What is a ghost?
It is widely believed that hauntings are caused by ghosts. But what is a ghost?
For America’s ghost hunters, this question does not have as straightforward an answer as some might suppose. Let’s explore some of the more widespread definitions of “ghost” among paranormal investigators.
Ghosts are disembodied spirits
Some ghost hunters take a more traditional stance and argue that ghosts are simply the disembodied spirits of the dead. Spirits are thought to be the immaterial essence of a person, or perhaps their mind or personality separated from the body. These spirits can haunt or inhabit a location or object. They generally have an attachment to the thing they haunt caused by familiarity with the thing during life or an emotional bond to the thing developed during life.
Since ghosts, by this definition, are conscious and intelligent, they can interact with ghost hunters by various means, such as by leaving voices on recording devices or my activating devices that detect energy in the environment. If these ghosts have enough energy, they can even make noises heard by the naked ear or appear as apparitions.
Ghosts are energetic imprints
On the other hand, some ghost hunters will argue that ghosts are not spirits, but rather energetic imprints living people have left on the environment. The idea is that while a person was alive, they spent so much time in a space or they exuded such intense emotion in a certain place that they have left a sort of energetic or immaterial recording of themselves on the environment.
Ghosts, then, are not conscious and they do not really have complete minds. Instead they repeat the same activity in a pattern, like a recording that plays over and over. These two definitions of ghost are often held by the same ghost hunter.
Ghost hunters will use special terms to distinguish between the two definitions or types of ghosts. A haunting by a ghost that is a conscious spirit is referred to as an intelligent haunting, while a haunting caused by an energetic impression on the environment is called a residual haunting.
Ghosts are spirits with limitations
Sometimes paranormal investigators will nuance these definitions or take a middle ground between ghosts as spirits and ghosts as imprints. For example, some ghost hunters argue ghosts are spirits limited in a certain way. They might not know they are dead, or they may be mentally trapped in the time and events near their death. They may be haunting a location because they do not know how to cross to the afterlife or they are afraid to do so.
Hans Holzer on Ghosts
Hans Holzer, perhaps the most prominent ghost hunter of the twentieth century, is an example of someone with a more nuanced definition of ghost. Holzer defines ghosts as “a surviving emotional memory of someone who has died traumatically, and usually tragically, but is unaware of his or her death.” Ghosts are seen by Holzer as distinct from “free spirits.”
He explains, ”[g]hosts by their very nature are not unlike psychotics in the flesh: they are quite unable to fully understand their own predicament. They are kept in place, both in time and space, by their emotional ties to the spot. Nothing can pry them loosed from it so long as they are reliving over and over again in their minds the events leading to their unhappy deaths” (Holzer, Ghosts, 22).
Ghosts and Energy
Ghost hunters often conceive of ghosts as made from or being able to manipulate energy. Ghost hunters, for example, often use electromagnetic field meters to detect fluctuations in electromagnetic fields in the environment that they suppose might be caused by ghosts. Many other ghost hunting devices likewise detect environmental energy. Ghosts must use energy to manifest.
It is believed that apparitions of ghosts seen by the naked eye are very rare because they require so much energy. Moving large objects or moving objects often or in a dramatic fashion also requires a lot of energy. This is why paranormal investigators seek to detect more subtle ghost manifestations that are easier for ghosts and much more common. Much of their equipment is designed to detect these more subtle manifestations.
Electronic voice recorders are used to pick up electronic voice phenomena (EVP), which are sounds or voices imprinted on a recording device. Video cameras, often with night vision, are used to detect the smallest visual anomalies, things like balls of light or mysterious shadows. And various meters that react to the slightest input of energy are thought to make it easier for ghosts to interact with the living and make themselves known.
Spirits and Energies that are not ghosts
We ought to also note that ghost hunters sometimes interact with spirits or energies that are not ghosts. Ghosts are generally thought to be derived from humans. Other paranormal forces are not human.
Demons, for example, are widely believed to be evil spirit beings that never walked the earth in bodily form.
Elementals or fairies are nature spirits and also not human. The most common paranormal energies encountered by ghost hunters, however, are indeed ghosts. Demons and elementals are generally believed by ghost hunters to be much less common.