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A ghost is said to be the apparition of a deceased person, frequently similar in appearance to that person, and usually encountered in places she or he frequented, the place of his or her death, or in association with the person’s former belongings. The word “ghost” may also refer to the spirit or soul of a deceased person, or to any spirit or demon.[1][2][3] A place in which ghosts are supposed to appear is described as haunted. A related phenomenon is the poltergeist, literally a ‘noisy spirit’ that manifests itself by moving and influencing objects, though a widespread view today is that these occurences are either fraudulent or manifestations of the psychic energy of, particularly, adolescent girls.[4] Phantom armies, animals, trains and ships have also been reported.[5][6]

The reality of ghosts is a vexed subject which divides believers and skeptics.[7] The study of ghosts is both the subject of folklore and also, since the nineteenth century, of the investigations of parapsychologists, who have attempted to refine the vocabulary used in describing ghostly phenomena. Summoning or exorcising the shades of the departed is an item of belief and religious practice for spiritualists and practitioners of ritual magic. Though some claims of ghostly phenomena are proven frauds others remain unexplained or are subject to conflicting explanations. So far no one explanation has gained universal acceptance.[8] According to a poll conducted in 2005 by the Gallup Organization about 32% of Americans believe in the existence of ghosts.[9]

Historical Background

According to some, the belief in ghosts as souls of the departed is closely related to the ancient concept of animism, which attributed souls to everything in nature, including human beings, animals, plants, rocks, etc. [10] Nineteenth-century anthropologist James Frazer stated in his classic work, The Golden Bough, that souls were seen as the creature within that animated the body:

“If a man lives and moves, it can only be because he has a little man or animal inside, who moves him. The animal inside the animal, the man inside the man, is the soul. And as the activity of an animal or man is explained by the presence of the soul, so the repose of sleep or death is explained by its absence; sleep or trance being the temporary, death being the permanent absence of the soul… “[11]

Although the human soul was sometimes symbolically or literally depicted in ancient cultures as a bird or other animal, it was widely held that the soul was an exact reproduction of the body in every feature, even down to clothing the person wore. This is depicted in artwork from various ancient cultures, including such works as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which shows deceased people in the afterlife appearing much as they did before death, including the style of dress.

Another widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they were composed of a misty, airy, or subtle material. Anthropologists speculate that this may also stem from early beliefs that ghosts were the person within the person, most noticeable in ancient cultures as a person’s breath, which upon exhaling in colder climates appears visibly as a white mist.[10] This belief may have also fostered the metaphorical meaning of “breath” in certain languages, such as the Latin spiritus and the Greek pneuma, which by analogy became extended to mean the soul. In the Bible, God is depicted as animating Adam with a breath.

In many cultures malignant, restless, ghosts are distinguished from the more benign spirits which are the subject of Ancestor worship.[12] Although the evidence for ghosts is largely anecdotal, the belief in ghosts throughout history has remained widespread and persistent.

Ghost stories date back to ancient times, and can be found in many different cultures. The Chinese philosopher, Mo Tzu (470-391 BC), is quoted as having said:

“The way to find out whether anything exists or not is to depend on the testimony of the ears and eyes of the multitude. If some have heard it or some have seen it then we have to say it exists. If no one has heard it and no one has seen it then we have to say it does not exist. So, then, why not go to some village or some district and inquire? If from antiquity to the present, and since the beginning of man, there are men who have seen the bodies of ghosts and spirits and heard their voices, how can we say that they do not exist? If none have heard them and none have seen them, then how can we say they do? But those who deny the existence of the spirits say: “Many in the world have heard and seen something of ghosts and spirits. Since they vary in testimony, who are to be accepted as really having heard and seen them?” Mo Tzu said: As we are to rely on what many have jointly seen and what many have jointly heard, the case of Tu Po is to be accepted.”[13] (note: King Hsuan (827-783 BC) executed his minister, Tu Po, on false charges even after being warned that Tu Po’s ghost would seek revenge. Three years later, according to historical chronicles, Tu Po’s ghost shot and killed Hsuan with a bow and arrow before an assembly of feudal lords.)

Many other Eastern religious traditions also subscribe to the concept of ghosts. The Hindu Garuda Purana has detailed information about ghosts.[14]

The Hebrew Torah and the Bible contain few references to ghosts, associating spiritism with forbidden occult activities cf. Deuteronomy 18:11. The most notable reference is in the First Book of Samuel (I Samuel 28:7-19 KJV), in which a disguised King Saul has the Witch of Endor summon the spirit of Samuel. In the New Testament, Jesus has to persuade the Disciples that he is not a ghost following the resurrection, Matthew 24. In a similar vein, Jesus’ followers at first believe him to be a ghost when they see him walking on water.

A celebrated account of a haunted house, from the ancient classical world, is given by Pliny the Younger (c. (50 AD).[15] Pliny describes, in a letter to a friend, how Athenodoros Cananites (c. 74 BC – 7 AD), a Stoic philosopher, decided to rent a large house in Athens, to investigate widespread rumors that it was haunted. Athenodoros staked out at the house that night, and, sure enough, a disheveled, aged spectre, bound at feet and hands with rattling chains, eventually appeared. The spirit then beckoned for Athenodoros to follow him; Athenodoros complied, but the ghost soon vanished. The philosopher marked the spot where the old man had disappeared, and, on the next day, advised the magistrates to dig there. The man’s shackled bones were reportedly uncovered three years later. After a proper burial, the hauntings ceased.[16]

From the medieval period an apparition of a ghost is recorded from 1211, at the time of the Albigensian Crusade[17]. Gervase of Tilbury, Marshal of Arles, wrote that the image of Guilhem, a boy recently murdered in the forest, appeared in his cousin’s home in Beaucaire, near Avignon, France. This series of “visits” lasted all of the summer. Through his cousin, who spoke for him, the boy allegedly held conversations with anyone who wished, until the local priest requested to speak to the boy directly, leading to an extended disquisition on theology. The boy narrated the trauma of death and the unhappiness of his fellow souls in Purgatory, and reported that God was most pleased with the ongoing Crusade against the Cathar heretics, launched three years earlier. The time of the Albigensian Crusade in southern France was marked by intense and prolonged warfare, this constant bloodshed and dislocation of populations being the context for these reported vists by the murdered boy.

Many other stories from the Middle Ages and the Romantic era rely on the macabre and the fantastic, and ghosts are a major theme in literature from those eras. The Child ballad Sweet William’s Ghost recounts the story of a ghost returning to beg a woman to free him from his promise to marry her, as he obviously cannot being dead; her refusal would mean his damnation. This reflects a popular British belief that the dead would haunt their lovers if they took up with a new love without some formal release.[18] The Unquiet Grave expresses a belief even more widespread, found in various location over Europe: ghosts can stem from the excessive grief of the living, whose mourning interferes with the dead’s peaceful rest.[19] In many folktales from around the world, the hero arranges for the burial of a dead man. Soon after, he gains a companion who aids him and, in the end, the hero’s companion reveals that he is in fact the dead man.[20] Instances of this include the Italian fairy tale Fair Brow and the Swedish The Bird ‘Grip’.

In many traditional accounts, ghosts were often thought to be deceased people looking for vengeance, or imprisoned on earth for bad things they did during life. The appearance of a ghost has often been regarded as an omen or portent of death. Seeing one’s own ghostly double or “fetch” is a related omen of death.[21]

In 1848 the Fox sisters of Hydesfield in New York State claimed to have communication with the disembodied spirits of the dead and launched the Spiritualist movement, which claimed many adherents in the nineteenth century.[22] The claims of spiritualists and others as to the reality of ghosts were investigated by the Society for Psychical Research, founded in London in 1882. The Society set up a Committee on Haunted Houses and a Literary Committee which looked at the literature on the subject.[23] Apparitions of the recently deceased, at the moment of their death, to their friends and relations, were very commonly reported.[24][25] One celebrated example was the strange appearance of Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon, walking through the drawing room, of his family home in Eaton Square, London, looking straight ahead, without exchanging a word to anyone, in front of several guests at a party being given by his wife on 22 June 1893 whilst he was supposed to be in a ship of the Mediterranean Squadron, manoeuvering of the coast of Syria. Subsequently it was reported that he had gone down with his ship, the HMS Victoria, that very same night, after it had collided with the HMS Camperdown following an unexplained and bizarre order to turn the ship in the direction of the other vessel.[26] Such crisis apparitions have received serious study by parapsychologists with various explanations given to account for them, including telepathy, as well as the traditional view that they represent disembodied spirits.[27][28]

Skeptical Analysis

Critics of “eyewitness ghost sightings” suggest that limitations of human perception and ordinary physical explanations can account for such sightings; for example, air pressure changes in a home causing doors to slam, or lights from a passing car reflected through a window at night.[29] Pareidolia, an innate tendency to recognize patterns in random perceptions, is what some skeptics believe causes people to believe that they have seen ghosts.[30] Reports of ghosts “seen out of the corner of the eye” may be accounted for by the sensitivity of human peripheral vision. According to skeptical investigator Joe Nickell:

…peripheral vision is very sensitive and can easily mislead, especially late at night, when the brain is tired and more likely to misinterpret sights and sounds.[29]

Nickell also states that a person’s belief that a location is haunted may cause them to interpret mundane events as confirmations of a haunting:

Once the idea of a ghost appears in a household . . . no longer is an object merely mislaid. . . . There gets to be a dynamic in a place where the idea that it’s haunted takes on a life of its own. One-of-a-kind quirks that could never be repeated all become further evidence of the haunting.[29]

Sound is thought to be another cause of supposed sightings. Frequencies lower than 20 hertz are called infrasound and are normally inaudible, but scientists Richard Lord and Richard Wiseman have concluded that infrasound can cause humans to experience bizarre feelings in a room, such as anxiety, extreme sorrow or even the chills.[31]

Carbon monoxide poisoning, which can cause changes in perception of the visual and auditory systems,[32] was recognized as a possible explanation for haunted houses as early as 1921.

Another potential explanation of apparitions is that they are hypnagogic hallucinations.

The traditional perception of ghosts wearing clothing is considered illogical by some researchers, given the supposed spiritual nature of ghosts, suggesting that the basis of what a ghost is said to look like and consist of is quite dependent on preconceptions made by society.[33] Unclothed ghosts have, however, been reported. For instance in The World’s Strangest Ghost Stories (1958) R. Thurston Hopkins gives a chilling account of the “Naked Ghost of Rattlesden” (Suffolk).[34] Skeptics also say that, to date, there is no credible scientific evidence that any location is inhabited by spirits of the dead.[35]

Some researchers, such as Professor Michael Persinger (Laurentian University, Canada), have speculated that changes in geomagnetic fields (created, e.g., by tectonic stresses in the Earth’s crust or solar activity) could stimulate the brain’s temporal lobes and produce many of the experiences associated with hauntings. This theory has been tested in various ways. Some scientists have examined the relationship between the time of onset of unusual phenomena in allegedly haunted locations and any sudden increases in global geomagnetic activity. Others have investigated whether the location of alleged hauntings is associated with certain types of magnetic activity. Finally, a third strand of work has involved laboratory studies in which stimulation of the temporal lobe with transcerebral[clarify] magnetic fields has elicited subjective experiences that strongly parallel phenomena associated with hauntings. All of this work is controversial; it has attracted a large amount of debate and disagreement.[36]

Popular Culture

Ghosts are prominent in the popular cultures of various nations. The ghost story is ubiquitous across all cultures from oral folktales to works of literature.

Perhaps the most recognizable ghost in English literature is the shade of Hamlet’s father in the play The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In Hamlet, it is the ghost that encourages the title character to investigate his “murder most foul” and seek revenge upon King Claudius, the suspected murderer of Hamlet’s father.

Possibly the next most famous apparitions are the ghosts of A Christmas Carol, where the ghost of Jacob Marley, The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come help Ebenezer Scrooge see the error of his ways.

Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost has been adapted for film and television on several occasions. Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has also appeared in a number of adaptations, notably the film The Innocents and Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw. Noel Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, later made into a film, places a more humorous slant on the phenomenon of haunting of individuals and specific locations.

Films including or centering on ghosts are common, and span a variety of genres. Ghosts can also be found in various television programs.

The ghost hunting theme has also become prevalent in reality television series particularly Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters International, but also Most Haunted, and A Haunting. It is also represented in children’s television by such programmes as The Ghost Hunter.

The Grateful Dead adopted their name and iconography from a series of traditional ghost stories known as Grateful Dead.


  1. Merriam Webster dictionary, retrieved December 24, 2007 “a disembodied soul”
  2. Parapsychological Association, glossary of key words frequently used in parapsychology, Retrieved December 13 2006
  3. Retrieved December 13 2006 “The spirit of a dead person, especially one believed to appear in bodily likeness to living persons or to haunt former habitats.”
  4. Daniel Cohen (1994) Encyclopedia of Ghosts. London, Michael O’ Mara Books: 137-56
  5. Christina Hole (1950) Haunted England. London, Batsford: 150-163
  6. Daniel Cohen (1994) Encyclopedia of Ghosts. London, Michael O’ Mara Books: 8
  7. The Oxford Book of the Supernatural (1995) edited by D.J. Enright: 503-542
  8. Daniel Cohen (1994) Encyclopedia of Ghosts. London, Michael O’ Mara Books
  9. Musella, David park (Sept-October 2005). “Gallup poll shows that Americans’ belief in the paranormal persists”. Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved on 2007-09-19.
  10. Some people believe the ghost or spirit never leaves Earth until there is no-one left to remember the one who died. Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology edited by J. Gordon Melton Gale Research, ISBN 0-8103-5487-X
  11. The Golden Bough, Project Gutenberg, accessed January 16, 2007
  12. Richard Cavendish (1994) The World of Ghosts and the Supernatural. Waymark Publications, Basingstoke: 5
  13. The Ethical and Political Works of Motse [Mo-tzu] Book VIII, Chapter XXXI “On Ghosts (III) Electronic republication of the translation by W. P. Mei (London: Probsthain, 1929) Retrieved Dec 19, 2006
  14. Vedic cosmology, accessed February 27, 2007
  15. Jaehnig, K.C. (1999-03-11). “Classical ghost stories”. Southern Illinois University. Retrieved on 2007-09-19.
  16. “LXXXIII. To Sura”. Retrieved on 2007-09-19.
  17. Mark Gregory Pegg (2008) A Most Holy War. Oxford University Press, New York: 3-5, 116-117. ISBN 978-0-19-517131-0
  18. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 227, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  19. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 234, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  20. “Grateful dead”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online (2007). Retrieved on 2007-12-14.
  21. Christina Hole (1950) Haunted England: 13-27
  22. John Fairley and Simon Welfare (1985) Arthur C Clarke’s World of Strange Powers: 251
  23. John Fairley and Simon Welfare (1985) Arthur C Clarke’s World of Strange Powers: 251
  24. John Fairley and Simon Welfare (1985) Arthur C Clarke’s World of Strange Powers: 132-5
  25. Christina Hole (1950) Haunted England: 13-27
  26. Christina Hole (1950) Haunted England: 21-22
  27. Richard Cavendish (1994) The World of Ghosts and the Supernatural. Waymark Publications, Basingstoke: 35
  28. Fontana, David (2005). Is There an Afterlife: A Comprehensive Review of the Evidence. Hants, UK: O Books. ISBN 1903816904.
  29. Weinstein, Larry (June 2001). “The Visit”. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Retrieved on 2007-09-19.
  30. Carroll, Robert Todd (June 2001). “pareidolia”. Retrieved on 2007-09-19.
  31. “Sounds like terror in the air”. Reuters. (2003-09-09). Retrieved on 2007-09-19.
  32. Choi IS (2001), “Carbon monoxide poisoning: systemic manifestations and complications”, J. Korean Med. Sci. 16(3): 253–61, PMID 11410684
  33. Nickell, Joe (December 2006). “Headless Ghosts I Have Known”. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Retrieved on 2007-09-19.
  34. R. Thurston Hopkins (1958) The World’s Strangest Ghost Stories. Kingswood, World’s Work: 173-83
  35. Nickell, Joe (Sept-October 2000). “Haunted Inns Tales of Spectral Guests”. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Retrieved on 2007-09-19.
  36. Wiseman, Richard (0). “Research of Professor Richard Wiseman”. Society for Psychical Research. Retrieved on 2007-09-25.

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