Why So Many Brits Believe in Ghosts

Why So Many Brits Believe in Ghosts
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Why you should care

Because this is downright spooky.

In the tiny hamlet of Holywell, Cambridgeshire, is one of England’s oldest inns, the Old Ferry Boat. And below the inn, or so the story goes, lies the tortured soul of Juliet Tewsley. The young lass is said to float forth from her flagstone grave every March 17 — the date of her suicide in 1050 — and head toward the riverbank, where she hanged herself over her unrequited love for a local woodcutter.

Through the years, locals have gathered annually to catch a glimpse of the lady in white. Meanwhile, attendance at the church on the opposite side of this Saxon ring village — the only other nonresidential structure — has been waning for years.

Brits are more likely to believe in ghosts than they are in God.

A recent YouGov survey polled nearly 12,000 Britons affiliated with Christianity and a control set of 39,000 others, revealing what researchers called “some startling juxtapositions in belief.” While Brits claiming to belong to the Christian faith were slightly more likely to believe in God than in ghosts, the same was not true for the country at large. In net terms, the pollsters say, “belief in ghosts (-9) and karma (-11) is more prevalent than belief in a Creator (-21) or heaven (-21).”

Justin McDaniel, chair of the department of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, says there are many theories behind a belief in ghosts, from a Freudian coping mechanism for death or social pressure to Marxist notions that those in power create heaven, hell and ghosts as a means of controlling the masses. It could also be the human need for entertainment — the idea of living another life after death is simply a better story than one in which we’re born, live and die. There’s also the fact that “our brain is hardwired to have hope,” McDaniel says, noting that humans have an evolutionary advantage over animals in that we consider what happens beyond our biological life span. People also seem to report seeing ghosts with more frequency while mourning a recently deceased loved one, says David Bryce Yaden, research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s department of psychology.

It’s usually a combination of factors that drive belief, McDaniel says, pointing out that belief in God and an afterlife often goes along with a belief in ghosts. But when surveyed, a lot of people associate belief in God with trust in a religious institution or a traditional religion. More liberal-leaning folks, McDaniel says, tend to say they don’t believe in old-fashioned ideas of God so much as spiritually — “that there’s something more than my life, something greater than me beyond my death.”

In this sense, belief in ghosts is politically harmless, and it also tends to cross ethnic, class and educational boundaries around the globe. Japanese ghost belief tends to be in the 90-plus percentile, while only about 11 percent of Japanese Buddhists attend temple regularly, McDaniel says. Belief in specters is also high in Burma, India, Ghana and Thailand. And while the European context is often fraught with scary hauntings, throughout much of the globe, ghosts are not seen as menacing but as offering protection.

And, just so you know, “neither God nor ghost experiences or beliefs necessarily indicate the presence of mental illness,” says Yaden.

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