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Spooked: Who still believes in ghosts?

October 31, 2013

Here’s a haunting observation: almost one in five Americans claims to have been in the presence of a ghost. And that number isn’t falling—to the contrary, it represents a steep increase over just a couple of decades ago.

Exactly who are these people who claimed to have communed with the Caspers of the netherworld? They are more likely to be female than male, liberal than conservative, Democrat than Republican, and to have a high school education or less, according to a breakdown of survey data from the Pew Research Center. And people who seldom or never attend church are more than twice as likely as weekly church-goers to report encountering a spirit.

In all, 65 percent of Americans have expressed a belief in or reported experiences with at least one supernatural phenomena, such as giving credence to the power of the “evil eye” or the advice of a psychic.

None of this is surprising to UC Berkeley sociology professor Claude S. Fischer,  author of the blog Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. We may like to think we live in an age of reason, but he questions the common assumption that the hallmarks of modern life—commerce, education, secularism and, yes, science— have somehow “disenchanted” the world.

“Once, goes the argument, the rising of the sun, the awakening of plants, people’s illnesses and recoveries, and even odd rock formations were all infused with spirits and mystery; now we see all of them as mechanical, mundane and manipulable. The magic is gone,” he writes.

Still, that’s an argument he doesn’t quite swallow given that most American adults in the 21st century say they believe in the devil, and in life after death.

“Lest you think this is all just a vestige of an older, passing, superstitious age: Belief in ghosts have soared in recent decades, from one in ten Americans to one in three,” he writes. “Moreover, young people are about twice as likely as old Americans to say they have consulted psychics, believe in ghosts, and believe in haunted houses

“It’s a magical nation. And that goes back a long time.”

Although pollsters weren’t in place to survey colonial Americans, the literature and historical records they left behind illustrate how they explained away mystery, misery and misfortune by attributing events to witches and other evil spirits. The Salem witch trials, while infamous, were not a great aberration from the common belief systems of the day.

It’s a belief many of us have yet to outgrow.  A new survey released by reports that 35 percent of Americans questioned said they had lived in a house they suspected to be haunted.

“The magic,” Fischer notes, “has not totally gone.”



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