Ghosts & Possession
Ghosts have been an object of fascination across cultural boundaries for millenia. They are disembodied spirits trapped in liminality, the transition between life and death. The majority of the alleged proof for the actuality of ghosts centers primarily around photographs, videos, and recordings, all of which can be doctored and edited. As a result, these types of ghost documentation are problematic in nature. As a whole, there is a distinct lack of experimental evidence supporting the existence of ghosts. Stemming from previous research flawed by the presence of a human being collecting data, a research study was conducted using a computer automated system and a charge-coupled device (CCD) camera as a means to capture the existence of spirits.[i] Gary Schwartz, the principle investigator, hypothesizes that ghosts emit incredibly faint light, resulting in an increase in photon density in an otherwise dark room. The basic idea behind the set-up of this experiment is to eliminate possible sources of error, including the energy and influence of a physical person, as well as to utilize a light-tight control room to minimize excess photons not emanating from the alleged spirit.[ii] Schwartz recorded a message to play to the previously identified spirits, requesting they enter the room and “fill it with [your] light” at predetermined time intervals.
He ultimately concluded that although the measurement of photons was associated with an increase in density after the recorded instructions were played, the study needed improvements in equipment and sample size in order to confidently conclude the existence of ghosts.[iii]
This use of empirical evidence to try and prove, or disprove, the existence of ghosts is a distinct characteristic of western civilization. The western world tends to have a rational, scientific, Enlightenment-like perspective on life, so it’s particularly interesting that the belief in the paranormal has been increasing recently among younger people in the United States. This may be partially explained by the overall decrease in belief in formal religion which has given rise to people who now call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” This idea of believing in the supernatural but not necessarily religion is breaking the barriers of what people have been formerly allowed to believe in with organized religion. Paired with the rise of ghost hunting shows in the media that appeal to many people’s skeptic side, more younger people in the United States have begun to believe in the paranormal.[iv]
The topic of ghost hunting from an ethical perspective is heavily discussed. Seen as a “cultural phenomenon,” ghosts are not something that should be tampered with. Shows such as “Ghost Hunters,” which ran on TV from 2004 to 2016, were frequently called out for faking paranormal activity and disturbing spirits within the paranormal community. Vincent Amico, a paranormal expert of sixteen years and co-founder of AZ Paranormal Investigations, called the show out. Amico points out that many of the paranormal activity that the show claims to happen are things that happen off camera and can be easily faked. Amico mentions that a true paranormal investigation cannot be completed in one night like it is on TV shows. Most professional investigators take weeks to months and multiple visits to come to a conclusion about the area being investigated. Many professionals also say that these shows are disturbing spirits that may actually be dwelling in the areas where the show is being shot, being that they fabricate happenings.[v] There are various ways to get views and disturbing the spirits of the dead is neither amusing nor ethical.
In most cases, disturbing the spirits will only make hauntings worse. For instance, Chinese culture has incredibly detailed burial rules so that the spirit can cross over and not come back to haunt the living. After one’s death in older Chinese culture, they walked along a bridge to the afterlife where they were judged on how good they were in life. If they were deemed unworthy, they were sent to hell. In Buddhist culture, if the spirit was deemed worthy, they would be reincarnated. In contrast, they would be prayed to with the Gods in Confucianism. The first step to the afterlife was the burial of the deceased. The family of the deceased person would buy a plot of land from the Gods and create a contract with all of the information of the dead person and the dimensions of the grave. The money used to buy the land was paper that the family would draw bills on and then would burn in the grave. This was seen as a sign of respect to the Gods, and if not done properly, the spirit would be sent back down to Earth.[vi]
Most of the stories of hauntings in Chinese culture come from improper burials or defilement of the grave, such as a sister who haunted her brothers until they gave her a proper burial and a mother who haunted her son until the grave robbers that defiled her place of burial were punished. The shui gui is a spirit of a person who drowned and would haunt the water around their death. These spirits appeared because their bodies were never found and could therefore not have a proper burial. These spirits would lure people into the water and drown them. The spirit could then move on, but the newly drowned spirit would take its place. Ghosts were used in Chinese culture as a way to become morally right people. They made sure to respect their elders so that the eventual spirit of said elders would not come back after death. This helped them lead good lives, untempted by spirits that would try to lure them using lust.[vii] Teaching children these morals through ghost stories demonstrates just how serious it was to Chinese people to establish how to properly treat another person, which is extensively taught in Confucianism.[viii]
One of the most known festivals among Chinese Culture is the Hungry Ghost Festival, a month-long festival in Buddhist and Taoist cultures where the gates of hell are released and hungry ancestral souls walk among the living. These souls are usually compiled of those that were not given proper burials when they died, so to appease them, food is offered and incense is burned.[ix] One moral lesson taught during this celebration is that people, primarily teenagers, should not stay out too late because a ghost might follow them home. At the end of the festival, lanterns are sent down bodies of water and are said to attract ghosts. Once the lanterns reach the other side, that signifies that the ghosts have gone back to the afterlife and are at peace.[x]
Much like with Chinese culture, Native American culture takes the idea of spirits and ghosts very seriously. Also, in comparison to Chinese culture, many Native American tribes think that if something goes wrong with the burial, or if the grave is defiled, that the spirit will come back to haunt the living. The Oglala Sioux tribe says that the cause for spirits is because the recently deceased envy to live again. Much like what was learned in class, these spirits are stuck in the transition rite of passage and wish not to move on to the incorporation rite of passage to the dead. In order to appease the spirit,
Oglala Sioux will “keep” the spirit by feeding it for a year so that the spirit can finally cross over and goes along the “ghost road.” Paiute Indians also believe in a similar idea that ghosts will cause sickness and death for the living because they want company for when they depart on the long journey to the spirit world.[xi]
Native American culture has been greatly affected by groups such as black market grave robbers, anthropologists, and scientists. These groups have disturbed the burial grounds of Native Americans in multiple ways for personal gain. Grave robbers sell things such as skeletal remains, sacred tribal items, weapons, and jewelry on the black market. These stolen items are then sold to scientists and museums, the two places where authorities may not assume the remains were illegally obtained. Scientists use the remains for unknown reasons. According to Dr. Emery Johnson, no medical advancements have been derived from the research of Native American remains. Many Native American activist groups see that their ancestors are being unnecessarily disturbed in their final resting place. Native American burial grounds in Texas are also being bulldozed for illogical reasons. In an East Texas museum, remains are disrespectfully displayed in crude ways, such as laying in the windowsill of a women’s bathroom and thrown in a box and sold to museum visitors.[xii] The mistreatment of the remains of Native Americans’ remains causes deep turmoil within their community because so many of their ancestors have been disturbed, causing them problems in the afterlife.
A common theme among many different Native American tribes is the fear of the dead. Many tribes fear that even the sweetest alive person can become a wicked ghost if the proper precautions are not taken relative to their burials and treatment in the afterlife. For example, the white owl is seen as a malicious human spirit that intends to cause sickness or death to everyone near it. Apache people believe that the call of the owl will enter the body and cause sickness, and they create elaborate rituals after hearing the call to ward off the sickness. Ghosts in many Native American cultures are there to try and draw the living closer to the dead. Navajo tribes, like the Apache, also greatly fear ghosts. In order not to offend the spirit, funeral rituals are taken very seriously. Spirits are the manifestation of the hate in human souls. What makes them so frightening to the Navajo is that the spirits cannot be persuaded to be helpful, emphasizing a distinct lack of effective contact between the living and the dead.[xiii]
An attempt to communicate with the dead is demonstrated by the controversial practice of mediumship. Many believe that mediums, people who claim to be able to communicate with the spirits of the deceased, are nothing but a scam that targets people emotionally. Mediumship is often seen as a game of guessing. Some believe that mediums are just masters of manipulation because they can cause their clients to open up emotionally about different topics, which guides them on what questions to ask next. Trances are a very interesting phenomenon that is more common with older mediums. Trance is a term used to describe different states of consciousness within mediumship. Mediums can go into a state of trance when a strong spirit wants to communicate something through the medium’s body. People are skeptical that mediums use this method to further prey upon people’s emotions for personal and monetary gain. There have been no studies that prove mediums can truly connect with spirits through trance. In comparison to possession by evil spirits, trances are possession by good spirits. However, while the trances allegedly experienced by mediums is purposeful, there are also reported cases of unwilling possession in the general population.[xiv]
Throughout history and across cultural boundaries, mental illness indications have frequently been explained by the concept of possessions, where spirits inhabit the minds and bodies of those afflicted with various disorienting and conflicting symptoms. The most blatant manifestations include ‘a temporary loss of the sense of personal identity and full awareness of the surroundings’, which is classified as a dissociative disorder in the DSM-IV-TR. A person with a dissociative disorder experiences disruptions in their memory, consciousness, and general perception of themselves and their environment.[xv] Some specific subtypes of dissociative disorders include dissociative amnesia, a form of pseudoamnesia in which one is unable to recall important personal information and experiences, and dissociative identity disorder, in which one alternates between two or more distinct personality states.[xvi] Both of these psychopathologies contain typical qualities of reported spiritual or even demonic possessions. People fear the voice of the spirit is emerging from the possessed person as they change between marked personalities, and the fact that the person is unable to remember it occurring further confirms the possession. Additionally, it is important to note that the DSM-IV does include diagnostic criteria for a possession/trance disorder to be utilized for experimental research, although the diagnosis itself has not yet been formally included in the manual. Possession/trance disorders describe experiences of trance-like states that are characterized by a delusion of a possession by a spirit.[xvii] This definition and diagnostic criteria is marked with a shortcoming, however, as trances vary across cultures.
Dissociative disorders are not the only mental illnesses that instill the idea of possible spiritual possession. Some of the other more common disorders that have been interpreted as potential signs of possession include psychotic and schizophrenic conditions, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and even adjustment disorders.[xviii] A study conducted by Samuel Pfeifer, the Medical Director of the Psychiatric Clinic Sonnenhalde, Ganshaldenweg, investigated the trends and prevalence of the belief in possessions, specifically demonic possessions, as the cause of mental illness for religious psychiatric patients. After interviewing over three hundred patients with previously identified mental illnesses, he noted that a rural community structure, single relationship status, and a poor educational background contributed to increased rates of belief in possession. Pfeifer also reported data pertaining to which disorders had higher rates of the application of the supernatural as an explanation for the symptoms of mental illness. Schizophrenia, anxiety, and personality disorders had the greatest percentages. He found that out of all of the patients with schizophrenia, 53% attributed their hallucinations and delusions to demonic influence. This percentage was comparable to those with anxiety disorders, of whom 48% believed their symptoms were a result of spiritual possession.[xix] People with anxiety disorders tend to experience obsessive and distressing thoughts that are nearly uncontrollable; therefore, it is understandable for them to attribute these turbulent symptoms to something that is also difficult to explain. Additionally, panic attacks, another symptom of anxiety disorders, are incredibly constrictive and fear-inducing to the person experiencing one, so a supernatural explanation for such an upsetting event is understandable. The attribution of mental illness symptoms to spiritual possession is a result of people attempting to explain disconcerting, uncontrollable feelings and behaviors.
Exposure to a traumatic event is also correlated with alleged possession experiences. The indications of possession, including depersonalization, dissociation, psychological distress, and alterations in cognition, are also characteristic of both Acute Stress Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After going through a distressing situation, many people will experience uncontrollable, intrusive thoughts and even physical reactions to stimuli that represent the traumatic event.[xx] For example, PK Philips, a victim of physical and mental abuse for years, suffers from PTSD. Before therapy, she was plagued by images of her attacker, and would experience frequent, debilitating panic attacks, especially when she encountered triggering reminders of her assault.[xxi] Such visions and irrepressible symptoms fit the criteria for possession, despite having an explainable, external cause.
Trauma as a precursor to possession is common among cultures across the world. However, the western world tends to view possession from a psychological perspective, and that strict psychological and societal pressures causes the experience of possession. In contrast, Tibetan Buddhist culture views that possession comes from an embodiment of projected negativity. “Spirits from above” are said to attack the brain and cause paralysis and stroke. It is important for western clinicians to take into account the patient’s own culture and how one’s sense of self goes along with possession. If a clinician does not take into account the patient’s culture, they could accidentally offend or dismiss the patient.[xxii] An extreme form of this ignorance can take the shape of exorcisms where exorcists take on the role of the “clinician.”
Exorcisms have been long disputed about what they actually do to the body physically. For example, Annaliese Michel was a 16 year old German girl who was believed to be negatively possessed. Priests exorcised her multiple times up until her death at the age of 23. She died from malnutrition and dehydration, which is what kills most exorcism victims. The priests that performed the exorcism on her were accused of negligent homicide, along with her parents who allowed them priests to exorcise Annaliese.[xxiii] The practice of exorcism often ignores the physical toll that it takes on both the victim and the person performing it. The body is deprived of water and food because priests see that as nourishing the bad spirit, which could lead to the spirit being harder to exorcise. The negligent nature of exorcisms is what eventually led to them becoming illegal.
Ghosts, spirits, mediums, and the possessed are all subjects of morbid fascination that have intrigued people all around the world since antiquity. They represent the fear that people have of dying and the desperate need for closure with the option of life after death. The answers to life after death may never be explained, but one question remains: do you believe?
[i] Schwartz, Gary. “Photonic Measurement of Apparent Presence of Spirit Using a Computer Automated System.” Explore 7, no. 2 (2011): 100-109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.explore.2010.12.002
[v] Craven, Scott. 2017. “Why Those TV Ghost-Hunting Shows Are Transparently Fake”. Azcentral.Com. https://www.azcentral.com/story/travel/arizona/2017/10/02/ghost-hunting-shows-fake/705566001/.
[vi] Mark, Emily. “Ghosts in Ancient China.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 20, 2016. https://www.ancient.eu/article/892/.
[viii] Riegel, Jeffrey. “Confucius.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. March 23, 2013. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/confucius/#ConEth.
[xii] Mihesuah, Devon A. “American Indians, Anthropologists, Pothunters, and Repatriation: Ethical, Religious, and Political Differences.” American Indian Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1996): 229-37. doi:10.2307/1185702.
[xiv] Alvarado, Carlos. 2010. “Investigating Mental Mediums”. Med.Virginia.Edu. https://med.virginia.edu/perceptual-studies/wp-content/uploads/sites/360/2015/11/Alvarado-Investigating-Mental-Mediums-JSE-2010.pdf.
[xv] Bhavsar, Vishal, Antonio Ventriglio, and Dinesh Bhugra. “Dissociative trance and spirit possession: Challenges for cultures in transition.” Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 70, no.12 (2016): 551-559. https://doi.org/10.1111/pcn.12425
[xvi] American Psychiatric Association. 2000. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. https://behavenet.com/dissociative-disorders
[xviii] Pfeifer, Samuel. “Belief in demons and exorcism in psychiatric patients in Switzerland.” British Journal of Medical Society 67, no. 3 (1994): 247-258. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2044-8341.1994.tb01794.x
[xx] Last, Benedicte. “Possession, Exorcism and Mental Illness: A Multiple Case Study Across World Views.” Order No. 10117883, California Institute of Integral Studies, 2015. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1803306335?accountid=14244.
[xxi] Philips, PK. “My Story of Survival: Battling PTSD.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America. https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/personal-stories/my-story-survival-battling-ptsd.