Why do people believe in ghosts?
Perceptions of the afterlife vary across cultures, traditions, and spiritual beliefs. Belief in the continued existence after death is prevalent globally and throughout human history. Though these entities go by many names, for the purpose of this discussion, they will be referred to as ghosts. This essay will be written under the impression that ghosts do not exist. A brief analysis of the matter will reveal that individuals are more susceptible to believe in ghosts because of previous beliefs, the desire to believe, and desperation.
First, people are raised with biases that enable different beliefs, impacting whether they are likely to believe in ghosts. Religion plays a role in the lives of individuals and according to Braude’s definition “religious beliefs are paranormal.” (Bridgstock, 2009, p.42) Christianity especially has many ties to ghosts including exorcisms and house-blessings. It should come as no surprise that a Harris Poll in 2009 found that Protestants and Catholics were 14-18% more likely to believe in ghosts. (Shermer, 2012, 143) Religion is usually passed on from generation to generation. If parents believe in ghosts then it is almost certain the child will grow up with the same beliefs. These may be caused by a cognitive mistake or falsehood, driven from previous experience and beliefs of those around the believer. “Once that belief has formed, subsequent experiences will be filtered through it, and this will create a feedback loop,”(Langston & Hubbard, 2019, para. 4) which reinforces the belief. Those who believe in other spiritual phenomena are more likely to believe in ghosts. Once a person steps away from science and logic, they begin to open their eyes to more extraordinary phenomena. “[P]attern seeing tendency can lead us to see patterns where there are none.” (Brigstock, 2009, p. 49) In fact, many supernatural beliefs are so similar they are categorized together by parapsychologists. Those who believe in the afterlife, souls, and spiritual energies are likely to also believe in ghosts. In short, “prior belief is an important variable in determining how purportedly paranormal events will be interpreted.” (Langston & Hubbard, 2019).
Next, people can will themselves to believe. Believing in ghosts can be fun, give a person a sense of community, and ease boredom. People want to believe. They may not realize it, but this want is so strong that they are likely to see something unexplainable. An event may occur with an ordinary explanation, but the person will ignore it in favour of a ghost. This is common during ghost tours, “For participants who started lower on ghost belief, the [ghost] tour did increase their belief.” (Langston & Hubbard, 2019) These people went on the tour wanting to see ghosts, so they saw ghosts. People are also more likely to believe in ghosts when they are in a good mood, (King et al., 2007), and as Hume says, “If we gain satisfaction both from proclaiming and hearing about strange events, then it is hardly surprising that whole industries are devoted to the paranormal.” (Brigstock, 2009, p.49) It is more fun to believe especially when surrounded by others who also believe. Communities of ghost-believers exist, many are on social media. This is no surprise as about 42% of Americans believe in ghosts, according to a 2009 Harris Poll. The community of ghost believers has been compared to those who share a national identity. “Community in the paranormal scene can best be described in terms of the scattered social networks that exist between participants.” (Northcote, 2007, 18) This is partly because for most believers, believing in ghosts is not the main part of their lives. They may believe to have a sense of community and to ease boredom. After all, “human observation and memory are notoriously unreliable.” (Lamont, 2013, p.2) The brain can get bored and invent sounds or sights that are not actually there. Many of the employees at a living history museum in Ontario, Canada, were skeptical about ghosts when starting but most became believers after spending long periods of time alone, waiting for visitors in the old buildings. They may want to believe that a door slamming is not the wind but rather a ghost because “Seeing ambiguous stimuli that might be … ghosts [is} rated as a more meaningful experience.” (King et al. 2007, p.909). Believing in ghosts is more desirable for some people so they choose to believe.
Finally, believing in ghosts may be out of desperation. They may have lost a loved one, are afraid, or refuse to recognize an underlying mental health issue. Losing a loved one is an extremely difficult and stressful situation for many people, as they do not want to believe the person is gone. Some people find comfort in the possibility that their loved one may be a ghost. These people may hire a medium to help them communicate however, “an eager sitter anxious to hear what they want [will] usually inadvertently pause at the correct [answer] thus prompting [ a reaction from the medium]” (Lamont, 2013, p.128) This will confirm the beliefs of the individual. In fact, many people who have had an experience with ghosts claim it is a dead relative instead of a random person. Fear may also cause a person to believe, “When people are stressed or subjected to complex and unfamiliar environments, they are likely to reconfigure objects, people and events” (Bartlett 1932 as cited by Sharps et al., 2006) The person will try to choose the explanation that best fits the situation but it can be difficult to come to a logical conclusion under fear. Many ghost experiences occur alone when the person has felt fear and, the “emotional tape recorder sometimes cannot distinguish between externally generated real events and internally generated non-real experience.” (David Comings as cited by Shermer, 2012, p.156) A ghost-believer may be viewed as strange by society, but there is less of a stigma around ghosts than mental illness. A case study was done by Micheal Shermer in his book The Believing Brain of “a man who otherwise is as sane as the next guy and smart as a whip.” (Shermer, 2012, p.12) demonstrates how believing in ghosts may be easier than accepting underlying mental health issues. This man claims he heard a voice that was outside of his head and shuts down the possibility of auditory hallucinations, lucid dreams, and sleep paralysis. The voice told him about love while he was a “broken man in every way you can think of,” (Shermer, 2012, p.14) going through a divorce, uncertain about his life and away from his children. After telling people about this message of love but not telling the actual words, he tried to see the president and ended up in a psych ward during the 1960s. He was diagnosed with psychosis. To this dayhe still claims the voice was not a hallucination. When people are desperate they are open to believing in possibilities they ordinarily would not have.
There is no universal answer to the question of why people believe in ghosts, but ultimately it can be seen that people tend to believe in ghosts because of three main reasons; previous beliefs, desire to believe, and desperation.
Bridgstock, M. (2009). Beyond Belief: Skepticism, Science and the Paranormal. Retrieved from https://eds-b-ebscohost-com.eztest.ocls.ca/eds/ebookviewer/ebook/bmxlYmtfXzMxODQwMl9fQU41?sid=474a8a56-1e08-4bcd-8f5c-987a421de163@sessionmgr102&vid=2&hid=/&format=EB
King, L. A., Burton, C. M., Hicks, J. A., & Drigotas, S. M. (2007). Ghosts, UFOs, and magic: Positive affect and the experiential system. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(5), 905-919. Retrieved from https://eds-a-ebscohost-com.eztest.ocls.ca/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=6&sid=474a8a56-1e08-4bcd-8f5c-987a421de163%40sessionmgr102
Lamont, P. (2013). Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem.
Langston, W., & Hubbard, T. (2019). Shadow Walking: Will a Ghost Walk Tour Affect Belief in Ghosts? The Journal of Parapsychology, 83(1), 47-69. l0.30891/jopar.2019.01.04
Northcote, J. (2007). The Paranormal and the Politics of Truth: A Sociological Account.
Sharps, M. J., Matthews, J., & Asten, J. (2006). Cognition and Belief in Paranormal Phenomena: Gestalt/Feature-Intensive Processing Theory and Tendencies Toward ADHD, Depression, and Dissociation. Journal of Psychology, 140(6), 579-590. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.eztest.ocls.ca/docview/213828628?accountid=40483
Shermer, M. (2012). The believing brain: from ghosts and gods to politics and conspiracies–how we construct beliefs and reinforce them as truths. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Photos by Jan Canty, Daniell Martin, Sharon McCutcheon, Shanice Millar, Erik Müller, Ravinder Ravinder, Dana Schaffner.