Do Ghosts Exist? History May Say Yes. Here's Why Apparitions Are Likely 'Real'

By | October 28, 2020

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What happens after we die? It's a question that's haunted humanity since we became aware of the concept of death, with answers ranging from a void of nonexistence to various religious hypotheses to The GrudgeAs improbable as a haunting might seem to the scientific mind, it does seem strange that claims of it have popped up throughout history. What were they actually seeing? Do ghosts exist?

Wishful Psychosis

In 1917, Sigmund Freud theorized that people who saw the phantoms of their deceased loved ones were actually mired in "wishful psychosis,” or a fleeting bout of madness brought on by their own despair. He believed that patients who were convinced they could smell their dead loved one, hear their voice, or actually speak with them were clinically dependent on the person in question, so rather than investigate their claims, he counseled them to move on and cut the dead out of their lives.

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The Society For Psychical Research

Whether or not his conclusions were sound, Freud may have been on to something with the concept of grief manifesting physically. Some have theorized that what these people were experiencing—and still experience today—is simply a buildup of grief and psychic energy that science hasn't tried to quantify because it's too "out there." After all, until we had the right instruments to measure them, things like radio waves and atomic particles seemed just as far-fetched as ghosts. 

In fact, supposed paranormal experiences may be way more widespread than commonly believed exactly because people are worried they'll sound bonkers if they tell anyone. In 1889, London's Society for Psychical Research (or S.P.R.) asked 410 volunteers whether they'd witnessed a spectral apparition of some kind, and 13% of their subjects admitted to experiencing the phenomenon. After similar investigations carried out in the United States, France, Germany, Russia, and Brazil yielded 17,000 responses, the S.P.R. concluded that 7–19% of the population will witness what they perceive to be a paranormal event in their lifetime. Ethical philosopher Henry Sidgwick noted that many of the people who claimed to see an apparition were seeing a loved one near the moment of their death:

There is a marked accumulation of cases about the time of the death. They occur during fatal illness, whether this is known or unknown to the percipient, in increasing frequency as the death approaches—the largest number being reported as happening at or about the time of the death itself.

These weren't crackpots looking to walk around haunted houses. The S.P.R. were people of science, eager to plumb the depths of the human mind. One member was Alfred Russel Wallace, co-developer of the theory of evolution, who butted heads with Charles Darwin over whether or not natural selection explained consciousness.