Why We Run from Ghosts: a Q & A with Author and Researcher Jan Olandese

Some day researchers might isolate the gene which makes people afraid of ghosts.

For the moment, though, we might have to agree that some people fear spirits and some don’t. Personally I find the idea of ghosts more terrifying than anything else I can think of. But I don’t know why.

I love delving into ghost stories, whether written by specialists like M. R. James or Sheridan Le Fanu, or by authors like Edith Wharton and Charles Dickens for whom ghosts were a sideline. But the great thing about books is you can put them down when it gets too much. This is not the case in the movie threatre or playhouse. Several times, in this captive state, I’ve found myself wishing I had not entered; what’s happening on screen or on stage is simply too terrible to be borne.

I remember a ‘locked’ nursery door suddenly creaking open in Stephen Mallatratt’s stage version of Susan Hill’s novel, The Woman in Black. I nearly shot out of my skin.

Dimly, after such moments, I become aware of another emotion: embarrassment. I notice that my wife is amused at the jolts and gasps coming from my seat.

Poster for Stephen Mallatratt’s adaptation of The Woman in Black

It’s frustrating trying to explain a fear of ghosts to someone who is immune.

The first thing to point out is that the word “fear” is wholly inadequate. Supernatural terror is quite unlike anything else. To separate this argument from mere semantics, it’s important to note that the physical response to the supernatural is different from the physical response to a more practical danger. If, God forbid, your car hydroplanes towards a guard rail, your adrenaline pumps and your heart beats faster. While you might tremble after a near miss, at the time of greatest peril your body is a jumble of action, muscles and sinews flexing.

If you experience supernatural terror, there is no adrenaline surge, no “fight or flight” response. Instead you might feel a  cold at the back of the neck, a tingle of hairs standing on end. And, most importantly, you freeze.

So, what are we afraid of exactly? And what, in our innermost primal imaginings,  comprises a “ghost”?

I was delighted to speak to someone perfectly placed to tackle this most baffling of human mysteries. Jan Olandese (MDiv, MA) is a retired Episcopal priest and chaplain, a columnist, blogger and author on all things supernatural. She has conducted many interviews with people who have experienced the paranormal and has taught seminars on such intriguing subjects as the Spirituality of the Ghost Story. 

Q: First of all, Jan, the obvious question, why are people afraid of ghosts?

A: This is a great question, Paul.   

For one thing, ghosts are something we often say we don’t “believe” in.  Although I don’t think it’s an issue of belief: they exist (or not) regardless of that.  We are conditioned to be afraid thanks to horror stories, ghost stories and scary movies:  sit through Haunted with Aidan Quinn and Kate Beckinsale (1995) and trust me, you’ll be shakin’!  

Lewis Gilbert’s adaptation of James Herbert’s Haunted (1995)


Ghosts do not conform to any standard pattern, either. So it’s hard to know what to expect. Most of the time they seem unanticipated, and that’s startling. Especially when you see someone who disappears, or see someone who is there from the waist up, or see someone who is see-through. So you’re experiencing this manifestation of something/someone that doesn’t belong in your sphere of reference.  


And it doesn’t do what you expect: it may walk through a wall. It may address you, it may ignore you.  It may touch you or throw you out of bed (this was supposed to have happened the year before I attended in the dorm of my theological college). You may see nothing, but feel the room become cold.  You may find an item vanishing from the spot you know you left it, only to reappear someplace ridiculous (I found a book in the refrigerator, and even I am not that absent-minded).  Doors may open or close of their own accord. Suddenly there may be a breeze in the house, ruffling the drapes.  A scent may permeate the air: something old-fashioned (lavender) or strongly associated with a person (“oh, that smells like Jack’s aftershave!”).  Is any of this really terrifying? Mostly, not. But it doesn’t fit our logical conceptual framework and when things go there, they make us nervous.  


Then again, we’re afraid.  Ghosts may in some cases be manifestations of our fears. Maybe sometimes we see them because we are fearful of something we can’t deal with, so it appears as a haunt.  


Of course, it you’re home alone, it’s “a dark and stormy night,” and you just watched The Exorcist, you’re in the right frame of mind, for an actual spirit or a poltergeist created by your nerves: who knows?  It’s still scary.  It’s still a ghost.  


We enjoy ghostly shivers.  Movies and TV shows with ghosts proliferate, ghostly novels are best sellers.  Ghost hunting is a growth industry. We enjoy the vicarious shivers.  Real hauntings, maybe not so much.  


Q: You have written about the various theories behind hauntings in some of your books, for instance About Ghosts. These include all manner of theories, including the returning of the dead, the ghost as warning or premonition. But some of the ideas are quite scientific. You talk of Cambridge academic T. C Lethbridge’s intriguing idea that certain physical materials — walls or rocks — can act as a “stone tape” capturing events which may, by some so far unexplained reason, be projected before us. Which theories do you think hold most credence?


A: Another great query! I’ll try to address a few of these.  You mentioned Lethbridge, who has been both greatly admired and written off as an eccentric kook. I remember reading his books back in the 70s and 80s and finding them intriguing.  One of his theories was that ghosts are not spirits of the dead, but mental projections from individuals which are picked up by others. Whilst I don’t think people sit around (consciously) projecting ghosts, I do know that E.S.P. is a real thing, which was first scientifically studied by Professor J.B. Rhine at Duke University.  When I was a teen, my friends and I used to play E.S.P. games in which one would think of something and the rest would try to get the impression. We found with practice, it worked quite often. So, perhaps there’s a way that strong emotions can “impress” themselves on atmosphere, whether on damp stone (the stone tape theory) or not, and be picked up later by others.  Perhaps humidity does play a role: some very haunted places I’ve lived in or visited have been on the ocean or near other water.  Maybe it’s E.S.P.


I’d like to suggest that many times hauntings appear to be reflections: of intense emotion, of subconscious thoughts, and often, of dysfunction.  I discuss in About Ghosts how in both literature and real life, people sometimes seem symbiotically attached to a haunt, even though it makes them crazy.  No matter how bad it gets, they stay for a second, third, and even fourth act.  Parapsychologists and ghost hunters often comment that room temperatures drop in the presence of ghosts because the ghosts use the energy.  Perhaps they use the emotional energy of those around them, too, to manifest in various ways.  As I’m not a scientist I have no idea if this can be proven, but it does make a kind of psychological and emotional sense.  
There are ghosts which appear to warn the witness.  It is possible that Grandma came from Beyond to caution Sonny not to marry that girl, but is also may be Sonny’s own misgivings, which he has repressed, are are really haunting him. Then again, there are cases where it’s really a ghost.  Really.  
Some ghosts do seem like personifications of negativity.  These may some kind of non-human “entities” – it’s hard to say exactly what, but they can be overwhelming. These can be the most frightening haunts.  Again , they reflect people, even if they are not human themselves. There are people who radiate evil, or good and light: ghosts can do that, too.  
Are there ghosts who are spirits of the dead? The literature affirms this, although for those who don’t believe in an afterlife it may be difficult to swallow unless and until they experience it.  
I saw a ghost once. It was quite unremarkable, an old woman in a blue woolen coat of the kind worn in the ’50s, with a headscarf from that era, bending down to put on boots.  I thought it was a real person, although later (when the others I was with compared notes and no one else saw her) I realized she hadn’t noticed us or greeted us when we came in.  The owner of the home said my description fit her grandmother to a tee. It wasn’t scary, it appeared quite human, but it was certainly a ghost.  
While no scientific proof exists of ghosts per se, with modern technology we have been able to record all sorts of paranormal manifestations.  It’s easy to suggest it’s a spirit, or a daemon:  but we can’t prove it.  The best approach is an open mind (but not so open the brain falls out), careful observation, and objective assessment. 



Q: One of the chief functions of the ghost story throughout the history of the genre has been to provoke fear. As a priest and theologian you are in a unique position to see the spiritual side of a haunting. Can you say a little about the dichotomy? Is there a serious, non-frightening and non-entertaining side to ghosts. What kind of experiences have you encountered that illustrate this?


A: Yes indeed. I do think ghosts can be reflective of human dysfunctions.  They may be psycho-spiritual manifestations of fears, hopes, guilt, rage, all kinds of things which have been brushed under the emotional rug, only to appear in a startling, ghostly format.  Jeremy Taylor, the great dream work expert, says often that nightmares are simply the dreamer’s subconscious tugging at his sleeve, becoming scary when other hints have failed.  Ghosts may well come, as Taylor says of dreams, “in the interest of the dreamer’s health and wholeness.” As anyone knows who has had even a smidgen of therapy, it’s difficult, can be arduous and even scary: but the insights gained are invaluable and lead to emotional integrity and healing.  Perhaps ghosts might in some cases play a therapeutic role.  


Some ghostly antics don’t seem to make sense to us. Why bother hiding that book in the fridge? Why scare the dog?  Why make the chandelier sway or open and close the door?  Why indeed?  To get attention.  This brings up poltergeists, “noisy ghosts,” who prank us with knockings, creaks, footsteps, all kinds of things.  Many theorize that poltergeists are emotional manifestations and indeed they seem to happen most often in homes with adolescents present.  


Then there are ghosts and visitations that seem quite spiritual in and of themselves.  Anyone who has seen what they think is an angel or angel-like being gets this.  These beings are awe-some in the true sense. Are they messengers of the Divine?  Perhaps.  Whether one believes in angels or no, we saw something spiritual and will be thinking about it for years to come.  Whether God sent a literal angel or pushed us to manifest one ourselves, the imprint is the same. 


I worked for many years as a hospital chaplain, and I learned that those nearing death often sense ghosts, and sometimes talk to them.  A patient’s daughter once shared that her mother, who had had dementia for years and had stopped talking months ago, surprised her.  The daughter entered the room to see her mother sitting up, carrying on a quite lucid conversation with an invisible someone in the corner. Variations on this theme have been shared with me countless times.  Added to the stories about those who are “clinically dead” for a brief time and then come back, it would seem that there’s spiritual help and perhaps old friends or family who come to meet and guide us: a reassuring thought. 


Once I had a very close call in a car that went out of control on an icy freeway.  It flipped in the air and somehow miraculously landed on all four tires in the grassy area between the road and the on ramp.  I was convinced I was a goner, and I can’t impart the sense of sheer panic and terror I felt at the prospect of immediate and unexpected death.  Yet in the midst of overwhelming fear, as the car vaulted into the air, I suddenly felt a sense of ineffable peace. Somehow I knew everything would be all right, even if I didn’t make it.  My fear vanished.  I can’t explain this but it was reassuring and frankly incredible.  While I didn’t see anything, I felt comforted in an extremely uncomfortable situation.  I read about a study of others who had nearly died but didn’t (mountain climbers who fell) and it appears they too all experienced this peace.  So while not what we usually think of as a ghost, it seems to be a fairly universal impression among those who’ve survived extreme sudden danger.  Call it a manifestation of the spiritual. 


Many thanks for these generous insights, Jan!

Jan Olandese is a retired episcopal priest chaplain and writer on ghostly topics (not to mention some pretty ghastly haiku!Visit Jan’s homepage for frequent ghostly stories from different parts of the world, for information about her books, and for her unique series of Haiku poems!


Paul Butler is the author of The Widow’s Fire (Inanna) and the forthcoming Mina’s Child (Inanna, slated for 2020).

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