A Ghost in the Making: A History

ghost in the window
Optional audio transcript

          What makes a ghost, a ghost?

Imagine an old, abandoned home on the corner of a disheveled street, littered with broken siding and boarded up windows, a ghost in the making. The walkup is made of cracked concrete, weeds growing through each gray block. The gate is askew, broken to stay open after the last trespasser made their debut. This home has open secrets, says the neighbors. A man shot his wife and then ran off to be hunted by police. The two-story home was left to be taken over by the bank, never to see a new homeowner. But possibly by a ghost.

You decide to walk through the home one night after deciding life wasn’t worth living if you can’t have a bit of adventure. The front door cracks and moans, having not been cared for in years. There are bugs and spiders everywhere, dust so thick, it could cause anaphylactic shock to the most immune.

Investigations are invigorating

The house creaks as you walk up the steps to the second floor. Below, a bang is heard. It startles you, thinking the house is going to come crashing down. Then, as you turn to go downstairs to investigate (because you have never seen a scary movie), the corner of your eye catches something. A shadow, moving from left to right, down the hallway. You’re scared now, the spookiness of the house enclosing it’s grasp on you.

You run out of the house, telling anyone who will listen that you, my friend, just saw the ghost of the woman who was killed in the home, banging something downstairs to get you to see her. She wanted to scare you, to get you out. This story becomes a page in a book, in an article, and suddenly it has life.

But is that really what happened? Did you see a ghost or did your brain just get frightened and try to make sense of a sight?

There is a history into what a ghost is

Before we get into the history of the ghost sighting, remember that there are many different stories to tell. Each culture has its own story, whether it is original or fed in from another culture is not important. What is important to understand is why these stories exist in the first place. We question if these spiritual encounters started because of unexplained occurrences, religious thought, or just plain boredom? You can talk of religious beliefs being the main reason, and I’m going to tell you right now, you’re right.

ghost in the mirror
Ghosts could be there, waiting for your return

The ghost is a concept of explaining of what happens when we die. Death is a mysterious thing, and we know less about it than the ocean, which isn’t much. As I have spoken of previously with the article about Russia, living with the living when you’re dead has a place in scripture.

The Eastern Orthodox dead supposedly exist on our plane for 40 days after death. Tibetan Buddhists have a ghost world that meets the living. Some pagan religions even have ancestral rituals and prayers to call out, well, their ancestors, for advice. In other forms of Christianity, they have ghosts walking on lakes and touching people in the Bible. Ghosts are everywhere in religion.

Ancient ghost history

The first notation of the first ghost sighting was incredibly late in the game. Religion-wise, the belief in ghosts goes far back as about 4,000 years ago. But, in older cultures, you can see it go even farther to about 10,000 BCE. In Mesopotamia, there was a code amongst the dead to stay in a place called either Irkalla, Ekur, Kigal, or a slew of other names. No spirit could really leave the land of the dead, except for when it was needed. They can come back for a good reason, which we will get into later.

Anyways, back to the written accounts. There are many stories where ghosts make an appearance, like Oresteia. In this story, Agamemnon, a murdered king after the Trojan War, caused more murder as his kids, one being Orestes, choose revenge and invoke the dead to help. The Greek story has so much more to it, but that is a ghostly part of it.

An actual written account was by a man called Pliny the Younger who lived in the 1st and/or 2nd century CE. He writes to a man named Licinius Sura, who was a Roman senator. His accounts of the ghost sightings are typical of those that we see today: strange noises and wispy appearances. A philosopher named Athenodorus Cananites also visiting and recounts the same strange noise, which was the rattling of chains, and saw the ghost. Later, they found out that a man did, in fact, die in chains and gave him a proper burial. The ghost has no other occurrences of coming back.

Why we think we see a ghost

It is a solid question to ask as you can believe ghosts are real, but can you explain why? It may have been an experience when you were a child where a man in a top hat stood at your bedroom doorway and then disappeared. Or, it could have been in an abandoned house you explored as a juvenile delinquent. Seriously, don’t trespass. It’s rude.

ghost in the mirror
Ghost in the mirror

We can say that ghosts may or may not exist because of technology, citing we have too much and too little of it. Our capabilities as humans are to make tools to aid us in thriving. It could be our downfall in understanding a plane of existence that we very well could be misinterpreting. There is no one way to find the proof of a ghost and the theories of the how-to is massive, so massive that I would not be able to account for them all, but here are the main ways.

  • Basic recorders and EMF readers
  • Fancy boxes of radio waves and Xbox Kinects
  • Scrying (seeing or reading through different objects)
  • Seances
  • Sitting in a dark room hoping for something to happen

Yeah, I know, not the grandest list, but ghost hunting isn’t exactly a spectacle.

Gathering information is just about as exciting as watching an egg hatch: It’s boring until the something squeaks.

What comes after technology is the element of fear. Fear is an interesting emotion as it is one that every living creature has. But you are a human, maybe, and you have an imagination. You think you saw the man in a top hat, but there are a dozen other reasons why you saw him. You could have had sleep paralysis, for example, which is a condition where your dreams come to you as you awake. This may give your mind the thought that the man in the top hat from your subconscious went full Freddy Krueger.

Now, this part gets technical, as there is a psychology to fear. There is a show called Destination Fear that sort of goes into this idea that the more fear you feel, the more of an interaction you will have with ghosts. Martin Smith states much as I had previously thought, in that children really like ghosts, or tend to see them the most.

Smith talks about Freud, a man we all know and love his mother, who suggests that we merge unfamiliar experiences with ones that we do understand. It is stated as ‘unhomely’ and ‘homely’, respectively [1] (p.291). He goes on to say that if we don’t understand something at all, then we cannot fear it. Children wouldn’t be afraid of the top hat man as they don’t understand why it exists. But, as adults, you remember Mr. Top Hat and it causes a fear to arise, resting the unfamiliar with the familiar. You see this in nearly every horror movie with a kid, who talks to a demon named Toby who masquerades as a ghost kid.

A ghost can initiate fear or excitement

Our fear response also gets a mention, as the ‘flight, fight, or freeze’ response to a situation piggyback on our knowledge of what is happening. Finding information on the actual psychology and not physiology of fear was not without its paywalls.

With fear, we have our unknowns, but enhancing what could be is what brings the fear out. We see a dark hallway and if you have no experience with a dark hallway, you’re just looking for the light switch. You could very well see the dark hallway and suddenly a flood of what-ifs appears: rapids of scary creatures, demons, women climbing on the ceiling, screeches and running footsteps. They all come to mind. The anxiety of the dark hallway holds fears’ hand, and they walk together, keeping you on edge.

Kurt Riezler enhances on this sequence of events, stating that our knowing of what can happen can calm us down, staying that there is an order with things that always stays in order (p.491). A dark hallway just is. It is just a hallway that has no lights on. We can perceive it as a shadow of what might be, but a dark hallway is just a dark hallway. It will not change because it has one order in the world: be a hallway.

Try that next time fear creeps in.

The beginning of a tale

The tale of what is and what could be is what will haunt our minds forever if we choose to let it. This history, physiology, and psychology of fear is something that will be carried in future blogs, stating what happened, why did it happen, and is it really happening. Because you might be looking at the translucent face of a 1800’s man who died of dysentery, or you could just be perceiving a shape to make sense of the darkness.

References

Riezler, Kurt. “The Social Psychology of Fear.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 49, no. 6, 1944, pp. 489–498. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2771546. Accessed 20 Aug. 2021.

Smith, Martin. “The Divine or the Physician? Fears of Ghosts and the Supernatural in Approved Social Work.” Journal of Social Work Practice, vol. 22, no. 3, Nov. 2008, pp. 289–299. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/02650530802396635.

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