The belief that the ghosts of the dead can cause illness and death. In the animistic system of beliefs characteristic of tribal societies around the world, the spirit of a deceased person is thought to remain close to the corpse for a few days before beginning its journey to the land of the dead, and during this in-between or “liminal” period it is particularly dangerous to the living. The ghost is portrayed as lonely in its new existence, and so inclined to seek company from among the living. Children in particular are susceptible to ghost sickness, because their souls are less strong or less firmly attached to their bodies.
Among the Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia, children are sometimes disguised or referred to as adults, in order to confuse the ghosts into thinking that they are older than they are (see Animism; Soul Loss). Fear of ghost sickness accounts for the widespread fear of the dead as expressed in such practices as carrying the corpse out of the house through a hole in the wall rather than through a window or door (see Funeral Rites and Customs), which is intended to make it difficult for the ghost to find its way back home. Although ghosts are most feared immediately after a death, in many societies any sighting of an apparition or sounds suggestive of a poltergeist are harbingers of disease or death (see Death Omens).
- Hultkrantz, Ake. Conceptions of the Soul Among North American Indians. Stockholm: Ethnographic Museum of Sweden, 1953.
- Tylor, Edward Burnett. Religion in Primitive Culture. New York: Harper, 1956.