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Ghost stories, histories: A feature

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OCTOBER 29, 2023

n 1500 B.C.E., ancient Babylonian cities were centers of scholarly activity; significant advancements in medicine, mathematics, astronomy and writing were constantly emerging during this time. Aside from their academic studies of physical reality, the Babylonians were also concerned with what existed beyond the realm of life on Earth. In October of 2021, the British Museum rediscovered a Babylonian tablet from almost 3,500 years ago in its archives. The tablet, a small clay slab that fits within one’s hand, is inscribed with a sketch depicting a male ghost being led into the afterlife by another female spirit. What’s most intriguing about this artifact is that it included written directions to exorcize a ghost in order to send it back to the afterlife. This Babylonian tablet is more than just a fascinating historical artifact confirming the existence of a complex civilization; it is also the earliest depiction of ghosts and paranormal beliefs in human history.

Ghost stories have permeated human societies for centuries. In many cultures, it is believed that the spirit of a dead person can come back to visit the world of the living in the form of a floating orb of light, ominous sounds or an actual apparition. The idea that human souls return to Earth after death finds its way into social, religious, literary and artistic discussions. Take the stories from the Catholic Bible: Jesus died on the cross, and three days later rose again, appearing to his disciples in a ghostly version of his human form. Though this may not immediately strike readers as a ghost story, when we pause to think further about the resurrection story, we can see the basic outline of a classic ghost story: someone died, came back to life and visited the living. Belief in heaven and hell also suggests the existence of ghosts and spirits in the form of human souls. Aside from Catholicism, many other religions believe in an afterlife. In this way, religion is an example of how ghost stories are hidden within the cultural foundations of our modern world. 

Outside of religion, however, the existence of ghosts is debated by scientists and the general public. The battle between skeptics and believers is not new. In fact, in the first century A.D., Pliny the Younger, a Roman author, wrote a letter in which he asks his friend whether or not they believe in ghosts. Pliny expresses a change in his belief in spirits, detailing an elaborate story about a ghost that haunts a house in Athens. This Roman letter provides an example of an ancient ghost story, one that associates ghosts with feelings of fascination and terror. Similarly, many American indigenous cultures share similar views of ghosts. Dan SaSuWeh, a Native American writer and storyteller, explains that in indigenous cultures, “Stories of the unknown come in many shapes and forms that tell of unexplainable—sometimes horrible—things. Some are about demons or evil spirits.” According to SaSuWeh, ghost stories shared among Native American tribes tend to be ominous and scary, referencing different supernatural beliefs. 

Ghost stories became a larger part of popular culture as literature became more accessible to the public. In the 18th and 19th centuries, gothic fiction was ripe with references of phantoms, ghouls and other supernatural horrors. Gothic literature is often characterized by the popularity of horror stories, or narratives that are suspenseful, spooky and reflective of human nature. Furthermore, the gothic obsession with the sublime — a belief in the greatness and oftentimes overwhelming power of nature and the unknown — further encouraged writers to explore the supernatural. Though not conventional “ghost stories,” two popular books that emerged from this era of horror writing are Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” both of which featured a sort of undead monster who frightened humanity. 

In modern media, ghost stories are just as popular as they were in earlier centuries. Books, films, television and even YouTube reflect our society’s fascination with paranormal phenomena. Today, horror films are hugely popular, with movies such as The Conjuring — a film about two paranormal investigators who help save a family from a demonic spirit haunting their family — making over 320 million dollars worldwide in the box office alone. Aside from films, television shows such as “Ghost Adventures” and the YouTube series such as “BuzzFeed Unsolved” create a new form of paranormal media: ghost hunting. In both “Ghost Adventures” and “BuzzFeed Unsolved”, crews of paranormal investigators explore abandoned buildings that are rumored to be haunted in order to prove the existence of ghosts. Amassing over 5 million subscribers, “BuzzFeed Unsolved” is incredibly popular, proving that ghost stories remain an important part of our modern media. 

As long as humans consume media and read literature, ghost stories will continue to permeate our culture. The rise of social media has made the sharing of ghost stories even easier. Today, social media is a breeding ground for new, even creepier ghost stories that can spread easily through shares and reposts. Whether they are shared for entertainment or for warning, ghost stories are embedded within our culture. It seems as though humanity will constantly be seeking an answer to the ancient question: Do ghosts really exist? From ancient Babylonian tablets to the videos from “BuzzFeed Unsolved,” ghost stories have survived as a popular form of folklore, leading one to question how so many cultures could have referenced something otherwise thought to be unreal.

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OCTOBER 29, 2023