For a certain number of years in my childhood, I considered myself an avid ghost hunter. Every time my cousins and I got together, we would inevitably end up poking around the house with a number of rather crude, paranormal tracking devices: K’nex divining rods, scrap paper scribbled with “readings” from “radio static,” and Fisher Price stethoscopes held to creaking floorboards and walls. The excitement that came from this kind of play wasn’t so much the hunt as the stories we would tell each other to justify it – elaborate scenarios imagined and built upon in that fluid, animated kind of conversation only kids can have. For a few hours, we would really believe our own stories, briefly forgetting the distinction between our regular lives and the spectral realm we had created together. Obviously, one of the goals of the game was to freak each other out as much as we could and as often as possible. But there was always a deeper sense of unease, even fear, that maybe we weren’t making it all up.
I packed away the ghost-hunting gear years ago, but there is still a part of me that wants to believe in ghosts. And I’m certainly not alone: the entertainment and tourism industries have capitalized on our attraction to the paranormal with horror films, historic “haunted” tours, and ghost-hunting television shows. Similarly, I have yet to meet someone without a personal ghost story, a creepy Ouija board experience, or an urban legend that they feel compelled to share. On a more serious level, many people seek out the advice of spiritual mediums, hoping to commune with spirits of deceased loved ones, and there are thriving ghost-tracking communities across North America. Attraction to, or belief in, ghosts is nearly ubiquitous in our culture, but what is it exactly that invites interpretation of the world through paranormal phenomena?
Dr. Amir Raz, head of McGill’s Cognitive Neuroscience lab and a former magician, does not believe in ghosts, but notes that people often opt for paranormal explanations, even when a logical counter-argument is available. “Magicians are tricksters,” he says. “They’re liars, but licensed liars…. When we perform certain tricks that appear to have mental effects – mind reading tricks or ‘pick a card any card’ – sometimes people think that we have paranormal abilities or supernatural abilities. The fact that I’d say at the end, ‘this was a trick; I’m a magician’ doesn’t help any. They’d say, ‘well you don’t even realize the power that you have’… And I’d say, ‘really? That was [your] take-home message from this experience?’” According to Raz, many people are so strongly invested in the paranormal that even easily elucidated phenomena are interpreted as paranormal activity. “There is a limit to what you can do,” he says. “You can advocate for a certain position, and the rest is in the eyes of the beholder.”
As a psychologist, Raz has investigated whether there is a correlation between paranormal belief and an individual’s genetic makeup. His study did not find such a correlation, but he insists that there are psychological benefits to holding such beliefs. “[Paranormal beliefs] can be very soothing, very comforting,” he explains. “They can give more than just meaning, but a direction, or some kind of explanation, to very difficult-to-answer questions. There are many things that we don’t understand about this world…. It’s sort of an easy way out to explain it by paranormal things.”
Catherine MacDonald, a spiritualist medium practicing out of Toronto, has similar insights into why many people are drawn to supernatural phenomena, and the spirit world in particular. “People need to know that there’s a connection to the larger universal energy. But people also want familiarity – they want to know that everything’s going to be okay, that somebody’s looking out for [them,]” she says. During a typical reading, MacDonald intuits her client’s energy – or aura – and differentiates it from other energy circulating in the room. This, she says, lets her know that a spirit has arrived. “Sometimes I feel it, sometimes I hear it, sometimes I smell or taste it,” she says. “It’s multi-sensory.”
MacDonald stresses that most “seekers” are hoping to make contact with deceased loved ones. Therefore, the spiritual reading process can be emotionally intense, but it is usually beneficial. “[A spiritual seeker] will get enough information that they’ll feel okay with the reading,” she notes.
Both psychologist and psychic agree that believing in ghosts and spirits is a source of comfort for many individuals. As a main theory for the larger cultural fascination with the paranormal; however, this explanation falls short. After all, ghosts are pretty scary. Even as an adult, the possibility of waking up to find a spectre hanging out in my bedroom is enough to elicit a shudder or two – whether or not the apparition could be explained through lucid dreaming, hallucination, or other psychological factors.
Raz is skeptical about the extent to which true terror plays into adult paranormal belief. For kids, he says, there is a real element of fear when, for example, they enter a “haunted” house, but Raz explains that for grown-ups an activity like ghost hunting is mostly tied to pleasure-seeking. “Fear and pleasure are on the same spectrum,” he asserts. “We like experiencing extreme emotion – under control. It can be scary, but so is a roller coaster experience.… It gives us an adrenaline rush, and it serves a purpose – a psychological purpose and a physiological purpose…. We collect these experiences.”
From MacDonald’s perspective, fear of ghosts or spirits is relatively rare, unless, as she says, “you go to an environment where there was an accident or there was something very violent. There is going to be residual energy…Even if I do a house clearing, it’s usually not anything violent or threatening, just [a ghost] who has attached itself to a specific piece of land or property.” When a family suspects their home is haunted, MacDonald will enter and attempt to draw out the ghost by helping it, as she puts it, “cross over the veil.”
Still, both MacDonald and Raz seem to be ignoring the very real fear that often accompanies belief, even tentative belief, in ghosts. Maybe it’s fun to be scared, but many people are legitimately horrified by the idea of encountering a paranormal being – whether it is benevolent or malicious. It is understandable that a communion with spirits could offer solace, or a sense of guidance, to certain individuals, but for others the possibility of the dead communicating with the living is deeply disturbing. In the absence of religious doctrine or scientific fact to validate paranormal activity – as is usually the case – ghosts stop accounting for certain phenomena and are relegated to a domain beyond explanation.
If ghosts defy explanation, the question remains as to why paranormal belief is so prevalent in our culture. Why believe in something as elusive and as difficult to substantiate as ghosts are, when organized religion and scientific progress are prepared to offer up any number of feasible interpretations of the world?
MacDonald suggests that the taboo surrounding death in contemporary society, as well as an attitude toward spirituality as an individual prerogative, draw people to investigate the paranormal. “Most people in this day and age are much more open than we used to be,” she says. “Spirituality right now is more coming from the individual, not organized religion. People are looking for spiritual connection.” She adds that “at one time, if family members passed away it was a natural part of life…. For many people, when a relative goes, it’s very hard for them to accept that that person is gone…. We don’t have the same attitude about death [as previous societies had]… You go to a hospital, the doctors tell you your relative has passed, and you don’t have any contact with the body. People don’t get to say their goodbyes.”
Interestingly, Raz takes a similar position to MacDonald. “Believing in the paranormal is almost like believing in the rainbow,” he says. “It gives meaning to certain things. The fact that you have ghosts means that perhaps there is something meaningful happening after death. It’s very unsettling for a lot of people to think that one day you die and that’s it, and that’s it, that’s the end of who you are. It’s much more interesting to think, ‘Oh, but my ghost can linger.’” The idea of one’s spirit remaining in the world of the living is certainly comforting, and takes the edge off of mortality. More importantly, perhaps, this idea is not one that is offered by most institutional belief systems.
Searching for meaning in death beyond mainstream, institutionalized beliefs is certainly a valid reason for an investment in paranormal phenomena; however, I don’t think it quite hits on the popular fascination with ghost stories and other activities relating to the supernatural. Rather, being open to the possibility that ghosts exist points to a willingness to eschew rational explanation. And in a culture where our understanding of the world is often limited by reason, that is truly comforting.
I’ve had a few ghostly experiences since I was a little girl, almost all of which have been waking up to a stranger in my bedroom. Opening and closing my eyes hasn’t made them go away, but none have ever bothered me much, besides wigging me out – except for one freaky night. I woke up to a young guy with seventies-era hair sitting on the end of my bed, slowly reaching toward me. I could feel the weight of him shift near my feet as he leaned forward, and I screamed. He was gone by the time my mom walked into the room, turning on the lights to ask me what the hell was going on at two in the morning. Maybe it’s just lucid dreaming, or hallucinations, but just for the thrill that goes down my spine, I prefer to consider these experiences real ghostly encounters.
– Suzie Philippot
There is this house in my hometown that has been the subject of much folklore in the surrounding neighbourhood. The basement window of this house has been stained black for the past 80 years. Every newcomer to the property has tried to clean or replace this haunted window, but new glass just turns black, and cleaning products are useless. According to the most popular explanation for this phenomenon, a young man once peered through the window and saw something terrible transpire. Sources differ on whether the horrific event was a brutal murder or a gathering of witches and warlocks. The window was blackened by an evil curse to prevent any future neighbours from peering inside. Perhaps this is a fictional story designed to discourage nosy neighbours, or perhaps it is a hoax, or a scientifically explicable matter. Either way, I still get creeped out whenever I walk past this house. This fear is always coupled with an almost overwhelming desire to go inside.
– Catriona Kaiser-Derrick
In high school, I worked at a yacht club that was over a hundred years old. There were pictures on the wall from various events over the club’s history. One particular photo, dated 1899, shows the backs of people as they watch a sailing race. There is a small girl in a white dress in the foreground, holding her father’s hand, and turning violently toward the camera. I remember the first time I saw her ghost.
Often my co-workers and I would stay at the club late into the night to drink and play games. One night, I hid in the dark attic during a game of sardines. Waiting alone for people to find you is hard, but waiting with ghostly footsteps around you is much harder. Other nights we’d climb to the roof to watch the stars. The little girl in the white dress would run around the club beneath us, or better still, she would be pacing the flat roof as we ascended.
– Joe Watts
One weekend when we were playing in the garden, my three sisters and I dug up some bones that were far too large to belong to any domestic animal. We knew in an instant whose they were: A man had died falling from the roof of our house, and our attic had a ghost – always had, always would, we thought. Our superstitious nanny would shriek if we so much as touched the doorknob leading up the stairs. Later, adults came into our attic, they put up drywall, lightbulbs, and three fresh coats of golden yellow paint. Our ghost went away, but the bones are still there.
– Alison Withers
I went to high school on the grounds of the former Montezuma Hotel, a grand hot springs resort from the late 1800s. The place had been totally refurbished, except for the top floors, which were closed off to students. Rumour had it that back in the hotel’s glory days – when the town was the last stop on the train out West, frequented by the social elite of Boston and New York – an opera singer died in the middle of a recital. The building housed two student dorms, and at night people occasionally thought they heard her ghostly voice wafting through the halls. Once in a while someone would catch a glimpse of a white figure in the windows of the fifth floor tower – even though that floor was sealed off.
– Braden Goyette