Feature

Who’s afraid of ghosts?

Halloween is the night when the dead are said to leave their resting places and walk the earth. Is this just a myth?

Are ghosts real?
Any rational skeptic would say no. But from the earliest days of human history, people have claimed to have had encounters with disembodied spirits from the beyond. Believers say that anyone who accepts the idea of an afterlife should also accept the possibility that there are ghosts. When we die, our souls or spirits leave our bodies, believers say; for various reasons, some spirits fail to make the trip to the next world and are left to linger in this one. These poor, stranded souls are the entities we know as ghosts.

Do ghosts come out at Halloween?
If they have any manners, they should. It is essentially a holiday in their honor. The tradition began with an ancient Celtic festival, Samhain, celebrated at the end of October. The event marked the Celtic new year and the start of the dark days of winter, a season associated with death. The worlds of the dead and the living were said to be closest then, and departed spirits seized this chance to return home. The Celts built bonfires and danced, donning disguises so mischievous spirits would pass them by. When Christianity came to Celtic lands, the pagan festival gave way to a day devoted to the memory of Christian martyrs. It was called All Saints’ Day, or Allhallows. The night before took on the name Allhallows Eve, or Halloween.

What’s in it for the living?
We like being scared. Like a roller-coaster ride or a scary movie, a good Halloween fright sends a jolt of adrenaline through our bodies. As long as we know we’re not really in danger, our brains interpret such heightened arousal as pleasurable. “The more scared you get,” said Geoff Scobie, a Glasgow University psychologist, “the more relieved you are in the end.” Creating a festival around death also helps us confront our greatest fears. By making light of the skeletons and ghosts of Halloween, the living can safely confront their mortality. By donning gruesome masks, kids can confront the monsters they usually imagine lurking under their beds or peeking out of dark closets.

So it’s all in our imagination?
Perhaps. But many people claim to have had spooky experiences that cannot be explained away. Typically, ghosts are reported in places where people suffered great trauma while alive or in the act of dying. Ghosts rarely appear the way they do in movies—as transparent people, shimmering in the air. Most often, “sightings” consist of other phenomena. Often, specters spook the living by rapping on walls or making other noises. Sometimes the only sign of their presence is a cold draft, or a tug on a shirt sleeve, or even a smell somehow associated with a painful or otherwise memorable experience. Troy Taylor, a professional ghost hunter and founder of the American Ghost Society, reported smelling a strong odor of peppermint along a road near the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa. Only later, he says, did he learn that locals had used copious amounts of peppermint and vanilla to hide the stench of rotting corpses on the battlefield.

Are battlefields haunted?
Ghost hunters say battlefields are among the most fertile places to find apparitions. A famous ghost, for example, supposedly haunts the field at Chickamauga, Ga., where 4,000 were killed and 31,000 injured in two days of carnage in 1863. One Confederate soldier had his head torn clean from his body. His comrades found the head and buried it, but they never matched it to a body. Numerous terrified visitors have reported that on dark nights, they’ve seen the glowing eyes of a ghost called “Old Green Eyes,” who moans plaintively while he searches the killing fields for his missing arms, legs, and torso.

What about haunted houses?
Virtually every American town has one. Former president Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Maureen, reported seeing the ghost of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Room of the White House. Over the years, many White House staffers have reported hearing Lincoln’s footsteps. The poet Carl Sandburg said he felt Lincoln standing next to him at a White House window, but when he looked there was nothing there. In many haunted houses, says author Leslie Rule in Coast to Coast Ghosts, occupants say pictures move or doors slam, with no apparent cause. Brian Sykes, of Burien, Wash., had a typical haunting. Several times, Sykes says he heard footsteps when there was no one else around. He often left dirty dishes in the sink and awoke to find them washed. Eventually, he moved out. “Now I have to do my own dishes,” he said.

Is there any proof of any of this?
Not a jot, say skeptics like the Amazing Randi (see below). But it’s not for lack of trying. Ghost-hunting groups in nearly every state in the union now stalk old houses and cemeteries with infrared cameras, electromagnetic-field meters, digital thermal scanners, and other devices. The goal is to record blurred images and energy fields that might indicate the presence of an apparition.

What have they found?
Ghost hunter Troy Taylor says more than 90 percent of hauntings turn out to be hoaxes. But he says that some haunted homes do have inexplicable cold spots that come and go, accompanied by a vague, “anomalous mist” that shows up on photographs. In a few creaky old mansions, Taylor says, he’s heard slamming doors and felt sudden chills. But in all his research for 25 books on ghosts, only once has he actually seen a dramatic appearance of an other-wordly presence. Taylor was staking out a haunted barn. It was pitch-black, and he waited for hours. Suddenly, a light “brighter than any flashlight” emerged through a crack in the locked door. The beam of light, standing 3 feet tall, darted across the barn, and passed through the walls of horse stalls as if taking a brisk walk. Twenty seconds later, it disappeared. Taylor’s camera sat untouched by his side. “After 20 years as a ghost hunter, I sat there with my mouth open and watched it go by.”

The skeptics speak

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