Saturday, February 4, 2012

Spectral Analysis

While channel surfing late at night I couldn’t help noticing a theme in much of the broadcasting: Ghost Hunters, Haunted History, Ghost Whisperer, The Haunted, Ghost Adventures, Ghost Lab, and more.

I like a scary tale as much as the next person. Ghost stories aren’t normally my thing though. I rarely can “suspend disbelief” enough to feel any tingling of the spine, but clearly enough people can to draw the aim of programmers and advertisers. Some of the shows purport to be nonfiction; investigative teams seek out evidence (by their standards) for the real thing.

Out of curiosity, I put down the remote, sat down at the keyboard, and searched for data on belief in spirits and apparitions. I didn’t need to look far. There is a lot of research on the subject, and the upshot is that a majority of people don’t have to suspend disbelief. They believe. Nor does belief in ectoplasm decline as wealth and education rises; Westerners are as likely to see ghosts as anyone.

According to a recent CBS News poll 48% of Americans believe in ghosts while only 45% say they don’t; the rest are unsure. 22% say they personally have seen or felt the presence of a ghost. More women believe in them than men (56% to 41%) and women also are more likely to have seen them (29% to 14%). To believe in ghosts, one must believe in an afterlife, and 78% of Americans in the same poll say they believe in an afterlife; this optimism extends to 70% of those who don’t attend religious services. In a separate (2006) study by Bryan Farha at Oklahoma City University and Gary Steward Jr. of the University of Central Oklahoma (reported in the Skeptical Inquirer and in LiveScience) education level was shown to be positively correlated with belief in the paranormal including ghosts. Yes, belief in ghosts rises with education. 23% of college freshman believe in the general gamut of the paranormal including astrology, clairvoyance, and ghosts (40% believe in haunted houses specifically, with 25% unsure), while 31% of seniors do, and 34% of graduate students. While conservatives are more likely than liberals to harbor unscientific views associated with traditional religion such as creationism, liberals are more likely than conservatives to believe in the paranormal.

As is probably evident, I’m with the skeptical 45% in that CBS poll. A ghost, which is to say a personality without the physical person, strikes me as akin to horsepower without the engine; you need the mechanism to get the effect. I find arguments to the contrary (or for “alternative” mechanisms) unconvincing, to put it gently. Nonetheless, I do understand how people can have experiences they interpret as paranormal. Here is my ghost story: three days after my sister Sharon died in 1995, the phone by my bed rang in the middle of the night. It was Sharon on the line. The call felt as vivid and real as the one I just received a few minutes ago from The Star-Ledger offering me a deal on weekday home delivery, and it continued to feel like a real memory the next day. I have no doubt that it was a vivid dream and that a camera would have shown me snoring away all night, but the point is that it seemed real. (Yes, I’ve had a couple other vivid dreams; I remember clearly getting up to let the cat out in the middle of the night on one occasion, for example, and yet found him asleep on the bed in the morning – no cat doors or open windows.) Someone with more of a predisposition toward the paranormal than I have might be inclined to interpret that phone call differently. So, too, the breezes, creaks, and shadows in all houses. My own home has an amazing repertoire of thumps and groans. I always tell guests not to worry. “It’s just the troll in the basement,” I tell them, “and he is chained securely.”

I think the reason for credulity in this matter can be found in the poll number saying 78% believe in an afterlife. It is also in the follow-up question: “Will science ever prove if an afterlife exists?” 87% say no. We all have a tendency to believe what we like to believe, at least to the extent we can bend the facts to fit our wishes. (Most of us have limits to our ability to bend them, and so we can change our minds, however reluctantly; a few people seem to have no limits, though.) Survival as a ghost may not be the finest prospect, but it is survival. So, however frightening, the presence of ghosts is also, in an odd way, comforting; their existence is something in which we would like to believe.

Well, maybe not always. After all, there is no troll in my basement, but I think most of my guests prefer that explanation to, “It’s my household ghost.” If CBS is right, 55% wouldn’t rule out that possibility. As it is, more than one grown man has admitted to unease going down there alone.

If Cary Grant and Constance Bennet Were in the Basement, I Wouldn’t Be Able to Keep Guests Out of It.

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