When ghosts speak: a discussion on the possibility of ghosts’ existence from the cultural perspective
In North America, dressing up as ghosts and various supernatural apparitions is considered an entertaining and popular activity during Halloween; in other countries, ghosts are no laughing matter but are part of everyday life: in Tibet, a festival is held every year where ghosts are exorcised ritually. Since the ghost is, according to the general definition, the apparition of a dead person (or animal) into the world of the living, the beliefs and practices linked to ghosts and spirits are oftentimes connected with rituals paying respect to ancestors: the rites, in this case, come as a way of ensuring that the soul or spirit of the dead should remain in peace instead of restlessly haunting the living world.
Ghosts can also represent phenomena that lack explanation, such as in the case of ancient Daoist scriptures that explained diseases by the presence of spirits entering the body. Thus, if it often has a scary representation –embodying the terrifying aspects of the human experience that cannot be controlled, such as death-, the ghost can also be a reassuring figure because of the very fact that it provides an answer to otherwise unresolved questions.
The need to explain specific things varies from culture to culture, and so do the traditions regarding ghosts; with the advent of industrialization and rationalism in the western world, ghosts have been –at least in theory- largely dismissed as their existence cannot be proved scientifically and as the possibility for bodies to be incarnated through apparitions after physical death does not make sense in modern physics.
Yet, their non-existence can equally not be proved scientifically, and in many cultures, ghosts are not only believed to be real, but people also relate experiencing –with their senses- their presence. Taking into account these differences in beliefs, one has to admit that ghosts can be real for people who interpret specific phenomena as the proof of ghosts’ existence. If one has grown up among the North Indian Hindus for instance, it would probably be hard not to acknowledge that ghosts are an integral part of their world.
One concrete example of this is reported by Stanley and Ruth Freed in an article called “Taraka’s ghost”. The two anthropologists were doing fieldwork in Northern India in the late 1950s when they witnessed a “ghost possession”; the “possessed” was a young bride named Sita who was experiencing moments when she would fall into semi-consciousness or unconsciousness. Sita’s life had been full of distress; in her family, her infant siblings died because of indigestion. Her close female friends died because of gender violence. She was to become a wife and was extremely stressed about the obligation of having a sexual relationship with her husband. She also had to move from her natal village to her husband’s village where she knew she would be discriminated against because of the caste she belonged to. Other events contributed to her troubles, like the fact that she received a sewing machine as her dowry and was looked down upon by the villagers who thought her using the sewing machine was unsuitable for a woman.
Due to the extreme distress she was suffering, Sita’s state of mind would become altered from time to time. There was no proof that it was actually ghost possession that Sita was experiencing, apart from the fact that supposedly the ghost possessing Sita’s body –her dead cousin’s– would speak through her mouth. The specific example of Sita may now be rather dated, yet these practices continue to this day. This reportage dating from February 2015 shows that exorcizing women by beating them up to get rid of malevolent ghosts is still very much in practice. There is even a ‘ghost fair’ organized every year in Malajpur (Madhya Pradesh, India) to tame and chase away the ghosts.
The simple fact that people experience what they call the presence of ghosts does not seem to be sufficient evidence to support a claim that ghosts exist. But it is one way to explain the psychological phenomena which are rooted in the anguish of daily life; and for people who understand life and death as a cycle of birth and rebirth, and positive and negative events largely as rewards and punishments, it is logical to interpret such signs as a ghostly apparition. From their perspective, the Western interpretation of ‘ghost’ manifestations as being the result of psychological distress is irrational.
As most psychological phenomena are complex and are hard to link to physical symptoms with absolute certainty, different cultures perceive them differently. In Western cultures, for example, practicing exorcism such as is practiced in Hindu cultures would seem irrelevant. In the West, Sita’s condition would be treated by psychologists, she would probably be prescribed some medicine, have to go through some medical procedures and get a lot of rest.
Yet, the control that the human mind exerts upon the body has been convincingly highlighted by modern psychoanalysis, and if one is convinced that his/her condition is due to ghosts, then treating this person only by prescribing medicines may not work at all, proving that the ghosts were real.
In fact, what may be more crucial than whether ghosts really exist may very well be the strength of belief in a system of social, religious and cultural explanations that shape –to different extents- the perception that individuals have of what happens to them. An illustration of the depth of belief in spirits can be found in the current revival of shamanism in eastern Siberia, where for decades it had been forbidden by the communist regime. Despite the official interdiction and the effective reduction of local festivals, shamanism now enjoys a renewed vitality, with young people consulting shamans in order to help obtaining visas for example. In this case, neither the introduction of so-called modern ways of life nor the rationalization of life’s concerns have uprooted the certainty of the spirits’ presence. It shows that ghosts can be real, if people are convinced of their existence. And conversely, they can be deemed unreal when one is convinced that they have no reason to exist.
To know more about the topic of spirits and rites, read our article on the importance of ritual purification throughout religions.
 See LI, Jianmin, “They Shall Expell Demons: Etiology, the Medical Canon and the Transformation of Medical Techniques before the Tang” in Lagerwey, John, and Kalinowski, Mark, Early Chinese Religion, Part One: Shang through Han (1250 BC – 220 AD)
 Natural History, 10/90, pp. 84-91. Full article available here: http://www3.gettysburg.edu/~dperry/Class%20Readings%20Scanned%20Documents/Intro/Freed.pdf
 In one of Freud’s experimentation with the unconscious, a young female patient is treated for blindness of one eye that had no physiological explanation and that medication did not manage to cure. Under hypnosis, she revealed that she experience a traumatic event when she was the chaperone of a couple and witnessed them kiss. The shock and guilt of failing her mission most probably led her eye not to function.
 See for instance the reportage published in National Geographic, vol. 222, No. 6 (Dec. 2012)