For most of my life I believed in the existence of ghosts. While that belief didn’t extend to the full suite of paranormal phenomena (crytpids, alien visitation, psi, etc.), my belief in ghosts was strong. I had many experiences that I attributed to possible ghost activity. Some were visual, some auditory, most were just “feelings” I had. Almost anything weird or unexplained could be a ghost. It wasn’t necessary to seek alternative explanations. To me, ghosts were a fact of life and more natural than supernatural. They were scary, but cool.
In grade school I exhausted the ghost books in the kids section of the Queens Village Public Library. Since the information came in book form it HAD to be true, you see. There were actually no more than three books, but from those I learned about classic hauntings, screaming skulls, and poltergeists. But without any new information, my interest waned as I got older.
My interest was re-ignited by the cable TV show, Ghost Hunters. The weekend warriors of Ghost Hunters called themselves The Atlantic Paranormal Society (or TAPS), and they investigated purported hauntings and reported their results to the owners of the property in question. It was quite exciting to see folks actively investigating evidence of spiritual activity. They would enter the client’s home or establishment and set up a buttload of electronic equipment. While the grunts were unloading, the leaders, Jason and Grant (the bald guy and the skinny guy), would interview the clients and get a sense of the phenomena they experienced.
I was taken in by what I understood to be their serious and “scientific” approach. Some of the results of their investigations were amazing. I saw a chair move on its own in an empty room, I heard disembodied voices in the form of “electronic voice phenomena,” and saw spooky grainy images “that could not be explained”. Aside from hunting ghosts, the dynamics of the diverse group members provided a bit of soap opera to the overall drama. It was fun to watch.
The show whet my appetite again. I looked for more ways to get my ghost on and discovered the TAPS podcast, Beyond Reality Radio. The format was about what you’d expect, in that there were news updates and banter between Jason and Grant. The focus and bulk of the show was dedicated to a guest interview. It was apparent that the TAPS Ghost Hunters were earnest in their belief in not just ghosts but ANYTHING paranormal.
The guests on the podcast reflected that magical worldview. I heard “experts” discussing the existence of fairies, shadow people, demons, all types of psychic phenomena, and every cryptid. I found the credulity and manner of most of the show’s guests off-putting. All of the information was not just accepted at face value, but affirmed by the hosts. My limited belief in ghosts meant that I found the podcast entertaining, but hard to take seriously.
One episode of the TAPS podcast featured a guest named Dr. Steven Novella. As a practicing and academic neurologist, as well as president of the New England Skeptical Society, Novella didn’t fit the mold of the other guests. He also co-hosts a podcast himself, called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU). Novella was the first guest on the TAPS podcast who was not a believer in any paranormal phenomena, and the only one I can recall that challenged the basic beliefs shared by the hosts and previous guests.
I was impressed with Novella’s demeanor as well as his intelligence and logical arguments. These aspects made him the opposite of most of the podcast guests. Prompted by the impression made by Novella, I started listening to the SGU. While the format was the same as the TAPS podcast, the content was science-based. I quickly found the SGU much more interesting.
The SGU guests were actual scientists, journalists, academics, and generally people who shared knowledge gained through scholarship and rigorous study. Through the interviews and banter, I learned a lot about the current state, history, and philosophy of science. I also learned about the general tenets of skepticism as well as the concepts of pareidolia, confirmation bias, and other modes of self-deception.
I realized that my own beliefs helped predispose me to paranormal explanations for anything that I perceived as weird or creepy. This led fairly quickly to the realization and acceptance that there is no credible evidence for ghosts, which was a little jarring at first. It was a little hard to let go, but denying logic to hold on to the belief was not something I was willing to do.
Accepting that ghosts don’t exist was like giving up on Santa Claus. It was a belief that started in childhood and letting go of it was part of moving on and accepting life as it is. I’ll always have horror movies and Edgar Allen Poe if I want to indulge in creepiness, so there’s no loss in that aspect of my former belief. The loss I do deal with is accepting that I had not, as I thought, been visited by friends who are gone. That hurts a bit.
In the end, I still love ghosts — I just don’t believe there’s any evidence for their existence. When discussing ghost stories now, I still make sure to not contradict anyone’s narrative. I’ll never tell anyone that they didn’t experience what they think they did, but I will try to expose them to another point of view, as Steven Novella and the SGU did for me.