What Ghosts Mean

Benjamin Radford


Ghostly Encounters: The Hauntings of Everyday Life. By Dennis and Michele Waskul. Temple University Press, 2016. 184 pp. Paperback, $25.95.

Ghostly Encounters is the product of two years of fieldwork and interviews with more than seventy Midwestern Americans by Dennis Waskul (a professor of sociology at Minnesota State University Mankato and author or coauthor of several books) and Michele Waskul (an independent scholar with a focus on special education). The authors examine how people experience ghosts and hauntings in everyday life through an ethnographic lens, including how uncanny happenings become ghosts and why people struggle with belief or disbelief.

They found that “many participants in this study were not sure that they had encountered a ghost and remained uncertain that such phenomena were even possible, simply because they did not see something that approximated the conventional image of a ‘ghost.’ Instead, many of our respondents were simply convinced that they had experienced something uncanny—something inexplicable, extraordinary, mysterious, or eerie” (p. 20). Thus we see why defining and explaining ghostly phenomenon is slippery and problematic. Many people who will go on record as having a ghostly experience didn’t necessarily see anything that most people would recognize as a classic “ghost,” and in fact they may have had completely different experiences whose only common factor is that they could not be readily explained. As I describe in my book Scientific Para­normal Investigation, context is critically important to understanding the claims: something “unknown” or “unexplained” in the context of a reputedly haunted house will be interpreted as a ghost, while something “unknown” or “unexplained” in the context of a wilderness hike may be interpreted as a Bigfoot; in the context of something odd in the skies, it may be explained as a UFO.

The Waskuls note that “given all their otherworldly powers to defy the known laws of nature, the majority of everyday ghosts are dramaturgically impaired. Ghosts are most often indifferent to the living. When ghosts bother to pay us any attention at all, that attention is more frequently friendly and even helpful than malevolent” (p. 10). Indeed, apparently odd, peculiar, or strange things happen in our everyday lives—and usually pass unnoticed. “When something odd occurs, we either ignore or investigate. If we choose to investigate, most times we find an answer, and sometimes we do not, but either way we minded it. Oftentimes, if an answer is not found and the oddity is mundane enough, it is easy to just scratch your head and move on with your business” (p. 3).

When afraid, alarmed, or psychologically primed to the idea that something unusual and unknown is going on, our sensitivity to anything odd or out of the ordinary goes up, and things that we would otherwise ignore (or perhaps not even notice) can take on added significance. Common occurrences such as flickering lights, dead batteries, unexplained but fleeting unease, computer crashes, blurry sections in photographs, video glitches, and so on can be, and have been, claimed as possible evidence for ghosts. Not only does this unconscious psychological bias lead us to pay attention to such mundane mysteries, but it also imbues them with added significance, making them much easier to remember. A flashlight that happens to go out during a power failure will be soon forgotten, but a flashlight that happens to go out in a dramatic moment when a ghost hunter is asking for a sign from an invisible spirit will be remembered for a lifetime.

The book’s approach is less investigative or skeptical than perhaps many readers of this publication would like. Ghostly Encounters contains many first-person anecdotes about ghostly experiences (some of them quite lengthy), and little or no effort is made to establish the truth or validity of such claims. In this sense the Waskuls’ ethnographic research is aligned with a folkloric approach. Ghost stories, whether presented as fictional campfire tales or “true” stories are a dime a dozen—as anyone who’s visited a library or bookstore knows. Ghostly Encounters helps explain what ghosts mean, not only to ghost experiencers but also more broadly in society. The book is a bit self-indulgent, with several extensive digressions about the authors’ personal opinions and beliefs about the spirit world, though as Dennis Waskul wryly notes, “I have to admit that I’ve come to envy the people who reported having poltergeists in their home; they have a ready explanation for anything amiss in their household” (p. 134).

The book is divided into five chapters, with such titles as “Ghostly Reason,” “Ghostly Topology,” and “Ghostly Legends,” and presents an assortment of scholarly curiosities (in case you’ve wondered why most ghosts are assumed to be men, the Waskuls speculate about this on pages 87 and 88). In their chapter on “Ghostly Reason,” the Waskuls claim that “in the process of doubting what is real, people routinely rely on an approximated scientific method to make empirical observations, formulate inferences, identify correlations, arrive at working hypotheses, and sometimes test these hypotheses” (p. 45). As someone who has interviewed hundreds of alleged ghost experiencers (as well as worked with many amateur ghost hunters), I think the Waskuls greatly overestimate the average person’s understanding of scientific methodologies. I agree that most ghost experiencers exhibit a modicum of skepticism, don’t automatically assume that everything odd is a ghost, and may make some effort to “test” their interpretations, but suggesting that they “approximate scientific methods” is only true if one uses approximate very broadly. In describing how one woman, Amy, tried to “test” her idea that a ghost was present, the Waskuls admit that “Amy’s test would not pass ‘a double-blind test in laboratory conditions,’ but they work for her” (emphasis in original). But of course that’s not how science operates. Science does not “work” for some people but not others. Subjectively validated science is no science at all, and it would be more accurate to say that people attempt to “test” their perceptions than that they do so in a way resembling a scientific process.

There are many excellent books on ghosts from a variety of scholarly perspectives, including historical (for example, R.C. Finucane’s Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation); folkloric (Alas, Poor Ghost! Tradition of Belief in Story and Discourse, by Gillian Bennett); and sociological (The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, by Owen Davies). Ghostly Encounters is an interesting contribution to the literature on what ghosts mean to the individuals who experience and report them.

Benjamin Radford

Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).