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Skepticism

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ changes the conversation — about ghosts

Art imitates afterlife?

Star Wars:  The Rise of Skywalker has been viewed by fellow geeks dozens of times by now, and it’s been picked apart for better or worse . Among all the nerd debates, though, one aspect seems to be overlooked by all but the select few who are also interested in the paranormal — how Force ghosts compare to “real” ghosts.

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Remember that triumphant scene when Rey arrives on Luke Skywalker’s former island hideaway of Ahch-To. As Rey stands before the burning TIE fighter that brought her there, she tosses Luke’s old lightsaber into the blaze, to let it burn as well. She’s leaving the past behind and shutting herself off from the rest of the galaxy, just as her mentor did after Kylo Ren destroyed the new Jedi temple. As the lightsaber enters the flames, a transparent blue hand catches it, saving it from destruction. Luke, or rather his Force ghost, clutches the weapon as he strolls out of the flames.

To someone who investigates claims of ghostly activity on a daily basis, I was intrigued. This entity, a seemingly non-corporeal being, was able to both interact and not interact with the physical world at the same time. He stopped the lightsaber’s flight and held it in his hand, yet was unaffected by the raging flames from which he emerged, while passing through pieces of the wreckage without any resistance. Later on, Luke even levitates his old X-wing out of the water (finally completing that task!) while standing on a rocky outcrop.

Big deal, right? He was probably using the Force! But ghosts have been portrayed in a similar fashion in a plethora of movies. For example, in the film actually called Ghost, Patrick Swayze’s spirit can both interact and not interact with the physical world — he could walk along the street, up and down stairs, and on the upper floors of buildings. Yet, he would walk through walls, doors, and even people. Why did he never fall through the floor … or the Earth itself? In Poltergeist, the various ghosts could be visible, invisible, able to possess dolls and trees, and even create portals to other dimensions, all according to the needs of the story.

“Real” ghosts are non-corporeal, meaning they have no physical body, since it was left behind when they died. Yet despite that lack of a physical vessel, ghosts seem to gain phenomenal superpowers far beyond those of mortal men and women. If fact, as with movie ghosts, “real” ghosts can pretty much do whatever they feel like, or rather, whatever the storyteller needs them to do. Eyewitness reports over the decades attribute a wide range of magical abilities to ghosts, including:

  • Walking through walls and other solid objects at will, though they also walk on solid ground, floors, and staircases (intangibility).
  • Appearing as solid transparent figures, or partial figures (e.g. from the waist up), or even shadows/silhouettes. This suggests they can manipulate the amount of light they reflect or absorb (invisibility).
  • Controlling whether they can be witnessed by one person, a select few, or anyone within line of sight (psi).
  • Speaking through vocalizations, despite the lack of physical vocal cords. Ghosts have also been reported to speak directly into a person’s mind, or carry on conversations in dreams (telepathy).
  • Manipulating objects — levitating, pushing, pulling, and even throwing them around (telekinesis).
  • Causing items to disappear and reappear, usually referred to as asport (object disappears) and apport (object appears). These items often come from another location (teleportation).
  • Moving around to different locations, or seemingly leaving this dimension entirely until they decide to stop by again (interdimensional travel).
  • Foretelling the future, allowing them to give advice to the living or trick them into releasing the armies of darkness, depending on who you’re talking to (fortune-telling).
  • Manipulating electrical currents and radio waves, causing lights to flicker or acoustic devices to project their voices (technopathy).

That’s a pretty sweet collection of abilities that ghosts, both on and off screen, seem to share. During the Victorian era, ghosts would allegedly perform many of these magical powers during séances. The spirits would shock guests by levitating objects, causing items to appear out of nowhere, and would even walk among the sitters and occasionally physically touch them. In the modern day, parents sometimes report hearing strange, whispering voices coming through the baby monitor.

One of the first written accounts of a “true ghost story” comes from Pliny the Younger, a 2nd-century Roman politician and writer. He described the spirit of a fragile old man who had chains around his hands and feet. Eventually, an unusually brave philosopher allowed the ghost to lead him to a specific spot in the yard where, after some digging, the skeleton of a man in chains was discovered. Once the remains were properly buried, the ghost was appeased and was able to move on to the hereafter. We see similar story points in films such as Stir of Echoes and The Sixth Sense, in which ghosts can’t move on until some past “wrong” has been righted or the ghost’s physical remains are discovered.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized there’s an evolutionary relationship between fictional ghosts and their apparent real-life counterparts. Early “true” accounts of ghosts influenced people’s perception of what spirits looked like and what they could do (and not do). Portrayals in theater, influenced by these accounts, would further add to our perceptions.

The 1937 film The Dybbuk (based on a 1914 play by S. Ansky), showcases a man dealing in magic in order to gain the affection of a woman. He eventually summons Satan to help him, but is struck dead and comes back as a Dybbuk, a spirit that can possess the living. In The Dybbuk, ghosts can possess the living (much like Swayze’s character in Ghost), but can also be exorcised through religious rites. These are common themes throughout well-known “real” stories, such as the Harrisville Haunting and the Enfield Poltergeist, which were further sensationalized by The Conjuring film franchise.

The Dybbuk gained an extra evolutionary spirit-step when an antiques dealer created a backstory for a small, 1950s mini-bar he had listed on eBay. Inspired by the Jewish folklore, he altered and embellished the Dybbuk story so the mini-bar could trap an evil spirit, thus becoming a “cursed” object that could infect the living with all kinds of ailments. The story was developed into a film, The Possession, which boosted not only the popularity of “cursed Dybbuk box,” but also the horrors the trapped spirit could cause. You can now find hundreds of dybbuk boxes for sale on eBay, along with hundreds of YouTube videos of believers (and hoaxers) opening the boxes, followed by all manner of alleged poltergeist activity.

The common thread between movie ghosts and “real” ghosts is simple — humans created both. People think they have a paranormal experience and tell others about it, and those stories are passed around to become local legends. Writers, actors, directors, etc. embellish the stories to entertain audiences, which in turn influence the general public’s perception of ghosts. More elaborate “true” ghost experiences are perceived (based on expectations), which are spread around, and the cycle is repeated.

The Force ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Luke may just be characters in a science fiction movie, but they’re also much more than that. They’re the product of human imagination born from personal beliefs and misperceptions, tossed back and forth between alleged real experiences and the need to create entertainment. It’s not that big a leap from an elderly man in chains a long time ago to our beloved, glowing blue Jedi Masters in a galaxy far, far away.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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