Why Do People Believe in Ghosts?

Across the world, ideas of the paranormal persist.
Nick Perla/Flickr

In June, Sheila Sillery-Walsh, a British tourist visiting the historic island-prison of Alcatraz in San Francisco, claimed that she captured an image of a ghost in a picture she snapped on her iPhone. In the frame of what was otherwise supposed to be a picture of an empty prison cell was a blurry black and white image of a woman. The story, which was printed in the British tabloid the Daily Mail, featured on the Bay Area's local KRON4 TV station and mocked by SFist, isn't the first time the Daily Mail has claimed that strange images have come up on smart devices. 

Normally, a paranormal story wouldn’t catch my attention, but a few months before the story came out, a Spanish friend of mine named Laura showed me a weird image she found on her phone while I was traveling in Madrid. The photo, taken on her iPhone while on a trip to Ethiopia, shows a boy looking down at leaves he is holding in his hands. Seemingly superimposed onto the boy is another image of the boy, hands in a different position and eyes looking straight at the camera.

Laura was convinced she captured an image of a ghost.

Then a few weeks later I discovered an image of a man in the background of a photo I took with my own iPhone. The picture was taken in my apartment and the man, whom I can’t identify, was not actually in the apartment at the time. I’ve been using the photo to scare my friends, and myself, ever since.

*  *  *

Recent surveys have shown that a significant portion of the population believes in ghosts, leading some scholars to conclude that we are witnessing a revival of paranormal beliefs in Western society. A Harris poll from last year found that 42 percent of Americans say they believe in ghosts. The percentage is similar in the U.K., where 52 percent of respondents indicated that they believed in ghosts in a recent poll. Though it’s tough to estimate how large the paranormal tourism industry is—tours of sites that are supposedly haunted (rather than staged haunted houses)—there are 10,000 haunted locations in the U.K. according to the country’s tourist board, and sites like HauntedRooms.co.uk list dozens of allegedly haunted hotels where curious visitors can stay. In the U.S., residents of places like Ellicott City in Howard County, Maryland, pride themselves on their haunted heritage.

While the terms "spirit" and "ghost"are related and even interchangeable in some languages, the word "ghost" in English tends to refer to the soul or spirit of a deceased person that can appear to the living. In A Natural History of Ghosts, Roger Clarke discusses nine varieties of ghosts identified by Peter Underwood, who has studied ghost stories for decades. Underwood’s classification of ghosts includes elementals, poltergeists, historical ghosts, mental imprint manifestations, death-survival ghosts, apparitions, time slips, ghosts of the living, and haunted inanimate objects.

It seems that belief in ghosts is even more widespread in much of Asia, where ghosts are characterized as neutral and can be appeased through rituals or angered if provoked (as opposed to our scarier depictions of ghosts in the West), according to Justin McDaniel, a professor of religious studies and director of the Penn Ghost Project at the University of Pennsylvania. “[Ghosts in Asia] can be asked for help in healing humans, winning the lottery and protecting one while traveling or while pregnant,” he said. “Like American ghosts, they have an attachment to the human realm which keeps them haunting and helping humans.”

The author's friend believes she captured a
ghost in this photo, taken on a trip to Ethiopia.
(Laura Martinez de la Calle)

In China, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand, the seventh month of the lunar calendar (which falls in August this year) ushers in the Hungry Ghost Festival, when it is believed that ghosts of the deceased are temporarily released from the lower realm to visit the living. In Taiwan, some people believe that the presence of wandering ghosts during Ghost Month can cause accidents to the living. At least one study has shown that people avoid risky behaviors during this time, including those in bodies of water, reducing the number of deaths by drowning.

“Like in the West,” McDaniel says, “people in Asia have kept their belief in ghosts despite the rise of science, skepticism, secularism, and public education. In places like Japan where secularism is very strong, the belief in ghosts is still high. Even hyper-modern and liberal Scandinavia has a high percentage of people believing in ghosts.”

It turns out that a significant amount of people report having personally experienced paranormal activity. In a study published in 2011, 28.5 percent of undergraduate students surveyed at a southern university reported having had a paranormal experience. In a 2006 Reader's Digest poll, 20 percent of respondents (21 percent of women and 16 percent of men) reported that they had seen a ghost at some time in their lives.

Presented by

Tiffanie Wen is a writer based in Tel Aviv. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, and the Jerusalem Post.

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