidence of ghosts would require a radical departure from the conception and behaviour of ghosts throughout history. Not to mention violate a plethora of known natural laws. But then we could console ourselves that they are the result of some unknown natural law. Are we fooling ourselves by chasing digital readouts from various pieces of mundane equipment instead of the one and only way to ascertain a ghost? If all the evidence for ghosts we can amass is just digital ones and twos, perhaps it isn’t too outrageous to wonder what happened to the ghost that used to be so widespread and unmistakable?
The nature of ghosts
The word ghost was coined in the late sixteenth century. It comes from the ancient Germanic term, gast, and is commonly believed to be the disembodied spirit of a deceased person. Though some foolishly think ghosts will disappear with more science teaching in schools, parapsychologists study two theories. The first is they are a disincarnate entity that once lived on earth in a human body. Others pursue the theory ghosts are internally generated hallucinations, ESP writ large. Whatever they may actually be, in one indisputable reality almost everyone needs to believe they are proof of an existence beyond death.
Depending on who you ask, the different types of ghosts vary from 3 to 5. For our purposes here there are three main types of manifestations that we call ghosts. The first is the aforementioned disembodied spirit of a deceased human or animal. It is self-aware and often appears at the time of death. In parapsychology they are referred to as Apparitions. The second type of ghost is often referred to as the “playback” type of ghost or Residual Haunting. They are a replay of past events, somehow imprinted upon the environment, and manifest themselves when certain conditions occur that we do not yet understand, though most would hazard a guess meteorology plays some part. Perhaps those old black and white movies with their raging storms and gliding ghosts along dark hallways were closer to the truth than they thought. Thus Anne Boleyn, the unlucky second wife of the worst king England ever had, Henry VIII, can be seen at various locations in the UK doing mundane, ordinary actions and seemingly unaware of the presence of witnesses. She is also seen being taken from the scaffold in the Tower of London, headless, and carried by four Footmen. Now, no one believes her spirit and that of the four Footmen have nothing better to do than reenact that sad phase of her tragic life repeatedly throughout time. Some believe these tragic events are somehow impressed upon the surrounding environment. But what about the mundane, ordinary, non tragic views of her?
The third type is the rare ghost of sensational television and publicity-seeking ghost/demon hunters. They are loud, dangerous and destructive. They are also always unseen. We know these spirits as poltergeists, German for “noisy spirit.” Nova Scotia has had two major poltergeist incidents and one, the Esther Cox or Amherst Mystery, is famous worldwide and featured in many books on the paranormal even though it pales in comparison to the Mary Ellen Spook Farm of Caledonia Mills. As with many things in the paranormal, good PR often trumps truth. Though most hauntings may be mistakes, most poltergeists are the result of purposeful fakery. But as with a small number of ghosts, there are some that challenge our beliefs.
Ghosts are mentioned in many ancient texts including the Bible. Matthew 14:25-27, Mark 6:48-50, and Luke 24:37:39 in the New Testament all refer to ghosts, but the most famous passage concerning a ghost is the one from I Samuel 28: 7-20 in which King Saul asks the Witch of Endor to conjure the ghost of Samuel, his former adviser. For this insolence, Saul is cut off from God’s favour for choosing to consult a spirit instead of trusting in God’s plan for him.
Historically, our belief in ghosts has remained constant, yet our interpretation of them and their corresponding behaviours, has changed. Ancient peoples believed the dead lived on in another form that required they be buried with many of their earthly belongings and some kind of sustenance to help them once they reached the other side. The most well known example of this, of course, is the burial rites of the Egyptian Pharaohs.
Also, many ancient cultures believed that improper funeral rites, lack of any kind of burial, accidental or malicious death where the body was not recovered, suicide or failure to resolve some unfinished business, would lead to a restless spirit. Often as a vampire in Eastern Europe. Folklore is full of stories of an unwary traveller who would be accosted by the ghost of someone who needed the assistance of the living. Often their body was not found or buried properly and thus this state of affairs must be rectified or they cannot rest. Owing money to someone was another reason for the restless dead. Often the required action or amount paid would seem insignificant to our modern eyes.
The appearance of restless spirits was rarely a welcome event. It often inspired intense fear, and sometimes still does. Though we enjoy ghost stories and welcome ghosts as a comforting reaffirmation of life after death, the actual experience of a haunting is another matter.
The dead are supposed to stay dead. This fear of wandering souls expresses itself in the modern phenomenon we call Halloween, which is based on the ancient Celtic celebration Samhain, which means ‘summer’s end’. Celebrating the harvesting of crops and marking the end of the Celtic year, Samhain also was a precautionary ritual to ward off the dead. They were thought to walk freely through the world during this time so the ancient Celts initiated the practice of wearing masks so as not to be recognizable by a spirit who may wish them harm. Fires in the hearth would be extinguished and people of the village and surrounding areas would walk to the top of a hill where a huge bonfire would be lit. Then people would light sticks from the bonfire and travel back to their homes to relight their hearths for another year. Since the dead would be attracted to the larger bonfire on the hill the Celts thought safe to relight the famil y hearth.
This ritual, along with the wearing of masks and costumes, would thwart the restless dead and keep the Celts safe. When Christianity became the dominant religion of the British Isles the church incorporated many pagan holidays into their calendar in an effort to make it easier for people to transfer their allegiance to the new religion. Instead of many Gods, now there was to be only one. Since Samhain was such a popular festival, it became All Saints Day or Hallowmas, November 1st. Thus the night before became All Hallows Eve (Halloween). And to seal the deal, November 2nd became All Soul’s Day. When the rituals of Samhaim persisted despite two special days dedicated to the dead, and the best efforts of local priests and bishops, Church teachings changed in an effort to link Samhain with demons and the devil. This was fairly successful to a degree in England, but elsewhere Samhain developed into Halloween and has flourished into the 21stCentury.
Ghosts in the Victorian Age
For as long as there is written history the ghost appeared as a full-bodied representation, solid and in full 3D. It would be very easy to mistake them as human beings, as some may have been, but most were accompanied by the rattling of chains or the sounds of groans and moans. The most famous depiction of this is in Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. On film there are delightful, fun depictions, or dark, brooding horror movie type renditions. The most famous are the 1951 Alistair Sim or 1984 George C. Scott versions that heavily reinforce the Victorian vision/belief of the classic ghost or haunting. The 2019 version with Guy Pierce is the most horrific in presentation, yet is also a fascinating character study any student of psychology would instantly enjoy. Victorians loved their ghosts and no Christmas was complete without ghost stories on Christmas Eve. This can be seen today on the various television channels with series having offbeat or paranormal themed specials at Christmas. Ghosts still cried out for absolution of sins or vengeance against perceived wrongs if you were unlucky enough to meet them on lonely roads or at a crossroads.
Reality TV, the Modern Ghost, and Reality
The appearance and behaviours of ghosts in the modern age differ sharply from the classic ghost. Gone are the sounds of chains rattling in the night. No longer do the ghosts plead pitiably for redemption or wail loudly for revenge to unwary travellers. Today ghosts are mostly reported as a shadow, movement out of the corner of one’s eye, or simply felt as a presence. Not only has the ghost lost its pathetic voice pleading for help, its lost its looks as well. Whereas once many a ghost’s appearance was cyclical and predictable, now they seem random and uncontrolled. The ancient terror of low moans in the night has been replaced by indistinct garbled sounds on cheap recorders. The ghost has lost his traditional voice.
When they are not rummaging around damp, dark basements of old houses and abandoned asylums in green light screaming questions at nothing, ghost hunters spend a lot of their time complaining that scientists don’t understand them and won’t look at their evidence. What they are really saying is that science has looked at the evidence and seen that it is insufficient to prove anything, let alone a haunting is taking place. Let me be clear. There is no piece of technology anywhere that can tell you any place is haunted. None. Period. Full Stop. There is no such thing as a ghost detector. Technology may be marketed as such, but there is no equipment for that purpose. And none that can find a ghost. The amateur may say they are scientifically searching for ghosts but they are actually technologically searching for them instead. And as expected, this has been a total failure. Why is all this expensive technology useless in the pursuit of ghosts?
Every piece of technology employed in the search for ghosts was developed for more mundane uses. Since the theory that disembodied spirits exist is assumed to be true, any apparently anomalous readings from these instruments are eagerly promoted to be conclusive evidence of such. But there is no reason to suppose that these anomalous reading are anything other than the result of badly calibrated or improperly used equipment.
The only way to ascertain the appearance of someone who is dead is to see them with one’s own eyes. To see someone who absolutely cannot be there, who is known to be dead by all and sundry, is the only way to conclusively prove something paranormal appears to be happening. This is one case where all the technology in the world is useless. There is no way to tell if technology is registering something paranormal, capturing regular variations in conditions being monitored, or simply being misused and misunderstood. It would be ideal be to find a haunting that is frequent, predictable and visual. Once the location of such a haunting is ascertained, then and only then, equipment can be brought in to see if there are environmental changes that occur simultaneously with the appearance of the ghost. This stage of the investigation has to be handled scientifically, without bias and with the participation of both skeptics and believers. Only with the accumulation of impartial evidence that is attested to by both sides of the argument will ghosts be proven to exist.
Are ghosts extinct?
The classical ghost of old certainly is. They are now rarely seen in our busy modern world. Most reports of hauntings are of ambiguous phenomena that might or might not have anything to do with a ghost. They don’t interact with the living as they once did.
Whereas once the ghost would appear dramatically to family or strangers at will, now they are shy and often only experienced only via digital readout. The ghosts that used to comfort us with promises of eternal life even as they frightened us out of our wits exist now only in folklore and ghosts stories. As with other areas of life in our modern technological world, we have lost something poignant and romantic in our digital haste.