I can tell you a million things that ghosts aren’t.
Or, should I say that I can tell you a million things that aren’t ghosts? Either way, as a non-believer and paranormal researcher, I can say with some certainty that everybody is haunted whether they believe in ghosts or not, and the thing that haunts us is death. I used to be the kind of person who would go traipsing around old buildings in the dark looking for evidence of life after death before I realised that what really counted was life before death. Yet, being fascinated and curious about the inevitable end of our life isn’t really that weird at all, but what is considered a bit strange is being so open about it and invested in it. I support the death positive movement and deeply admire the work of The Order of the Good Death because mortality is something that even the most ardent non-believers fear at some point or another. Now, I’m an atheist so I’m not talking about a ‘no atheists in fox holes’ situation or anything of that type of nonsense, but instead that undeniable knowledge that at some point in our future we will cease to live. Nobody can truly ignore that. You can be fine with it, but you still have to acknowledge that it’s going to happen. And this is where it begins to get complicated. For a long time, I thought that ghost hunters were the sort of people who were in touch with their mortality and who had their fingers on the death-positivity-pulse (for what of a less cliched term,) but now I’m not so sure. It could be said that ghost hunters- who mainly seek to find proof of the survival of the soul -cheat themselves of the sense of finality that death signifies by looking for proof that there’s something after.
When I stopped believing in ghosts in my very early twenties, it wasn’t just a “oh, they’re not real” moment, but the drawn out process of realising I’d never actually meet the grandfather who died before I was born, after all. Going from not thinking there’s a finality to life to suddenly realising there is can be, well… scary and overwhelming.
Skeptics often talk about The Harm of paranormal and alternative ideas. As though the fact that an idea having little-to-no supporting evidence isn’t reason enough to critique or debate it, those who identify as skeptics often qualify their skeptical outreach or criticisms by pointing out the human element of that which they’re debunking. Telling people you’re debunking the things they believe in for their own good can be quite patronising, if you’re not careful. By pointing out the human element of harm when it comes to ghost belief, non-believers and skeptics often also fail to acknowledge the human element of ghost belief.
What I mean by this is that when you’ve lost somebody that you care about deeply, the chance that you might get tricked by a psychic conman is perceived as a risk worth taking if it means you might find the answers or the closure you’re seeking. You’ve already been through the worst thing in the world, what else could possibly go wrong, right? With people waiting up to 18 months for mental health treatment from the National Health Service due to the current funding crisis, us non-believers need to ensure that we are understanding of the reasons people make the decisions they make when turning to psychics and ghost hunters. Except for the few bad eggs, people at psychic fairs and ghost hunting events are genuinely nice people who understand and that’s what lures those of us who grieve in. Not to mention those who are genuinely just curious, and curiosity is never a bad thing.
This is why I find such comfort in identifying as a Humanist. It’s possible to have these conversations without being morbid and without having to consider the prospect of heaven or an eternity elsewhere. Since my mother died last year, I have read so much literature about death and dying, and how people from different cultures treat death differently. I’ve learned so much about how people mourn and how there is no wrong way to do it. It has opened my eyes- which I thought were already opened -to how death is plays a role in that big, old circle of life. When my mum died, and when her body was cremated, she escaped the bones and muscles which caused her so much pain and restricted her to a wheelchair at the end of her life.
Of course, I would give limbs to have a 5 minute chat with her. I wish she were still here with every fibre of my being, but in dying, my mother taught me so much about living.