Halloween is upon us. The season of ghosts, goblins, and good natured death imagery has descended upon middle class America. Am I the only person this perennial celebration of death strikes as odd, weird, and out of place? My initial reaction is this: in a world full of death we can’t and will never control, it’s nice to manipulate a cute kind of death, if only for a few days before the Thanksgiving turkeys start to die. Death that is temporary, easy, and impermanent (like the decorations in our yards and on our front porches) comes down quickly and painlessly. Fake Halloween death is nothing like real death. This, I believe, is one reason we hold on to Halloween and ghosts.
Yes, there are parties, the drinking, the door to door candy robberies, and the hilariously off the wall costumes. Each of these carefully crafted socially acceptable elements of Halloween provides revelers with the opportunity to encounter some scary, other worldly realities. The ghosts, demons, skeletons, and death images proliferating any American door, street or yard are real to a degree. We place ourselves in their paths because we want to be frightened. We enjoy the sensations that, behind our costumes and fun, confirm our perceptions of haunted life as perfectly justified even for a few fleeting moments. We like to be scared. While it may be real for an instant, a quick scream and run down the street means we’re OK and it’s all going to be alright.
But is it? Not according to many Americans. Over 42 percent of people surveyed in a recent Harris poll revealed they believe in ghosts. It seems we’re taking Halloween home with us long after the last pieces of candy are eaten. These aren’t metaphorical ghosts; we’re talking ghosts of Christmas past ghosts. To put this into context, more Americans believe in ghosts than any single Republican presidential candidate currently holds in national polls.
And why wouldn’t they? Television programs like “Ghost Hunters” take people on journeys through closed buildings with night vision lenses to find specters of ages past. It is noteworthy that ghosts on “Ghost Hunters” and similar shows never appear in broad daylight or do more than move a needle on a ghost hunting device. Nor do the ghost hunters travel beyond the bounds of the United States or middle class communities with “historic” happenings. Why aren’t they chasing up ghosts in Tokyo, New Delhi, or Kandahar? People die there too, right?
I don’t believe in ghosts. The idea the spirits of the dead linger on earth and do stupid things like bang pots has never resonated with me. Earth, while a great place especially when the leaves change in the northern hemisphere, is kind of mess. The idea of hanging around Earth or moving somewhere else, especially when somewhere else has been presented in numerous religious traditions as the best place ever, looks like a no brainer. Am I saying ghosts are stupid? Yes. To paraphrase Senator Lindsey Graham, “dumb as hell”.
Ghosts are narcissists. Why are they scaring people, banging pots, or staring at random strangers through haunted mirrors? Ghosts, as conceived by our culture, must enjoy what they do. Who other than a textbook narcissist would continually engage in such self-gratifying behavior which is harmful to others? If you’re dead, are you going to be so wrapped up in your own ego you can’t even enjoy the freedom death provides from psychological illnesses? I don’t believe in ghosts because I believe in a mentally healthy afterlife.
The final reason I don’t believe in ghosts is this: we anthropomorphize the afterlife. What’s that mean? We turn life after death into a slightly mistier version of life here on Earth. Death is just like life but we can float, walk through walls, Satan is a man in a red body suit with a goatee, and God becomes an old man with a beard on a cloud. In life we have good and bad people. In death, we’ve created evil and benevolent ghosts. We want death firmly in the realm of our understandable comfort zones.
The most common near death experiences are exactly that, “near death”. They aren’t death. Despite their commonalities, these “light at the end of the tunnel” stories do not describe the essence of human mortality. No one returns from a week away at Lake Death to report on their vacation as a ghost. We waste too much time trying to figure out death when we could be living our lives. I don’t believe in ghosts.