Ghosts and Glamers: What Hauntings Teach About Human Identity
As human beings, we necessarily craft metaphysical paradigms which explain our perceptions and direct our actions. Whether we believe in Providence or in Lady Fortune determines whether we acknowledge some propitious turn of events as divine blessing or else merely good luck. Whether we believe in the inherent dignity of human life crucially affects how we approach questions of personal and societal ethics, as does the manner in which we interpret ambiguous terms like “dignity” and “human life.” Inextricably embedded within every bare perception lies the question of interpretation, and our interpretations have for their bedrock our philosophical and magical paradigms.
Oftentimes, human beings simultaneously harbor two or more paradigms which — considered reflectively — prove mutually repugnant. This confused state of affairs can preserve human life and society, as the extreme conclusions of any one paradigm are tempered by rival belief systems, yet such ideological inconsistency can also inflict significant levels of cognitive dissonance and psychological stress upon those who straddle opposing viewpoints over prolonged durations. The Chaos Magicians within our midst might well regard the ability to dance across multiple paradigms as virtue rather than liability, at least when the pragmatic incorporation of any and all viewpoints occurs consciously and reflectively.
Speaking for myself, I am not so sanguine about the postmodern approach which Chaos Magic takes towards reality — I believe against all odds there is an intelligible cosmos which admits human apprehension! — although I think there are lessons to be learned from an introspective consideration of the paradigm or paradigms to which one holds. In this essay, I wish to examine some common interpretations of that most ubiquitous of paranormal phenomena, the ghostly haunting, and specifically what these explanations suggest about the underlying magical paradigms. My aim here does not encompass the proving or disproving of any particular phenomena. I will not explain what ghosts are, or how such ephemeral beings might interact with the realms of the quick, at least in any definitive or authoritative sense. Rather, I wish to think about how we think about ghosts, and then examine what these thought processes say about us. (To any Zen Buddhists out there, you may fairly assume I am traveling in the opposite direction; in fairness, I am doing so reflectively, and since space-time is essentially curved we might safely assume given enough time we shall meet upon the other side.)
The original impetus for this essay began with idle musings around Samhain, when the Mists which apparently divide the material and the astral grow especially thin. While reflecting upon the nature of ghosts, I found myself face to face with a logical conundrum. There are basically two schools of thought concerning the origin of an active, apparently self-aware haunting. The simplest interpretation, by and by, says the haunting wherein the ghost interacts both with environmental changes and with living people represents the human soul of the deceased, still present in some meaningful sense within our pre-afterlife world. When people die, goes this theory, some people get “stuck” — most frequently due to exceptional life circumstances — and cannot move beyond their earthly existence. (Strictly speaking, this explanation does not require belief in some specific afterlife, or even belief in any afterlife, although one seldom holds the belief in ghosts without some concurrent belief in the afterlife.)
There exists a competing explanation for the existence and nature of ghosts, one fairly well documented in the contemporary occult community. By this reasoning, a ghost isn’t the same being as the deceased individual; rather, the deceased leaves behind a mental and emotional imprint which a sympathetic nonhuman spirit then animates. I presume we’re all familiar with this phenomenon on smaller scales; if you’ve ever walked into a room and felt some inexplicable “vibe” — whether good or bad — then you’re at least familiar with the sort of psychic residue I’m describing. Spirits tend to manifest where this psychic imprint aligns with their own natures and aims. When the deceased leaves behind some especially potent psychic imprint, or when such an imprint is fueled by the emotional charge of those who mourn the loss, then the Mists grow very thin indeed for those spirits in tune with the mental and emotional state of the deceased. The result? A “ghost” which manifests through the psychic imprint surrounding certain deaths.
This latter theory accords better with my personal sense of things, and especially my belief in reincarnation. (I should also add my definition of sympathetic spirits does not generally include what certain strands of Judeo-Christian thought would regard as demons. While I remain skeptical the ghostly presence watching over little Sally really is Grandpa, I’m reasonably certain the manifestation in question isn’t some machination of Satan. That’s not to say there aren’t dangerous ghosts out there. There are dangerous people across the world, and dangerous people leave behind dangerous imprints, which dangerous spirits then inhabit. Nevertheless, I stand by my conviction most spirits are like most people — basically good at heart, sometimes selfish, essentially looking for love.)
This belief in the “ghost” as spirit-animated imprint points towards the thorny problem of personal identity. If the nonhuman spirit animating the psychic imprint does so self-consciously, then there is little issue here; at this point, the “ghost” becomes the Trickster — epitomized by The Magician within the Tarot — although mayhap one who operates with benevolent ends in mind. Some variations of this theory take one additional step, suggesting the animating spirit may inhabit the psychic imprint so completely the spirit forgets its own identity as an independent being.
Now the issue of personal identity begins to take shape. I inquire of myself, as student of the occult: Who am I? Everyday I wear masks, glamers which I adopt and discard as my circumstances require. Here I am child, and there I am lover. Here I am teacher, and there I am student. These masks develop and evolve as I develop and evolve, although we might push too far, were we to identify me as the mere sum of such mutable projections. I am process, perhaps — a ripple of interconnected events and perceptions fanning out across space-time. And yet what are these events? My intellectual processes? My emotional responses? These are certainly the ephemeral things which leave my mark upon the psychic fabric of the universe, and were some spirit to inhabit my energy signature, the workings of my mind and my heart would be the medium through which such manifestations might happen. The warmth I bring to this room, wherein I gathered many times with family and friends — this emotional energy proves the gateway for spirits of warmth and benevolence. The wrath I displayed in another place — such anguish and terror becomes the gateway for much more malevolent spirits. The kindnesses and cruelties we bring into the physical world inevitably set the stage for the spirits who might follow afterward.
If the nonhuman spirits animating such energetic signatures merely echoed the ambient emotions, then we might have little cause to worry about personal identity; we constantly return the smiles and the scowls of those around us, all without losing any meaningful sense of who we ourselves are. Meaningful empathy towards, and interaction with, those around us normally doesn’t compromise our sense of personal identity, and we have no reason to believe spirits should materially differ from us in this regard. And yet ghosts do more than merely resonate with the ambient psychic energy; they actively mimic certain mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of the living. The question then arises: How deep does the psychic imprint run, and how much could the animating spirit really lose itself within the impression?
If some living human being lost all memory of her own identity, and moreover fully believed herself to be some other individual, we would consider her at the very least deeply delusional. If I develop amnesia, and then believe myself to be Bill Clinton, I would be regarded as lunatic, and mayhap rightfully so. The mere belief — even when passionately held — that I am someone else does not make this belief true in any meaningful sense. And yet what if the psychic imprint which the spirit accesses runs deeper? If I had all the memories, together with the intellectual and emotional responses of Bill Clinton down into the most minute of details, then might I in some meaningful sense be the former United States president? Returning to my own (non-presidential) identity, if my own memories and psychic processes could be uploaded into some simulacrum, would this simulacrum then be me? These are the questions of science fiction, of course, although actual hauntings challenge us philosophically precisely because they represent the possibility of such transference. If the imprint runs deep enough, and if we are equal to our mental and emotional activity, then how can we genuinely separate the nonhuman spirit from the deceased individual? The very hypothesis may fall to its own definitional vagaries.
There is one possible solution, although this approach suffers from its own difficulties. We might choose to define ourselves as something apart from the things which leave our mark upon the psychic backdrop. Mayhap we are something other than our mental and emotional activity. Together with the mind and the heart, we are flesh and we are soul. These latter two constitute our own animating force, the means and the will by which we translate the desires of mind and heart into action. For ghosts, the normal definition of flesh in inapplicable, although such beings generally possess the ability to impose at least limited alterations upon their environments, whether through fluctuations in temperature and electromagnetic fields, or through full-blown telekinetic or ectoplasmic phenomena.
Very few people who believe in ghosts would suggest personal identity remains strictly tied with the physical corpus, since ghosts by their very existence challenge this notion, and yet methinks we hold very solid philosophical grounds to challenge an enduring connection between personal identity and the physical manifestation, since this physical manifestation is liable to constant flux, constantly absorbing and expelling elements without any actual destruction of the underlying identity. We might say the same thing of the mind and the heart, and yet there exists this at least intuitive difference: While the complete transference of the mind and heart into another vessel might stretch our sense of personal identity, we would intuitively recognize the simulacrum receiving the psychic imprint as the original individual, whereas changes to the mind and heart strike into the very core of who we are.
There remains under consideration the personal spark of will, sometimes termed the soul. I remain uncertain whether we can meaningfully separate the will from the remaining aspects of human identity, yet making the endeavor in the abstract, we discover something very much like the physical corpus — an animating force which translates mental and emotional desires into meaningful action across our shared world. We constantly “breathe” the ambient psychic energy; much like the flesh, we observe elements enter into the will, and we observe other elements depart. I am reluctant to give some primacy to our mental and emotional aspects, and yet these seem to define us in ways more enduring than the constant flux of energies which mark the flesh and soul. And again, if the psychic imprint runs deep enough — if this imprint contains something enduring about ourselves, then does our identity change with the animating force? And if we answer this question in the negative, then does our hypothesis merely confirm the ghost is — in some meaningful sense — one and the same with the deceased?
Within this especial moment, I cannot answer these questions. I most certainly cannot unlock such conundrums for you, my dearest readers who have patiently endured unto the end. You may harbor a magical paradigm in which such questions are meaningless. Or the nature of ghosts may raise different questions within your own unique paradigm. I hope my personal reflections here encourage you to reflect upon your beliefs and your paradigms, in order to tease out what naturally follows from the assumptions you might make about your world. As always, I welcome your thoughts upon this most mysterious of subjects.
©2009 by Grey Glamer.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.