Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

3 possible reasons people imagine ghosts

Real-life disruption and trauma may lead people to feel as though they’re being haunted, such as with the phenomenon of ‘post-bereavement hallucination.’

‘Post-bereavement hallucination’ and other forms of loss may explain why some believe in paranormal sightings

Ghosts 'appear' for very real reasons. Loss, change, and grief can actually alter people's perceptions of reality. (Shutterstock / fran_kie)

*Originally published on October 30, 2022.

Emily Urquhart frequently caught glimpses of her older brother: near the subway, in a mall food court, at a hockey game.

This might have been little more than coincidence, except for one pertinent fact. 

Emily's brother is dead. 

So for 20 years, she mentioned her sightings to no one.

"I knew that hallucinating or seeing the dead was certainly taboo. And I feared that if I told anyone, that it would be pathologized in some way," the Kitchener, Ontario-based author told CBC IDEAS.

Urquhart now believes that she was experiencing a psychological phenomenon known post-bereavement hallucination. It's a phenomenon that's been studied by psychologists and psychiatrists for five decades, and is documented across cultures.

And it's just one of the ways that real-life disruption and trauma may lead people to feel as though they're being haunted.

Canadian author Emily Urquhart experienced frequent sightings of her late brother that led her to look into folktales, and the psychology of post-bereavement hallucination. (Andrew Trant)

It's a way of working through grief

Nearly everyone faces a relative's death in the course of life. But not everyone sees the dead.

Urquhart believes that her experience relates to the idea that a "relationship doesn't end with death. It carries on afterwards."

Trained as a journalist, with a PhD in folklore studies, research for an essay in her latest book, Ordinary Wonder Tales led Urquhart to Scandinavian folklore, and the belief that haunted feelings arise when there are matters "not worked out. Issues that you've left unsettled."

Urquhart acknowledges having "fleeting and jumbled memories" of her brother. He was an older sibling from her father's first marriage.

Her childhood view of him was later complicated by a lack of information about his adult life, and his "tragic and grim" passing from causes related to alcoholism. 

As classic ghost stories and folk tales demonstrate, ghosts and hauntings are often set off by a troubled or unresolved loss.

It's a vehicle for marginalized voices

Azania Patel returned to her native India to conduct more than three years of interviews for an unconventional academic research project. 

She made a connection between ghost sightings and rapid development in urban India, as part of a Master's project combining literature and public policy at Oxford University.

Patel's hometown, Mumbai, has left its manufacturing past behind, becoming the nation's centre of finance and tech. 
Real estate values are high. Where houses of the poor once stood, tall buildings have sprung up as part of the city's Development 2034 plan.

Oxford researcher Azania Patel notes that her native India is rich with ghost stories. While investigating the connection between ghosts and the politics of urban change, she noted that these tales often express issues and emotions for city dwellers living in the margins. (Nivrati Kothari)

Interviewing residents, Patel heard tales of a particular ghost that haunted a Mumbai highrise complex, built as a "slum rehabilitation project."

"People would tell these stories about the elevator being haunted," she said. 

The elevator apparition was said to be the vengeful spirit of a worker killed by unsafe conditions during the building of the tower. 

Yet Patel found no evidence of anyone killed during construction.

We all live with ghosts of one form or another.- Artist Daniel Goldstein

Still, Patel said that the tale has an apt setting: these towers "have such limited light, such limited ventilation, that they look spooky in the middle of the day."

Her theory is that the elevator haunting, and other such stories, function as a vehicle — a way for marginalized people to communicate their anxieties about changes to how they must live and work.

For Patel, now working as a journalist in London, ghost stories draw attention to "the destruction of the lives these people used to have."

"It's easier to talk about problems that have this sort of paranormal, supernatural root. It's harder to address issues that have structural institutional reasons behind them."

It's an expression of cultural loss

While Daniel Goldstein does not see ghosts, he feels their presence every day. 

The visual artist lost two beloved partners, and a multitude of friends, during the AIDS epidemic in 1980s San Francisco. 

At that time, he says, the disease "was a death sentence. I basically lost 80 per cent of my cohort."

By the early 1990s, "I was living with ghosts of all these people who weren't there," said Goldstein.

'Icarian II/Incline' by artist Daniel Goldstein is part of his HIV-themed 'Icarian Series.' A ghostly image is preserved in the leather of old gym equipment, worn into the hide that was used to upholster a weightlifting bench. Gay men worked out to preserve their health during the AIDS era. (Daniel Goldstein)

Living with HIV himself, and assuming that he, too, would die, Goldstein began to experiment in his art studio, which he calls "the one place that wasn't about death."

There he discovered ways to return his ghosts to a kind of physical form.

For what would become his "Icarian" series, Goldstein used worn leather upholstery from a weightlifting bench at a popular gay gym in his Castro neighbourhood.

"These were six feet tall pieces of brown leather. And when I nailed one to the wall, the power of it almost knocked me over."

David Goldstein once felt surrounded by the ghosts, after losing a generation of friends and loved ones to AIDS, in 1980s and early ‘90s San Francisco. Phantom figures took shape in his haunting sculpture. Now, he says, ghosts of the past visit him in pleasant dreams. (Jason Lahman)

Visible on the leather "was a ghostly figure," said Goldstein. "The only thing I can liken it to is the Shroud of Turin." Bodily shapes had been worn into the hide by years of sweat and motion by people, many of whom were now dead.

"They were ghosts that were the presence of absence. Which is sort of what a ghost is."

For other AIDS-themed series, he built phantoms out of empty medication bottles. He outlined a body-shaped void in the kind of syringes used for HIV treatments, including his own.

It's a cultural expression of vanished talent, in addition to personal mourning, he said. 

"What the ghosts are, is those lost lives, and what they didn't get to do."

David Goldstein rendered ghosts in tangible form, out of HIV-related pill bottles and syringes. Here, three works from his series 'Medicine People.' On the left is 'Medicine Mother for South Africa; in the middle is 'Medicine Man II' and to the right is 'Invisible Man.' (Daniel Goldstein)

Internationally-recognized for his work, Goldstein credits this period of creativity for helping him contend with a devastating life experience. 

He still dreams of his lost friends. They are mostly good dreams.

"We all live with ghosts of one form or another. And mine are friendly ghosts. Luckily, I love them. I honour them." 

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