Why We Talk to the Dead: Ghosts in History, Culture, and Literature

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

A recent survey revealed that nearly half of all Americans—45 percent—believe in the existence of ghosts. One out of five Americans claims to have had a personal encounter with a spirit of a dead person. Despite the fact that we live in the most technologically and scientifically advanced period of American history, advanced scientific knowledge exists side-by-side with beliefs that after our physical bodies have ceased to be, some part of our consciousness continues to function and is even capable of contact with the living.

The 19th century saw a spate of men and women who claimed to have the ability to communicate with these spirits. Mediums practiced a variety of techniques for summoning the dead. Some performed seances, in which a group of individuals would gather around a table or together in a room and a medium would claim to contact the dead for the purposes of sending messages to audience members. Other mediums worked in one-on-one situations where they would meet with a grief-stricken individual and would facilitate contact with the person or persons they were mourning. Other mediums would perform in front of an auditorium, collecting random messages and then finding the audience member for whom the messages were intended. A number of factors—including the mass dead of the Civil War—along with the access to power that this provided the previously powerless, have been offered as explanations for the popularity of mediums, spiritualism,  and theosophy, a belief system that merged theology with philosophy in search of “divine knowledge.”

In at least two instances, entire towns were established as villages where residents communicated with the dead. In Florida, the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp comprises dozens of spiritual practitioners who offer their services to the tourists who visit the town every day. On Sunday, Spiritualist church services provide a gathering place for residents and believers. Lily Dale, New York is also a spiritualist community where many of the residents are practicing mediums, and services are provided to visiting tourists. Both towns attract thousands of visitors each year, many of whom avail themselves of the services offered.

In the ghost stories that populate literature, or which storytellers perform, ghosts frighten those who encounter them. Plenty of the scariest of these stories invoke images of harmful spirits who do physical harm to living human beings or who are destructive of property. The ghost’s malevolence, it often turned out, was due to the unhappy life or the violent death suffered.  It’s rare for ghosts to haunt houses where they had lived happy lives. The existence of the ghost is a reaction to unfinished business left on earth in the stories that are told about them. The violence they may inflict on humans is the manifestation of the ghosts’ unhappiness.

But in Spiritualism, every person who dies lives on as spirit. Thus, the medium is able to make contact with anyone who has passed on. In the structure of the relationship between medium and client, it is the client who initiates contact with the medium and validates the contact once made. The relationship is driven by the grieving person left behind when a loved one dies. The medium often provides reassurance that the person who has died is now “in a better place,” that they have found happiness and contentment in the world beyond.

Because the relationship is driven by the need of the grief-stricken to find comfort, non-believers argue that mediums are con artists ripping off the grieving. Mediums who are able to provide information about the dead are able to demand hefty payment for these services, and it is quite clear how this relationship can turn into one that exploits money from the emotionally vulnerable.

In Ben Dolnick’s The Ghost Notebooks, Nick and Hannah are a young couple living in New York City who are struggling to make a living there. Hannah is offered a job in a small town, Hibernia, as the director of the Wright Historic House. Edmund Wright was a 19th-century philosopher who lived with his wife and four children. When one of his children is killed, Wright is overcome with grief, and blames himself. But when his dead son starts visiting him as a spirit, Wright turns these ghostly visits into research and writes about them. But like many of his peers, he also derives tremendous comfort from knowing that he still has a relationship with his boy.  A society of believers guard the legacy of Wright and, in the present day, maintain the house as a museum. When Nick and Hannah move into the house to act as caretakers, and their relationship gets a boost from the change in environment and financial security. After they’ve lived there for a while, Hannah encounters the house’s spirits with a disastrous outcome, the repercussions of which carry through Dolnick’s thickening plot. The psychiatric elements of ghost belief offer even more complexity in his novel.

New York State was crowded with proponents of Spiritualism during the movement’s heyday. Colin Dickey provides readers with places to explore in New York and other states in Ghostland. Like Dolnick, he reveals the hidden history of Spiritualism and ghost-hunting that was popular in the 19th century. And, rather than seeing these beliefs as alien, Dickey asks questions that demonstrate that people continue to project their beliefs and fears about dying onto the dead. What happens to us when we are in a space that we have been told is “haunted?” And how do our fears of death lead some to believe that ghosts exist?

Of course, no discussion of ghost stories would be complete without mentioning Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson’s story is often hailed as the “most terrifying” of modern ghost stories. She also investigates the relationship between modern belief systems and the belief in ghosts. In the 1959 novel, four researchers agree to spend the night investigating the entities that are haunting Hill House. They bring with them their skepticism and their confidence that they will crack the mystery, but before their stay is through, they themselves will be cracked by fear.

Believing that spirits walk among us is not a requirement in order to love a good ghost story. Reading ghost stories reveals that what we think about the dead tells us more about our own characters than anything else. Ben Dolnick makes a worthy addition to the ghostly canon.


Who You Gonna Call?!


With people’s minds turning towards things that go bump in the night as we get closer and closer to Halloween, it is important to stop and remember the important things in life. Specifically, a goofy movie from the 80s about catching ghosts.

On the night of October 7, 1984, Ray Stantz, Peter Venkman and Egon Spengler, while enjoying a magnificent feast of take-out chinese food that represented the last of their petty cash, the Ghostbusters received their first call. Shortly thereafter they arrived at the Sedgewick Hotel and, after some sliming and a great deal of collateral property damage, captured their first ghost, the disgustingly gluttonous, but somehow lovable, Slimer.

After that? More ghost-busting shenanigans than you can take shake a stick at – sequels, video games, books, comic books, graphic novels, movie reboots, dogs and cats living together… I bet you could find a lot of it at the library, if you’re interested.