Ghosts and Why We Love Them
Written by: Martin Bridgstock
A Cambridge Halloween
Halloween approaches! Cambridge experts discuss the academic side of our favorite paranormal October characters, from flying witches to spooky mummies. In this installment, Martin Bridgstock, the author of Beyond Belief, explains the paradox of our fascination with ghosts.
I’ve always been in favour of ghosts. As a nondescript schoolboy, one of my few claims to distinction was that I could tell chilling ghost stories. As darkness settled on winter nights, I could terrorise my schoolmates with accounts of rampaging skeletons, opening graves and angry spirits. I loved it. There is a real sense of power in bringing other people into a world of your creation, and terrifying them.
It isn’t just schoolchildren who are attracted by the lure of the dead. A seaside suburb near to my home has an annual Halloween festival. I take the family down, to join the crowds. We watch the ghouls, vampires and occasional alien march by. Then we wander off to buy a few spooky souvenirs. It’s good fun.
Movies like The Amityville Horror and the Paranormal Activity series testify to our long-term fascination with ghosts and other paranormal manifestations. They can be hilarious, too, like Nearly Headless Nick and Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter movies. The point is that they fascinate us. As David Hume remarked a couple of centuries ago, “the passion of surprise and wonder . . . being an agreeable emotion, gives a sensible tendency towards the belief of those events, from which it is derived.”
Exactly, and there’s the rub. Because of our fascination with ghosts and similar beasties, we are likely to start thinking as though they actually exist. And sometimes that can lead to the most abominable outcomes. A few years ago some members of a British jury were involved in the trial of a man for murder. One weekend, they became drunk, found an Ouija board, and decided to seek the guidance of the spirits about the guilt of the accused. The spirits replied, and the jurors found the accused guilty. The Court of Appeals was much less impressed, and threw out the verdict.
Ghosts, like all paranormal claims, could have absolutely shattering implications if their existence were ever proved.
Ghosts, of course, go close to the terrifying question of our own mortality. Deep inside us there is a continuing protest against the coming fact of our own death. Ghosts suggest that there might be something beyond bodily death, and the primitive inside us wants that above all. The jokes and parades and stories may cover the truth for awhile, but underneath, it is always there.
And, logically, the question should always be there. Because ghosts, like all paranormal claims, could have absolutely shattering implications if their existence were ever proved. Imagine that one ghost – just one – is reliably shown to be real. That constitutes proof that it is possible for a person to survive bodily death. If one person can exist beyond the grave, then others can as well. Suddenly our place in the universe is changed beyond recognition.
It was this apparent contradiction that led me to write my book Beyond Belief. On the one hand, evidence for nearly all aspects of the paranormal is pathetically weak, and usually the product of wishful thinking. On the other hand, nearly all paranormal claims are potentially important. If almost any one of them were shown to be true, it would revolutionise our views of the universe, and of our place in it (We might perhaps omit the Loch Ness Monster from that generalisation).
So how should we think about ghosts, faith healers, King Tut’s curse and all the rest of the paranormal? I argued in Beyond Belief for a sceptical approach. The claims are so astonishing that we should believe them only if the evidence is strong enough to sustain such a belief. And, further, any non-paranormal explanation should be preferred to a paranormal one. If you apply those rules, nearly all paranormal claims fade away to nothing. The evidence simply isn’t there.
On the other hand, if you follow these rules, you will be ready to accept the evidence for a ghost or any other paranormal claim if it does turn up. Your mind isn’t closed, but it won’t be deluged with rubbish. So I enjoy the Harry Potter films, and the Halloween festival, but despite Hume’s warnings, I don’t actually believe in any of them.