Our brother, Fr. Dominic McManus, OP, discusses why Ghosts and Ghost Stories are important for Catholicism
There are loads of legitimate questions about whether or not good Christian folk can celebrate Halloween any longer, and if so just how. But it seems to me that most of these conversations are not especially helpful. The questions usually boil down to ordinary, everyday morality and good common sense. If you shouldn’t get drunk on Halloween then it’s not because it’s Halloween, but because you shouldn’t get drunk. The same goes for tacky and immodest getups, gorging on candy, and anything having to do with the occult. But that’s not all that Halloween is and has to be, and there’s more than one way to reclaim our holiday. Saint Parades and Bobbing for Biblical Apples in the parish basement are all fine, but they’ll only appeal to those already converted. For Halloween to do its job, it’s got to make saints, and that means doing what the saints did, “Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.” (Romans 12:9)
Which is why ghost stories are so important. Every culture has them. Some still told today go back literally thousands of years. But it took Christianity to make them anything more than a psychological exercise in coping with our own collective fear of death. Christians ought to tell the best of ghost stories, because our stories are true. We’ve got the metaphysical framework to make sense of what’s happening, and we’ve got the philosophical and theological anthropology to situate these stories in context. Most importantly, we’ve got the Faith which, exercised rightly, has always ensured that the saints would adopt what is best about a particular culture and transform the rest in light of Christ. Ghost stories, then, can move from simply being psychosocial attempts to deal with death, into living testimonies of faith in the resurrection.
The most fundamental claim against the existence of ghosts and therefore the telling of ghost stories is that it is somehow contrary to the faith. After all, when we die we are judged and thereby destined eternally for heaven or for hell. Both Catholic and Orthodox theology allow for a period of purification, but neither the Catholic doctrine of purgatory nor the Orthodox teaching on toll-booths seem to envision the souls of the dead hanging out in their old houses. So ghost stories, especially of the sort with which most of us are most familiar, seen incompatible with Christian faith.
Historically, however, this is a very strange position to take. Some of the finest art, literature, and drama that make up Western Christian tradition depend heavily on ghosts. What’s more, even Doctors of the Church have taken up ghostly encounters as evidence to be considered in their own theological investigations.
Just think, for a moment, about some of the ghost stories we know best, but don’t think of as ghost stories at all. Hamlet is a ghost story; it begins with the ghost of the king and, in much the same way as many modern horror stories, almost everyone dies at the end. Dante’s journey to Hell and Back Again is chaperoned by the spirits of the dead, some of whom obviously occupy different “places” after death. Even Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a ghost story at heart, for even if the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come are really “angels” by our reckoning, Jacob Marley is clearly the disembodied soul of a person Scrooge knew in life. Remember what he says?
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard. I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it…in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys life before me!” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)
Does Marley’s monologue sound familiar? It should. It is patterned on the one ghost story Our Lord Himself told.
"Then he said, 'I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.'
Abraham said to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.'
But he said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'"or I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.'
Abraham said to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.'
And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.'
But he said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.'" (Luke 16:27-31)
The conclusion is, of course, a reference to Jesus’ resurrection, but notice that Jesus uses the contact, already familiar, of post-mortem visitations to prove an important point about Himself and His life and ministry.
Nor is this the only time that Jesus uses the New Testament concept of a ghost or Φάντασμά to prove a point. When he came walking to them across the water (Mark 6:45-52; Matt 14:22-33;) the disciples are afraid that he is a ghost. Jesus’ response, however is not, “Silly Disciples, there’s no such thing as ghosts!” Nor is it, “What you say is a metaphysical impossibility.” Rather, he simply uses the occasion to buoy up their courage and show that He commands even the story seas, and is therefore greater even than a ghost. He does the same thing in Luke’s account of the resurrection appearances when he invites his disciples to touch him, "See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."
So the notion of ghosts is, at the very least, not foreign to the New Testament imagination. But it’s far from a wholesale endorsement. Further, it doesn’t explain the very real fear people have about the occult and demonic involvement in such events. For that, we’ll have to look back even further.
The most famous ghost in the Bible is, of course, that of the prophet Samuel, summoned by the Witch of Endor who, despite her name, is not an Ewok. The event is recorded in 1 Samuel 28, and records how King Saul, desperate in the last throes of his kingship, visits the medium in disguise and asks for a reading. As far as the text is concerned, she successfully summons up the spirit of Samuel from the Underworld,
'Samuel then said to Saul, “Why do you disturb me by conjuring me up?” Saul replied: “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are waging war against me and God has turned away from me. Since God no longer answers me through prophets or in dreams, I have called upon you to tell me what I should do.” To this Samuel said: “But why do you ask me, if the LORD has abandoned you for your neighbor? The LORD has done to you what he declared through me: he has torn the kingdom from your hand and has given it to your neighbor David.' (1 Samuel 28: 15-17)
Some have pointed to this passage later as evidence that those purporting to be “spirits of the dead” are really demons in disguise. But the text doesn’t seem to bear this reading out. First of all, the apparition tells the truth about both what has happened and what will happen, correctly prophesying Saul’s fate. What’s more, he abjures Saul in the name of the Lord, something a demon would seem not to be able to do.
The episode is important, though, inasmuch as it highlights theological concerns Christians still have against ghosts. The spirit world is complex, and the prohibitions against sorcery, necromancy, and divination (which Saul himself had promulgated and here broke), all seem to bother both the living and the dead. The Witch is trying to control something over which she has no rightful control. At the same time, the spirit of Samuel seems to be somehow disadvantaged himself, “Why do you disturb me,” he says. How can he be disturbed? The text seems to suggest that the prohibition here is twofold: first, you don’t summon the dead so as to open yourself to entities beyond your control; and second, there is a kind of “preferential option for the metaphysically poor”. Souls are not supposed to be running around without their bodies, and so they shouldn’t be disturbed until they’ve had their bodies restored to them.
SPECULATING ABOUT SPOOKS
Loads of theologians have speculated about ghosts, both from the “data” of reported ghostly experiences, but also while considering the fate of the soul separated from the body. As is often the case, St. Augustine has something important to say. In Book XXII of the City of God, he recounts an experience with a haunted house. Now the source of this disturbance seems to be demoniacal, but he includes the story because the exorcism of those spirits serves to support the faith of the reader. Elsewhere, however, he is emphatic that he does not believe in ghosts, though he admits the possibility of the apparitions of saints. Even still, he tells a lot of ghost stories.
Gregory the Great also tells us a ghost story. In his Dialogues he recounts the story of a priest who, on regularly visiting the baths was moved by the diligence of one of the attendants. Eventually he brought two loaves of good bread as a tip, but the man would not receive them, explaining that he was once the owner of the bathhouse, but because of his sins has been sent back as a servant. He then asks the priest to offer the bread for him at Mass and then disappears. The priest does so and the man is, presumably, liberated.
Finally, as we might expect, St. Thomas takes approaches the issue of ghosts head-on. And he is not afraid to disagree with Augustine:
According to the disposition of Divine Providence, separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men…It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the dammed, and that for man’s instruction and intimidation they be permitted to appear to the living; or again, in order to seek our suffrages, as to those who are detained in purgatory. (Summa Theologiae, Supp 68, 3)
At the same time, these he clearly distinguishes from demons, whose activity is not limited to the spiritual realm. Here he draws on Augustine who comments on the activity of incubi and succubi in Book XV of City of God. For Thomas, the activities of separated souls are always permitted by a special act of Providence for the good of the living, even if it is also for the benefit of the dead in need of prayers.
“It does not follow, although the dead be able to appear to the living as they will, that they appear as often as when living in the flesh; because when they are separated from the flesh, they are either wholly conformed to the divine will, so that they may do nothing but what they see to be agreeable with the Divine disposition, or else they are so overwhelmed by their punishments that their grief for their unhappiness surpasses their desire to appear to others.” (ST, Supp, 69.3. ad 1.)
This position allows Thomas to do three things. It defends the traditional prohibition on necromancy and sorcery by placing the necessity of such visitations clearly in the realm of Divine Providence. It accounts for the genuine experience of real people which otherwise would seemed to be dismissed. And supports and expresses the overall vision of the human person which Aquinas proposes throughout his work. Also, it helps defend the telling of ghost stories.
In the end, the telling of ghost stories is an exercise in theological and spiritual consistency. It is theologically consistent to tell those stories, especially those which come out of the tradition itself (and found in the lives of the saints), because it articulates a vision of what happens to souls after death and before the resurrection. It is spiritually consistent because we have a moral obligation to care, even and especially for our dead. And it has potential in terms of ecumenical dialogue because Catholics aren’t the only ones who see ghosts, and most Protestant theologies of the last things just can’t adequately account for many people’s experience.
Dr. Eleanor Stump, the delightfully maternal philosopher at Saint Louis University likens the Protestant-Catholic debate on purgatory to a child with a bandage. Some children are “peelers” and others are “yankers”. Yankers tear the band-aid off all at once, whereas peelers take it slowly. When it comes to purification after death, everyone agrees that only that which is perfected enters heaven, and most people acknowledge that most people aren’t perfect when they die. Protestants, she says, are yankers, and Catholics peelers. We conceptualize post-mortem purification temporally—in time—whereas Protestants imagine it spontaneously, simultaneously, all at once.
Ghost stories highlight precisely this tension. Ghosts don’t seem especially time-bound, but we who experience them do. The difficulty in trying to imagine life without a body becomes apparent to every theologian who tries to take it up. Perhaps this is why ghost stories seem to be the better medium.
Most people come to faith, as Chesterton said, “like a twitch on a thread,” slowly, by reading and hearing and watching things produced by Christians, with their worldview in the background, and their values placed throughout. Which is why it’s okay to tell ghost stories this Halloween, and maybe even at Christmas, as in ages past. Because told aright, be believing Christians, every ghost story is filled with the Spirit, and ultimately witnesses to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.