Ghost experts explore society’s fascination with the undead

Devin Horne portrays La Llorona (‘The Weeping Woman’), the subject of a popular spooky legend in North and South America. Raina Wellman/Generation Next

Do ghosts exist, or are they just figments of our imagination? According to a CBS News poll, “Nearly half of Americans say they believe in ghosts or that the dead can return in certain places and situations.” Generation Next spoke with several ghost experts, authors and storytellers — Mary Roach, Larry Dossey, Joe Hayes, Peter Sinclaire and Loyd Auerbach — to determine why so many believe in ghosts.

Roach’s 2005 book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, scientifically examines the issue of life after death. Her initial interest in the topic stemmed from the number of people “trying to physiologically locate a soul.” Her book, she said, attempted to “pin down a question that is usually associated with religion — is there an afterlife? Is there a spirit? It was an exploration of how people over the years have used scientific method to try to answer this very ethereal, mystical question.”

That doesn’t mean that Roach herself believes. She said such belief is up to each individual.

“There’s belief and there’s knowledge,” she said. “I don’t have any knowledge as to whether or not [ghosts] exist. My feeling about belief is it’s something you more or less choose to do, whether it’s God or ghosts. … While I don’t think there’s very solid evidence for ghosts … if I had to put my money on it, I’d say no. … But I do enjoy keeping that door open a little bit.”

Santa Fe storyteller Joe Hayes said he doesn’t believe in believing because “it causes too much trouble in the world today. I believe in experience. If someone has an experience with a ghost, they can honor and accept it. … Almost every ghost story you hear, people will swear it is true. Our experience is somewhat shaped by what we accept and believe. If you believe in something, that’s what you will encounter.”

Noted parapsychologist and field investigator of psychic phenomena Loyd Auerbach does believe based on his own encounters dating back to a 1985 case where all the members of one family saw the spirit of a woman who was the previous owner of their house. “Their son claimed he was talking to her every day, he was able to provide us with family stories, with information on how to contact her only living relative, which I did,” he recalled. “They not only knew the stories but he was able to finish each story as I started it. It’s the kind of evidence that makes you stop and say, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’ ”

For Santa Fe ghost-tour guide Peter Sinclaire, personal experience makes all the difference. “I was house sitting for friends, and the one thing I saw that I felt creepy about was that one of the handles on the dressers would move,” he said. He said ghosts stick around Earth for several reasons: “It could be an emotional or traumatic experience that they seem to be stuck on. … Some aren’t aware they’re dead.”

Yet for believers, separating the supernatural from the scientific may be difficult. Physician and writer Larry Dossey, who is an advocate of merging spirituality and medicine, has had experiences with precognitive dreams regarding future events that later played out as predicted. “It’s not just me,” he said. “My patients, nurses and physicians have also had similar experiences. … These events are very common.” But he said, these events should not be considered supernatural: “If they happen in nature, they are part of nature, not outside of nature or supernatural.” As to why some people never have seen a ghost, Dossey said, “Some people are so opposed to the very idea of ghosts that, even if they saw one, they would convince themselves they did not see it. My advice: Keep an open mind and examine all the evidence.”

Yet Dossey acknowledges that “Not all the ghosts that people claim to see are real. Hallucinations and fantasies are quite common. Sometimes we see what we want to see, what we expect to see.” Fatigue, imagination, howling winds and even lightning flashes can lead people to believe they are seeing a phantom. Hayes said the reason people enjoy telling ghost stories at night is because “that’s when our minds are open to strange inexplicable things. I think from far back we have inherited a fear of the dark because we rely so much on our eyes.”

Whether they believe or not, most people enjoy a good ghost story — especially around Halloween. According to Hayes, “In part there’s the scariness of it. … It gives people the creeps. The appeal of ghost stories is sort of a combo of mysteriousness that leaves you wondering, ‘Could that be true?’ and also the sense of wonder.” Even though ghost stories can scare you, Hayes noted that “they also provide reassurance that there is something beyond the life we are having now.”

Of course, while a lot of people believe in ghosts, only about 22 percent, according to CBS News, actually reported feeling or seeing a ghost. Sinclaire said he intentionally shields himself from spirits that he has “no interest in meeting.” But Auerbach points out that not all ghosts are malicious: “The intent of each ghost is dependent on the person. People don’t change their personality after they die. When you die, you don’t become evil or bad or anything else.”

Raina Wellman is a junior at New Mexico School for the Arts. Contact her at

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