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Magical Thinking

Why Are Ghosts So Popular Right Now?

Our current interest in the supernatural is reminiscent of that a century ago.

Key points

  • Ghosts are a popular theme in entertainment today.
  • Our current interest in the supernatural may be related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Interest in the supernatural also rose a century ago following the influenza epidemic and World War I.
  • After a massive loss of life, many people seek answers to the mysteries of life and death, or ways to communicate with those they've lost.

Ghosts seem to be everywhere one looks these days—at least in popular culture and the media. Spirits have certainly invaded television, as a small sample of shows suggests. Current shows such as CBS’s "Ghosts," Starz’s "Shining Vale," and The Disney Channel’s "The Ghost and Molly McGee" star characters who have left this mortal coil, and the recent "Ghostbusters: Afterlife" has brought that movie franchise back to life.

Why the current fascination with spirits? Historically, interest in the supernatural tends to rise after some kind of global crisis involving death, suggesting it has something to do with the pandemic. More than anything else, perhaps, COVID-19 served as a vivid reminder that we and everyone else are all mortal beings—perhaps reason enough to revive the age-old possibility that there is some kind of life after death. The entertainment that a society chooses to produce reflects its citizens’ values, attitudes, and behavior, making all this ghost business more than just the stuff of a Hollywood producer’s imagination.

Something much like this took place a century ago right after that era’s cataclysmic events, namely the Great War and the influenza epidemic. The early 1920s were great days for supernatural phenomena, capturing Americans’ imagination just as we were becoming a thoroughly modern society. Immediately after the war and epidemic, what was often called spiritism (or spiritualism) became all the rage. This was perceived at the time as a reaction against the logic and rationalism of the Machine Age and a response to the failure of science to solve all the riddles of the universe. Religion was on the decline in America, this too serving as encouragement to look to alternative places to find answers to some of the big questions of life.

One theory at the time was that the war had driven many people insane, this perhaps accounting for the rather sudden attraction to the occult. There was no doubt that many of those who had lost loved ones in the war or epidemic were trying to find them in the next world; the mass revival of the supernatural appeared to be a direct result of the millions of deaths that had occurred in a relatively short period of time.

Interest in mind reading was also high, however, implying that something bigger was afoot. Were we “imprisoned in the five senses,” as one journalist asked, our increasing focus on the real and known limiting our understanding of life (and death)? By “listening in on the universe,” as another writer wondered, could we possibly enter an invisible world that went far beyond the physical one?

Most important, perhaps, could this new, modern form of spiritism be a sign of our continually escalating intelligence, the next logical stage in Man’s evolution? A good number of people at the time answered yes to all these questions, believing the supernatural could very possibly be “the master key” that would unlock the secrets of the universe.

Regardless of what one felt about the supernatural, it was almost impossible to ignore it as America headed into the 1920s. “It is evident the cult of spiritism has been galvanized,” wrote Janet Henderson for Overland Monthly in 1920, crediting the revival of public interest in communicating with the dead to the desolation of the Great War.

Held in disrepute over the last generation because of rampant fraud on the part of mediums (most notably the famous American “conjurer,” Slade), engaging with spirits was, rather suddenly, back in vogue. The war had “created a yearning for the emotional consolation of messages from the dead,” Henderson thought, with relatives and friends of those who had perished not completely ready to part with their loved ones.

The existence of a future life too was comforting to many, especially to those Christians who had lost faith in their religion after experiencing personal tragedy. Others took note of the craze sweeping the nation and Europe. “The growth of Spiritualism is one of the themes of the season,” observed Joseph McCabe of The Living Age a couple of months later—he too believing that the war and the epidemic had much to do with waking the subject up from a two-decade or so nap.


Samuel, Lawrence R. (2011). Supernatural America: A Cultural History. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

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