I often get asked: “Do you believe in ghosts?” It is a question that seems to demand a straight answer: a yes, a no, or suchlike. I don’t wish to seem evasive: but… it’s not a question I can answer simply.
You see, ghosts are not a simple phenomenon. There are many ghosts.
Every civilization has its ghosts. Every culture, religion, philosophy creates space for its ghosts. They would seem to be something intrinsically human(1). They are defining characteristics – like opposable thumbs. And just as “do you believe in opposable thumbs?” is a nonsensical question, so – on one level – is “do you believe in ghosts?”
So yes – as a cultural phenomenon – I don’t merely believe in ghosts: I know they are real. Of course, that doesn’t answer the question. Or rather, it answers that question, but that question was maybe not the one which should have been asked.
So let’s try rephrasing the question, to see if there’ s something more substantive to answer.
“Do you believe that – in reality – the dead revisit us as ghosts?” doesn’t really cut it. It presupposes a specific cause, and a specific outcome. What if ghosts – or some of the causes of “ghostness” – are not the dead returning? The question has arbitrarily lowered the threshold of so-called truth, rather than actually being more specific. This is the case for all the other “do you believe in ‘this’ ghost?” questions. A thousand times zero will get us no nearer to one. No, it won’t do at all.
The problem does not lie with “ghost”, but with the concept of “belief” in relation to ghosts. Ghosts are fringe phenomena. Not fringe as in “niche” or “of minority appeal”, but as in liminal: on the edge of things. M.R. James understood this, and wrote one of the finest examinations of the idea in “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (1904). Everything about the story comes from the edge: it is set on the coast; the whistle is found on a crumbling, eroding cliff face; the apparition comes between sleep and waking; the story occurs in the character’s shift between certainty and uncertainty; etc.
When something inhabits the periphery of vision, it lends itself to fear, to what some would term “superstition”, to belief and to mistrust. Hence the problem with “Do you believe…?” type questions here. They end up leading to straight rejection, or to endless reams of further questions.
So. If you want a short answer from me, possibly you could ask:
“Have you ever experienced a ghost?”
To that question, I can provide a clear answer…
(1): a discussion on ghosts and other creatures/places etc. is for another time!