Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Do you believe in ghosts?

I walked around Halifax last Sunday morning.  It was a beautiful, bright sunny autumn day, crisp and chill.  I wandered aimlessly taking photos here and there, before heading back up to Dean Clough for the day's events.  I went to the viaduct cafe and bumped into a couple I had met the day before.  We got to talking and very early on I was asked if I believe in ghosts.

My heart always sinks slightly when I hear this question, because people who don't believe in ghosts tend to make an assumption of disbelief.  Usually - not always, but usually - that question is asked by someone who does believe, as was the case here.

I do not believe in ghosts and told them so.

Sometimes - after an uncomfortable moment - this will nip such a tale in the bud, but not always.  I am generally fairly indifferent as to which way it goes.  I don't mind hearing ghost stories, but having said I don't believe in ghosts, it has to be on the understanding that I'm not going to believe in the ghosts I am now being told about.

In this case the tale continued, and as we were at the venue of a ghost story festival, it seemed churlish to protest and I allowed the story to run its course.  But the telling of a ghost story as true is quite a powerful position to adopt in a conversation.  The speaker is asking the listener to accept, on trust, things that would be difficult to accept had they actually been witnessed by the listener themselves.

The listener - a listener who does not believe in the supernatural - is, in effect, being asked to change their entire world view based on hearsay - often the hearsay of strangers.  I have had stories related to me by friends and family and, the subtext is always the same: call me a liar, if you dare.  I have strong suspicion that Jonathan Miller would have been far more vocal in his defence of rationality.  I think it is part of the job of a writer to listen.  But it is also the job of the writer to interpret what he or she hears.  We should be listening to the story and to the telling.  Often the telling is more interesting than the story.

Of course I don't think that every person who has seen or heard or sensed, or claimed to have seen, heard or sensed, a ghost is a liar.  But neither do I think that none are.  People do lie.  Unlike the existence of ghosts, I am certain of that.  I have experienced lying.  I have told lies myself.  We all have.  But the teller knows we can't know for sure if a lie has been told and that most people will be placed in such an awkward situation that politeness will mean that rational arguments will go unvoiced.

And the reason we can't be sure that a lie has been told is that people can simply be mistaken.  They can give the wrong interpretation to something.  They can add things together that are not in any way connected.  They can exaggerate.  They can over-dramatise.  They can rework and refine.  I've done that too.  We all have.  I do it for a living.  To believe otherwise is to believe that we are always reliable witnesses.  We all know we aren't.  Not always.  Not all the time.

Of course this is true of every story we hear from friends or strangers.  Unless we were there, we can't be sure of the details of an event being described.  But usually there is nothing within the confines of the story that means we cannot believe it.  But with stories of supernatural events it is different.  Suddenly the listener is being asked to accept things that would, if proved, change the laws of physics and make front page news across the globe.

People who tell you ghost stories will ask you for an explanation to events or phenomena you yourself have not seen or experienced.  It is the equivalent of saying, 'Yesterday my head fell off and rolled across the kitchen table.  I picked it up and put it back on and there isn't even a mark.  Explain that if you can!'

People who tell ghost stories will often tell you that they or the people involved are especially 'receptive', that they have always been able to sense things that others can't.  They are often telepathic or clairvoyant or both.  The inference here is that your doubt keeps ghosts at bay.  They won't come where they aren't wanted.  Except for the ones that leap out at you, of course.

Because there are different kinds of ghosts aren't there?  There are The Woman in Black malevolent ghosts who want to scare the bejabbers out of us and there are The Sixth Sense ones who want to tell us something.  They have unfinished business.  Like most of the dead there has ever been I would imagine.

This story - and it would be unfair to go into details - fell into the latter category.  It was a good story.  I feel slightly bad about not being able to accept it because it seems almost rude or unfriendly.  It was fascinating and disturbing and introduced me to a factual story I knew nothing about and which is even more interesting.  It - or rather the telling of it - made me come up with a couple of new ideas for stories of my own.  But to actually believe it I would have to believe in ghosts.

And I still don't.


  1. I don't believe in ghosts but I do love a ghost story. I think there are lots of unwritten rules of communication that go on when someone tells a ghost story. I've never really been told one and felt under any pressure to believe it for me, the "This really happened" approach is just like an opener. Sometimes when I'm telling a story, I start, "Everything story I've told up to now is a lie but this one is true." I also have my "True ghost story that happened to me but didn't happen to me" which is easily explained but chilling if not lingered upon! There are those ghosts too who don't have any agenda, they're almost like an echo of a happening on a constant loop. I like them!

  2. Excellent post! And no, neither do I!

  3. I hear what you're saying, Jon. But there is a difference between a story told as true and a story told as myth. Some people are happy to leave the belief optional, but I have been in many situations where to contest the 'facts' of the story would be very difficult, for the reasons I laid out. But I think it the fact that these storytellers go uncontested for so long that is half the problem. This is not an attack on ghost stories. Ghost stories are great. But so are Greek myths. It doesn't make them true.

  4. Whoops. Of course, I meant Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, not Collins' The Woman in White. Have changed it.

  5. I wonder if someone who DID believe in ghosts wouldn't be so comfortable writing about them?

  6. Well I suppose they would tell a very different kind of story. I'm sure there are writers who believe in ghost stories - writers of ghost stories I mean - but I've never met one. I think maybe its because if you are a writer you are thinking too much about the way stories work.

  7. I was really sorry not to be at the Halifax Ghost Festival, Chris. As far as 'not believing in ghosts' is concerned I occupy the strange position of being a person who doesn't believe in ghosts but is nevertheless afraid of them. I've had several spooky experiences in my life, all of which can be explained rationally, but that it is no comfort at all. There are several places where I would absolutely refuse to spend a night alone, despite my rational self telling me it would be perfectly safe to do so.

  8. That is interesting Sue, you're right. Disbelief does not necessarily make us immune to the fear. And some places are just plain scarier than others!