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What Are Ghosts, Anyway?

A review of Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits by Benjamin Radford

Rhombus Publishing Company, 2017. 322 pp. $19.95

ISBN 978-0936455167

I’LL START WITH A CONFESSION: I’M irritated by the general topic of ghosts.

I’ve written on ghosts from time to time. My most satisfying ghost story was a two part Junior Skeptic article on spirit photography. Here I found a neatly constrained subtopic I could sink my teeth into. Spirit photography has a clear moment of origin and a pattern of evolution over time. There is physical evidence to evaluate, and specific claims to assess. There is a hefty but finite body of literature. That particular mystery is solvable. The same is true for a few other related subtopics such as astral projection and Ouija boards.

On the other hand, my story on haunted houses forced me to confront the frustration of ghosts as a topic in general: it is too vast and too vague. Ghosts are probably humanity’s most common paranormal belief—variable in detail by region, but virtually a human universal. The concept of disembodied spirits is global, transcultural, and so ancient that its origins are forever lost in time. Ghost stories may very well be as old as spoken language. By the time of the Romans, people told fully modern haunted house stories that sound as though they were written by Charles Dickens. I cannot even begin to imagine the staggering vastness of the global literature on ghosts. It seems certain that no complete bibliography for the topic exists or can exist, even just for the nonfiction material published in English.

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About Skeptic

BEHE’S LAST STAND COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Is Low-Dose Radiation Good for You? The Questionable Claims for Hormesis, by Harriet Hall, M.D. • The Gadfly: Define Your Terms (or, Here we Go Again), by Carol Tavris ARTICLES Making Gasoline from Water: John Andrews and the Invention of a Legend • Online Gaming: A Virtual Experiment in the Dark Side of Human Nature • Duped by Data Mining • How Science Will Explain and Fix Fake News • The Cult of Falun Gong: A Dance Troupe and Victimhood Raises Big Money • The Opioid Epidemic Misunderstood • Why the Human-Centered View Has Not Served us Well • Behe’s Last Stand: The Lion of Intelligent Design Roars Again • Straw Man on a Slippery Slope: The Case Against the Case Against Postmodernism • A Disproof of God’s Existence REVIEWS Reviews of: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure; The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake; Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits; Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post- Facts, and Fake News; Hoax: A History of Deception: 5000 Years of Fakes, Forgeries, and Fallacies; Truth’s Fool: Derek Freeman and the War Over Anthropology JUNIOR SKEPTIC Quest for the Truth about Dungeons and Dragons