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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, September 21, 2014

New Study Busts Ghost Stereotypes

Ghost sightings have been reported many times throughout history. Many thought that once enough people were carefully educated in modern materialist thinking, ghost sightings would gradually disappear. But that has not happened. There seem to be as many ghost sightings now as in the past.

I can imagine two people discussing this:

Bob: What is with these silly people still claiming to see ghosts? Haven't the scientists told everyone there's no such thing as ghosts?

John: I think the problem is: the scientists forgot to tell that to the ghosts.

Most of us have stereotypical ideas about ghost sightings. Such stereotypes may include the idea that when you think you see a ghost, it is usually a terrifying experience. Another stereotypical idea is that a typical sighting is just a case of one undereducated person hearing a funny sound or seeing something unusual, and then jumping to the conclusion that the strange sight or sound was a ghost. A nonbeliever in ghosts may reassure himself that alleged ghost sightings are just hallucinations by a single person, or cases of some unsophisticated rube jumping to a conclusion after seeing or hearing something rather unusual. 

ghost story
 Pulp fiction promoting a ghost stereotype

But a new study challenges such stereotypes. The study (The Spectrum of Specters: Making Sense of Ghostly Encounters) was done after interviewing 39 people who claimed to have encountered ghosts. One surprising finding was that 6 of the people interviewed were professors. That doesn't exactly fit the stereotype that people who see ghosts are intellectually unsophisticated.

Another way in which the study busts stereotypes is by finding that 62% of the survey respondents said they observed ghosts along with a friend, coworker, or family member. This challenges the stereotype encouraged by skeptics, that a ghost sighting is typically just a hallucination by a single person. Of course, with their ever-fertile creativity at explaining away things, skeptics will simply argue that such cases are examples of “mass hysteria” or “hallucination infection,” or some such thing.

Another stereotype challenged by the study is that ghosts are mainly seen in haunted houses or spooky places, a stereotype advanced by paranormal TV shows in which people investigate ghosts in places like graveyards or abandoned prisons or mental institutions. But the study found that 64% of the participants encountered ghosts “during mundane or normal times in their lives.”

The study also concluded that “nearly all of our participants identified either a positive or nonthreatening encounter with a ghost.” This busts the “terror of ghost encounters” story line pushed by some cable TV shows. In fact, many people who claim ghost encounters claim to have had a very peaceful experience. One person has explained such a discrepancy this way: “Peace doesn't sell; terror sells.” (I can't remember the exact person who said that.) This finding should actually come as no surprise to watchers of the long running show Celebrity Ghost Stories, on which celebrities often report very peaceful and gentle encounters with ghosts, particularly apparitions of recently departed relatives.

In fact, if we examine the typical account described as a “terrifying ghost encounter,” you will find an encounter in which there is no real indication of ill will on the part of the ghost. In the typical such case, someone will see an apparition, and be frightened, but the fear comes from the human's own fear of the unknown, not from any real sign of ill will from the apparition.

It seems, therefore, that ghosts may have got a bum rap. So if you ever see a ghost, it may be appropriate to reach out your hand to give a nice firm handshake. Oops – that won't work.