Science v. Tradition: Why people believe in Ghosts

A 6-year-old girl settles into bed, her toes sticking out from the sheets. Suddenly, a shadowy figure appears over her bed and reaches as if to grab her feet. The girl screams. Every night since that day until she died, she saw them: ghosts.

Phillis Kanellis’ was that 6-year-old girl. More than 60 years later she told her grandchildren Peter and Patti Kanellis these stories. “I thought they were ghost stories, come to find out she was really seeing stuff,”  Peter Kanellis, member of the Ghost Hunters of the Finger Lakes, said.

The stories sparked an unusual interest in Peter and his sister Patti Kanellis, another member of the Ghost Hunting group. They became believers in the paranormal world, and started The Ghost Hunters of the Finger Lakes in 2009. The group travels to houses that people believe are haunted.


“We don’t go in and say ‘oh you have stuff,’ we go in with an open mind and if we get something, we get something. We don’t get paid for doing this so we don’t have pressure to produce evidence,” Peter Kanellis said.


“…it’s the human need for an explanation–to see patterns and causality in ambiguous or inexplicable things happening in the material world,” Eriche Goode, professor of at Stony Brook University and sociologist said. “[We] need to interpret that which one does not understand.”


The Kanellis have investigated more than 100 houses in the Finger Lake region. The owners of those haunted houses are a part of the 42% of Americans who believe in the existence of ghosts. Some 37% in the United States denies the existence of ghosts. These numbers come from a Harris poll.

“This is can be accounted to something called confirmation bias, which is this idea that once we have a set of beliefs we do everything we can to convince us that we’re right,” Cronk said.


People fear death; so developing a theory about people coming back is a comfort to some, reinforcing the idea that ghosts exist, Goode said. “There’s a spiritual dimension that ghost belief taps into. A need to see something beyond the materially real, a denial that the end of one’s physical life is the end of one’s spiritual life.”

But at the end of this life, science and skeptics can only theorize what happens. For Goode, a connection between belief in God and belief in ghosts isn’t a straightforward relation.

“Only a small percentage of the population, maybe 10%, deny God, deny ghosts, are strictly materialists, skeptics, and consistently end up on one side of the scale. It’s not a very comforting belief, it’s scary and hence, not popular. But the rest of it, how education relates to paranormalism, to spirituality, to religion, etc., is very complicated and not at all straightforward,” Goode said.

The Kanellis’ take a different approach to the paranormal world, and think people believe in ghosts due to the number of stories they’ve heard, and what they’ve seen through investigations.

“People just talk about [their experience] with such sincerity its hard not to believe them,” Patti Kanellis said.

“Things that break motion light beams, it has to be some kind of physical mass to be doing that, because well when we walk by we’re going to break it. There’s some kind of energy. They say when we die that energy still exists, so where does it go? You can just theorize.” Peter Kanellis said.



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