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Haunted America

There are unseen forces at work in the world that we can’t explain.

Ghostly,Figure,In,Dark,Spooky,Forest,Halloween,Scene
(andreiuc88/Shutterstock)

I believe in ghosts, and the odds are you do, too. According to a recent report in the New York Times, nearly half of all homeowners believe their houses are haunted. (That’s not counting those who believe in ghosts but happen to live in unhaunted houses.) I bet the rate is even higher among renters, too. We are less likely to have college degrees, and so more likely to have common sense.

That is all it is, really: common sense. Humans have always believed in the Unseen. We’re constantly surrounded by intelligent forces that can’t usually be detected by our five senses. In every culture before ours, that was a given.

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The Romans called these forces minor gods, and boy were there a lot of them. There’s a god for everything in ancient Rome, and sometimes more than one. According to St. Augustine, a small army of them will tag along with newlyweds on their honeymoon: “When a male and a female are united, the god Jugatinus presides. Well, let this be borne with. But the married woman must be brought home: the god Domidicus also is invoked. That she may remain with her husband, the goddess Manturnæ is used….

“Why is the bedchamber filled with a crowd of deities, when even the groomsmen have departed?” Augustine asks. Which is a fair question.

In Wales, you’ll find the Tybwyth Teg: the Fair Family, also known as fairies. The Norse called them landvaettir—“heath wights,” or nature spirits. In Arabia, they’re called djinn, or genies.

By the way, the djinn aren’t huge blue things that grant wishes. They’re just invisible creatures, children of Allah, like humans. They have moral agency; some are good, some are bad, and some are just mischievous. They’re religious, too. Mohammed actually devotes a whole chapter of the Qur’an to these creatures. 

In surah 72, God reveals to the Prophet that the djinn have been listening to him preach. “Indeed, we have heard a wondrous recitation,” the genies are saying. “Now we believe that our Lord—Exalted is His Majesty—has never taken a mate nor offspring, and that the foolish of us used to utter outrageous falsehoods about Allah.”

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The djinn, like the Fair Family and the heath wights, are a race unto themselves. They are certainly not ghosts. But in some cultures, the Unseen is a mixture of elemental creatures and disembodied human souls. The Japanese, for instance, have kami. They are like the souls of nature. They are like the Roman gods. Everything has a kami: rice, the sun, you name it. And because Shinto makes no distinction between nature and supernature, its faithful believe that the souls of their ancestors may continue to dwell in the world after death. They’re kami-without-portfolios, so to speak.

These are all religious examples, but belief in the Unseen is far older than systematic religion. It goes all the way back to the origins of mankind—to the hunter-gatherers who revered the spirits of their prey (like the bison) and their predators (like the bear). Sociologists call this worldview animism, because primitive man knew intuitively that the world is animated by invisible powers.

At first, perhaps we didn’t worship those powers. We honored and contemplated them. In time, though, honor evolved into sacrifice and contemplation into art. That’s why old words for religion (cultus) and culture share the same root. They perform the same function: elevating man’s consciousness to realities higher than the merely material.

Speaking of Augustine, he believed deeply in the Unseen. But he thought that all the gods and spirits known to the Romans were really angels and demons in disguise. Most Christians—or at least most theologians—have followed his lead. Yet the Celts have never really renounced their belief in the “week folk,” and many faithful Christians still believe in ghosts.

In 1936, Shane Leslie (a devout Catholic) asked his friend M.R. James (a devout Anglican) if he really believed in the supernatural, the stuff he wrote about in his world-famous stories. “Depend upon it!” James cried. “Some of these things are so, but we do not know the rules.”

Leslie agreed. “Whatever prohibitions mark Catholic life,” he said, “the faithful are not forbidden to see ghosts or to believe in them!”

He is right, and so is James. What we call hauntings—occasional, imperfect perceptions of the Unseen—happen all the time. Even in our hyper-skeptical age, most of us know that. The explanations come after.

What are those explanations? Many Christians (like Augustine) would chalk it up to the demonic. Others believe that ghostly apparitions are really visions of the holy souls in Purgatory. Maybe the answer is both. We can’t agree with the popular view, that they are simply the lost souls of the dead. That would mean denying the particular judgment. (It’s a long story.) Still, we’d come closer to the mark by saying that Christians are forbidden not to believe in hauntings.

That is why you have to laugh at that piece in the Times. According to the Gray Lady, more and more people believe in ghosts because faith in “traditional religion” is on the decline. “After all,” she says, “the same comfort or understanding that religion can bring people can also be found in paranormal beliefs.”

Of course, the only person who could write a sentence like that is a paid-up materialist—and one who believes that everyone else is a credulous moron. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to describe someone who believes Plato’s Euthyphro or the Song of Solomon is just a highbrow version of the astrology column. That would be unkind, though, so I’ll keep it to myself.

Instead, I’ll quote the great Fr. Vincent McNabb. An atheist, he said, is one who “dogmatizes about denial…. He makes an unjustifiable induction from one to all, from himself to human nature; and because he himself cannot prove or discern the supernatural to his own satisfaction, he assumes no one else can.” Freud would call it projection. It’s like when you want to have sex with your mother, so you assume everyone else does, too. And if you give it a fancy name, like the “Oedipal complex,” most liberals will just nod along with you. They’d rather pretend to have an incest fetish than deny the Science™. 

Atheists use the same schtick. Just 3 percent of Americans totally deny the existence of the supernatural, and yet they have convinced the rest of us to feel embarrassed because we agree with 99.999 percent of human beings who have ever lived: that there are forces at work in the world we can’t explain—that these forces have consciousness and agency—that they’re creatures, like us. They awe and frighten us, and rightly so.

I like what Evelyn Waugh said better. “We are normal,” he growled. “It is the irreligious who are freaks.”

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