Do ghosts exist? Our fascination with apparitions

October 17, 2014 by Wobbly Jelly

Summarised and source copyright from "The Guardian"

Media Stories

Ghosts sightings have been making headlines recently. The Daily Star has dedicated several front pages to the supposed sighting of "black-eyed ghost children" over the past week; ITV reported that a couple said they had spotted the Grey Lady of Dudley; and the Metro reported a woman's claims that a ghost was writing letters "using her hands". It may be because Halloween is approaching, but it seems we remain fascinated by the idea of whether ghosts actually exist.

Virtually all cultures have traditions of ghosts and haunting. Ghosts are inseparable from memory, history and loss. They represent how individuals and groups internalise their history, and how we reluctantly hold on to unshakeable past events. Ghosts can be site-specific: any given place can harbour multiple rumours and tales of sightings, possessions or the uncanny feeling of being "not alone".

One example is Chile's Atacama Desert, breathtakingly represented in Patricio Guzmán's documentary Nostalgia for the Light, at one time the site of Pinochet's concentration camps and where the relatives of the disappeared now search for remains that can allow them to give up their ghosts. Ghosts also keep up with our times and technologies. The ghost of Prudencio Aguilar in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, killed as a young man, ages alongside the Buendía family. Beyond the world of fiction, when science turned more ubiquitous in the 19th century Americans and Europeans became increasingly interested in proving the existence of ghosts. Spiritualism and other doctrines like theosophy spread from the US and Europe to the far corners of the world, reaching Cuba, Argentina and India.

Ghosts have acclimatized themselves to our media (think of the fictitious haunted videotapes in the Japanese horror film Ringu), and our new technologies look for them (think of the gadgets used by the numerous international ghost-hunting societies). While they may be linked to the past, ghosts endure in and are renovated by the cultural imagination of the present.

Scooby Doo

Perhaps the most persistent attempt to expose the foolishness of the belief in ghosts is Scooby-Doo. Pretty much every week since 1969, when the series started, Scooby, Shaggy, Velma and the gang have been exposing the lie behind their fears of ghosts and ghoulies. It always turns out to be the strange caretaker with a clever projector, or some such; Velma's scientific turn of mind shows that Shaggy's fears are unfounded.

But here's my question: why do Shaggy and Scooby keep getting frightened, again and again? Are they just plain stupid? Or is there something about Velma's style of explanation that doesn't fully address the continual anxiety on which the series is premised? Despite the exposure of the caretaker, something remains under-explained – hence the continuously ongoing work of "Mystery, Inc".

From Pliny the Younger's story of an old man in chains haunting his house, through the stories of the Dybbuk, to the great gothic storytellers and the Blair Witch Project, in all cultures and times there is something here that won't go away; some fear that is legitimately being expressed – the continual return of the repressed. And the simple point that ghosts don't exist (obviously they don't, by the way) doesn't cut it. In a way, Velma is making a category mistake. The truth of ghosts is the way they represent our real and legitimate fears. And to this extent, ghosts are very, very real.