2016-3-1 UPDATE

Why are ghosts scary?

Bloodcurdling specters creeping up from behind, going “Boo!”
Why do we find the idea of dead people reappearing in this world so frightening to begin with?

In the sultry Japanese summer, programs about ghosts are a staple on TV. Horror stories alternate with reports from “spirit spots” where ghosts are rumored to appear, while white-faced TV personalities scream and go “I’m scared!” in the studio. Some people hate this sort of programs, saying “It’s creepy so I don’t want to watch.” In that case, it’s easier to just switch channels or go to another room.

But this begs a very simple question: why are we afraid of ghosts?

“Of course, ghosts are scary! They’re dead people who’ve come back, aren’t they!”

Certainly, dead people making themselves manifest contrary to all laws of nature would be very surprising. But why should it be frightening? Isn’t some other response possible? For example, “Now this is curious, I’d like to take a closer look!”

“Ghosts come back to haunt because they bear grudges against the living. That is why they’re scary. May they quickly find their peace.”

Perhaps this is it, the idea that ghosts are frightening not so much for what they are as for the reason they have returned. The notion of resting in peace is also interesting. In the religious view of many Japanese, the image is that when people die, their souls proceed to paradise where they attain Buddhahood. However, if they still have attachments to this world they cannot go on to paradise but are forced to linger here. Not only that, but these attachments are usually in the form of grudges against those who caused them to die in the first place. Indeed, the standard phrase of Japanese ghosts translates as “I hate your guts.”

As we see, the reason why we find ghosts frightening turns out to be rather complicated and relies on a certain religious and cultural background. It makes you wonder what it’s like in other cultures and religious spheres. Is the notion of ghosts universal, common to all mankind?

Another scenario for meeting the dead is when they appear in dreams. The most common pattern is when a deceased parent or sibling or some other close relative appears to announce something important. But in such cases we don’t seem to find it scary at all. On the contrary, the image of joy at reencountering someone you wanted to meet but couldn’t wins out. In addition, as the apparition in the dream often gives advice as to which path to take in life, most people who have had such experiences awake with a sense of deep gratitude. Thus, there seems to be a big difference in reaction depending on where exactly you meet the dead – in a dream or in real life – but perhaps that is also culturally determined.