Modern Ghost Belief in the Broader Historical Timeline

Project Overview

Group Members Mary-Frances Hall, Molly Bush, Katey Smith

Ghost belief is one of the few pieces of phenomenon that transcends throughout history. However, reported encounters and told ghost stories have shifted over time periods based on social, religious, and cultural context. Reality is entirely based on perception. Thus, ghost stories act as “present realities” depictive of historical attitudes towards death, religion, theology, and science.

Students in Washington and Lee’s Ghosts of History class set-out to design surveys aimed at evaluating modern ghost belief in our community. Our particular survey was created with the goal of determining how present ghost belief fits into the greater historical timeline. In particular, we were interested in looking at the ways in which ghost belief has stayed consistent and diverged from 20th century themes. The way in which people tell ghost stories is very telling; our survey was designed to look carefully at storytelling techniques and the way in which people presently think of ghosts from a physical, religious, and personal standpoint.


Our survey was made online using Google Forms and distributed via email. Each of the three members of the group collected responses from a minimum of ten subjects. A description of the participants surveyed is provided below. To check out our survey and, perhaps, take it for yourself click here.

Surveyed Participants

Responses were collected from a total of thirty-three participants. The group of participants were comprised of predominately females.

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We chose to survey two distinct groups of people, the first being of college-aged students (between the ages of 17-24 years old), and the other being of adults of the older generation (between the ages of 40-80 years old). Both age groups were comprised of both male and female subjects. We chose this design as we felt is best allowed us to evaluate our original research questions.

The large variety in age, gender, hometown, generation group, and religion made it difficult to divide our results into incredible specific groups. Ultimately, we ended up making general analyses by observing overall themes.

Overall Findings

The first four questions of the survey were structured based on a Likert scale of 1 to 10 and asked people to rate belief in ghosts or paranormal beings, level of superstition, level of anxiety/fear about death, and level of a connection between religious and theology and ghost belief. We then organized the data based on the demographic questions asked at the beginning of the survey (age, gender, and religious affiliation) using a data analysis software called SPSS and acquired the following results.
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Figure 1 Gender Correlations

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Figure 2 Age Correlations

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Figure 3 Religious Affiliation Correlations

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Figure 4 Religious Affiliation and Ghost Belief

For our analysis, we examined the results obtained from SPSS in order to ascertain whether there existed any correlations within the three demographic breakdowns. First, we examined the relationship between age and the mean responses to each of the four likert scale questions. As you can see in figure 2, though the mean responses for the questions belief in ghosts, anxiety about death, and the connection between death and religion are very close for both the 17-24 and 40-80 age groups, there are slightly higher numbers for the 17-24 age group. Also, the 17-24 age group shows a significantly higher level of superstition than the 40-80 age group. These findings are consistent with the idea we have discussed in class about the trend of college aged students having a higher belief in ghosts. This is due to many colleges, especially Washington and Lee, having ghost stories associated with the campus that act as a way to unify students around commonly held beliefs and to make them feel more at home at the university.

Next, we examined the relationship between gender and the mean responses to each of the four likert scale questions. As can be seen in figure 1, the mean responses for each of the four questions were very mixed between males and females. For our study, male’s mean score for belief in ghosts was slightly higher than that of females. This is very interesting because it goes against the idea we have talked about in class of women believing more in ghosts and the supernatural than men. This result may have been due to the larger number of females than males who participated in our study, slightly skewing the results. Males also had a higher mean score for the question of how connected are ghosts and religion. Female’s mean score for superstition was higher than that of the males, and they also had a slightly higher response score for the question of how afraid of death are you.

We also looked at the relationship between our responder’s religious affiliation and the mean responses to each of the four likert scale questions. The most interesting finding, which can be seen in both figure 3 and figure 4, is that Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Unitarian reported the highest mean scores for belief in ghosts. We have talked about in class how Catholics and Methodists, historically, have had higher levels of ghost belief compared to most of the protestant religions, so it is interesting to see this parallel in the results of our survey. It also makes sense that Episcopalian was one of the highest because their practices so closely mirror those of Catholicism. Looking at the results, we noticed a correlation between scores on the ghost belief and superstition questions, and the ghost belief and connection between ghost belief and religion questions across all religions, either scores are both high or both low. We also noticed even though some participants individually selected scores higher than 7 on the questions, none of the mean scores across all of the religions exceeded 6.5. This indicates a level of uncertainty regarding our questions and ghost belief among the people who participated in our survey.

The next four questions of our survey were open ended, and once all responses were collected we analyzed the different answers given and looked at the common themes of ghost belief across each one. From the answers given of the first short answer question, we noticed that the majority of people believe that ghosts are either semi-transparent beings that have the potential to take many different forms or are a spirit/energy that communicates with a sign or feeling. About half of the participants believed that people never experience the ghosts of their dead loved ones while the other half believe that it is a possibility. Of the people that did believe you can encounter ghosts of loved ones they believed that they would be the most common ghosts a person would encounter.

Based on the answers given for the second short answer question, the majority of our participants believe that ghosts are distinctly different from Angels or Demons, making the separation that Angels and Demons are spiritual beings associated with God while ghosts are spirits that once lived on earth. Most also believed that ghosts can be either good or evil depending on the nature of who they were on earth or why they were sent back. Those who did not believe ghosts were evil thought them to be troubled, lost, or sad. For the third short answer question, half of our participants believed that either physical evidence or a personal experience was needed in order to solidify a belief in ghosts. The other half stated that a belief in ghosts is something that can’t be proved with evidence because it is such a personal experience and for many a religious experience where proof is tied to their faith. For the fourth short answer question, in which we asked them the setting where they believe they would most likely see a ghost, almost every participant gave stereotypical answers that have most likely been fostered through the commodification of ghosts in the media. The majority of people said that they would see a ghost when alone at night, extremely sad, missing someone who has passed away, while in a graveyard, old church, old hospital, or an old house where someone has died.

The final question of our survey asked participants to report a firsthand or secondhand ghost or paranormal story. Responses were evaluated based on common themes and repeated trophs. Many of the stories featured experiences with dead loved ones in the forms of felt presences or perceived signs sent from heaven. The participants’ responses all featured a very “rational guise;” the answers on supernatural phenomena were framed in rationally scientific ways. The stories included descriptions of skepticism; Many participants provided alternative hypotheses as reasons behind their ghostly encounters. Responses were given from a defensive standpoint.


Despite the inherent limitations of our survey, the results of our survey seem to point to a continuation of 19th and 20th century themes in present day ghost belief. Many of our participants reported ghosts as airy, mute, intangible beings without a predominant purpose. These descriptions fit in with those of the 19th and 20th century ghost reports. Perhaps, the media and commodification of ghosts can be blamed towards this stagnant trend. Maybe our image of ghosts is so deeply imprinted into our minds that change in belief is close to impossible. However, there seems to be a theme of re-personalization of ghosts; This came through particularly in the ghost story reports.  

In today’s world of immense technological and scientific innovation, it seems that we question the validity and legitimacy of that which we can not explain, such as ghosts. However, another layer of these topics exist: the ways in which we shape and explain our voids in understanding. I hope that our survey’s findings and proposed analysis shed light onto the modern day “present realities” that make up our ghosts.


To view our PowerPoint presentation given on the our survey click here.