Ah, Halloween is here, and the TV channels are full of stories of witches and ghosts and goblins of all sorts.

Most of it is harmless fun: art and literature helps mankind be able to confront the evils around them in a way that strengthens their ability to hope that confronting the more real evils around them will also result in good conquering evil.

Ghost stories are common all over the world. This story in the Philippine Inquirer gives a “Catholic” explanation for ghosts:

There are varying reasons why spirits refuse to cross over or, as some say, “go to the light.”

Attachments to material things or surviving relatives are the usual causes, says Fr. Armand Tangi of the Society of St. Paul…

Says (Father) Tuazon: “St. Matthew was clear that at the end of time, the lambs would go to the right and the goats to the left. But until that happens, there is nothing categorical about these wandering souls. In the meantime, we will pray for them.”

Most western priests, I must confess, would shrug and shake their heads at such superstition, but I notice in the west the less religious seem to thrive on stories of UFO’s and conspiracy theories. The needs are still there, but now they are described in pseudo scientific language.

The question is: How much of this is real? And there you will find arguments of all sorts.

All societies seem to have beliefs in the supernatural, and a lot of them are strangely similar to each other.

These folk beliefs– including ghosts, angels, demons, and visions– have been easily assimilated in some sects of all major religions (from Islam, to Christianity, to Scientism/skepticism).

So do ghosts exist? I’ve never seen any.

But my patients have, and this belief is widespread: One medical survey of widows/widowers in the USA showed that over 50 percent of them either saw or “felt” the presence of their late spouse. And one study by sociologist Andrew Greeley found that about five percent of people who tested “normal” on one survey have some sort of psychic vision happen to them.

How frequent are such “supernatural” experiences? That seems to vary from culture to culture, perhaps because of social acceptance of such things.

For example, when I first worked with American Indians, I was warned that many of my Native American patients had had visions, and that this did not mean they were schizophrenic. Similarly, one of my friend’s mothers routinely had visions of the Virgin Mary during times of stress. No big deal, half her family had the same thing. And too many people with near death experiences have suffered wide awake visions of their past life or seen a heavenly being to say these experiences don’t exist.

Most of these experiences probably have a scientific explanation: stress related, an overactive imagination, or sometimes psychosis or temporal lobe epilepsy. Yet for those of us who think God works through nature, one wonders if such explanations miss the point.

So was Paul’s vision supernatural, or due to guilt over his complicity with murders of the innocent, compounded by dehydration which caused a seizure and a hallucination? Was George Foreman’s famous vision of Jesus after a fight caused by a blow to the head? Was Mother Teresa’s famous vision of Christ suffering due to stress and the heat?

No matter. What is important was that the visions were real enough to have these people change the focus of the rest of their lives.

But it’s not only something that occurs to the famous. If you ask around, probably one or two of your relatives will relate a similar experience, and for some of them, this experience changed the focus of the rest of their life, often for the better.

Yet those who are knowledgeable in the ways of the God will warn about seeking out such experiences, even out of curiosity.

From the Inquirer:

According to the nurse, Tuazon has a third eye like herself.

“But she said mine is closed,” he says. “She said I may not see the spirits but I can sense them. She also advised me not to find a means to open my third eye because the spirits will never leave me in peace.”

The Bible forbids experimentation with all such occult practices, which can result in deception by the evil one, but I’ve heard similar warnings from wise and experienced non Christian spiritual leaders.

From a psychiatric standpoint, of course, there is a very real danger becoming obsessed with the occult, be it witches or exorcisms or ghost hunting: like conspiracy theories, one can easily get drawn into these ideas until they become an obsession and ruin one’s personal life and sometimes one’s sanity.

So do I believe in any of this? Not from an objective point of view.

The best defense against ghosts is a solid skepticism of such things.

Like miracles, I think 99.9% of them have a “natural” explanation. This doesn’t bother me as a Christian, since I figure God can heal us via medicines, surgeons, or the power of suggestion.

As for that last 0.01 percent: Well I keep my rosary handy, just in case.

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Nancy Reyes is a retired  physician living in the rural Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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