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The Monsters Are Real! SEL Fall Exhibit: Ghosts

The Science behind our favorite Halloween Monsters; “Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” ― Stephen King


Ghosts, Spirits, Shades

The restless dead – some people believe that ghosts are spirits of those who died with unfinished business. Some believe that they are spirits who do not yet know they are dead. Others believe that something ties the spirit to the place or object or people it haunts. Some believe that ghosts, such as poltergeists are merely psychic phenomena manifesting. Some believe that ghostly activity is caused by demonic forces. And still others don’t believe in ghosts at all. Wherever you are in that mix, have you ever felt  … something? Like a sudden chill? A movement, just out of sight of your peripheral vision? Things seem to move on their own in your house? Unexplained noises or voices? Or that feeling like someone unseen was watching you? Or maybe just an eerie feeling about a place? Are ghosts real?

There are literally millions of ghost stories, some claim to be real, others are clearly just fun. But is there a scientific foundation for the phenomena of ghosts or hauntings? Let’s explore.

Hauntings and ghosts frighten people. Especially poltergeists, which seem not only intrusive, but destructive. Misty or translucent apparitions can also appear, usually with a cold chill, as it is believed that they use our body heat to manifest. Then there is “The Interactive Personality Ghosts are the most common in hauntings and usually appear in a form similar to when they were alive. These ghosts can walk, talk, and occasionally acknowledge the living” (Historic Tours of America), which can sometimes appear to people before those people even know the apparition is of someone dead.

Halloween has been a time of spooky ghosts, witches, and monsters, but not all ghosts have to be scary. Halloween, or All Hallows, arose from the Celtic pagan holy day of Samhain (SOW-en), a time when the last harvest was in and the days were growing noticeably shorter. Hutton states, “For the Celts, Samhain was both an end-of-summer feast and a time of communion with the realms of the spirit”. Modern pagans, Wiccans, and witches still celebrate Samhain as a high Holy Day – the “Witches New Year” –

Samhain, also known as the Witches New Year, is always held on October 31st. A time when the veil thins. Samhain is a cross quarter day, marking the mid point of Autumn. Falling between Fall Equinox and Winter Solstice.

Samhain is also known as Halloween, or Hallowmas. It is an ancestor holiday in North America. It is a time to welcome the darkness of winter and shadow. it is believed the barriers that normally hold steadfast between our world and the other world thin, letting us walk with spirits and ancestors long passed (We'Moon).

Because the veil between the worlds of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest at this time, those who celebrate Samhain also celebrate the visits of their loved ones who have passed on. Or rather, their ghosts/spirits. Traditionally, people set a place at the table and served food to their departed loved ones. Later the food is left at a crossroads, sacred to the Goddess Hekate, as an offering to the dead, though it was presumed that the poor would eat it.

Similarly, those who celebrate Dia de Muertos or “Day of the Dead,” celebrate the return of their loved ones for that one day of the year (Roussey, They create an altar, or offrenda, with offerings of sugar skulls (calavera), pan de muerte (bread in the shape of skulls or bones), and other food or items that the deceased particularly enjoyed, as well as marigold petals (which are to help the dead find their way home). Pictures of the dead also adorn the offrenda. Families may have picnics in the cemetery where loved ones are buried.


In the mid- to late 19th century and early 20th century, the Spiritualist movement made mediums and seances very popular. Spiritualism was a popular belief that one could communicate with the spirits of the dead through mediums. Harry Houdini made a second career of debunking fake mediums.

If you want to know more, there is a plethora of resources and information on ghosts. Below, you will find a curated sampling:


References and Recommended Further Reading


Arnheim, Rudolf. "The ontological limbo of spirits." The British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 38, no. 1, Jan. 1998, pp. 63+. Gale Academic OneFile,

Barnes, Jamie. "The Ontological Implications of Spirit Encounters." Social Analysis, vol. 63, no. 3, autumn 2019, pp. 24+. Gale Academic OneFile,

Brandes, Stanley. “Iconography in Mexico’s Day of the Dead: Origins and Meaning”, Ethnohistory, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Spring, 1998)

Brown, E. M. “NEUROLOGY AND SPIRITUALISM IN THE 1870s.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, vol. 57, no. 4, 1983, pp. 563–77.

James, William, and J. McKeen Cattell. “Mrs. Piper, `The Medium.’.” Science, vol. 7, no. 175, 1898, pp. 640–42. JSTOR,

Despret, Vinciane. “Talking Before the Dead.” SubStance, vol. 47, no. 1, 2018, pp. 64–79.

Do spirits return? Houdini says no - and proves it. 3 shows in one: magic, illusions, escapes = fraud mediums exposed. [United States?: publisher not identified, approximately] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

Edmonds, John W., and Nathaniel P. Tallmadge. Spiritualism. Edited by George T. Dexter, vol. 1, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Flammarion, Camille, 1842-1925, Latrobe Carroll, and Eleanor Stimson Brooks. Death And Its Mystery ... New York: The Century co., 1923.

Goldstein, Diane E., et al. Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore. University Press of Colorado, 2007. JSTOR,

Greene, Bryan. “For Harry Houdini, Séances and Spiritualism Were Just an Illusion.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 28 Oct. 2021,

Huber, Sandra. "Villains, Ghosts, and Roses, or, How to Speak with the Dead" Open Cultural Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2019, pp. 15-25.

Hutton, Ronald. “Samhain.” The Stations of the Sun, Oxford University Press, 1996,

King, Laura A., et al. "Ghosts, UFOs, and magic: Positive affect and the experiential system." Journal of personality and social psychology, vol. 92, no. 5, 2007, pp. 905-919. ProQuest,

Linton, Ralph. “HALLOWEEN.” Scientific American, vol. 185, no. 4, 1951, pp. 62–67.

Mann, Walter. The Follies and Frauds of Spiritualism. Rationalist Association. London: Watts & Co. 1919, pp. 115–130.

Mauskopf, Seymour H. “The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914 . Janet Oppenheim.” The Journal of Modern History, vol. 60, no. 2, 1988, pp. 371–73,

Morton, Lisa. Ghosts : A Haunted History, Reaktion Books, Limited, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Mullally, Erin. “SAMHAIN REVIVAL.” Archaeology, vol. 69, no. 6, 2016, pp. 34–37. JSTOR,

Nickell Joe. The Science of Ghosts : Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Prometheus Books 2012.

Owen, A. R. G. (Alan Robert George). Can We Explain the Poltergeist? Garrett Publications, 1964.

Piccolino, Marco, and Nicholas J. Wade. “The Frog’s Dancing Master: Science, Séances, and the Transmission of Myths.” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, vol. 22, no. 1, 2013, pp. 79–95,

Podmore, Frank (1896). “Poltergeists. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 12: 45–115.

“PROBLEMS OF MEDIUMSHIP.” Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism, by Frank Podmore, vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011, pp. 179–180. Cambridge Library Collection - Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge.

Radford, Benjamin. “Poltergeists: Noisy Spirits.” LiveScience, Purch, 17 July 2013,

Roach, Mary. Spook : Science Tackles the Afterlife. 1st ed., W.W. Norton and Co., 2005.

Robertson, Beth A. (Beth Anne). Science of the Seance : Transnational Networks and Gendered Bodies in the Study of Psychic Phenomena, 1918-40. UBC Press, 2016.

Roussey, Sandra, (et. al.). “Day of the Dead (Dia De Los Muertos).” Day of the Dead, Cereal Ventures, 2022,

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. “À Qui Parlent Les Morts ?” L’Homme, no. 230, 2019, pp. 33–40. JSTOR,

Seeman, Erik R. Speaking with the Dead in Early America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. JSTOR,

“SPIRITUALISM IN ENGLAND.” Modern Spiritualism: A History and a Criticism, by Frank Podmore, vol. 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2011, pp. 1–2. Cambridge Library Collection - Spiritualism and Esoteric Knowledge.

Stevenson, Ian. “Are Poltergeists Living or Are They Dead?” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, vol. 66, no. 3, July 1972, pp. 233–252.

Toole, Angie. "Pagans believe Samhain is a time when the barrier between us, the spirit world wears thin." Northwest Florida Daily News, Oct 26, 2003, pp. D1. ProQuest,

Trevarthen, Geo Athena. "The Celtic origins of Halloween transcend fear." Phi Kappa Phi Forum. Vol. 90. No. 3. Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, 2010.

Waskul, Dennis, and Marc Eaton. The Supernatural in Society, Culture, and History. Temple University Press, 2018. EBSCOhost,  

Recommended Further Reading

Cep, Casey. “Why Did so Many Victorians Try to Speak with the Dead?” The New Yorker, 24 May 2021,

Collison-Morley Lacy. Greek and Roman Ghost Stories. Argonaut 1968.

Dassin Jules and Oscar Wilde directors. The Canterville Ghost. 1944.

Historic Tours of America. “Types of Ghosts and Spirits.” Ghosts & Gravestones, Historic Tours of America, 30 Aug. 2021,

Im, Pang, and Yuk Yi. Korean Folk Tales: Imps, Ghosts and Fairies. Translated by James Scarth Gale, E. P. Dutton & Co., 1913.

Irving, Washington.  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.   Project Gutenberg.

James, Henry.  Turn of the Screw.  Project Gutenberg.

James, M. R. (Montague Rhodes). Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary. Edward Arnold, 1904.

Koch Howard W et al. directors. Ghost. Paramount Pictures 2017.

Lundie, Catherine, and Catherine A. Lundie. Restless Spirits : Ghost Stories by American Women, 1872-1926. University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Millington, T. S. “THE GHOST IN CANTERBURY HOUSE.” The Leisure Hour, Jan. 1877-Oct. 1903, 1883, pp. 157–60.

Spielberg Steven et al. directors. Poltergeist. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment 2015.

Tierney Gene et al. directors. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment 2002 (1947).

Various. The Best Ghost Stories. BONI & LIVERIGHT, Inc., New York:  1919.

Warner, Marina. “Ethereal Body: The Quest for Ectoplasm: Marina Warner.” CABINET, Cabinet Magazine, 2003,

We'Moon. “Samhain Rituals and Traditions.” We'Moon, Mother Tongue, Ink, 2021,

Westport Library Editorial Staff “Samhain: The Celtic Origins of Halloween.” LibGuides, Westport Library, 2022,

Wilde, Oscar. The Canterville Ghost. Project Gutenberg.