Human Ghosts

Apparitions of people who have died are commonly called ghosts. They often appear repeatedly at the same place, sometimes for years, with the ghost seemingly oblivious to its surroundings and typically performing the same actions over and over regardless of what objects are in a room or who is watching. Sightings of ghosts have been reported throughout history and throughout the world, and more than 10 per cent of Americans say they have actually seen a ghost. The accounts of these sightings are numerous and varied; indeed, there have been hundreds of ghost-story books written over the years. Many of these stories concern haunted houses or hotels where other phenomena—such as moving furniture, strange noises, and odd smells—occur along with the appearance of a ghost.

Possible Causes Those who believe in such entities disagree on the nature and cause of ghosts. One view is that ghosts are caused by the psychic powers of the people observing them. Another is that ghost sightings are caused by the residual energy of events in the past, whereby witnesses are seeing images of things that happened long ago. Under this theory, the people represented by the ghosts no longer exist, either in body or in spirit. In a related theory, however, the ghosts are images of living people going about their business in another time period, which means that witnesses to a haunting are actually glimpsing an alternate time line, whether past or future, just as real as their own. The most common view, however, is that ghosts are the spirits of people who either do not realize they have died or who have refused to move on to an afterlife where spirits are meant to dwell.

Ghost hunter Hans Holzer, however, says that ghost-related phenomena cannot be explained by only one theory. He therefore differentiates between a ghost and a spirit, though most people use the words interchangeably. To him, a ghost is a residual image, or psychic imprint, of a person who is no longer present, whereas a spirit is an entity capable of interacting with the people witnessing it. This explains, he says, why some ghostly images perform seemingly mindless actions, apparently oblivious to the people witnessing them, while others interact with the living and sometimes seem like intelligent beings.

Holzer also believes that certain spirits, which he calls “stay-behinds,” haunt places because they want to convince people that they are still alive. These are the spirits, he says, who not only appear to relatives but move objects in order to call attention to themselves. Holzer theorizes that stay-behinds are responsible for many incidents of poltergeist activity, wherein an unseen force appears to be attacking a particular person, such as by pinching, hitting, or throwing objects at that person. In other words, an angry, frustrated spirit is launching these attacks in order to be acknowledged as real. Other psychical researchers, however, have suggested that poltergeist phenomena are actually caused by a living person who is present while the phenomena are taking place. According to this theory, the living person is demonstrating psychokinesis, a psychic ability whereby the mind can move physical objects.

Common Locations

Some poltergeist phenomena and ghost appearances occur in places with no particular meaning. In most cases, however, they occur in a location where someone died. For example, the skeleton of a murder victim was found in the childhood home of two mediums, the Fox sisters, during a time when poltergeist activity was being reported there. Similarly, the Westover Plantation near Charles City, Virginia, is said to be haunted by the ghosts of three people who died there in the mid-eighteenth century: Evelyn Byrd, who succumbed to an illness; Evelyn’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth, who was crushed to death after a trunk fell on her; and Elizabeth’s husband, who committed suicide after incurring heavy gambling debts. All three are typically seen performing ordinary actions, largely oblivious to their surroundings; Evelyn Byrd is seen most often, dressed in a white dress, perhaps brushing her hair or walking across a lawn.

In other cases, ghosts appear to haunt the places where their bodies are buried. There are many stories of haunted cemeteries, some involving the materialization of ghosts and others involving ghostrelated phenomena such as strange sounds and sudden drops in temperature. Some cemeteries are known to have more ghost-related activity than others. For example, Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery near Midlothian, Illinois, which was in use from approximately 1864 to 1965, has been the site of a wide variety of ghost phenomena, including ghosts and apparitions of people and cars, mysterious voices, mysterious lights, and cold spots, where the air in one spot feels much chillier than the surrounding area for no apparent reason.

Ghosts also appear to haunt places that were important to them in life. For example, American Major General Anthony Wayne (1745–1796) is said to haunt two such spots in Vermont. The first is Lake Memphremagog, one of his favourite spots and where he used to capture bald eagles to train for hunting. There, his spirit is sometimes seen with a bald eagle on its arm. The second is Fort Ticonderoga, where he served as commander in 1771. There, he is typically seen sitting before a fireplace or in a dining room, smoking a pipe or drinking from a mug.

Emotional Connections

Not all ghosts, however, seem so calm. Some appear distraught. For example, in Mexico there are numerous stories of La Llorona, the ghost of a weeping woman who searches each night for her children, usually near a river. According to some of these stories, she drowned her children after her lover told her he did not want a family, then became horrified over what she had done and killed herself. Sometimes she is said to be hitchhiking along a road, and after an unsuspecting driver picks up the weeping woman, she suddenly disappears from the car.

There are many other stories of phantom hitchhikers, as well as of ghosts searching for their children, lost loves, or other important people in their lives.

There are also stories of ghosts disappearing forever after being told that the people they are searching for are no longer alive. In such cases, communication with the spirit is accomplished through a spirit communicator, or medium, who is able to make contact with the spirit. For example, in a case where a store was being haunted by the ghost of a young man, the medium discovered that on the same spot years before, the man had bled to death after accidentally cutting himself with an axe while cutting down a tree. Before his death, he had been engaged to be married, and as a ghost he was looking for his lost fiancée. After the medium told him that his bride-to-be had been dead for decades, he vanished and never returned.

Similarly, visitors to the Harbour Oaks Inn in Pass Christian, Mississippi, often reported experiencing the overwhelming feeling that a group of intimidating men was in a room where no such men could be seen. A psychic, called to try to get these entities to leave, reported that they were the spirits of soldiers who had died in the Civil War, when the inn—then called the Crescent Hotel—had served as a makeshift battlefield hospital. After the psychic claimed to have convinced these spirits to move on to the afterlife, visitors stopped feeling their presence. However, the inn is still haunted by a “ghost girl” who repeatedly picks up ghostly toys and sewing items from the floor and puts them on a table. The ghost, reported as looking like a ten-year-old with long hair and wearing an old-fashioned, broad-brimmed hat, seems unaware of the hotel guests, and no one knows the identity of the once-living person she might represent, but people often report that her presence struck them as cheerful and friendly.

Investigating Ghost Phenomena

Skeptics say that such stories are invented by innkeepers who want to increase their revenues by attracting media attention. Believers, however, counter that in many such cases (including that of the Harbour Oaks Inn), the ghosts were reported as being there before the innkeepers. In either case, haunted hotels and houses have long attracted the attention of ghost hunters and ghost investigators, the latter of whom typically bring large amounts of scientific equipment to the site to study the phenomena. This equipment includes sophisticated camera gear, recording devices, and devices to look for energy sources such as radiation, geomagnetic activity, electromagnetic fields, and static electricity. Some investigators believe that ghosts produce these kinds of energies, but others suspect that some kind of energy is responsible for the ghosts’ existence. But in all cases where the equipment has suggested that unusual energy is present at a site of hauntings, skeptics dismiss the findings as the result of faulty equipment, faulty testing procedures, or bias on the part of investigators.


  • Apparitions
  • Haunted houses and other Structures;
  • Poltergeists


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning


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