Pondering ghosts and spirits at Halloween

Fresno Bee, Oct. 30, 2022

Halloween is a haunting time. This is the spooky moment when ghosts appear. But ghosts and spirits are always with us, especially for those who grieve and mourn.

Students occasionally ask me if I believe in ghosts. And they have shared their ghost stories with me. I recall getting a chill from a story told by an older woman who said she often saw her dead husband in the room where he used to practice music.

Philosophers have often wrestled with ghosts. As Socrates was preparing for his death, he told a ghost story. He explained that “polluted souls” are unwilling to move on to the next world. These restless shadows haunt graveyards, too in love with their bodies to leave them in the grave.

Most scholars think Socrates was making a point about enlightenment. Virtue and wisdom should teach us to accept death so we can avoid becoming unquiet ghosts. At any rate, this ancient tale reminds us that ghosts have long haunted human experience.

But do ghosts really exist? Well, the seer of ghosts has clearly experienced something. They are not lying. But what is it that they see?

One possible explanation is that ghosts are figments of the mind. For those who grieve, the dead are strangely present. Our dead remain with us. They wait on the edge of consciousness. And then something triggers their appearance — a smell, a song or a familiar place.

Most ghostly apparitions are probably products of memory and imagination. These ghosts don’t conjure themselves. We bring them to life. They are after-images of the dead, which linger with us so long as memory endures.

I heard a talk recently by a philosopher who recounted her mother’s decline into dementia. Her mother’s world was inhabited by hallucinations — spirits, she called them. The philosopher suggested that ordinary reality is only a small step away from the hallucinatory. Could it be that the “reality” we inhabit is actually a hallucination? Our experience is a projection of the mind and an interpretation of the stimuli it receives.

Photons hit our eyes and sound waves tickle our ears. These stimuli are woven together by the brain, which produces an image of the world. That image can be disturbed by other stimuli throbbing through our minds — memories, fear, hopes, and dreams.

Usually, consciousness takes charge of this process, keeping us focused on a stable set of images and appearances. But when consciousness relaxes its grip, things get weird.

This can happen in dementia. It can occur when we drink alcohol or use other drugs. Anxiety and exhaustion can disturb consciousness. And spooky shadows can appear at midnight in October graveyards, when the leaves rustle in the autumn wind.

But do ghosts exist? I suppose that depends on what we mean by existence.

Someone I love died recently. She’s been with me in my thoughts. She “exists” in a sense. Grief does strange things to our experience of reality, time and self. Grief is the presence of an absence. It is a distressing emptiness. That emptiness has a reality of its own. It afflicts us. But we also hate to let it go because it is the place our loved one used to be.

We tend to think that existence is material. Rocks and steel exist. But what about thoughts and dreams and memories? Those things are real, aren’t they?

One of the most famous lines from “Hamlet,” occurs after Hamlet has just seen a ghost. He says, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.” The poet is suggesting that life, experience, and existence are more complex and mysterious than we know.

There is more to life than our bodies. There are memories, dreams and ideas. There is also literature, philosophy and religion. These things free the soul from the body. They allow our minds to wander. They introduce us to ghostly presences such as Hamlet and Socrates. These “people” are, after all, creations of art and literature.

Thinking is an uncanny game of ghosts. Memory and art are conjuring acts that put us in touch with spirits. We might even say that to be human is to be haunted.

Don’t be afraid of no ghost

The Fear of Ghosts

Fresno Bee, October 31, 2015

A recent survey from Chapman University found that more than 40 percent of Americans believe in ghosts. The study also found that those who believe in ghosts tend to be generally more fearful.

It stands to reason that seeing a ghost may make you paranoid. But paranoia also can open the door to paranormal beliefs. The cure for the fear of phantoms is to cultivate tranquil mindfulness, a life of virtue and a reasonable approach to ghosts.

free-halloween-ghostFor example, it is not clear how ghosts could harm us. Ghosts are supposedly immaterial beings. They pass through walls and rise out of graves. A ghost’s spiritual nature makes it difficult to conceive a ghost physically harming us. That 1990 movie “Ghost” makes this clear: Patrick Swayze’s ghost has trouble making contact with the material world.

This problem undermines the claims of those who say that ghosts show up in photographs or on recordings. If ghosts have no material reality, they can’t be photographed or recorded. Phantom photos and spooky sounds are best explained in natural terms as shadows, echoes or glitches in recording devices.

Naturalists explain ghosts as projections of the mind. Charles Darwin, for example, suggested that the animal imagination gives birth to ghosts. Animals are ever alert to the presence of threatening agents.

Swirling dust or flickering light can prompt us to see a phantom presence and prime the fight-or-flight response. Darwin explained that his own dog tended to react to unexpected movement as if there were an unseen spiritual entity at work – growling fiercely and barking when a parasol was moved by a breeze.

Of course, a ghost’s most terrifying power is not physical. Ghosts are spiritual beings who can invade our minds and trouble our dreams. Consider the great ghosts of literature. The specters that haunt Hamlet, Macbeth or Scrooge assault the mind, planting seeds of doubt and despair.

Such ghosts can be explained as psychic creations, frightening figments of the imagination – unconscious anxieties brought to life and projected on the world. Even so, the dread is real whether we actually are haunted by spectral beings or merely are afflicted by the eerie emanations of the subconscious.

Behind all of this may be the fear of death, which Freud supposed was the source of the experience of the uncanny. The thought of death and the presence of dead bodies can send shivers down the spine. Those shudders can feel like a haunting. But the tickle on the neck and the hair-raising shudder is really the body pumping adrenaline, tuning up the senses, getting ready to fight or flee.

The dread of the uncanny can lead to dizziness and a feeling of unreality. The familiar seems suddenly foreign. The senses tingle. Panic and paranoia arise as the imagination runs wild. And ghosts may appear.

Walk down a dark and desolate street late on Halloween night. Your breathing becomes shallow. Your eyes open as you search the gloom. Odd images flicker in the corner of the eye. Rustling leaves hint that something is lurking. In the frisson of fear, shadows appear as spooks and specters.

On Halloween, we are told that the door between the living and the dead opens a crack. I doubt that the dead really do come back to haunt us. But there is no doubt that the mind can be visited by phantoms and figments, including vivid memories of the dead.

The experience of being haunted is as real as the experience of fear, guilt, sorrow and shame. The living often are afflicted by grief, remorse, anguish and regret. Our minds are haunted by memory and loss. Beneath much of this is the uncanny recognition that we, too, will someday slip through the crack of death into that undiscovered country, from which no traveler returns.

We should give due respect to the dead. But good people have nothing to fear from ghosts or from death. Tranquil mindfulness cures the anxiety, guilt and shame that ghosts exploit. Mindfulness helps us live in peace with our memories of the dead. And a virtuous life provides stability in the face of the uncanny fact that each of us will someday shuffle off this mortal coil and exit through the ghostly gate.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/article41953935.html#storylink=cpy