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“I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m scared of them”


Keoni Cabral | CC BY 2.0

Miriam Diez Bosch - published on 10/02/17

A book by Amalia Quevedo explores the world of ghosts.

Ghosts, which abound in literature, haven’t won philosophical recognition for their existence. Nonetheless, our collective imagination remains fascinated by the idea that the deceased from the recent or distant past can return to visit us. Amalia Quevedo, a Colombian philosopher, university professor, and author of books on philosophy, has just published a work on the world of unnatural life after death: Ghosts, from Pliny the Younger to Derrida (Fantasmas, de Plinio el Joven a Derrida).

Curiosity about what happens beyond the grave is as old as humanity, and shows up in ancient myths about voyages to Hades or other versions of the underworld. Apparitions of the dead appear in such masterpieces as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo.

In ancient Rome, ghosts were thought to be frequent visitors; Amalia Quevedo explains that the ghost of Julius Caesar is supposed to have visited Brutus on two different nights, “first, after he was assassinated, and then on the night before the battle in which Brutus would lose his life.”

“Unlike in ancient times, nowadays we hardly ever think about the dead,” Quevedo asserts; in the past, “whether feared or invoked, avoided or sought, the dead were always present in people’s consciousness.” Now, she wonders if “we might not have gone too far by expunging our ancestors from our lives.”

And in the Gospel?

On the Lake of Gennesaret, Jesus’ disciples see a man who defies the law of gravity. In the Cenacle, Jesus arrived unexpectedly, and they don’t see him enter the room. Jesus limits himself to proving that “it is he, in person, made of flesh and blood, whom they saw walking on the lake and resurrected in the Cenacle.”

In the Gospel account, Luke speaks of the disciples fearing they were seeing a “spirit,” not quite the equivalent of a “ghost.” The belief that the dead appear was an element of the popular culture of Jesus’ time.

The idea of ghosts, Quevedo says, “doesn’t cease to disquiet us.” Accounts of visits from beyond the grave are not only a thing of yesteryear; people continue to claim to see them today. There are cases of haunted houses, visits from souls in purgatory, demons, spirits, and encounters with ghosts through seances. In literature and in movies we frequently encounter vampires (whether Count Dracula or one of the countless other incarnations of this iconic species of undead), and many other disturbing fantasies that make us wary of the deceased.

Many cultures have their own traditional ghosts; in Latin America, for example, there is the famous figure of La Llorona (“the Crying Woman”), a mother who drowned her own children because she fell in love with a man who didn’t want them. The legend says that she committed suicide and now wanders the world crying for her dead children.

Seeing ghosts has bad connotations, Quevedo acknowledges: “The dominant trend today is to associate those who claim to see ghosts with fraud, deceitful illusion, and mental instability.”

“Seeing ghosts is associated with insanity, delirium, the consumption of drugs and alcohol, anxiety, suggestion, and feelings of guilt,” she says.

Ever since Democritus of Abdera, an early Greek materialist philosopher, all materialists have denied the existence of ghosts; nonetheless, “ghosts are not the frivolous product of an overactive and capricious imagination. They are the result of a grieving process that has not been properly assimilated, or of an alteration of rites of passage from this world to the next; they are a distortion of the memory of the deceased,” Quevedo explains.

Apparitions of the dead are a serious subject, and involve subjectively real experiences. The philosopher Schopenhauer was prophetic: “The belief in ghosts is inborn in man. It is found in all epochs and every location, and perhaps no human being is totally free from it.”

Even in skeptical times such as ours, the testimonies of mentally healthy people who claim to have had some contact with the beyond continue to raise questions.

Although it is not strictly a matter of religion or mythology, the subject of ghosts does have a certain religious dimension, as well as being an object of interest in video games, novels, tourist attractions, and even university research; the prestigious Templeton Foundation earmarked five million dollars for investigating immortality and near-death experiences.

Amalia Quevedo is a philosopher, professor at La Sabana University (Colombia), and author of books on Foucault, Derrida, Aristotle, among other subjects.

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