Thursday, October 11, 2012

MALAS studies Ghosts- A Human Phenomenon

The first in a series of blog postings highlighting the research interests of MALAS graduate students. First up? Allie Schulz.

As a student in the Masters of Arts in Liberal Arts and Sciences program, I was excited to start the year off by reading several excellent essays by Freud and Kafka. The readings inspired me to do some additional research on my own interests of both the unconscious and the paranormal!

Though most people think of ghosts as innocent caspers or scary ghouls, the representations of what are considered to be ghosts in our society vary widely. Ghosts can be signified by anything from a loud noise coming from the hall, to a reflection in the mirror that shouldn’t be there, to an object that has been knocked over without cause.

Haunting themes can be found all throughout our history not only in oral tradition, but in books, poetry, movies, and more. Within two great works of film and literature, Kubrick's adaptation of “The Shining” and Poe’s short story “The Tell Tale Heart” ghosts do more than just entice the viewer into feeling fear. Ghostly sights and sounds can potentially act as representations of our greatest anxieties (such as the fear of death), a yearning for the substances we are addicted to, or as expressions of repressed feelings that are pushing us towards self-destruction.

Let’s start with The Shining- think of Danny and his fascination with the dead twins, he might have just been unconsciously confronting his own mortality or his fears of violence, something he was no stranger to. And for Jack, the only “ghosts” he sees tempt him with what he most desires- alcohol, sex... Jack’s ghosts may really just be his way of hoping to fulfill his desires despite his best attempts to repress them. Then we have the narrator in The Tell-Tale heart, who has committed a murder and his guilt begins to manifest through the escalating thumping of the beating heart he claims to hear beneath the floorboards.

Freud wrote often on the delusion of being watched, and makes the case that hallucinations (seeing a ghost! hearing the sound of the beating heart!) are often merely manifestations of deep-seeded emotional traumas. In Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” he explains, “In the pathological case of delusions of being watched, this mental agency becomes isolated, dissociated from the ego, and discernible to the physician’s eye”. So feeling like we see/hear a ghost might be a symptom of the psyche.
A popular urban legend is one about a woman who placed her deceased husband’s ashes in a closet, not having the energy to find the remains a more honorable area. A loud thumping emanated from the closet until she moved the urn into a respectable location. I believe one of two things was happening in this story- that either she unconsciously created the thumping in her mind, or the leftover information from the loved one (i.e. ghost) really did want his physical form to be located elsewhere. I’m more skeptical to endorse the latter, but I do think its worth considering.

As people go through life and claim to experience paranormal activity, whether or not that activity ‘exists' in the most traditional sense of the word, the activity has physiological effects on people and will thus change how they interact with world. Does that make the ghost any less real, well, I’m not going to pretend to be the authority on that conundrum. But what I am going to argue is that whether or not ghosts are real, most people have experienced a paranormal experience (or have experienced a story through a book, movie, etc.) and thus these paranormal activities are a real human phenomenon.

-Allie Schulz