Halloween: You don’t have to be crazy to believe in ghosts, but it doesn’t hurt

People who have encounters with ghosts insist they are real, but it may just be how our brain copes with the unknown. Scientists are trying to figure it out. Photo: (AP Photo)

DOTHAN, Alabama, October 31, 2012 - Anyone who has ever had a ghostly encounter will insist it was real and not imagined. Stories about ghosts date back to the time man first learned to stand up and walk on two feet, and they continue to permeate modern culture regardless of our scientific advances. It must have been easy to believe in spirits and ghosts when the main entertainment at night was watching shadows on a cave wall from a flickering fire, not too unlike the receptive state we sometimes enter while staring blankly at a television screen.

Ghosts are also a part of most major religions. Buddhists believe we become a ghostly spirit after death and linger on earth until a second death takes us away permanently. Hinduism is filled with stories of ghosts or spirits that have not found peace and passed on to nirvana. All of Christianity is based on the existence of a “Holy Ghost,” the son of God, referenced in the simple prayer phrase “In the name of the father, son and holy spirit” (or “In nomine Patris et fillii et Spiritus Sancti” if you prefer the Latin version).

Scientists and doctors often link ghostly sightings and supernatural occurrences with disorders such as depression or schizophrenia, but there is no clear relationship between spirits and mental problems. Many psychologists admit that in some instances paranormal beliefs are a healthy form of coping with fear of the unknown, the dark or simply being alone. Believers in the paranormal tend to be more intuitive and open to new experiences than the average person, and their level of belief is often related to what scientists call “absorption.” Someone who can get actively involved in a movie or a book, for example, might also be more prone to accepting ghosts and spirits as real.

Scientific research into paranormal activity is still popular, though much of the emphasis has switched from trying to catch ghosts in action to measuring how the human brain deals with the unknown. Recent psychological studies show we are mentally wired to readily accept the existence supernatural beings, and we are more susceptible to illusion when we lack control of a situation.

A psychology experiment at the University of Texas instructed healthy volunteers to find design patterns in random static displayed on computer monitors. Subjects were unable to find actual patterns because they didn’t exist, yet they imagined that designs were in fact there. This has led some scientists to believe that our brains manufacture explanations for things we don’t understand or have no control over. In other words, ghosts may only exist in our minds.

People who claim to be sensitive to paranormal events and spiritual activity, psychics for example, may simply be more receptive and open to suggestion. We’ve all experienced the sensation that someone is watching us, or that someone we know is nearby, but for the most part we ignore those feelings and continue on with our day. Psychics don’t ignore such feelings and try instead to enhance sensory input by focusing and shutting out the actual world around them. Their feelings may be from real supernatural occurrences, or they just may be reacting in the same manner as the subjects in the university experiment.

You can test this sensation yourself by having someone stand quietly behind you while reading or using a computer. Even if you can’t see them and they remain quiet and don’t speak, you can still sense them nearby.

Despite the best efforts of science to assign paranormal activity to human behavior and brain functions, ghost stories abound. Ghost tours in historic cities delight visitors with stories of tragic past events and hauntings, the internet has broadened the ability for people to share experiences with the rest of the world, and of course Hollywood churns out a never ending supply of films and television programs about haunted houses and supernatural beings.

Ghosts come in all varieties and there are several theories about why they are ghosts in the first place. The most common is that ghosts are people who died early from a tragic murder or accident and are reliving over and over a past trauma. I have yet to encounter a ghost story involving a kindly old lady who simply died in her sleep, but ghosts with a grudge are pretty common.

Ghosts come in all sizes, shapes and states of decay. Jacob Marley’s ghost in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol  is described as fully intact, albeit translucent, in the original story. Years later he deteriorates into a loathsome creature with body parts falling off in the movie Scrooged. You’ve got to love special effects people for what they’ve done to classic literature. Ghosts can also appear as funny, sad, helpful, destructive, benign, malevolent, lost, frustrated, seductive, smart, stupid, trapped, free-ranging and, last but not least, as friendly cartoon characters.

When the little ghosts and goblins from the neighborhood come knocking on your door for treats this Halloween, remember they are keeping alive a tradition that has its roots in ancient Celtic harvest festivals. They are also taking their first steps toward that shadowy land that exists between life and death…a dark place of mystery and danger…a realm where the mind struggles to stay within the bounds of sanity as we speed along out of control toward…election day.

 A special request for Halloween this year: please remember the victims of hurricane Sandy with your prayers and whatever you can donate to the appropriate charities and relief funds.


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Rick Townley

Rick Townley was a bookseller before switching to electronic publishing with The New York Times, Reuters, Grolier and others. He is the author of a humor book, For Boomers Only – Exploring Life in the New Millennium, a supernatural novel, Stepping Out of Time, and numerous short stories. In addition to contributing to the Washington Times Communities, Rick is working on a fiction series called Stigma and resides in southern Alabama with his 7-year-old granddaughter, Chloe.

 

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