Ghosts and grief: Supernatural beliefs around the world

Henry Gamber

They’re in our movies, T.V. shows and books, and if you’re lucky, you may very well have your own story about them.

You might have guessed it, I’m talking about ghosts here. These ghastly spirits have become enmeshed in our culture, easily seen in popular shows like Supernatural, American Horror Story and Ghost Hunters. YouGov even reported that 45% of Americans believe in ghosts and demons, with 1 in 5 saying they “definitely exist.”

So why are ghosts such an integral part of our culture?

Helping to answer this question is UMKC Anthropology Professor Jeffrey Bennett, who has been writing about ghosts and grief.

“One thing that anthropologists have settled on is that ghost beliefs are nearly universal,” said Bennett. He explained that, in one form or another, we see beliefs in ghosts and spirits of various kinds in almost every culture.

One group of cultures that Bennett mentioned are the Apache groups in the southwest United States. 

“They have a syndrome that is referred to as ghost sickness,” Bennett said. “When someone dies, their ghost takes some time to properly find its way to the afterlife.”

Bennett said ghosts linger where they lived, can possess the living and that there are rituals the Apache must perform to avoid ghost sickness. 

“They have to burn or discard all of the clothing and belongings of the deceased,” Bennett said. “They’re not allowed to speak the deceased person’s name.” 

If these rituals aren’t performed, those possessed can become paralyzed and fall into extreme depressions, Bennett said. 

While ghost sickness and the Apache rituals may seem odd to the average American, the western world is not without its rituals. Bennett recalled the story of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, after losing his son in World War I, spent an immense amount of time at seances making attempts to contact his son’s spirit.

Bennett said these rituals are a way that societies around the world have found to cope with grief, particularly from the loss of a loved one. 

“We are constituted by our social relationships,” Bennett explained. “Grief is the price we pay for loving other people, and we’re haunted by the people we love and that we lose.”  

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