“‘What’s the matter?” I said. ‘Seen a ghost?’
‘Well, you know,’ he said slowly, ‘I’m not at all sure that I haven’t.’” -Outlander
Confession time: do you believe in ghosts? If you do you’re not alone. Studies estimate that just about half of the population in the US and UK believe in the paranormal. I recently posed the question to an Outlander Facebook fan group and the stories of people’s experiences with the supernatural came pouring in. Ghosts, it seems, are everywhere.
So let’s scare ourselves a bit and tell some ghost stories. The supernatural plays a rather large role throughout all the Outlander novels. This is a series contingent upon time travel, after all. But more than actual ghosts and the paranormal, the novels and the series explore how we are figuratively haunted. That is, the ghost stories that are the most true for us tend to come from within. We can be haunted by our pasts and, in the case of Outlander, we can be haunted by the future.
But first let’s talk actual ghosts, meaning spirits of the deceased that visit us. Who is a believer? Well, women are slightly more likely than men to believe in the paranormal. Not surprisingly, people who believe in the supernatural are also more likely to think they have seen a ghost. In this case it is a matter of Believing Is Seeing, rather than vice-versa.
We are also more likely to believe in the paranormal or supernatural if someone we know or trust is a believer. I am unlikely to accept the headlines of the supermarket tabloids (Woman Gives Birth to Slime Baby!) but a ghost story from a family member will give me more pause.
Finally, we are more likely to attribute incidents to ghosts if we are in an area that is reputably haunted- more commonly known as The Power Of Suggestion. A noise or creak in a modern building likely doesn’t elicit any heart-stopping jitters. That same noise in an old building, however, can make us panic and look for things that go bump in the night.
Can we ever explain our ghostly experiences? Maybe. The research is a bit controversial, but neuroscientist Michael Persinger has argued for decades that electromagnetic fields in the environment affect the temporal lobes of the brain. Since this is the part of our brain that controls sensory input, this can give us a feeling of being watched, feeling another presence, or seeing or hearing things that might not actually be there. Similarly, infrasound– sound waves that exist below our normal range of hearing- can induce feelings of anxiety and panic, much like a haunting would.
Environmental toxins may also play a role. Chronic carbon monoxide poisoning can cause auditory and visual hallucinations. Some research suggests that mold in houses might cause abnormal neuropsychiatric signs.
Finally, it is very common for people to suffer from sleep paralysis, in which a person is unable to move or speak during times of falling asleep or awakening. Sleep paralysis can induce auditory and visual hallucinations and stimulations, often resulting in feelings of panic or anxiety- and perhaps mimic the feeling of being haunted. I’ve had incidents of sleep paralysis before and I can attest that it is terrifying.
But what does it say about us as human beings that so many of us, despite living in an age of scientific reason and perhaps having reasonable explanations for the paranormal, still believe in ghosts? Why do we tell ghost stories and why do we choose to accept them?
Ghost stories aren’t really about ghosts. At their core they are about people- people who used to walk this earth who had families and passions and lovers and dreams. The circumstances of their deaths (murder, war, accident, etc) may contribute to their supernatural lore, but their lives are the real stories. That is why we care.
I once stayed at a supposedly haunted hotel in Nevada where the ghosts of the nearby mine shaft were said to roam. But it wasn’t the circumstances of their deaths (the infamous Yellow Jacket Mine fire) that was the fascinating part of the tale for me- it was their lives. Hundreds of men staking out a life in the Nevada desert, leaving behind families or dragging along reluctant wives and children for a chance at wealth. That’s the really gritty stuff. That’s what makes a good story.
The real hauntings in our lives come from within- regret for our past, grief for our loved ones, nostalgia for our childhoods, and worries about the future. Those are the ghosts we carry with us in this life. When we let those feelings surface they are often too painful for reality. Is it any wonder, then, that we as a species engage in ghost stories that probably aren’t harmful at all?
Think about Brianna’s favorite novel, A Christmas Carol. What is it, in essence, except a ghost story? It tells the story of the literal ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future. But it also tells of the hauntings that come from Scrooge’s own life- his regret over how he treated his partner and family, his nostalgia of his failed love, and his grief over the eventual fate of Tiny Tim.
These themes have always existed in literature because they are universal human experiences. Whether we have collective regret for our actions as a nation…
…pain and nostalgia for a past we cannot recover…
…or grief for lost loved ones…
…we are constantly haunted. We all share in this; suffering, as they say, is universal.
Ghost stories exist because of that collective empathizing. We tell stories to bring people back to life and to reflect on our own lives. We tell stories to remember and to learn.
And that’s why we are so invested in our Outlander characters, is it not? Because we care about their loves and their pasts and their futures. Long after we have stopped reading or watching we sit and reflect for awhile, letting their stories haunt us. We let the ghosts of Jamie and Claire and their friends and families settle in around us… then we pick up the book or remote and go back for more.