We all want to believe in ghosts
For a while, I lived in a haunted apartment building downtown. Across from a cemetery. The ghost stories didn’t bother me all that much. Unexplained suicides and disappearances. Shadowy visitations in the middle of the night. Whatever. The rent was cheap.
At the time, I enjoyed going to cemeteries to write. It was a change of scenery. Quiet. Being surrounded by all that aged stone helped me think.
Some people take vacations on the beach. Me? I enjoyed driving to old cities and walking around their graveyards.
But then one night, I had the worst nightmare. Awoke upright, screaming, halfway off my mattress with my arm held high overhead. Like something had been dragging me out of bed.
Was that a ghost, or just a night terror? I’d never experienced anything like that before. Hopefully, never again.
Still, it was kind of cool.
And that’s the nature of ghosts. Just the notion terrifies us. But we also like the premise. Something draws us to the mystery. We’re strange creatures. We’ll spend hours watching horror movies and then complain we can’t sleep. A few months later, we’ll do it again.
Almost everyone has a ghost story
It’s a great icebreaker. If you’re stuck at a retreat or mixer, ask people if they’ve ever seen a ghost. You might wind up having a good time. Even if they don’t believe in the afterlife, you can debate them.
I’ve only met one person who completely rejected the idea of ghosts. He was a biologist. He didn’t even appreciate a good ghost story. Just scoffed and rolled his eyes, like a good academic does.
One time, a bunch of faculty were having a wine reception. So I pulled out my handy ghost icebreaker. It worked like a charm. In no time, we were trading stories. I told them about being dragged out of bed by one.
Harmless fun. Almost better than teaching anecdotes.
But the biologist wouldn’t have it. On his third glass of wine, he called us all mentally ill. Specifically, “If you honestly believe in ghosts, you need a prescription and a therapist.”
What a buzz kill.
I’ve always wondered why he protested so strongly. It was almost a cliche — the science professor objecting to the possibility of the supernatural. Or maybe he was a ghost. That would make sense.
To believe, or not to believe?
Officially, less than half of Americans believe in ghosts. Biologists aside, most people I’ve met fall in the middle. They don’t deny the possibility, even if they haven’t seen one firsthand. We almost don’t need proof. It’s like our brains come equipped with belief.
Why? I guess it makes the world more interesting. When strange things happen, paranormal explanations are the easiest.
Your mind plays the strangest tricks. A long time ago, I was up late working on a research paper at my parents’ house. Could’ve sworn my mom walked past the study and said hello. She was wearing a white bathrobe. But when I looked up, nobody was there.
My heart-rate picked up, and I paced around the entire bottom level. All the lights were off. Everybody was asleep. Unsettled, I returned to work. And then I realized my mom didn’t even own a bathrobe. And she never wore white. So go figure. A ghost, or too much coffee?
Strangely, I’m more apt to believe in demons and ghosts than anything else. Angels, God, the Devil? All that sounds contrived.
But there’s something almost primeval about the idea of ghosts. Belief in spirits predates any kind of organized religion. Besides, even if you officially deny their existence, part of you still gets jumpy at the sound of unexplained footsteps at night. Doesn’t it?
Adventures with ghost hunting
After moving out of my haunted apartment, I did amateur ghost hunting — very amateur. Visited a handful of haunted spots in different states, hoping for a good campfire story.
One time my friends and I got arrested for trespassing on an abandoned prison around midnight.
Later, I got interested in local unsolved mysteries. Wrote a series on them for the local newspaper. Drove around haunted places. Visited the graves of unidentified murder victims.
All that, and I’ve never seen a ghost. I’ve only had moments where maybe I might’ve. If I were serious, I’ve been told to try a ouija board. No thanks. I’ve read enough about them online.
Most of us want to see a ghost, maybe even a malevolent one. We want just enough of a scare to satisfy our curiosity. The trouble? You never know what you’ll get when you contact the other side. Some malevolent spirits cause everything from bad luck to suicidal thoughts.
Some people have the arrogance to think they can dictate the terms of their interaction with spirits. Even me, ever the skeptic, knows better. If paranormal creatures exist, my sane logical side has no interest in drawing their attention to me. My attitude — they’ll do their thing, I’ll do mine.
I’m not saying I actually believe. But just in case, I’d rather not tempt the spirit world and wind up in my own horror movie.
Fear isn’t a pleasant feeling. It’s one thing to be afraid of something physical like a large dog, or a car coming at you. But amorphous, shadowy presences drive us into a panic.
Ghosts and demons make us feel especially powerless. We don’t know their intentions or motivations. We don’t know what they want. Or what they’ll do. That’s half the suspense. Or half the allure.
Ghosts and groupthink
My most ambitious trip took me to Waverly Hills Sanatorium, one of the most haunted places in the world. Night tour, high hopes. Instead, the guides spent the first thirty minutes showing our group a video. Then we walked around for an hour, listening to stories of ghost sightings.
Halfway through, a guide stopped us and gestured down a dim hallway. She asked if we could see the ghost. She knew we were getting bored with her stories. So she pointed at a shadow and tried to convince us we were in the midst of a supernatural moment.
Gimme a break. People who believe in ghosts tend to know better. They always reveal themselves when you’re alone. Duh.
But everyone here was so desperate to get their twenty bucks’ worth. It only took one person, a teen who finally nodded. After a few minutes, half our gang was snapping smartphone pics and going ahhhhh.
Was I the only one who couldn’t see the ghost? It looked more like the shadow of a tree in the wind. Welcome to the emperor’s new clothes, I thought. Paranormal edition.
My money’s worth didn’t come until dark. Our tour ended in the body chute, a long corridor the staff once used to transport the dead. That’s when a cold feeling of calm indifference settled into the wet, stale air. It was almost comforting.
Time to rejoin the group.
Maybe I’ve never seen a ghost. It would be nice if one could float up and wave. But it never seems to work like that. Real or not, ghosts inhabit the periphery. Barely there. That’s kind of the whole point. If you could prove the existence of ghosts beyond a doubt, they would lose something.
Still, I’ve had moments where I was sure a ghost hovered nearby, waiting for me to fall asleep so it could haunt my dreams. That’s when they tend to visit, if they exist. That sensation usually descends after I’ve been watching scary YouTube videos for an hour. Strange how that always happens.