Are there really ghosts?

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“Are there really ghosts?” was the number one question in my survey of junior- and senior-high students concerning the supernatural (The Why Files: Are There Really Ghosts?). Ghost stories have been around since Bible times, so there must be something to them—or at least to the stories.

But before I share what I think about ghosts, let me admit that I do believe in the possibility of vampires and werewolves. Really!

According to the Associated Press, Dr. David Dolphin of the University of British Columbia presented an eerie report to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dolphin has been studying a rare disease known as “porphyria” which may have prompted folk tales of werewolves and vampires. Porphyria victims’ bodies are unable to produce heme, the red pigment in blood hemoglobin.

“It is our contention that blood-drinking vampires were in fact victims of porphyria, trying to alleviate the symptoms of their dreaded disease.” Without heme the skin becomes extremely sensitive to sunlight. “Exposure to even mild sunlight can be devastating,” according to Dolphin. Thus, all the hoaky horror flicks about creatures of the night.

But what about the transformation from mild-mannered man to hairy creature? Sunlight causes skin sores that can so deform hands that they slowly begin to resemble paws. Lips and gums become taut, exposing the teeth. And to complete the werewolf look, the body tries to protect itself from light by increased hair growth.

Okay, Doc, but what about the stories of repelling vampires and werewolves with garlic? Dolphin’s research shows that, for some reason, porphyria victims are also violently allergic to the spaghetti seasoning.

I believe the same thing happens with ghost stories. An unusual—but usually explainable—phenomenon that gets exaggerated in the re-telling. For instance, one of the most publicized “hauntings” was The Amityville Horror. In 1974, 24-year-old Ronald DeFeo shot his parents, two brothers, and two sisters to death in their home in Amityville, Long Island. During the trial DeFeo claimed that voices in the house had been telling him to kill his family. Those are facts recorded in court documents.

One year later the scene of the crime was purchased by George and Kathy Lutz. That, too, is a verified fact. One month later the Lutz’s suddenly moved out claiming to be tormented by “strange voices seeming to come from within themselves.” They also described “a power charge which actually lifted Mrs. Lutz off her feet toward a closet behind which was a room not noted on any blueprints.”2

The couple hired a professional writer, Jay Anson, to ghost-write (no pun intended) an account of their month of horror in the house.

The book, which allegedly reports “the true story” of “diabolical voices, visions of the mass murderer, and everything from a plague of flies to a plague of demons,” became a best-selling book in 1977. It was transformed into a box-office success which exaggerated the events of the book.

Every independent investigation of the case found that the evidence for the sensational events of the book and movie depended solely on the word of the Lutz’s. Even the writer Jay Anson admitted that he didn’t know what was real or fiction—he simply wrote what the Lutz’s told him. And the present owners of the famous house report no strange experiences.

Can ghosts really haunt people?

. . . make houses smell and lights go on and off?

Frank Podmore is a pioneer in psychic research. He discovered in his investigations that first hand accounts written by the people who had actually been there tell of strange noises, broken objects, and relatively “unspectacular events.” Several months later, however, those same people told much more “impressive” stories. And second-hand accounts—from people who had heard about the haunting, but not actually witnessed it—were even more interesting.

So exaggeration in the re-telling may explain some ghostly appearances. Recently, The Blair Witch Project movie, book, and web site have convinced some people that the movie is an actual documentary and that there really was a “Blair Witch.” There wasn’t!

Can you come back from the dead as a ghost?

But psychiatrist and author Paul Meier has an additional explanation. He tells the story of a 5-year-old girl. As her father was being carried away to an ambulance after a heart attack, he promised “Don’t worry dear; I’ll be back.” The girl later reported that the ghost of her father came back each night to tuck her into bed.

Meier claims that after intensive therapy and tranquillizers the “ghost” disappeared. He also points out that “voices” always disappear when antipsychotic medication is prescribed. “Deceased ‘spirits’ must really hate that stuff!” he adds.

The psychiatrist believes that virtually all “ghosts” are auditory or visual hallucinations. “About 3 percent of the American population is psychotic or borderline psychotic at any one time. Many of these persons really believe they communicate with the dead, ‘hearing’ voices of deceased loved ones as clearly as if they were audible.”3

Can you be a Christian and still believe in ghosts?

Some claim the Bible teaches the existence of ghosts. After all, Scripture uses the word seven times! However the word “ghost” in the King James Version is actually a mistranslation. In the Old Testament Hebrew, nephesh should be translated breath, as in “breath of life.” In New Testament Greek, pneuma ought to be translated “breath” or “spirit.” So, there isn’t even a “Holy Ghost,” but a hagios pneumos or “Holy Spirit.” (We’ll talk more about the Holy Spirit in chapter 13.)

The Bible also points out in Luke 16:26 that no one can return to the earth from the dead: “. . . a great chasm has been fixed, so no one can cross over from there to us.”

How can you see ghosts?

Various “proofs” for the existence of ghosts have been offered such as “ghost photography” (which, in virtually every case, has turned out to be film defects or deliberate double exposures) and “ghost recordings” (muffled, distorted recordings which only the person doing to recording can seem to understand). Again, every “proof” has been explained away as innocent or deliberate fraud.

If ghost stories are just stories, why do people make them up?

Ghost stories, then, seem to fall into four categories:

1. Actual unusual events that become exaggerated in the re-telling (e.g., vampires and werewolves).

2. Events that are made up for fame or financial gain (e.g., The Amityville Horror and ghost photos).

For instance, one fourteen-year-old wrote on my survey, “My brother and my cousin said they have seen a ghost with red eyes. They seemed so serious and really think they did.

It sounds like the popular slumber party stunt of making the ghost of “Mary Worth” appear in the mirror. I’d be willing to bet a bag of Oreos that these guys have become really popular around the youth camp bonfire with their “real” ghost story. Even people who “see” Elvis, get national coverage.

3. Events that seem very real to the people, but can be explained away by extreme grief over the deceased person or by chemical imbalances in their brains.

Are ghosts the same as demons?

4. Finally, it’s possible that the phenomenon is demonic rather than ghostly.

Or maybe it’s an overwhelming desire for immortality (or watching Patrick Swazy and Demi Moore in Ghost too many times) that makes some people want to believe in ghosts. Werewolves and vampires, maybe. Ghosts, I don’t think so!

Copyright © 2000 James N. Watkins. All rights reserved.

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