Tonight the neighborhood will be filled with small ghosts roaming around looking for sweets, and the bars will be filled with adult ghosts looking for something else. The ghost costume for Halloween is a traditional favorite because it costs nothing (grab a sheet out of the laundry) and there's little prep work (throw it over your head, but be sure and cut out two eye holes). The ghost is also a Halloween favorite because it symbolizes a spirit coming back from the dead, and that's what Halloween is supposed to be about — creatures returning from the beyond to scare the daylights out of everyone. But in today's Halloween party culture, no one is really scared of someone with a sheet over their head and everybody knows the whole ghost thing is done in jest. Perhaps we, in Western culture, should think twice about how we fool with the image of a ghost. Ghosts are, after all, the spirits of dead people. And they get much more respect in other cultures where ghosts are not spirits of fun and ridicule, but beings of great power. In the 1960s, anthropologist Medford Spiro wrote about the place of ghosts in the culture of Myanmar, then known as Burma. He was interested in how ghosts were implicated in causing diseases, especially mental illnesses. Witches in that culture, Spiro found, can send out the ghosts of people who died violent deaths and cause all sorts of trouble. Called nats, these spirits can make a person become unconscious or violent, or they might make the innocent victim yell obscenities. Thank goodness, there are cures for troublesome ghosts in Myanmar as well; these bad ghosts can be appeased with gifts of food, held off by wearing an amulet, or banished through singing and dancing. In rural Thailand, ghosts of dead ancestors can also possess a person and take over his or her life. These ancestor spirits tend to be defiant, and they often take control of the identity of the victim and have fun with that until they fly away, sometimes to inhabit another body and cause trouble there. In fact, all cultures have some form of ghosts, and ghost stories, and no matter the culture, ghosts are always leftovers from the dead. Some are evil and some friendly, but they always interfere with the living. The universality of a belief in ghosts speaks to our human need to make sense of death, and life. If we can become ghosts, then we can live on past death and engage in life. If our ancestors have died and become ghosts, then they have not left us. And if the ghost is in residence, then that's a very nice explanation for not acting like yourself, even acting crazy. Are ghosts real? Of course they are. People die and they never leave us and often very nice people seem to become possessed by some malevolent force that makes them do really awful things. We may not be in Myanmar or Thailand, but we ought to be a little more respectful, and maybe a little more scared, of the sheet floating down the street.
Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).