Commentary, Opinion

Bhalla vs. Bird: Are ghosts real?

It’s time to rehash a classic Halloween controversy: Are ghosts real? Contributors Sanchi Bhalla and Lucas Bird duke it out.

The case for ghosts – Sanchi Bhalla

History is littered with tales of ghosts, spirits, and spooky happenings. McGill itself is home to one of the most haunted streets in Montreal, Rue McTavish, second only to Rue Notre Dame in Old Port. With eyewitness accounts of lithe socialites’ ghosts reliving their youth in the Faculty Club, why are we hesitant to consider their existence, when they’re literally knocking down campus buildings’ front doors?

Everyone has experienced those moments: You feel like someone’s looking at you, or you see movement from the corner of your eye, or you have the gut feeling that that brush against your leg wasn’t just the wind. We discount these feelings too easily, and refuse to acknowledge the fact that if these moments are a communal experience, there might be something more to them.

The largely North American insistence that ghosts cannot be real reveals that humans are far more conceited than they have the right to be. It is impossible to understand all that surrounds us, and that mystery is what keeps us exploring and innovating. Images of the supernatural permeate cultures around the world. From the Pagans of the Roman Empire to the Wiccans of the modern day, societies have different ideas of what an all-knowing being is or if one even exists, but the concept of ghosts is universal. Every early civilizations has a story about spirits, whether malignant or benign.

We say that we don’t believe in ghosts, but I think that it’s because we don’t want to believe. We’re terrified of what ghosts’ existence would mean for ourselves and our own personal interpretations of the meaning of life.

The skeptic’s take – Lucas Bird

Normally, to combat ghost hysteria, I’d dust off an old classic: The utter absence of any factual documentation supporting their existence. Instead of revisiting well-trodden territory,  I’m opting to investigate why people think they see ghosts, and how they can distinguish between the paranormal and the psychological.

Psychologists have historically referred to ghost sightings as instances of a ‘sensed presence.’ They can be caused by changes in brain chemistry triggered by stress, lack of oxygen, and other cognitively-impairing circumstances. We sense a presence in situations that we already find disconcerting or stressful.

Social alienation also plays a role in how humans materialize anxiety. In the journal article “The Social Psychology of Fear,” social psychologist Kurt Riezler describes fear as a primary response to feelings of social isolation, an anxiety more common among individuals who are grieving the deaths of loved ones. When a person close to us passes away, they leave an abrupt gap in our lives that we try to fill by imaging that their essence is still with us.

Riezler describes death as a particularly intense anxiety because it’s so alienating. It is a truly impending terror for some people, and ghosts offer a solution to these existential fears. They suggest an ethereal life force that transcends our earthly existence. It gives us hope. We don’t just happen to see ghosts—we want to see them.

I don’t mean to belittle those who believe in ghosts. My partner won’t enter a dark room alone if we’ve recently watched a horror movie, but I still respect her beliefs. However, we should aspire to conquer the unknown, knowing that, if we encounter a spectre along the way, it is not the ghost we should fear, but the deeper anxieties and neuroses that conjure the paranormal.

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