Ghostly matters are no longer topics simply for Halloween. The popular appeal of ghosts and hauntings is evident in the plethora of television programs such as A Haunting, Celebrity Ghost Stories, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters, My Ghost Story, Ghostly Encounters, and many others. Does the increase in paranormal programming reflect a corresponding increase in belief in supernatural phenomena such as ghosts and hauntings? To the extent that self-report data reveal something of a person’s beliefs, tracking polls suggest a trend toward more widespread belief or willingness to report belief in paranormal phenomena. According to Gallup polls, 11% of Americans surveyed reported believing in ghosts in 1978, and in 2005, nearly three times as many (32%) agreed that ghosts or spirits of dead people can come back in certain places or situations. Similarly, 37% of those surveyed in 2005 believed that houses can be haunted, compared with 29% of those surveyed in 1990. On a more personal level, polls conducted by the Pew Research Center found twice as many Americans reporting that they had seen or been in the presence of a ghost (18%) in 2009 than in 1990 (9%). In 2009, 29% reported that they had felt in touch with someone who had already died, compared with only 17% in 1990.
Even though tracked increases have been small to moderate, any increase should be surprising given the emphasis on science in American culture and sophisticated scientific and technological knowledge. The paradox is highlighted in shows focused on paranormal investigators using equipment presented as “scientific.” Perhaps couching the paranormal within a technical context makes supernatural material more acceptable to an audience educated to seek validation in scientific evidence. With or without a scientific ambience, stories of ghostly encounters clearly appeal to many viewers. Whether someone believes in ghosts, is open to the possibility they exist, or would like them to be real, the construct of ghostly encounters satisfies a deep need for continuity, especially during times of rapid change and fear of loss. Mobility, separation, and divorce transform families into long distance relationships, upgrades make existing gadgets obsolete with people feeling left behind, and a kaleidoscope of changing celebrities, fashions, and fads has made permanence seem impossible. Feelings of loss contribute to nostalgic yearning for something that can be counted on to endure.
Just as nostalgia keeps alive in memory what has been lost in the past, ghostly encounters reflect the hope that somehow we won’t lose forever the ones we love. This desire is captured in the song Shadows of the Night: “In this world that we know now, life is here and gone. But somewhere in the afterglow, love lives on and on.” In a time of communicating in 140 character posts, ecards, and abbreviated messages punctuated with emoticons, pictograms and ideograms, relationships have faced challenges that threaten longevity and pose the likelihood of unresolved issues that outlast our hurried lives. The thought that we will have all the time we need to solve our problems in the leisure of the afterlife is comforting as we struggle to deal with financial, work, health, and interpersonal stress. Such thinking can interfere with efforts to keep relationships healthy if it leads to procrastination. On the other hand, by reminding us of the transience, fragility and unpredictability of life, ghostly notions of an afterlife can deepen our present appreciation of those we love and who make our lives worth living.
Technology has transformed concrete connections to our past and to those we love and have loved. We recognize that photos, voice and text messages, contact information, videos, and celebratory, anniversary and sympathy cards that exist as digital files can disappear in an instant as a computer crashes, a mobile phone is lost or stolen, or a gadget becomes obsolete. The vulnerability of records that keep emotional bonds strong contribute to a yearning for permanence and make it tempting to imagine life continuing on in an unknown format that can be perceived only once a means of decoding the files is discovered. Just as nostalgic memories are ghosts of our past, ghosts can be considered the future memories of our lives.