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Don’t Be a Ghost

December 9, 2014

So this week is an extremely busy one for me and so I’m going to just put up this short thought about ghosts because who doesn’t like ghosts? (My friend Les, that’s who.)

Some quick internet searching reveals that about half of all Americans believe in ghosts. Despite this, I have never run across anyone who is worried about becoming a ghost nor have I ever heard of any (modern) rite designed to prevent one from becoming a wandering ghost. Given that ghosts are generally thought to be the spirits of the dead one would imagine that someone would have put two and two together and decided that they should worry about getting stuck as a ghost. Why isn’t anyone out there trying to “help” you avoid ghostdom (or steer yourself towards it – I can imagine many worse post-death fates than haunting, say, the southern coast of Africa)?

There are two solutions to this and both offer interesting looks at the way we process the world of the supernatural:

  • Philosophical inconsistency. Some people (many, I’ll say, since I tend to think people are horribly inconsistent in their beliefs) believe that ghosts are the trapped spirits of the dead but have always assumed that getting stuck as a ghost only happens to other people. If someone really believes that ghosts are the spirits of the dead this should be integrated into one’s view of the afterlife but supernatural and “religious” matters are sometimes considered to be inherently illogical and so they don’t get a pass through the logic filter before being accepted. This also says a lot about how people believe things.
  • Ghosts need not be the spirits of the dead. Two other possibilities exist within “traditional” beliefs about ghosts. One is that ghosts are some sort of impression left by the departed. This fits in with some cultures that believe that anywhere someone has died is haunted by a malevolent ghost. In this case it is the person’s death that generates the ghost but the ghost left by your kindly grandmother is not your grandmother but some evil thing created by her death. The other is that ghosts are creatures, just not flesh-and-blood ones. At one point it was common to believe in a whole bestiary of unnatural creatures and one could always believe that ghosts are another species, just an incorporeal one. This is interesting because both options exist within other cultures and frequently get called “ghosts” even though we’ve now identified three different sorts of things that are not all clearly related. This speaks to the way we label unfamiliar traditions, perhaps especially when it comes to non-physical elements. If we were to conclude from the common overly-broad use of “ghost” that ghosts are common across many cultures would our conclusions make sense? What if we applied the same caution to theological terms?
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