The fear of ghosts – usually classified as undead souls or spirits who can appear or engage with living people – has been a part of human culture since the beginning, particularly evident in early religious practices, and the notion of "ancestor worship" was popular among a number of pre-literate human tribes. It's an appealing notion, the idea that death may in fact not be the end of life, and that some shadow or essence of a person is left behind when they die.
Our contemporary idea of a "ghost story" comes largely from the Victorian period in England, when a number of classic authors in the popular tradition of "gothic fiction" wrote stories that informed the way we currently view the afterlife. (This includes Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, particularly in its depiction of the tormented Jacob Marley, forced to wander the Earth in chains as penance for a life of greed and avarice, as well as Henry James' Turn of the Screw, where a governess discovers that her two young charges may be possessed by an evil spirit.)
Are ghosts real? The following anecdotes and videos purport to reveal contemporary ghosts currently haunting a variety of locations. When possible, I will include information about the debunking of these stories – or at least the skeptical view of what might be actually happening. So read on, if you dare...
Tsunami Ghosts in Japanese Cabs
After the devastating tsunami in 2011, college student Yuka Kudo traveled to Ishinomaki - a town where 6,000 people died - and asked cab drivers if they had had any unusual experiences after the disaster. Most ignored her, but seven cab drivers talked of picking up ghost passengers, and their accounts where eerily similar. According to the drivers, the ghosts (who looked like normal people) would get into their cabs and give their destination, only to disappear without paying the fare.
One such passenger asked her driver to take her to a district that had been wiped out by the waves. When he told her what it was like there, she asked, "Have I died?" When he turned around to look at her, she was gone.
The Bell Witch of Tennessee
The story of the Bell Witch of Tennessee is one of the more famous true ghost stories in American history. The story inspired several documentaries and a major motion picture, 2005's An American Haunting. It's one of the most well-documented "true" ghost stories ever.
The story of the Bell Witch first surfaced in the early 1800s, after farmer John Bell and his family moved from North Carolina to the community of Red River, Tennessee, which later became the town of Adams. As Bell amassed more and more land in the area – eventually up to 328 acres – the family started to report a variety of strange encounters. These included finding an animal that appeared to be a hybrid between a dog and a rabbit, a series of apparent hallucinations that included night terrors about rats gnawing away at the family's beds, and eventually a series of faint whispering voices that sounded almost like old women softly singing hymns.
According to historians, family members later found a vial of an unknown liquid in the house. They gave a dose of the liquid to their cat, who immediately died.
According to the stories, following the Battle of New Orleans, f*ture president Andrew Jackson came to the Bell Farm to investigate the stories of a haunting, and it was he who dubbed the entity "The Bell Witch."
By 1820, John Bell had grown ill, and more convinced then ever that the presence in his house wished him ill. It's said that, after Bell's funeral, the ghost could be heard singing and laughing loudly in the graveyard. After Bell's death, save for a few reported encounters during which the entity bid the family "farewell" (what a polite spirit!), the presence seemed to largely disappear from the home.
Boring Rational Explanation: It was rumored that the ghost had promised to return to Bell's direct descendent in 107 years, which would have been 1935. Though the descendent in question - Dr. Charles Bailey Bell - wrote a book about the "Bell Witch" legend, he never mentioned having an encounter of his own.
A book called "Our Family Trouble" also exists which was reportedly written by Richard Williams Bell - the second-youngest child of John Bell - in 1846, and includes the only known "eyewitness" account of the Bell Witch. It can currently be found in M.V. Ingram's "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch," though the book provides few sources or citations for any of its information, and thus is not terribly useful as a research tool.
200 years after the Bell family was terrorized by the sinister Bell Witch, researchers continue to study the story, each offering different theories about the entity. (In the film's fictionalized retelling, "An American Haunting," the ghost is 'explained' by arguing that Bell sexually abused his daughter, and her repressed memories of the abuse gave rise to the titular witch.)
The Lizzie Borden House
Fall River, Massachusetts, was the site of a gruesome murder on August 4, 1892. Andrew and Abby Borden, a wealthy married couple, were killed in their own home. Andrew's body was discovered by his daughter, Lizzie, on the couch in the family's sitting room, while his wife Abby – Lizzie's step-mother – was later found in the locked upstairs guest bedroom. Both had apparently been killed with a hatchet, by blows powerful enough to cleanly split Andrew's left eyeball. Lizzie was arrested in connection with the crime, as a number of circumstantial pieces of evidence pointed to her involvement; though a hatchet was found, no evidence tied it to the actual murders, and no blood evidence was discovered. (It was also said that Lizzie may have attempted to poison the family earlier using prussic acid she had purchased, but this as well could not be proved.)
After a prolonged trial, which became something of a national obsession, Lizzie was acquitted. She and her sister Emma moved to a different home in the same town of Fall River and lived under the name Lizbeth Borden, using much of her inheritance to pay off members of Abby's family to avoid lawsuits. She died of pneumonia in 1927. Though it is popularly believed to this day that Borden was the killer, some historians have presented alternate theories, including that the maid, Bridget Sullivan, may have been the one responsible as she was upset about having been asked to clean the home's windows on a hot day.
Today, the Lizzie Borden home is a bed & breakfast and a museum. It's also thought to be one of the most haunted places in the U.S. Visitors have reported seeing unexplained ghostly apparitions throughout the house.
Boring Rational Explanation: Numerous videos have captured the strange goings-on, along with audio of a mysterious voice that could be Lizzie's. Much of the supernatural activity is said to center around the room where Abby Borden was slain, with the most common spirit sighting being a woman wearing 19th century clothing who can be seen wandering the halls or even making the beds.
The Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast/Museum has even announced plans to install special paranormal investigative cameras, allowing subscribers to watch the cams at all hours.
A number of skeptics have debunked a variety of urban myths surrounding the Lizzie Borden case in general, and the idea of a supernatural goings-on associated with the Bordens specifically. Many have concluded that the legend has become so essential to the citizens of Fall River, a real solution to the mystery and explanation for the hauntings would ruin all the fun.
The Haunting of the Stanley Hotel
The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, built in 1909 by Stanley Steamer founder Freelan O. Stanley, is arguably the most famous haunted building in America. While staff and guests at the hotel have reported strange happenings and ghost sightings for decades, the hotel didn't become truly famous until author Stephen King lived at the hotel for a time and reportedly had his own scary ghostly experience (seeing a mysterious figure on the hotel's stairs). This encounter is believed to have inspired King's "The Shining." (Even today, the hotel runs the film version of "The Shining" on a continuous loop to guest televisions.)
Among the reported ghost sightings:
- Staff have reported hearing the sounds of parties going on in the main ballroom. When they investigate, the rooms are empty.
- Some people claim to have seen ghosts standing at the end of their beds in the middle of the night.
- Patrons claim to have seen the ghost of Freelan Stanley's wife, a piano player in life, performing on the piano in the lobby.
The claims have been investigated by a variety of paranormal experts and investigators, including the teams from the Syfy television show "Ghost Hunters" and the Travel Channel's "Ghost Adventures."
Boring Rational Explanation: There isn't one solid, reliable rational explanation for all the reported phenomenon at the Stanley (unless you just think everyone - Stephen King included - is simply lying for attention.) During the "Ghost Hunters" taping, the bed was apparently moved and the closet doors unlocked, but no other supernatural phenomenon was witnessed. As well, the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society and the Skeptical Inquirer's "Naked Skeptic" - Karen Stollznow - have looked into the goings-on and claim that some of the experiences seen on "Ghost Hunters" could be explained by raccoons that move about the property and could be making otherworldly noises. There was no way to rationally explain away all of the observed phenomenon, however. So keep this on in the "maybe" pile.