East and Central Asia
There are many references to ghosts in Chinese culture. Even Confucius said, “Respect ghosts and gods, but keep away from them.”
The ghosts take many forms, depending on how the person died, and are often harmful. Many Chinese ghost beliefs have been accepted by neighboring cultures, notably Japan and southeast Asia. Ghost beliefs are closely associated with traditional Chinese religion based on ancestor worship, many of which were incorporated in Taoism. Later beliefs were influenced by Buddhism, and in turn influenced and created uniquely Chinese Buddhist beliefs.
Many Chinese today believe it possible to contact the spirits of their ancestors through a medium, and that ancestors can help descendants if properly respected and rewarded. The annual ghost festival is celebrated by Chinese around the world. On this day, ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm. Ghosts are described in classical Chinese texts as well as modern literature and films.
A recent article in the China Post stated that nearly eighty-seven percent of Chinese office workers believe in ghosts, and some fifty-two percent of workers will wear hand art, necklaces, crosses, or even place a crystal ball on their desks to keep ghosts at bay, according to the poll.
Yūrei (幽霊) are figures in Japanese folklore, analogous to Western legends of ghosts. The name consists of two kanji, 幽 (yū), meaning “faint” or “dim”, and 霊 (rei), meaning “soul” or “spirit”. Alternative names include 亡霊 (Bōrei) meaning ruined or departed spirit, 死霊 (Shiryō) meaning dead spirit, or the more encompassing 妖怪 (Yōkai) or お化け (Obake).
Like their Chinese and Western counterparts, they are thought to be spirits kept from a peaceful afterlife.
There is extensive and varied belief in ghosts in Mexican culture. The modern state of Mexico before the Spanish conquest was inhabited by diverse peoples such as the Maya and Aztec, and their beliefs have survived and evolved, combined with the beliefs of the Spanish colonists. The Day of the Dead incorporates pre-Columbian beliefs with Christian elements. Mexican literature and films include many stories of ghosts interacting with the living.
According to the Gallup Poll News Service, belief in haunted houses, ghosts, communication with the dead, and witches had an especially steep increase over the 1990s. A 2005 Gallup poll found that about 32 percent of Americans believe in ghosts.
Depiction in the arts
Ghosts are prominent in story-telling of various nations. The ghost story is ubiquitous across all cultures from oral folktales to works of literature. While ghost stories are often explicitly meant to be scary, they have been written to serve all sorts of purposes, from comedy to morality tales. Ghosts often appear in the narrative as sentinels or prophets of things to come. Belief in ghosts is found in all cultures around the world, and thus ghost stories may be passed down orally or in written form.
Spirits of the dead appear in literature as early as Homer’s Odyssey, which features a journey to the underworld and the hero encountering the ghosts of the dead, and the Old Testament, in which the Witch of Endor summons the spirit of the prophet Samuel.
Renaissance to Romanticism (1500 to 1840)
One of the more recognizable ghosts in English literature is the shade of Hamlet’s murdered father in Shakespeare’s The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In Hamlet, it is the ghost who demands that Prince Hamlet investigate his “murder most foul” and seek revenge upon his usurping uncle, King Claudius.
In English Renaissance theater, ghosts were often depicted in the garb of the living and even in armor, as with the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Armor, being out-of-date by the time of the Renaissance, gave the stage ghost a sense of antiquity. But the sheeted ghost began to gain ground on stage in the 19th century because an armored ghost could not satisfactorily convey the requisite spookiness: it clanked and creaked, and had to be moved about by complicated pulley systems or elevators. These clanking ghosts being hoisted about the stage became objects of ridicule as they became clichéd stage elements. Ann Jones and Peter Stallybrass, in Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, point out, “In fact, it is as laughter increasingly threatens the Ghost that he starts to be staged not in armor but in some form of ‘spirit drapery’.”
Victorian/Edwardian (1840 to 1920)
The “classic” ghost story arose during the Victorian period, and included authors such as M. R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, Violet Hunt, and Henry James. Classic ghost stories were influenced by the gothic fiction tradition, and contain elements of folklore and psychology. M. R. James summed up the essential elements of a ghost story as, “Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded…”. One of the key early appearances by ghosts was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1764, considered to be the first gothic novel.
Famous literary apparitions from this period are the ghosts of A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge is helped to see the error of his ways by the ghost of his former colleague Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come.
Modern era (1920 to 1970)
Professional parapsychologists and “ghosts hunters”, such as Harry Price, active in the 1920s and 1930s, and Peter Underwood, active in the 1940s and 1950s, published accounts of their experiences with ostensibly true ghost stories such as Price’s The Most Haunted House in England, and Underwood’s Ghosts of Borley (both recounting experiences at Borley Rectory). The writer Frank Edwards delved into ghost stories in his books of his, like “Stranger than Science.”
Children’s benevolent ghost stories became popular, such as Casper the Friendly Ghost, created in the 1930s and appearing in comics, animated cartoons, and eventually a 1995 feature film.
With the advent of motion pictures and television, screen depictions of ghosts became common, and spanned a variety of genres; the works of Shakespeare, Dickens and Wilde have all been made into cinematic versions. Novel-length tales have been difficult to adapt to cinema, although that of The Haunting of Hill House to The Haunting in 1963 is an exception.
Sentimental depictions during this period were more popular in cinema than horror, and include the 1947 film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which was later adapted to television with a successful 1968–70 TV series. Genuine psychological horror films from this period include 1944’s The Uninvited, and 1945’s Dead of Night.
The 1970s saw screen depictions of ghosts diverge into distinct genres of the romantic and horror. A common theme in the romantic genre from this period is the ghost as a benign guide or messenger, often with unfinished business, such as 1989’s Field of Dreams, the 1990 film Ghost, and the 1993 comedy Heart and Souls. In the horror genre, 1980’s The Fog, and the A Nightmare on Elm Street series of films from the 1980s and 1990s are notable examples of the trend for the merging of ghost stories with scenes of physical violence.
Popularized in such films as the 1984 comedy Ghostbusters, ghost hunting became a hobby for many who formed ghost hunting societies to explore reportedly haunted places. The ghost hunting theme has been featured in reality television series, such as Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters International, Ghost Lab, Most Haunted, and A Haunting. It is also represented in children’s television by such programs as The Ghost Hunter and Ghost Trackers. Ghost hunting also gave rise to multiple guidebooks to haunted locations, and ghost hunting “how-to” manuals.
The 1990s saw a return to classic “gothic” ghosts, whose dangers were more psychological than physical. Examples of films from this period include 1999’s The Sixth Sense and The Others.
Asian cinema has also produced horror films about ghosts, such as the 1998 Japanese film Ringu (remade in the US as The Ring in 2002), and the Pang brothers’ 2002 film The Eye. Indian ghost movies are popular not just in India, but in the Middle East, Africa, South East Asia, and other parts of the world. Some Indian ghost movies such as the comedy / horror film Chandramukhi have been commercial successes, dubbed into several languages.
In fictional television programming, ghosts have been explored in series such as Supernatural, Ghost Whisperer, and Medium.
In animated fictional television programming, ghosts have served as the central element in series such as Casper the Friendly Ghost, Danny Phantom, and Scooby-Doo. Various other television shows have depicted ghosts as well.
Nietzsche argued that people generally wear prudent masks in company; but that an alternative strategy for social interaction is to present oneself as an absence, as a social ghost – “One reaches out for us but gets no hold of us” – a sentiment later echoed (if in a less positive way) by Carl Jung.
Nick Harkaway has considered that all people carry a host of ghosts in their heads in the form of impressions of past acquaintances – ghosts who represent mental maps of other people in the world and serve as philosophical reference points.
Object relations theory sees human personalities as formed by splitting off aspects of the person that he or she deems incompatible; whereupon the person may be haunted in later life by such ghosts of his or her alternate selves.