The phenomenon of ghosts and spirits has become so closely associated with fear that it’s almost a given that, if asked, most people would admit to being frightened if they encountered an apparition. Even seasoned ghost investigators have been known to run like scared rabbits when they see or hear something unexpected.
But why is this? Have ghosts really earned the reputation of being harmful to humans?
Now imagine yourself alone at night in a house that has a reputation for being haunted. Most people would probably experience the same fear. Yet, according to most paranormal experts, that fear is not justified. Ghosts, by and large, are harmless. The true behavior of ghosts, as evidenced by many thousands of investigations and case studies conducted by paranormal experts, overwhelmingly contradicts the common idea that they should be feared.
Veteran ghost investigator Hans Holzer writes that the popular notion of ghosts is
“that they are always dangerous, fearful, and hurt people. Nothing could be further from the truth. … Ghosts have never harmed anyone except through fear found within the witness, of his own doing and because of his own ignorance as to what ghosts represent.”
Loyd Auerbach, another respected ghost hunter, agrees: “In many cultures and religions around the world, ghosts are thought to harbor ill will towards the living. This is unfortunate, since the evidence from thousands of cases … suggests that people don’t change their personalities or motivation after death … nor do they turn evil.”
The Roots of Fear
So why do we fear ghosts and spirits? There are two main reasons.
Fear of ghosts—also known as spectrophobia or phasmophobia—most obviously stems from our fear of the unknown. This is a deep-seated fear that is hardwired into our genetic makeup. The primitive parts of our brain that respond to instinct—a holdover from our cave-dwelling ancestors—flush our bodies with adrenaline when we encounter a threat, preparing us to fight or flee. And when that threat is something unknown that might leap out of the darkness, we’d just as soon flee.
There’s another component to this fear when that something in the dark is perceived as a ghost. After all, a ghost is the manifestation of a person who is dead. So now we are confronted not only with what we think is a threat to our lives, but a representation of death itself. Not only is it an entity that we don’t understand, it is also a resident of the place many of us fear the most—the mysterious land of the dead.
The second main reason we fear ghosts is that we have been further conditioned to do so by popular culture. Almost without exception, books, movies, and television shows portray ghosts as evil, capable of mischief, injury, and even death. If popular media is to be believed, ghosts actually enjoy scaring us out of our wits.
“What Hollywood and television portray is very inaccurate and cannot be relied upon as truthful,” say Lewis and Sharon Gerew of the Philadelphia Ghost Hunters Alliance. “They show these spirits of the dead as being evil in nature, filled with malice and harmful intent. I assure you that this is not the case.”
Creepy, rotting, vengeful ghosts may make exciting movies, but they have very little basis in actual experience.
Ghost Activity vs. Poltergeist Activity
Ghost and haunting phenomena are harmless. As much as they may unnerve and mystify us, there is really nothing to fear. In general, haunting phenomena seem to be recordings of past events that took place in a particular environment. This is why haunted houses can “play back” the recordings of footsteps on a stairway, for example, or even the voices of an argument that took place many years ago. Apparitions can sometimes be seen performing the same task over and over again.
True ghosts or spirit apparitions may be earthly manifestations of those who have passed on. They are sometimes able to interact with the living and relay messages.
In neither case do the phenomena pose any real threat. Voices captured through electronic voice phenomena (EVP) techniques can at times be rude or even downright abusive, but again there is no real threat of physical harm.
How do we explain those rare cases where a person is apparently scratched, slapped, or even bitten by some unseen entity? Such instances have been documented in the famous Bell Witch case, the Esther Cox case in Amherst, Nova Scotia, and the terrifying “The Entity” case, on which the film of the same name was based.
These cases, and others in which people are “attacked” and objects are thrown around, are considered by most researchers today to be examples of poltergeist activity. Although poltergeist means “noisy spirit,” current parapsychology theory suggests that poltergeists are not spirits or ghosts at all. Rather, poltergeist activity is psychokinetic activity caused by a living person. Usually that person is a teenager undergoing hormonal changes or someone under extreme emotional or psychological stress.
In other words, what we generally consider the scariest aspects of ghosts—objects moving by themselves, TVs turning on, pounding on walls, and, very rarely, a person being injured—are most likely caused by the unconscious activity of a living human mind. We can’t blame ghosts.
For those of us researching ghost and haunting phenomena, we must resist our fearful instincts in the face of the unknown. Fear can only inhibit our examination and understanding of one of the most intriguing aspects of the human experience.