Cultural Influences; Why ghosts are spirits - to most people!

Cultural Influences; Why ghosts are spirits - to most people!
Category: Hauntings / Theories / Witnesses /

Ghosts, and other paranormal phenomena, have been reported for millennia. When systematically investigated, haunting cases often produce evidence of odd events but usually nothing like the kind of sensational events portrayed in popular ghost stories or films. The reality of authentic paranormal investigations hardly ever reaches public attention. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the public attitude to paranormal phenomena appears to be heavily influenced by the media portrayal. That media portrayal may, in turn, be influenced by longstanding cultural influences.

When ASSAP receives a new haunting case, it will, often, consist of some odd goings-on in a building. These may consist of unexplained noises, possibly strange smells and lights and maybe a feeling of presence. The reason it is reported to us is that the witness has reason to believe the effects are not due to anyone else in the building and cannot explain them. Only in rare cases will the witness see an apparition. So how do a few weird noises get reported as a case of haunting?

Another common type of report that ASSAP receives consists of someone seeing something odd in the sky; maybe an unusually bright light at night. The witness will generally consider the sighting a UFO. Taking the strict definition of an ‘unidentified flying object’, they may well be correct since they don’t know what the ‘object’ is. And yet, we will often be asked if we think it is alien visitors from another planet. How does a simple light in the sky become visiting aliens?


Subsequent investigation by ASSAP may confirm that there are indeed odd sounds in the ‘haunted’ building though frequently there will be normal explanation for them (see ‘new house effect’). Looking into the UFO sighting, it will often emerge that the sighting can be identified as a planet, aircraft, hot-air balloon, satellite, laser display, etc.

There are two interesting points to be noted so far:
In the case of the haunting, the witness decided that some odd noises might be produced by a ghost or ‘spirit’, despite not having seen an apparition. There is frequently nothing that specifically points to the noises being made by human (eg. recognisable voices), far less a ghost. In the case of the UFO, the witness decided that an unfamiliar light in the sky meant visiting aliens. This was despite that fact that all they saw was a bright light. In recent years people have interpreted orbs as spirits, just because they were found in photos taken at reputedly haunted places. This is despite the fact that the orbs in question are clearly a photographic artifact.

  • The first is that, in both cases, the witness observed a real, objective phenomenon, subsequently verified by investigators. They did not imagine it. They simply misinterpreted an unfamiliar phenomenon. This is typical of many cases ASSAP investigates.
  • The second point is the witness interpretation (initially, at least) of those events far exceeded the available facts.

In many cases, witnesses are unfamiliar with what causes strange noises in houses or lights in the sky. This is fair enough - we all have limits to our knowledge. But why do spirits of the dead and aliens from outer space so readily fill the void in knowledge when people are faced with the unknown?

Widespread knowledge of anomalous phenomena

In the early days of ASSAP, investigators were generally more impressed by witnesses who claimed little or no prior knowledge of the paranormal. Since they didn’t know what to expect, it was argued, their observations could be deemed unbiased and so of potentially greater value. They didn’t know how ghosts were ‘supposed’ to behave so they would report accurately what they saw. It is doubtful that many investigators would make that argument seriously today (nor would they have such faith in witnesses, knowledgeable or otherwise).

Many people with no active interest in anomalous phenomena nevertheless seem to have a surprisingly detailed knowledge of the subject. In particular, the idea that a ghost is a ‘spirit’ and that UFOs are spaceships is extraordinarily prevalent. So where exactly did this knowledge, and particularly the ‘spirit’ and ‘alien’ elements, come from?

It is not hard to find. Consider the exposure the typical westerner receives to paranormal ideas over a lifetime. As a child they might be read fairy stories (or more likely see them in a Disney cartoon these days) before progressing to Harry Potter and the ghostly and mythic inhabitants of Hogwarts. They may also come across video games with supernatural characters and storylines. As adults they would continue to be exposed to paranormal themes in popular books and films, such as White Noise, Amityville Horror, Ghost, etc. There are even more titles concerned with alien invasions like Independence Day, Roswell, etc. There are also many blockbuster films and best-selling books with supernatural and folkloric themes like Lord of the Rings and even the Da Vinci Code that demonstrate a widespread interest in such matters. On TV there are programmes like the X-Files, Supernatural, Invasion, etc., with similar themes.

Then there are the ‘real life’ (faction) TV programmes like Most Haunted and Haunted Homes that apparently show genuine investigations. In addition to this, newspapers and the internet provide extensive coverage of, allegedly, ‘true’ paranormal events. They are feeding a well-known appetite for the weird and wonderful.

Thus, even someone with no active interest in the paranormal would find it difficult to miss all this coverage. They probably absorb this material unconsciously, just as many of us know about celebrities despite having never seen or heard them.

None of this would be too bad except that almost all this exposure, whether fictional and non-fictional, tends to present anomalous phenomena in a stereotypical way. And, like many stereotypes, it is not supported by the evidence on the ground!

It’s all true or it’s all nonsense!

One stereotype that the media present is that ghosts are ‘spirits’ of the dead. You are then ‘invited’ to either believe or disbelieve in them (even though they have never been explicitly defined!). It is one of the first questions someone being interviewed on the subject is always asked. The fact that ghosts may not have anything to do with ‘spirits’ is hardly ever mentioned. It is presented as a ‘take it or leave it’ dichotomy. Believe ghosts are ‘spirits’ and that people see them or reject it all as nonsense. The media don’t tend to look for any other point of view.

In fairness, the media is probably only reflecting a public attitude acquired through the culture itself. That culture is transmitted from generation to generation by stories, some fictional, other supposedly true.

Paranormal in fiction

Obviously, with fiction, consumers are well aware that the events portrayed are not true. However, it usually assumed (and generally true) that the background against which the events take place is authentic. Writers of fiction take pride in researching background details meticulously. So, though the specific events never happened, it is often assumed that they could. It may well be assumed by readers of ghost stories that authors have an intimate knowledge of the paranormal and supernatural in the flesh.

Certain ‘traditional’ themes and plots are presented in a consistent way. So ghosts always turn out to be either real ‘spirits’ or fakes! UFOs are always spacecraft piloted by aliens or some sort of government plot. Only very occasionally are other alternative possibilities are presented, like in Nigel Kneale’s famous TV play The Stone Tape. In that case the apparitions were not ‘spirits’ but a form of ‘recording’ in the surroundings. This theory has spread widely in paranormal research circles since, though there are many problems with it. Even in the X-Files, where Scully always tried to present alternative possibilities to the obvious supernatural ones, she was usually wrong! We, the viewers had a privileged view of events that always confirmed Mulder’s paranormal analysis.

The kind of alternatives encountered in real cases, such as misperception, near sleep experiences, mind tricks or magnetically induced hallucinations, even coincidence or some other, as yet, unknown cause don’t generally feature in fictional accounts. Presumably, they’re either unknown to the author or simply not considered exciting enough. The ghost as a signifier of life after death (even if it is generally a grim one) is more appealing than other possibilities, whatever the evidence may say.

As an example of how badly served the paranormal is by fiction, consider premonitions. There appears to be an unwritten rule in fiction that if a character has a premonition (usually a very unlikely one) it will invariably be fulfilled, in some form or other, by the end of the story. Even Shakespeare couldn’t escape this rule - remember how Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane in Macbeth! This representation of premonitions is the reverse of the real life situation. The vast majority of real life premonitions are reported AFTER they have been fulfilled, rendering them almost useless as evidence. The few premonitions that are reported BEFORE the event almost invariably never happen. The end of the world has been predicted imminently many times throughout history and yet we are still here.

The effect of science fiction on UFO cases is a striking example of how culture can directly feed back into real life cases. For instance, alien abductees frequently report that inside a UFO they can see no source of illumination. Curiously, this was mentioned in science fiction accounts of space ships many times and long before abductions were ever reported.

Factual coverage

Non-fictional coverage of the paranormal is disturbingly similar. Though it ought to be based on factual evidence, the news media seem happy to mix in cultural, or even fictional, elements as ‘background’ material. Newspaper reports tend to follow the usual stereotypical ‘angles’ of ‘spirits’ or hoaxes. Other alternatives are rarely presented or examined. A newspaper’s idea of balanced coverage is generally to interview a ‘believer’ (in ‘spirits’) and a ‘sceptic’ and let them trade insults. The idea of examining the evidence without preconception seems to be quite alien.

The recently popular ‘faction’ TV programmes about ghosts, like Most Haunted, follow a similar line. Such programmes typically use mediums heavily. This is probably because, generally, not a lot really happens on the vigils as presented. The most fun is usually to be had by watching the reaction of presenters to ‘events’ that probably have a mundane explanation. The vigils are, of course, always held in the dark with all the problems that presents.

ASSAP doesn’t use mediums on vigils. That is because the origins of mediumistic information, and the way it is obtained, has not yet been established by paranormal researchers. Given the unknowns involved, mediumistic information is not a sensible source of information about ghosts. Even when it appears that a medium has correctly obtained information about a previous occupant of a house, how do we know they got it from a ‘spirit’ or that said ‘spirit’ is actually haunting the place?

Faction TV also uses seances, ouija and similar techniques to contact ‘spirits’. The same problems that apply mediums also apply to these methods. Any casual viewer who does not take an active interest in paranormal research will probably not be aware of these objections. The TV programmes therefore serve to reinforce the cultural stereotypes.

Classic cases; folklore?

A major non-fiction source of information about ghosts is the huge library of regional guides (eg. ‘Ghosts of Somewhereshire’) now available. In these tomes, ghosts are typically identified with previous occupants of the haunted premises, implying they are ‘spirits’ even if it is never said. How such identification is made is rarely stated. Such books rely on ‘classic’ accounts of hauntings (which have often never even been investigated properly in modern times) that may owe more to folklore than history.

So where do assumptions like ‘ghosts are spirits’ and ‘UFOs are alien craft’ come from originally? A few noises and lights hardly constitute a ‘spirit’. A bright light in the sky isn’t compelling evidence of extraterrestrial visitation. Even well attested apparitions frequently have (on investigation) mundane explanations. Tellingly, ghosts have only been seen wearing period costume since the early twentieth century. Before that, ghosts of previous eras never occurred!

The idea of ‘ghosts as spirits’ goes back into antiquity. Seeing someone who ‘shouldn’t be there’ probably gave rise to the idea of ghosts readily (and quite reasonably) in centuries past. Once the idea took hold, it remained central to the culture right up to now where it is still being propagated strongly. Most serious researchers know, from experience, that there is little, if any, evidence to connect real-life hauntings with ‘spirits’ (or lights in the sky with aliens) but that message never reaches the broad population. It has to compete in the media with a continuous bombardment, both from fiction and non-fiction sources, continuously reinforcing the cultural cliches of ‘spirits’ and ‘aliens’. The idea that weird noises in your house could be the unquiet dead is a compelling one. The idea that it could be dormice in your loft simply cannot compete.


Many ideas, like ‘ghosts are spirits’, self-replicate within our culture. Such ideas are called memes. Memes are, like genes, subject to a form of natural selection. However, memes only compete with other memes, irrespective of any benefit, or otherwise, to their ‘hosts’, human beings.

The meme of ‘ghosts as spirits’ survives despite the lack of any obvious supporting evidence. For many people this is because their only experience of ghosts is second-hand. Even those who do see ghosts themselves are influenced unconsciously in the way they interpret their experiences. Clearly, as a meme, the idea has defeated alternative versions like, ‘ghosts are mainly misperceptions’ or ‘ghosts are recordings’ or similar ideas. Memes are not subject to evidence in a scientific way. They are only subject to competition from other memes and the ‘ghosts are spirit’ version is currently the easy winner.

Some prominent cases can give rise to specific memes, like extraterrestrials as short grey aliens. Before the Betty and Barney Hill abduction case, aliens were reported to come in many different shapes and sizes (often showing regional variation depending on which part of the world they were reported from). After that case, most aliens are now reported to be the classic ‘greys’. Furthermore, there are descriptions of similar short grey aliens in science fiction published before the Hill case. In an interesting parallel, there was a wide variation in the reported appearance of North American bigfoot until the Patterson-Gimlin film. After that most bigfoot sightings agreed with the figure seen on that film. These examples suggest a meme-like feedback from culture back into real-life reports.

Unsupported ideas and the internet

The rise of the internet has widened access to disparate ideas, no longer filtered through conventional media. An unfortunate side-effect of this is that ideas that are not obviously supported by evidence can become widely accepted simply due to their popularity (memes). Examples include the ideas that orbs are paranormal or that EMF meters detect ghosts. Such ideas might have arisen through the conventional media but their spread and persistence would probably not have been as wide or deep.

Skeptics versus believers

The whole ‘skeptics versus believers’ debate, so beloved by the media, is generally completely sterile and pointless. That’s because the ‘debate’ is more often about beliefs (and non-beliefs) rather than what it should be about - credible evidence. Two people debating whether ghosts exist on TV is meaningless unless they (a) both agree on what ghosts are and (b) use hard evidence from properly investigated cases rather than sources that amount to little more than folklore.

In science, evidence is everything. If someone can demonstrate convincingly that telepathy happens then scientists would have to accept it (or cease to be true scientists). A useful debate about the paranormal should start by stripping away the assumptions implanted in most people’s minds by culture. Forget about the media vision of ‘spirits’ dragging clanking chains in a graveyard at midnight in a thunderstorm and think about what is really causing weird footstep-like sounds in an empty house on a wet Thursday afternoon.

Postscript 1: On ‘cultural’ memory

How much do we humans really remember? There is thought to be enough capacity in our brains to remember virtually everything we’ve ever done in our lives. However, it is not yet known whether we simply forget most of it or if it is still there but we are unable, most of the time, to access it. Some people have difficulty forgetting and can say what they did on a specific date many years ago (checkable against contemporary diary entries). It is a debilitating condition, with the past constantly playing in their heads like a unstoppable film. In order to deal with the present it seems we need to forget most of the past, only recalling it as necessary.

There is evidence that we remember a lot more than we are usually aware of but that often those memories are not easily accessible or particularly accurate. Sometimes we may be prompted spontaneously to remember an incident, by a particular smell, sight or sound (or a taste, according to Proust). However, if you look at your old photo albums or visit an old haunt, you will soon realise that many of the ‘details’ you think you remember are inaccurate.

It has been suggested that mediums may be particularly good as accessing memories that they are not consciously aware of having (cryptomnesia or latent memory). When they produce evidence of their abilities, they may sometimes be remembering facts they were not aware they even knew.

Cultural memory is different from personal memory. Though it is still held in our heads, it is also constantly reinforced by other people and the media in TV, films, books, etc. Both in fiction and, supposedly factual reporting, cultural cliches are repeated endlessly. A report of a haunting will get a newspaper reporter checking the history of the building where it took place to ‘identify’ the ghost and add ‘colour’ to their story. The fact that all that was heard was unexplained footsteps won’t stop a reporter linking it to some newsworthy former inhabitant of the building. The link is a cultural one - the idea that ghosts are ‘spirits’ or even ‘recordings’ of former people. Consumers of the media, which is pretty much everyone, have their cultural memories constantly reinforced with every such report. Writers of fiction know that they will sell more books or films if they tap into these cultural memories, whether they are right or wrong. It is not a conscious process so that people will often truthfully claim that they have no interest in ghosts or aliens and yet they will still ‘know’ what these entities are supposed to do.

Postscript 2: Culture and cases evolve together

While there is little doubt that cultural representations of the paranormal inform the characteristics of real cases, the reverse happens too. Modern ‘ghost hunting’ techniques are now appearing in fiction. This feeds back into the content of real cases but including purely imaginative content from authors and script writers. This the cultural representation of the paranormal cases evolve together, like a spiral feeding each other.

Author :© Maurice Townsend 2009, 2011

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