Are There Such Things as Ghosts?

Are There Such Things as Ghosts? October 31, 2013

Over at Fr. Dwight’s blog, the redoubtable Paul Thigpen answers in the affirmative with a fun survey of the history of Catholic opinions on the question.  This has always been a minor interest of mine, partly personal and partly professional.  Personal, because I’ve known lot of people over the course of my life who are smart, honest, good and sane who have had… encounters that they they basically chalked up to ghosts.  Professional because, as a Catholic, one of the things I have always had a deep respect for are broadly attested human traditions that appear in every nation, language, culture and tribe in the world.  Chestertonian common sense says that when the whole human race from it remotest origins right up to the present affirms that a thing is so, the smart money is on the testimony of ordinary Schmoes and not on the snooty “expert” who is speaking out of some personal materialist dogma.

Well, one of the things the whole human race has always borne witness to is the reality of ghosts, of encounters with the shades of those who have died.  It is a thing believed “always, everywhere, and by all” broadly speaking (with, of course, exceptions among the cranks of each culture).  So my assumption has always been that there is something rather than nothing to this phenomenon.  But at the same time, I’ve been struck by the perception that the Church never seemed to address the question.  However, I’ve never really looked beyond that since it is, after all, still only a minor interest for me, not a major one.  Basically, the Church says, “Don’t try to summon the dead” and that’s about it as far as pastoral guidance goes.  Doctrinally, the Church has nothing to say about the matter.  But that doesn’t mean much since the Church has nothing to say about relativity, the justice of Red Sox winning the World Series, or whether I need to lose more weight.  There are vast regions of human experience that the Church has not official teaching about–but about  which reliable Catholics have lots of reasonable commentary.  Ghosts appear to fall in that category.  Catholics like St. John Bosco have had experiences with the dead–and this is something that goes all the way back to Saul and the Witch of Endor summoning the shade of Samuel, to encounters like that of Peter, James and John with the very dead Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Indeed, we know the apostles believed in ghosts because they thought the Risen Christ was one till he requested the most famous fish dinner in history.

And so the Church’s pastoral practice seems to maintain a sort of practical agnosticism toward such claims and deal with them on a case-by-case basis.  The idea is “Don’t borrow trouble by *looking* for ghosts, but if something weird happens, consider the possibility a) that you are dealing with a spirit and b) that the spirit you are dealing with might be demonic or might be the ghost of a human being, whether from heaven (as in the apparation of some saint) or perhaps from purgatory (as in some stories of hauntings that seem to involve people working through some sin or other issue that they never finished dealing with in this life).  I’d be interested in hearing from readers on any ghost stories they might have, particularly clerical readers who have been asked to deal sacramentally with hauntings, minor exorcissm and so forth.  I know such things happen  because I’ve talked to priests who have done them personally.  But I’d be interested in hearing your story if you have one.

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  • Dave G.

    When I first became a Christian I was still pretty much a liberal agnostic skeptic who was grasping at anything to reconcile with God. I still held the whole ‘made up stories based on a vague first century prophet’ narrative, and certainly didn’t hold to miracles or supernatural occurrences. Believing in ghosts was out of the question. One day, in March 1993, my wife and I were visiting St. Simon’s island in SE Georgia. We went to the old Fort Frederica site. The ruins of an 18th century settlement. It was a dreary day, there were only a few people visiting, and nobody was around us. We were going back and forth, looking at one informative plaque after another. We began to walk across what would have been the main street. Suddenly we both stopped and asked, “Did you feel that?” It felt to me like I was suddenly pressed upon by a large crowd of people. That feeling you get when you’re in a crowd, even if nobody is touching you. She said, without prompting, that she felt the same thing. We went back and retraced our steps and felt the exact feeling again. Later we tried a third time, but nothing. I’ve had a few strange encounters, but typically am able to explain them away. To this day, we’ve not been able to explain that one rationally. There were other things over the years, but that went a long way toward softening me up when it comes to ghosts and ghost stories.

  • orual’s kindred

    The first encounter of that sort (which I remember clearly) is a bit difficult to dismiss, because I wasn’t the only one who experienced it. It was in high school, and a classmate, a teacher and I were in the English department office. We were just talking, the three of us, with nobody knocking or entering. Then, at one point, I turned my head towards the door just in time to see a girl leave, slamming it shut. I didn’t see her face, just managed to catch a glimpse of her skirt. I wondered who it was, because my classmate was beside me, the teacher was in front of us both at her desk, and I am sure no one else had entered the room. I turned towards our teacher, and she addressed us both, saying, ‘You saw that?’ And my classmate and I said yes. According to our teacher, it was not an unheard-of incident.

    The others are more recent, in the office where I work at, in fact. One of my coworkers claims to sometimes see a little girl hanging around the workstation behind mine. (The person who uses it was not happy to hear that.) Another claims to have been ‘visited’ in the clinic (and it was not a happy visit). Yet another claims to have had a woman press down on her feet while she was lying down in the girl’s quarters. As for me, I’ve felt myself being pulled downwards while napping in that room. In the second instance (yes, it’s happened twice) I had the sense that I was conscious in some way, but I also knew that my eyes were closed. And that someone (or something?) seemed to be talking to me, in a language I couldn’t understand.

    I’m also interested in this sort of thing, for similar reasons, and to around the same degree. In such instances I try to remember to pray for the souls in need of prayer, all those in purgatory, and ask for help and protection. I do little more than that. In the last occurrence, I turned (when I finally managed to–it was hard getting my body to move in the state I was in, let alone get out of it) and went back to sleep. (I was really sleepy.) I also avoid seeking out these encounters. As the Church teaches, it is not good for us, and my experiences have rather demonstrated the distinct disadvantage we non-dead people are in.

  • TL

    When I was 23, I was in a car accident with my best friend and he died. Several months later, I ran across a book about Purgatory which suggested praying for the souls there. I decided that night to pray for my friend’s soul. As soon as I finished my prayer, the radio turned on across the room. I jumped about 5 feet in the air, but laughed about it because giving me a scare is just the thing he would have been liable to do.

  • Other people have all the fun. 🙁 I have had several creepy/weird encounters in my life, including one in which I woke up in the middle of the night out of a sound sleep to see a glowing white cloud materializing in my pitch-dark dark room. It looked like an angel or a ghost about to appear. But when I went up to look at it more closely, it turned out to be hot air coming out of my heating vent and fluorescing in the darkness. Way cool, but not supernatural.

    I’ve never once had any “close encounter” that didn’t turn out to be similarly explicable.

    • orual’s kindred

      Awh! It’s…not too late? 😀

  • Just last night I was telling Beadboy2, in an attempt to forestall a nightmare, that there are no such things as ghosts. You’ve made me a liar, Mark! :>

    • Rebecca Fuentes

      I do the same thing. If I told my 7-year-old that they were real, she’d be up ten times a night thinking she heard them. Someday, she’ll know that Santa isn’t real, and neither is the tooth fairy, but that ghosts exist. But not today.

      • Jared Clark

        If it makes you feel better, it’s quite possible the malevolent spirits are demons and not just damned humans.

        …actually, if that makes you feel better, you probably need help.

        • Rebecca Fuentes

          She accepts that there are demons and angels, but demons don’t scare her. Ghosts scare her. My 5-yr-old, not scared of anything supernatural, but he gets scared when the dogs howl at sirens.

  • S7


    What I always say on this is that God, from the Old Testament forward, right down to the present practice of the Church, has always said, in effect, “Hot stove. Stay away.” *Precisely* because the hot stove is so darned interesting.

  • Pavel Chichikov

    I’ve had people tell me things, but my inner reaction now is: What do you need it for? You don’t know what it is you’re dealing with.

    There seems to be a movement afoot to validate the idea of an after-life by going to a medium. Once or twice I’ve felt moved to post: Stay away.

    If God or His messengers want you to know something, He has ways of conveying the message.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    Mark, have you ever heard of or read anything by Dr. Kenneth McCall? He writes about ending hauntings by saying masses for the people or places involved.

    • chezami

      Nope. But such an approach doesn’t surprise me. Seems sensible.

  • JM1001

    Question: Does a belief in ghosts presuppose Cartesian dualism?

    • S7


      • JM1001

        Could you please elaborate?

        • S7

          Yes. There’s no evidence the author of the books of Samuel–in which we find reference to the ghost of the Prophet Samuel–was influenced by “Cartesian-like dualism.” Nor any other author of Biblical literature, where we read about the “spirits” of the dead and of “shades.”

          • JM1001

            Perhaps I’m not making myself clear. Let me ask my question another way:

            Does a belief in ghosts presuppose a metaphysical view of a human being that is similar to Cartesian dualism?

            Or, rather, when saying that a ghost is “separated” from the body at death — how does the metaphysics underlying this view of a human being differ from Cartesian dualism?

            • S7

              OK, that is a different question. I’d rather let someone else have a go at that.

            • orual’s kindred

              Interesting! I came across this recently:


              On the Aristotelian-Thomistic view, the disembodied soul is only an incomplete substance, and qua form of the living body is in its natural state only when conjoined to the matter of its body. It is inherently suited to that particular bit of the material world, and only to that one. On the Cartesian view, by contrast, the soul is a complete substance in its own right, so that its relation to any and all material objects is entirely contingent. It is no more inherently tied to any particular human body than it is inherently tied to a pig’s body, or a tree, or stone, or a vacuum cleaner. It is related to the body not as form to matter but rather more like the way a demon would have been related to one of the Gadarene swine it possessed in the famous biblical passage, or the way a poltergeist is related to the vacuum cleaner it moves around the room it is haunting. (Hence Ryle’s “ghost in the machine” characterization of Cartesianism.)

              I hope this helps!

              • JM1001

                It was my understanding that Aristotle considered the soul to be the actualized form of a living body, and Feser states exactly that. So far so good.

                But if the body is no longer living, then the soul is no longer actualized; it is, in a sense, dormant. That’s where I run into problems. How can the actualized form of something continue to exist once the thing it is an actualized form of ceases to exist?

                Aristotle allows that only one part of the soul could be immortal, namely the thinking part, or the intellect. But even this seems to let Platonism creep in a little. You’re still saying that a form (at least a partial, reduced part of it) exists or can exist apart from the thing it is a form of.

                Put another way, if the intellect is a part of the soul, and the soul is the actualized form of a living body, then how can even one part of that actualized form exist apart from a living body? Either the entire form of the body can exist apart from the body (Platonism), or the soul (at least the intellect part) is an entirely separate substance apart from the body (Cartesianism).

                • orual’s kidnred

                  Well, I don’t know if the soul is no longer actualized, at least to the degree you seem to be describing. And I certainly don’t know how! But I’m not sure that it can be said that the soul loses its entire form when the body is dead, nor do I think that it would immediately imply ‘that a form (at least a partial, reduced part of it) exists or can exist apart from the thing it is a form of.’ It may (and now I am really speculating) have something to do with the reality of the unity of soul and body (for which we don’t have full knowledge of or complete vocabulary for), and which would hint at why the Church teaches the resurrection of the body.

    • chezami

      Since people have believed in ghosts long before Descartes, I would say, “No.”

      • JM1001

        Respectfully, that doesn’t answer the question. I could easily rephrase the question as: Does a belief in ghosts presuppose Cartesian-like dualism?

    • I’d say that are lots of ways of “believing in ghosts” (as the concept of ‘ghost’ is notoriously fuzzy and varying). And I’d say that, for “us”, yes, believing in ghosts typically implies some kind of dualism. See in the linked article (quite poor, IMHO) the definition of soul as “that part of a human being which is not corporeal”.

      • JM1001

        Thank you. This is one of those things that has always bugged me. When one talks about some immaterial “ghost” that is “separated” from the body at death, and has independent existence apart from the body, and can even interact with material things, then dualism of a Cartesian sort seems to necessarily follow.

        I could be wrong; it’s something I’m still trying to think through. Which is why I asked. It seemed like a good opportunity to clear up something that I still have issues with.

  • B

    Haven’t you guys ever seen Scooby Doo? Ghosts don’t exist. It’s just some guy with a costume on. C’mon!

    • Stu

      And they would have gotten away with it…

  • Stu

    Always seemed like it had to do with purgatory to me.

  • BigBlueWave

    I believe in apparitions. But I don’t think there are ghosts. When saints or angels appear, there’s a definite function to that. Ghosts seem to roam the earth aimlessly. How is that providential? It seems to me when you’re done your time on earth, you’re done. Your spirit doesn’t have any business here unless God sends you for a very specific purpose. It *could* happen, but I doubt it. However, I do believe in demonic activity. Which could mimick a ghost.

    • So you don’t think there are ghosts but you believe there are Ghosts?

      It seems to me you can’t be a catholic Christian if you do not believe ghosts exist. Christianity for example, made clear in Ecumenical Council (ie. First Council of Nicaea [325], First Council of Constantinople [381]) under the direction and Grace of, yes indeed, THE Ghost, the teaching and examples of the apostles, events like Pentecost, the teachings of the Holy Fathers, and the revelations of God documented in the Bible, most notably the Holy Theophany, are very clear in the very real existence of, and most importantly above all ghosts, THE Ghost, the Holy Ghost, being One of the Holy Trinity, Whose Grace enlightens all who receive Him through Holy Baptism! This would indeed lead us to believe that there must be, and surly does exist, unholy ghosts, as, I believe, you rightly define “demonic”. This is a part of the exorcism that takes place at Holy Baptism in the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church!

      Furthermore, when Jesus walked on water, the apostles thought Jesus was a ghost, which further lends creditability to the existence of ghosts and the apostolic fathers who indeed, believed these things are very real. If they did not, they never would have accepted the Trinity as revealed to us! The human soul, the human spirit, or the human ghost, if you will, are similar if not identical in my view. Surly we have misconceptions in our limited understandings in our materialistic and egotistical modern world as to how we attempt to define these things through dogma, as we tend to put terms in boxes limiting our own understandings of the reality of a world we do not, and can not, understand, nor necessarily see with our eyes and must be accepted only by Faith; it remains a mystery.

  • Heather

    My grandparents and aunt went on a cruise a number of years ago and experienced strange noises and stuff in their cabin the whole trip. Towards the end of it, they learned that someone on a previous voyage who had stayed in that same cabin had fallen or jumped overboard and drowned. They found the story sad, but were more interested than frightened that their cabin was apparently haunted.

  • DV73

    My best friend from college committed suicide a few years after we graduated. He and I were as close as I’ve ever been to anyone with the exception of my wife. It was personally difficult for me as he and I were not in close contact for some time before he died, and so I chose to bear some guilt for his death myself. (i.e., had we been in contact and I more aware of his situations, perhaps I could have offered help)

    Several years after he died, and at a time when I was in a much different place spiritually than I was in college, I woke in the middle of the night and looked to the foot of the bed. The moment and the memories after did not have any of the feel of any dream I have ever experienced. I saw him sitting there looking at me. His presence was so real that as I sat up I moved my legs around him so I wouldn’t hit him. I sat next to him for several seconds saying nothing, and then he said, “I love you.” I said “I know” and that was it. He was gone, no flash of light or floating away or anything fantastical, just not there anymore. But those five words are burned as clearly into my memory as any event I’ve ever witnessed, and the reality of that moment is no different than that of me typing right now.

    The event brought me tremendous peace and hope, as I had often wondered about his fate. He certainly was a believer in God, but only practiced his faith intermittently, coupled with the difficulty of taking his own life. Last year I spoke with a trusted priest who is also a trained exorcist about this event. He said he had no reason to doubt the reality of it, and Mark reflects what he said to me above when he referenced the possibility that some ghosts are souls in purgatory: My friend quite likely was in purgatory and being given an opportunity to address burdens or sins from the past, the grace in which is the burden it released from me.

    The entire experience has been amazing and powerful and a display of God’s profound love and mercy.

  • JMKerrigan

    In 1986 I was riding in a car with my friends. We were at a 4 way stop and for no reason I knew that the car coming the other way wasn’t going to stop at the 4 way. I told my buddy who was driving not to go because that car was going to blow the stoplight (which it did). It wasn’t a ghost, it was my guardian angel who warned me. I knew that immediately for some reason even though I wasn’t a practicing Catholic at the time. It would have been a fatal accident for sure.

  • I’m sure this has been pointed out before, but in Luke 24: 36-43, when Jesus appears to His disciples and they’re afraid and think He’s a ghost, He doesn’t say, “There’s no such thing as ghosts.” Instead, He points out that unlike a ghost He has flesh and bones, invites them to touch Him, and then asks for something to eat and eats in front of them. I would think if He wanted us to know for certain that the spirits of the dead never appear to the living, He would have taken the opportunity to say so!

    • Christi H

      Perhaps it is because weather there are gohst is something we needed to figure out ourselves, or perhaps because it wasnt as importans as the fact that he WAS living. Personally, i would point to Moses and Elijiah’s appearance. We know for a fact, if we trust the the Transfiguration, that saints and prophets do come down to do God’s will after death. The question is, is it isolated only to saints and prophets?

  • Marthe Lépine

    This story might be some local legend, but maybe not… In the area I used to live in, a story was circulating at one time of a young married couple, with a baby, who had purchased an old house in the country, that they intended to renovate. I think the house was more or less 150 years old. On a number of nights, shortly, it appears, after the birth of their baby, they were awakened by the sound of a crying baby. They checked on their own baby, but he or she was sleeping soundly and did not appear to have a problem. That happened several times, until, as they began the renovation work, they dismantled a wall and found the tiny skeleton of a baby hidden into it. They arranged for a funeral service and a proper burial for that baby, and the crying sounds in the night stopped…
    Also, in a book written by a Mr. McCaul – or McCall, I am not too sure, but I read that particular book years ago (one of your readers mentioned him in an earlier comment on this thread). The author mentions some research that had been done about an area of the sea that used to be called the Bermuda Triangle, where many shipwrecks had been happening (maybe they are still happening, but I do not know). The author said it was discovered that it was an area where, during the times of the slave trade, slaves that were sick or had died during the trip were simply thrown overboard before the ships arrived to their destination. Mr. McCaul, who was an Anglican or Protestant minister, arranged for some kind of funeral ceremony and prayers for the dead to be held in a ship that was brought to that area, and apparently the marine tragedies in that area almost, or totally, stopped.