Do you believe in ghosts?

Lately, during the many academic conversations one seems to have in graduate school, the question I like to ask my friends and new acquaintances is: “do you believe in ghosts?”

The question seems like one of those queries that you are supposed to avoid, not only during dinner conversations, but around anyone but your closest friend. The question, at least for me, felt deeply personal and uncomfortable simultaneously. You don’t just ask anyone that question. Even after a couple years of studying “ghosts,” asking the question still makes me uncomfortable. Ever the intellectual taboo-breaker, perhaps that is exactly one of the reasons I like to ask the question.

Since I have become fairly comfortable describing my academic work as “religion and ghosts,” I am often the person asked the question. At one point, amusingly, one of Margaret’s friends, upon hearing I studied “ghosts,” mistook (much to her bemusement) me to be a “ghost-hunter.” She seemed rather disappointed when I said that I wasn’t exactly a mirror-image of the Syfy show. I kind of got the feeling that she felt “ghost-hunters” were loony and that she would have enjoyed the possibility of Margaret dating such a crazy person.

One of the reasons I like to ask the question is that everyone’s response is very personal. No one I’ve talked to can simply leave the answer as a simple ‘no’ or ‘yes.’ Thankfully! I love hearing stories, qualifications, thoughts, and skepticism about ghosts. There is something so intriguing about the unique particularity in how each of us respond to the question (or even the topic). That Margaret’s friend instantly seemed to convey that ghost-believers were crazy lunatics is just one such revealing answer. For this friend, believing in ghosts was not just wrong, but, indeed, purely irrational.

Finding that I am increasingly asked the question, one would think that my answers would become increasingly polished. I’ve certainly revised my response(s). I wouldn’t call any of them more polished, though. All along, a certain discomfort over the topic remains. And I study the field of ghosts! First, my answer was no (with qualifications). Then it was no (but open to the possibility). Then it was a yes (but a qualification that it was a literary/psychological yes). From one perspective, such a “progression” of responses might appear to simply be a “progression” toward insanity.

And yet, from another perspective, it is hardly a “progression” at all. It is not as though I have had any vivid experiences of ghosts. I have not gained any new empirical evidence. Instead, my answers constantly shift because I find my inability to express what I mean infinitely frustrating. Haunting, one might say.

Many people I’ve talked to have many very interesting personal ghost stories to tell. And many surprising people, over the course of history have passionately believed in ghosts. For my Christian readers, John Wesley, anyone? In my case, though, I have no ghost stories. In our scientific, strip-mined age, this lack of empirical evidence is what exactly gets branded as “evidence” for irrationality. And yet, with all of my qualifications, it is because of the desolation of this devastated temporal landscape we find ourselves in, that I now answer the question with an affirmative. Perhaps that is the deepest irony at play here. The ghost(s) that haunts the scientific mindset arose from the very tombstoneless grave that the scientific mindset attempted to bury all previous ghosts.

That is why I now respond with a yes, among many other reasons. I have no empirical evidence. No ghost stories. Just the (haunting) desire to re-enchant a “natural” wasteland. And I don’t mean just the world, the self, or our stories. I mean all three, really haunting within every relationship. Ghosts are not simply gnostic projections of the mind, literary metaphors, nor objects in the world. Remember, ghosts have always been liminal creatures, creatures of boundaries, one of the reasons why I think the question “do you believe in ghosts?” both a) makes us so uncomfortable and b) is so difficult to answer.

Which is exactly why I want your answers! Forgoing the standard discussion questions, please (that means each and every one of you that is reading this post right now – call it a personal favor to me), just answer one “simple” question. Just for one moment, let’s forgo the dinner etiquette, shall we?

Do you believe in ghosts?

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~ by Drew Baker on September 18, 2010.

3 Responses to “Do you believe in ghosts?”

  1. The point in your essay where you got me was the word “liminal.” When we allow ourselves to enter liminal space, we allow ourselves to be haunted. But by definition, liminal space is uncanny and we don’t approach it in the everyday hustle-bustle of life. Only under extreme circumstances such as a severe trauma (seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes, seeing the light in the tunnel), or an intense intentional practice (prayer, meditation) do we gain access to the residence of ghosts. But we do, so my answer is yes.

  2. Talk to your Pentecostal friend about dis-embodied demons. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Joy – I agree completely!

    Uncle – Since I have many Pentecostal friends, perhaps you could elaborate on who you have in mind? ๐Ÿ™‚

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