Artwork By Nico Besso
Ghost stories go as far back as first century A.D., when Roman author Pliny the Younger wrote one of the first recorded tales of the paranormal. Pliny described his house as being haunted by the ghost of a long-bearded old man (Mullen et al., 2009). This story became quite famous in the Roman Empire, and as time went by, people shared more and more ghost encounters. Soon, these spirits became an important part of folklore in countless cultures.
What Is a Ghost?
Ancient belief states that the spirit is separated from the body, and it therefore continues existing after a person’s physical death. The late Professor of Parapsychology, Hans Holzer, describes spirits as “psychotic human beings, incapable of reasoning for themselves” (Holzer, 2008). The paranormal community believes that even though ghosts can be chaotic, they are not on earth to cause harm.
Different Types of Ghosts
When it comes to abilities, people believe there are different types of ghosts. The five most popular are: poltergeists, orbs, funnels, interactive personalities, and ecto-mist (Jake, 2019).
Poltergeist ghosts are the rarest, but the most exploited in the media. These are the kind of ghosts that usually appear in movies. The name “Poltergeist” originates from the a German term that literally translates to “ghost creating a disturbance.” In titular fashion, they are noisy and the cause of their appearance is usually known. They bang on the walls or move furniture around. While it all may start off as harmless activity, these spirits can become quite problematic in the future.
The orbs radiate either white or blue light. It is said that they have often been caught on camera, and, in rare occurrences, it is even possible to see them with the naked eye. The paranormal community states that as far as they know, these harmless orbs are not able to communicate or interact with people in any way.
If you ever felt a chill when you entered an old house or stayed in a cold spot on a warm day, it could have been a funnel ghost. They often are associated with cold places and are rarely encountered outside of buildings. Since they do no harm they are not considered evil.
Interactive personality ghosts are the ones humans most commonly communicate with. Oftentimes it is a loved one who has passed away and come to warn or comfort you. They can touch humans, communicate with them, and even show themselves.
Lastly, ecto-mist or ectoplasm is said to be the type of paranormal apparition that mediums usually manifest. It is said that it resembles a slimy substance or a bundle of threads. Some even claim its smell is unbearable.
Why Do People Believe in Ghosts?
According to a survey done by Pew Research Center in 2009, 20% of U.S. adults claim that they have encountered a ghost, and about 29% of citizens believe they have felt the presence of somebody who has passed away (Lipka, 2020).
However, studies have proven that those who believe in ghosts are more likely to report an unusual experience and connect it with paranormal activity. There is a particular study (Ramsey et al., 2011) that suggests that hearing and reading about paranormal experiences, especially from a credible source, increases belief in paranormal activity.
This claim can be supported by a 2002 psychological study (Wiseman et al., 2002). A group of tourists visited Hampton Court Palace, which is widely believed to be haunted. They were told that recently there had been more unusual activities in that place. Accordingly, tourists reported a higher number of strange phenomena than usual.
The Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, suggests that in order to make sense of something that seems incomprehensible, people often turn to their imaginations. He states “So you get the misinterpretation of noises or visual effects that do have a normal explanation, but not one that people can think of. People assume that if they cannot explain something in natural terms, then it must be something paranormal” (Wen, 2021).
All in all, the reason for believing in ghosts can be influenced by different factors, including the inability to find explanations for certain events.
Science Behind Ghosts
Scientists believe that there are many reasons as to why people may think they have encountered a ghost. One of the explanations is sleep paralysis, which neuroscientist Baland Jalal explains as “dreaming while your eyes are open” (Hulick, 2021). Therefore, it would seem like the things you are seeing are real.
Read more about sleep paralysis here.
But what about seeing ghosts when you are completely awake? Renowned psychologist David Smailes considers this sensation a simple hallucination. He believes everyone has had such experiences. Have you ever felt your phone vibrate in your pocket thinking you got a notification but there was nothing there? Smailes claims that we are so used to relying on our senses for accurate information that when we hallucinate things, we instinctively tend to believe they are real.
He further explains that the brain has a very tough job. According to him, while the brain processes things, our senses and intuition can overwhelm it, so we may fill in the gaps ourselves, resulting in “hallucinations.” Have you ever sung a song and later found out the words you remembered were wrong?
That is what happens when “ghost-hunters” spread recordings of a ghost speaking. These are called an Electronic Voice Phenomena, otherwise known as EVP. In reality, you probably just listened to some noise while your brain desperately tried to hear words.
Pareidolia may also be at fault, which is a tendency to incorrectly perceive images. The brain is so good at its job that sometimes “it finds meaning in meaningless things” (Hulick, 2021). A good example is searching for familiar forms while looking at clouds. Some clouds remind people of rabbits, balloons, boots, and countless other shapes.
However, that is not all. Have you ever concentrated on something so much that you completely missed what was going on around you? This is called inattentional blindness, also a common cause for believing in ghosts. When you are focused on something else, you may miss a piece of the puzzle so important that it could have turned an unusual experience into quite a usual one. Maybe you were so focused on your work that you did not notice how somebody opened the window in the room. For you, it may seem like it opened on its own, but the likely truth is that you were so absorbed in your work you simply failed to notice a completely normal process.
In 2014, psychologist Christopher French and his colleagues proved that people with paranormal beliefs tend to get absorbed more easily. Consequently, these people have a higher probability of experiencing inattentional blindness (Hulick, 2021).
Moreover, some external factors can cause hallucinations.
If you think your house is haunted, do not rush to pack everything and move out. There is a high chance you are experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning. It may be time to check your heating equipment and use carbon monoxide detectors. This odorless and colorless gas causes hallucinations, headaches, and even death. There have been multiple incidents where a family’s ghost experiences turned out to be due to carbon monoxide poisoning (Harwood, 2015).
Belief in ghosts has been around for centuries. It was often the only explanation people could find for paranormal events. However, as people gain knowledge in the fields of science and technology, we find more and more causes of events that were once inexplicable. Sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and carbon monoxide poisoning are only a few examples of debunked sources of the paranormal.
Have you ever had a paranormal experience that you think cannot be explained by anything other than the existence of ghosts?
Harwood, J. (2015, October 26). Carbon monoxide manifestations: A real life ghost story. Interstate Heating and Air Conditioning. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://interstateheatandair.com/carbon-monoxide-real-life-ghost-story/.
History.com Editors. (2009, October 29). History of ghost stories. History.com. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/historical-ghost-stories.
Hulick, K. (2021, March 18). The Science of Ghosts. Science News for Students. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/article/science-ghosts.
Jake, J. (2019, August 30). Types of ghosts – the ultimate guide. Paranormal School. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://paranormalschool.com/types-ghosts/#:~:text=What%20Are%20The%20Different%20Types%20Of%20Ghosts%3F%201,…%206%20Demons.%20…%207%20Shadow%20People.%20.
Lipka, M. (2020, May 30). 18% of Americans say they’ve seen a ghost. Pew Research Center. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/10/30/18-of-americans-say-theyve-seen-a-ghost/.
Ramsey, M. C., Venette, S. J., & Rabalais, N. (2011, April 21). The perceived paranormal and source credibility: The effects of narrative suggestions on paranormal belief. Taylor & Francis. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15456870.2011.561153#.U8_sDo1dXmU.
Wen, T. (2021, July 27). Why do people believe in ghosts? The Atlantic. Retrieved October 29, 2021, from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/why-do-people-believe-in-ghosts/379072/.
Wiseman, R., Watt, C., Greening, E., Stevens, P., & O’Kefffe, C. (2002). An investigation into the alleged haunting of Hampton Court palace : Psychological variables and magnetic fields. University of Hertfordshire Research Archive. Retrieved October 30, 2021, from http://hdl.handle.net/2299/2280.280.
Holzer, H. (2008). In search of ghosts. Fall River Press.