Why we'll always need ghosts

Story highlights

  • Colin Dickey: Ghost stories fill a timeless need, even in digital age
  • In American culture, ghosts help living deal with tragedies and loss

Colin Dickey is the co-editor (with Joanna Ebenstein) of "The Morbid Anatomy Anthology." He is also a member of the Order of the Good Death, a collective of artists, writers, and death industry professionals interested in improving the Western world's relationship with mortality. He is the author of "Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)Do we still need ghosts? The short answer is: yes. In a digital age, where science and logic rules, where all the information we need is at our fingertips, you might think ghost stories would have gradually died out by now. But it turns out I've found just the opposite.

Ghost stories are still very much a part of the 21st century world, and new ghost legends seem to be appearing all the time. When I began researching ghosts and haunted places for my book, I expected mostly to find stories dating to the 19th century and earlier: Civil War soldiers, cowboys, maybe some Puritans. But in addition to these stories, I found many that are modern: houses and buildings that are newly haunted, their ghosts having emerged only in the past few years.
Colin Dickey
I found contemporary ghosts in New Orleans, where the ghost of a woman killed during Hurricane Katrina is said to haunt a local burger restaurant.
    I found a ghost in the wake of the September 11 tragedies: walking amid the collected rubble at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, dressed as a WWII-era nurse.
    And I found ghosts in the mechanisms of the Internet itself. After a friend of mine died, Facebook continued to bring her face back up in my news feed, asking me to "reconnect" with her; Facebook's algorithms, after all, couldn't distinguish between someone who'd just left the site and someone who'd left us completely.
    Ghost stories and legends of haunted houses seem to persist because (setting aside for the moment whether one actually believes in the paranormal) they fulfill a basic cultural need. Or rather, a set of cultural needs, each of which is important in its own right.
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    They can allow us to approach — however indirectly — our own fears and anxieties about mortality, and what lies beyond. And they may also help us negotiate the loss of the loved ones who've gone before us.
    Ghosts also help us contend with tragedy and a world that's frightening for the living. For example, spiritualism — one of the great early homegrown American theologies, in which mediums were believed to communicate with the dead — grew out of this need: a desire to take the sting out of death, and to keep the boundary between life and death a bit more porous, a bit less terrifying. And sure enough, spiritualism in this country tended to flourish when Americans were dying in greatest numbers from less-than-natural causes: after the Civil War and World War I, for example, when families were forced to grieve for young men before they were ready.
    The case of the haunted burger joint in New Orleans is another good example: A local woman named Vera Smith was killed during Hurricane Katrina, and now her ghost supposedly haunts the local restaurant built near where her body was found. To exorcise her ghost, the restaurant's owners built a small shrine to her on the side of the building. Vera wasn't a politician or a celebrity, but she was important to her local community, and the story of her ghost has been one way of keeping her memory alive: Now customers ask about the shrine, and learn a little bit more about her past and her legacy in the process.
    Additionally, ghost stories are one way we have of filling in the gaps in the historical record. Often, they are micro-histories: stories and legends surrounding a single house, a single hotel, a single cemetery. Everyone grew up with that one weird house at the end of the block: the one with the peeling paint, the weeds in the yard, the closed blinds. We never knew what was going on with that house, who owned it, why it was different from all the rest, so we made up ghost stories about it, dared each other to ring the doorbell on Halloween, and sped up whenever we walked past it. Telling each other ghost stories — even about very famous houses — seems to be one way we have for making sense of some of the stranger and anachronistic buildings that surround us.
    After all, even during the Information Age, when so much data is at our fingertips, there's still so much we don't know. Ghost stories seem, for many people, to continue to be a vibrant and necessary tool to help us face that unknown.