Ghosts, like vampires, are growing in popularity these days, and many people believe ghosts are real. What’s a Catholic to think?
By Dan Connors
“Watch out, the stones are loose there.” My son, Mike, a few steps ahead of me, was leading the way through the steep ravine to where the rushing brook gurgled and splashed around the rocks on its way down the mountain. I reached the bottom and looked around at the forest cradling the stream and the 19th-century wooden covered bridge above us.
The stream is known as the Gold Brook, because, over the centuries, panners have pulled small amounts of gold from its waters. As far as I know, the bridge’s official name is the Gold Brook Bridge, but every ghost hunter in the world knows it simply as “Emily’s bridge.”
Emily, so the story goes, was a beautiful young woman suffering at the hands of her very strict parents, who refused to let any of the young men in the area court her. One day, a handsome young man came by and, seeing her, fell instantly in love. Her parents chased him off, but Emily and her beau found covert times and places to see each other. Their love grew stronger every day, and soon they dared to make plans to elope. Their rendezvous point was to be late one night on the Gold Brook Bridge.
This is where the story gets murky. Some say the young man just never showed up. But the most popular version of the story has Emily’s parents finding out about her plan and hiring a couple of local ruffians to stop it. They met up with the beau as he made his way to the bridge and beat him severely, leaving him for dead.
In any case, Emily waited alone at the bridge for hours. Finally accepting that her lover was not coming, and hating the thought of going back with her parents, she hanged herself in a fit of rage from one of the bridge timbers. In the version of the story with the ruffians, her lover regained consciousness and struggled to the bridge too late to save her. Sobbing with grief he cut down her body and buried it nearby.
And from that day, it is said that the angry spirit of Emily haunts the Gold Brook Bridge. Persons have reported hearing her howling with rage. Others say they’ve found deep scratch marks on their cars after driving over the bridge. And some have reported receiving deep and painful claw marks on their skin as they stroll over the short span as Emily continues to rage at the injustice done to her.
I’ve never experienced any of these things. I’ve been to the bridge many times now, drawn at first by the compelling tale of love and haunting, but I go back because it is one of the most beautiful, tranquil places I’ve ever been. One day at the bridge I met an elderly couple walking their dog. They asked if we were looking for Emily. I replied that we were just there to enjoy the place. But I asked them if they’ve met a lot of ghost hunters on the bridge.
“Just about every day,” they replied. I asked if they had ever seen Emily.
“No,” the wife replied. “We’ve walked this bridge just about every day for the past 30 years, mornings, evenings, nights, and we’ve never seen, heard, or experienced any sign of Emily at all.”
So does Emily haunt the bridge? I have no idea. All I know is that some report meeting her. And many, including me and my family, report that the only haunting there is the haunting beauty of the place.
That’s the way it is with ghosts, which appear to be growing in popularity these days. Along with recent network shows like Medium and Ghost Whisperer, basic cable and satellite television offers several varieties of real-life ghost investigators, from Ghost Hunters (now joined by its spin-offs Ghost Hunters International, and Ghost Hunters Academy) to Ghost Adventures, Ghost Lab, Paranormal Cops, Extreme Paranormal, and Paranormal State, along with shows on psychic children, Most Haunted, A Haunting, and Celebrity Ghost Stories.
I catch as many episodes of the real-life shows as I can, because I love a good ghost hunt, and because, as a person who has never had a paranormal experience, I find these shows easy to mock as the teams stumble around in the dark, jumping at every strange noise, and loaded down with all their scientific gizmos: audio recorders to capture ghost voices in the static hiss, electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors to pick up spirit energy, and thermal cameras to look for “hot” spots. The polite investigators, such as on Ghost Hunters, ask the spirits probing questions like “Are you dead?” “Did you die here?” while the extremely buff Zak Bagans on Ghost Adventures takes a more confrontational stance: “I order you to come and talk to me right now!” OK, it’s not Shakespeare, but it’s fun TV.
Just in case you’ve missed all this, there are ghost hunting clubs and organizations in every state. A couple of years ago a medium came into the library of the town I grew up in and announced that, at that very moment, there was a spirit sitting by the fireplace. Our local paper just yesterday carried a story about a ghost investigations team helping a local couple whose house began to show signs of paranormal activity as soon as they put it up for sale. No matter where you live in the U.S. if you think your house is haunted, there’s an investigator near you.
There’s also a Catholic flavor to this. Studies show that more than a third of Catholics in the U.S. report that they have interacted with a ghost, a rate far higher than among evangelical Christians. We’re attuned to the supernatural. Some of our saints levitate in prayer or bear the stigmata. Some of us hope to smell roses every time we pray to St. Thérèse. And many of us have no problem seeing the kind guy who stopped to help us change a tire as an angel in disguise. And while many ghost hunters use electronic equipment to find ghosts, when it comes time to rid a place of a troublesome spirit, the tried and true Catholic accessories of Bible, crucifix, and holy water almost always make an appearance.
A priest I know once told me that he needed to bless a lot of houses haunted by ghosts when he served in a particular part of our diocese. “Yeah, I think things sometimes get a bit mixed up on the other side,” he told me. “Souls sometimes need help getting to where they’re going.” My mind filled with images of souls trying to read small, incredibly complex bus schedules, but my friend was very serious. As to why the mix-ups seemed to happen only in that part of the diocese and not in other towns he’d served in, he had no answer.
Catholicism may indeed be more receptive to belief in the paranormal. After all, as Grant Wilson, one of the founders of TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society), the investigators featured on Ghost Hunters, said in one episode, Catholics believe in the “Holy Ghost.” While I wince at the thought of his connecting some deceased person’s spirit hiding out in a dusty attic while being hunted with a thermal camera to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, Catholic writer Gary Jansen used the same image in his recent book title: Holy Ghosts: or How a (Not So) Good Catholic Boy Became a Believer in Things that Go Bump in the Night. Jansen tells a great story about ghosts in his house and how he got them to leave. Along the way he investigates Catholic theology, from St. Augustine to current Boston College professor Peter Kreeft, to show that Catholicism does indeed accept the possibility of ghosts and supernatural phenomena — from apparitions of the Virgin Mary, to saints appearing to help meet various needs, to deceased loved ones appearing to bring comfort or a message to those they’ve left behind. (I’ve read that a surprisingly high number of widows and widowers report a visit from their deceased spouse.)
All this may be true, but I still think there’s an important place for some healthy skepticism here. Jansen is a good storyteller, and I have no reason to doubt his honesty, but his story is just a little too fantastic for me to take at face value. Some will say that I’d feel differently if I had ever encountered the paranormal myself, and that’s probably true. But I haven’t, and because I haven’t, I want to keep several things in mind.
First, our minds aren’t always as trustworthy as we think they are. In their fascinating book The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons show just how easily and fluidly our minds construct realities around us, letting us see things that aren’t there, and not see things that are right in front of us. Even when confronted with overwhelming proof that they were wrong, some people still cling to what they think they experienced. The human brain’s ability to turn many random shapes into a face is well documented. So is our ability to talk ourselves into things. There have also been experiments showing that people taken into a space and told it is haunted have paranormal experiences, while other groups taken into the same space, but without the ghost stories, experience little or nothing. When our minds are prepped to have certain experiences, we tend to have them.
Second, we human beings really are quite gullible. Absent a habit of critical thinking we can end up believing all sorts of strange things: the moon landings were faked, the U.S. attacked the World Trade Center, Elvis is still alive, AIDS was a racist CIA experiment gone wrong, and the Church never revealed the third secret of Fatima and instead brought in a fake Sister Lucia to authenticate a fake message. A recent poll showed that while only 60 percent of people who identify themselves as Catholic believe in a personal God, 28 percent of Catholics believe in reincarnation, and 29 percent believe in astrology. Maybe it’s all those millennia spent sitting around campfires, but our species often tends to put much more stake in magic and personal stories than in scientific evidence. If somebody tells us a good story, we’re on board.
Third, while we have more sources of information than ever before, Americans on the whole seem fairly ignorant of science, or how science views the world. Polls show that a majority of Americans do not accept the overwhelming evidence for the theory of evolution. An apparently growing number don’t believe the overwhelming evidence that vaccines do not cause autism. And yet, when Jason Hawes on Ghost Hunters explains to the viewer that they use EMF detectors because “there’s a theory out there that ghosts are made up of electromagnetic energy,” or says that “there’s a theory out there that ghosts use energy from their surroundings to materialize (thus the presence of cold spots and dead camera batteries), I wonder how many viewers are asking themselves, “Whose theory?” “Out where?” and “What evidence do the theorists have to back up the theory?” To Ghost Hunters’ credit, the TAPS crew always looks for non-paranormal causes for the ghostly experiences, but since their starting premise is that ghosts are real, they seem to accept a lot of stuff that more skeptical viewers might dismiss. While science does not have the last word on all the questions of life, its approach to the world has proven extremely useful and effective. There’s a dictum among scientific skeptics that extraordinary claims (like ghosts) require extraordinary evidence, and it’s hard to label any evidence brought up on these shows as extraordinary.
So, am I a material-rationalist denying both life after death and all incorporeal life? No, of course not. I’m a Catholic. And because I am a Catholic I believe in God, the angels, and the communion of saints. I accept the possibility that the heavenly realm can, when it chooses, interact with the earthly realm, though I know of no scientific theory that could even begin to explain how that could happen. With the Church, I accept the possibility of apparitions and miracles, though I would note that the Church has changed a lot since the extremely superstitious 8th century, when the Venerable Bede would report an amazing miracle story and then say he knows it’s true because he heard it from a monk who heard it from the miracle recipient. Today the Church takes a much more cautious, perhaps one might even say “skeptical” approach to miracles: investigating, discerning, having a medical board render judgment…. The same with apparitions: A quick visit to the Marian Apparitions page at the University of Dayton (http://campus.udayton.edu/mary//resources/aprtable.html) will show the hundreds of alleged apparitions of Mary in the last century. And only a very small handful have been approved by the Church. And even then the Church does not make belief in the apparitions a matter of faith: It only says they are worthy of belief.
So while I certainly don’t dismiss every report of a ghost, I’m very hesitant to believe everything I hear. But, at the same time, people I trust have told me stories of strange things they have experienced. I’m sure they are not lying. Something strange and mysterious indeed seemed to be going on.
In the end, I think the best Catholic position is to try always to hold two things in tension: a healthy skepticism fed by critical thinking, combined with a healthy Catholic openness to mystery. Holding those two together is not always easy, but I think it is what our faith calls us to do.
So what do you think? What’s been your experience? Do you have a good ghost story to share? I’d love to hear from you!