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Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society

"Le doute n'est pas une condition agréable, mais la certitude est absurde."

—Voltaire

The History of Ghost Stories

Often, when reading accounts of ghosts in various places (like the "Haunted Red Lobster Restaurant" I've mentioned so many times before) I have wondered why, originally, the idea of ghosts first fascinated man. To me, the best evidence for the existence of ghosts was the way they permeated every culture. They crept across the globe. If they didn't exist, then why would so many vastly different cultures believe in them?

The answer may be found in the content of ghost stories. According to About.com's history of ghost stories, the majority are concerned with unfinished business ? most notably, their own proper burial. Virgil's "Aeneid" and Homer's "Iliad" both contain ghosts concerned with their burials. These are two of the earliest examples of ghosts, and even then, their burial was the concern.

It struck me that these ghost stories may function in the same way that urban legends do. Snopes.com says that urban legends "reflect current societal concerns and fears as well as confirm the rightness of our views. It is through such stories that we attempt to make sense of our world, which at times can appear to be capricious and dangerous. As cautionary tales, urban legends warn us against engaging in risky behaviors by pointing out what has supposedly happened to others who did what we might be tempted try."

Urban Legends are complex warnings. Ghost stories may be the same.

According to the Wyoming Funeral Directors Association, funerary rituals date back to the very beginning of mankind. Supposedly, even Neanderthal buried their dead.

Fear was often a driving force in these early burial rituals. Many cultures considered dead bodies to be "unclean" or "polluted". This was an extremely important belief and, in the same way urban legends do, it helped reinforce a belief that would assure the survival of the culture.

The Australian Museum Online has a section devoted to the changes that occur during human decomposition. These changes include an inability to fight off bacteria. Corpses become playgrounds for bacteria, parasites, and larvae. Keeping a corpse around would spread disease, attract predators, and either seriously disable the tribe or wipe it out.

Burial is important.

So when we take a historical view, looking back at early cultures and their ghost stories, concerned with burial, it's possible to conclude that they were designed to reinforce behavior. The best way of getting the word out on something was to create a story everyone would hear and be interested in, to ensure that the dead were buried, and the tribe could continue. Germ theory didn't exist then (it was developed by Louis Pasteur in the 1850's). It wasn't as though the tribe could sit down and say, "Hey, we've gotta bury this guy, because otherwise we are going to catch something."

Science hadn't come that far yet. The only thing that seemed to make sense was that, if the dead weren't buried, bad things were going to happen. Evil curses would be visited upon everyone who came into contact with the body. Those who stopped the burial process would be plagued by the dead. In fact, in the 4th Century BC, Aristotle suggested that parasites were in fact born from decaying matter. And then in 1546 came the idea that contagion was spread from contact with "fomites" (lifeless objects). And the "miasma" theory (that dead bodies put something in the air to make people sick) persisted until the Germ Theory was introduced.

Since the beginning of stories, it seems, decay was associated with disease. Horrifying tales of white, gauzy figures cursing you just might've been enough to ensure the burial process.

For further reading:

UPDATE, 5/29/2007:

Q: Your explanation of why ghost stories have been so pervasive throughout the cultures of the world seems right on, but (ahh, yes...the but) I wonder how people first came to believe that humans have both a physical and a non-physical being. Is there some observable analog in nature that led the earliest humans to this belief? What caused them to believe that some part of a person survived as a ghost after the death of the body?

A: The question is very interesting and deep, and there is no way to answer it with any assurance whatsoever because there is zero evidence to back it up. It is impossible to trace the idea of ghosts back to its origin because, more than likely, there simply weren't a lot of written records around.

I can imagine an answer, but it may or may not satisfy you.

The Ancient Greeks influenced our current way of thinking a great deal. Our ways of looking at the humanities as well as science were greatly influenced by the Greeks.

http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/11-21-2002-30766.asp

One of the key elements of Greek mythology is the personification of inanimate objects. The sun was not the sun, it was the chariot wheel of Helios.

http://www.loggia.com/myth/helios.html

Whether or not this way of viewing the world began with the Greeks is impossible to say. The Egyptians also had burial rituals and personified inanimate objects, but I haven't read any Egyptian ghost stories as yet. I will say that before we had scientific understanding, we gave natural phenomena credit for sentience (the weather, for example.)

Why? Because without a sentient explanation, you are seeing something happen without a reason. There must be a reason, and it is the human way to search for it.

How does this relate to ghosts? Well, if what you know is that hanging about dead bodies will make you sick, and you believe completely it has to do with a curse or magic, then there must be someone controlling it.

Curses don't get cast by themselves. The story can never be told unless there is a ghost to tell it, because curses don't have mouths. The dead do. So one must be resurrected to tell this story.

Why they all have the same rough appearance (white, gauzy, cold) is fairly easy to understand in these terms as well. Dead bodies are cold. They quickly become pale because of the lack of blood circulation. It gets grosser if we keep continuing on this path, but you get the idea. The physical appearance of a ghost would be much like the appearance of a recently dead person.

I hope that clarifies a little. As I said, there is no way to prove whether or not this is true as there simply weren't written records to indicate the mindset of man in the stage we're looking for. But the similarity of the reason for the ghosts appearance combined with the physical characteristics is interesting. I'll be doing some more research on this front.

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