Ghost in the ghost story: Gannett has no doubts

priest ghostLongtime readers of GetReligion may remember the defining image used in the very first post on this blog. It has shown up in headlines several times since then.

I am talking about the idea of religion “ghosts” that haunt many reality-based news stories in mainstream media. It is our belief that these moral and religious implications often go unreported, in part because, as Bill Moyers like to say, too many journalists are “tone deaf” to the religious themes that are all around them. In other words, these journalists do not “get” religion.

Today I ran into a ghost while reading a story about, well, ghosts. USA Weekend ran a pop culture feature story by Gwen Moran titled “Real-Life Ghost Busters” that was, on the surface, quite ordinary. Here is a sample, about the work of the husband-wife team of Dave Oester and Sharon Gill:

When you’ve investigated more than 1,000 hauntings in the past 14 years, you’re used to the unexplained. Oester, 56, and Gill, 55, are founders of the International Ghost Hunters Society, a group of nearly 15,000 ghost investigators and enthusiasts. Armed with digital cameras, voice recorders and a fascination with the freaky, the Deming, N.M.-based couple travels the country investigating haunted places. And with more than one-third of Americans sharing a belief in ghosts, according to a 2003 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, there are many places to investigate.

Unexplained noises (such as knocking, footsteps or muffled voices), electrical appliances turning on and off by themselves and other mysterious happenings can be signs of an active ghost. … Some people in haunted settings have a feeling that they’re not alone, or they get inexplicably cold. In the most extreme cases, people feel they’ve been touched by something or have seen objects move, even when there’s no one there.

Pretty straightforward stuff. But as I read it again something hit me, like a cold chill running down my spine, as the mystery began to sink in. There was nothing in this story that offered the slightest hint that the journalism professionals at the mainstream Gannett newspaper empire had any doubts about the reality of the spiritual world implied by this report. Shocking, huh?

Try to imagine a similar hands-off attitude toward a story on other claims of supernatural religious experiences. Try to imagine a pack of charismatic Episcopalians getting to make claims about the power of the Holy Spirit, without scads of doubters getting to share their viewpoints. Ditto for Eastern Orthodox parishioners with myrrh-weeping icons. Ditto for neo-Madonna mystics doing whatever they are doing at the moment. And, you know what? That skepticism is a good thing. It’s good to see reporters pushed to chart the edges of supernatural claims. It’s good to ask tough questions of people who claim to have had mystical experiences. Just do it.

But don’t look for questions of this kind in this fluffy feature. The high point, for me, was the helpful “news you can use” sidebar entitled “How to get along with ghosts.” This is simply too rich to edit.

Calm down. “Sometimes, ghosts aren’t that different from 12-year-old boys,” ghost hunter Dave Oester says. “They’re having fun spooking you.” It’s no longer fun if you aren’t scared.

Talk it out. Give your ghost a name. If the ghost performs dangerous pranks, like turning on a gas stove, explain why it can’t do that. “It may be that your ghost is trying to get your attention,” Sharon Gill says. “Acknowledging it may be enough to get it to stop.”

Get positive. If you have an angry spirit, it’s likely because someone in your home has the same kind of energy, Oester says. He and Gill worked with a family in which a spirit was slamming doors, scaring the family. “We helped them create a rule where all of the problems were to be left on the front porch before anyone came in the house. They had to work on being positive in the house,” says Oester, who notes that the family reported a ghost-free house within months.

Oh, but Moran is sure about one thing: “Blessings, exorcisms and the like are nonsense.”

So you can chat the ghost up and help it wrestle with its self-esteem issues, but do not — repeat, do not — think that calling a priest will help. No sir. No doubts about that, either. Whatever you do, don’t take seriously the claims of traditional religious teachings on the subject of good and evil, heaven and hell, angels and demons.

P.S. Those interested in another mysterious story in a mainstream newspaper can turn to The Dallas Morning News, where friend-of-this-blog Rod Dreher has published a chilling little essay titled “A ghost in the family: Did Grandfather’s spirit stay behind to mend broken bonds?” Honest, Dreher has a great book stashed in his head that could be called Confessions of a Bayou Exorcist and some smart publisher needs to pay him big bucks to get it written.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joan O.

    I read that piece about the Oster-Gill team in my local newspaper, the Columbian (Vancouver, WA). It was interesting that we need to respect ghosts more than we need to respect unborn babies!

  • ANDY S-C

    If you compare a Halloween ghost story to a regular religion story, then the journos drop the ball in suspending their skepticism. But maybe you should be comparing holiday stories to holiday stories — in which it has become pro forma to write tongue-in-cheek features that accept the interviewees assertions on, ahem, faith. So the Daily Republican Register in Evanston, Illinois headlines a story, “Santa Claus to make cameo appearance in Christmas Parade,” and ledes with “Bob Bethards, a member of the Mt. Carmel Christmas Parade Committee, confirmed Thursday that Santa Claus will be a part of the 2004 Mt. Carmel Christmas Parade, scheduled for Nov. 27.” No expert is quoted asserting, “No Virginia, there is not such thing as Santa Claus.”

  • http://www.restacrosstheriver.blogspot.com Andy

    Literal religion ghosts pop up below the break in the NYT’s election-Sunday wrapup. The NYT’s writers visited African-American churches pulling for Kerry, white evangelical pulpits pushing Bush, and – for reasons unexplained in the article – a United Methodist congregation in Denver that’s dabbling in necromancy.

    The story is at:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/01/politics/campaign/01churches.html?pagewanted=1

    Go two-thirds of the way down the page. I don’t care if these Methodists are Mexican or not; this is downright wierd. More mystifying is how it made the cut for the NYT story.


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