Ghosts, Poltergeists and Hauntings

Belief in ghosts, poltergeists, and other entities is not something that is unique to the Pagan religious traditions. Many people - Pagan and otherwise - accept the existence of some sort of spiritual plane, a place where a variety of entities exist beyond the veil. Because this is a discussion topic that is often popular in the Pagan community, particularly around the Samhain season, we’re going to take a brief look at ghosts, poltergeists and other types of haunting. For more detailed information on these and more, be sure to visit with Stephen Wagner, our Guide to Paranormal Phenomena.

What is a Ghost?

Image by Russell Rosener / EyeEm /Getty Images

As with many aspects of the metaphysical world, it’s hard to define exactly what a ghost is. However, there are a number of theories about what ghosts could be. The most popular theory is that ghosts are simply shades of the dead - people who, for one reason or another, could not quite move on to the next place they were supposed to be.

Why might this happen? One theory is that a ghost is a person who has died in a sudden or traumatic way, leaving them unable to move on, thus causing them to be tied to the place in which they died. Another theory is that ghosts are people who have had a strong emotional attachment to a certain place - this could explain why the ghosts of certain famous people show up in multiple locations. The ghost of president Abraham Lincoln, for instance, has been seen in Illinois, a small town in Kentucky, the Ohio statehouse, and in Washington DC. These are the types of ghosts that are considered “intelligent” hauntings. They are capable of interacting with living people, and may choose to communicate through a medium or other method.

Non-Intelligent Hauntings

Image by Diane Diederich/Vetta/Getty Images

There are other types of ghosts, called “non-intelligent” hauntings, which are simply a collection of residual energy signals. These don’t always appear in a human form - sometimes just a shadow, an orb, or a flash of something in the peripheral vision. These residual hauntings generally perform repetitive actions - a ghostly figure walking up the same set of stairs each night, or the sound of an eerie cry in the night on a remote bridge, that sort of thing - and do not interact with the living on an intelligent level. They may not even be aware of the existence of the living, and they have often been compared to a recording that just continues to repeat over and over again.


Image by Duncan Walker/E+/Getty Images

Made famous in the 1970s film, the poltergeist may be the best known form of haunting. It is a phenomena that often interacts with the world of the living, and can be frightening to those impacted by it. A poltergeist manifests in physical ways - throwing objects around a room, slamming doors, moving items from one place to another. It is sometimes believed that a poltergeist attaches itself to a specific person - teen girls in particular - or to a place. There are many cases in which poltergeist activity is reported on the sites of former Native American burial grounds, old prisons, or sites of violent crimes.

Messenger Ghosts

Image by William Sherman/E+/Getty Images

Occasionally, someone will have a one-time encounter with the ghost of someone they know who has recently passed away. This may take place hundreds or thousands of miles from the location of the person’s death. Many people believe that this singular encounters are a way for the deceased person to send a message to their loved ones - that they are okay, that they are moving on, or that they are loved. One Civil War widow wrote in her diary that she believed her husband was dead because he came to her in the night and stood by the window, not speaking, when she knew he was hundreds of miles away. She learned weeks later that he had been killed at the battle of Gettysburg, on the very night she had seen the apparition.

Make sure you plan ahead for a seance. Image by Alex and Laila/Stone/Getty Images

Many people in the Pagan and Wiccan communities work with spirits and otherworldly beings. Sometime, you may call upon them on purpose -- other times, they might just drop in unannounced! Be sure to read our articles about working with the realm of the spirit world! Learn to identify the different types of guides, how to tell if a spirit doesn't really have your best interests at heart, and how to get rid of spirits that you don't want hanging around. Be sure to read Communicating With the Spirit World for more information.

Be sure to read:

  • How to Hold a Seance: Many Wiccans and Pagans communicate with the spirit world by way of holding seances. Before you have a seance of your own, there are a few things to keep in mind.
  • Getting Rid of Unwanted Entities: Got an extra entity hanging around? Made contact with a snarky spirit during a seance? Here are some tips on how to get rid of them and send them on their way.
  • Types of Spirit Guides: Think you might have a helpful spirit guide hanging around? Before you go getting too involved, you may want to read this information about what a spirit guide actually is.
More »

If You Encounter a Ghost

Image by Jeffrey Conley/Stone/Getty Images

Stacey Graham, author of the Girl’s Ghost Hunting Guide and The Zombie Tarot, is an experienced ghost hunter. She says, “Seeing a full-body apparition is incredibly rare so if it happens, try to remember what it was wearing so you can identify the time period later, if it was making any motions or facial expressions, and if there were any sounds happening at the same time. Some apparitions are merely a wisp of smoke while others have been seen as so closely resembling the living that they’ve been mistaken for someone with a pulse.”

She also recommends listening to hear if the ghost is making sounds, watching for hand gestures, and keeping track of where you saw the ghost - and where it went afterwards. She says, “Write down what you’ve seen, as soon as you can. Time can dull memories, and the more you recall about the paranormal activity, the more it helps our research into the unknown.”