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Andrew Fiala on ethics: Don’t be afraid of no ghost

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A selection of ghoulish games and app that help you turn into a zombie. Courtesy of New York Times' Smart Apps feature.

A recent survey from Chapman University found that more than 40 percent of Americans believe in ghosts. The study also found that those who believe in ghosts tend to be generally more fearful.

It stands to reason that seeing a ghost may make you paranoid. But paranoia also can open the door to paranormal beliefs. The cure for the fear of phantoms is to cultivate tranquil mindfulness, a life of virtue and a reasonable approach to ghosts.

For example, it is not clear how ghosts could harm us. Ghosts are supposedly immaterial beings. They pass through walls and rise out of graves. A ghost’s spiritual nature makes it difficult to conceive a ghost physically harming us. That 1990 movie “Ghost” makes this clear: Patrick Swayze’s ghost has trouble making contact with the material world.

26.5 percentof Americans believe that the living and dead can communicate with each other, according to The Chapman University Survey of American Fears 2015.

This problem undermines the claims of those who say that ghosts show up in photographs or on recordings. If ghosts have no material reality, they can’t be photographed or recorded. Phantom photos and spooky sounds are best explained in natural terms as shadows, echoes or glitches in recording devices.

Naturalists explain ghosts as projections of the mind. Charles Darwin, for example, suggested that the animal imagination gives birth to ghosts. Animals are ever alert to the presence of threatening agents.

Swirling dust or flickering light can prompt us to see a phantom presence and prime the fight-or-flight response. Darwin explained that his own dog tended to react to unexpected movement as if there were an unseen spiritual entity at work – growling fiercely and barking when a parasol was moved by a breeze.

Of course, a ghost’s most terrifying power is not physical. Ghosts are spiritual beings who can invade our minds and trouble our dreams. Consider the great ghosts of literature. The specters that haunt Hamlet, Macbeth or Scrooge assault the mind, planting seeds of doubt and despair.

Such ghosts can be explained as psychic creations, frightening figments of the imagination – unconscious anxieties brought to life and projected on the world. Even so, the dread is real whether we actually are haunted by spectral beings or merely are afflicted by the eerie emanations of the subconscious.

20.9 percentof Americans believe that dreams can foretell the future, according to The Chapman University Survey of American Fears 2015.

Behind all of this may be the fear of death, which Freud supposed was the source of the experience of the uncanny. The thought of death and the presence of dead bodies can send shivers down the spine. Those shudders can feel like a haunting. But the tickle on the neck and the hair-raising shudder is really the body pumping adrenaline, tuning up the senses, getting ready to fight or flee.

The dread of the uncanny can lead to dizziness and a feeling of unreality. The familiar seems suddenly foreign. The senses tingle. Panic and paranoia arise as the imagination runs wild. And ghosts may appear.

Walk down a dark and desolate street late on Halloween night. Your breathing becomes shallow. Your eyes open as you search the gloom. Odd images flicker in the corner of the eye. Rustling leaves hint that something is lurking. In the frisson of fear, shadows appear as spooks and specters.

On Halloween, we are told that the door between the living and the dead opens a crack. I doubt that the dead really do come back to haunt us. But there is no doubt that the mind can be visited by phantoms and figments, including vivid memories of the dead.

The experience of being haunted is as real as the experience of fear, guilt, sorrow and shame. The living often are afflicted by grief, remorse, anguish and regret. Our minds are haunted by memory and loss. Beneath much of this is the uncanny recognition that we, too, will someday slip through the crack of death into that undiscovered country, from which no traveler returns.

We should give due respect to the dead. But good people have nothing to fear from ghosts or from death. Tranquil mindfulness cures the anxiety, guilt and shame that ghosts exploit. Mindfulness helps us live in peace with our memories of the dead. And a virtuous life provides stability in the face of the uncanny fact that each of us will someday shuffle off this mortal coil and exit through the ghostly gate.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him: fiala.andrew@gmail.com

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