Eeek, yikes. This place is haunted, run, run, lets get out fast. Creepy, terrifying, spine chilling stories about ghosts abound all over the world. But are ghosts really harmful? Do they deserve the “eeek” reputation they’ve got? How real are the putrid, rotting, vengeful ghosts portrayed in many films? By playing up ‘bad ghost’ stories, are we guilty of tarring and maligning all ghosts with the same brush?

The fear of ghosts is known as spectrophobia or phasmophobia and is known to arise from a fear of the unknown. Stephen Wagner, a paranormal researcher with 30 years of experience describes this is a deep-seated fear that is hardwired into our genetic makeup. “The primitive parts of our brain that respond to instinct —a holdover from our cave-dwelling ancestors—flush our bodies with adrenaline when we encounter a threat, preparing us to fight or flee. And when that threat is something unknown that might leap out of the darkness, we’d just as soon flee.

“There’s another component to this fear when that something in the dark is perceived as a ghost. After all, a ghost is the manifestation of a person who is dead. So now we are confronted not only with what we think is a threat to our lives, but a representation of death itself. Not only is it an entity that we don’t understand, it is also a resident of the place many of us fear the most—the mysterious land of the dead.”

Besides, a fear of ghosts stems from popular trends. “The readers and audience want a scary story”, says Wagner, “and so that’s the way it’s written. But harmful or  evil spirit activity is very rare. Most haunting activity consists of unexplained noises, scents, sensations, or fleeting shadows. Sometimes things get moved and voices are heard. Rarely is an apparition seen. These can frighten people because they seem to be supernatural. But they are harmless.”

The media has in fact contributed in a big way to projecting ghosts in a scary, negative light. According to Lewis and Sharon Gerew of the Philadelphia Ghost Hunters Alliance, “What Hollywood and television portray is very inaccurate and cannot be relied upon as truthful. They show these spirits of the dead as being evil in nature, filled with malice and harmful intent. I assure you that this is not the case.”

The fact is that since ancient times the phenomenon of ghosts and spirits has become closely linked with fear. Most people would readily confess to being scared if they thought of or actually encountered a ghost. Yet according to most paranormal experts “that scary feeling is not justified”.  Wagner argues that the true behavior of ghosts, as evidenced by many thousands of investigations and case studies conducted by paranormal experts, overwhelmingly contradicts the common idea that they should be feared.

Veteran ghost investigator Hans Holzer writes that the popular notion of ghosts is “that they are always dangerous, fearful, and hurt people. Nothing could be further from the truth. … Ghosts have never harmed anyone except through fear found within the witness, of his own doing and because of his own ignorance as to what ghosts represent.”

In a departure from the trend of negative ghost stories in the media, in 2017 the Washington Post carried a somewhat unusual, detailed story: “Is the White House haunted? A history of spooked presidents, prime ministers and pets.” The White House, wrote Theresa Vargas, has long housed unsettling specters of a different, more bump-in-the-night kind. “Whether one embraces or mocks the paranormal, the many accounts that have spilled out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue over two centuries give ghosts an undeniable place in the country’s history. They also make that address arguably the nation’s most famous haunted house…”

Vargas goes on to quote Jared Broach, the founder of the company Nightly Spirits, which offers tours of haunted areas. “The White House has the best ghost stories, and I’d call them the most verified.” Amongst the favourites is British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s 1940 meeting with the ghost of American President Abraham Lincoln.  According to accounts, Churchill had just stepped out of a hot bath in the Lincoln bedroom and was wearing nothing but a cigar when he encountered Lincoln by the fireplace. “Good evening, Mr. President,” Churchill reportedly said. “You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”  Notably, even though ghostly sightings and activity in the White House sightings have been documented in eerie detail by scholars, newspapers, and of course, those involved in the actual encounters, none of the White House ghost stories feature malicious or harmful ghosts.

In my own experience, there is a range of personalities amongst ghosts and spirits. I’ve written about pishachas and pishachinis, baaks, nishi daks and other dangerous ghosts and spirits. In its malevolent form, a baak can kill a person and take the killed person’s shape. In Assam, the misty form of a baak would not disappear when we approached it but keep retreating till a point where we were reluctant to follow it. We didn’t come to harm because we held back.

In the case of the Nishi Dak too, a very dangerous spirit generally encountered and feared in Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand, people know that it calls out at night in the voice of a person known to the intended victim, so they don’t respond.  My two golden rules: don’t mess around if you know a ghost or spirit is dangerous. Don’t disturb a ghost or spirit unless absolutely necessary. But happily, so far I have found that dangerous ghosts or spirits form a small percentage amongst so many, many different types of ghosts. Mostly, they are benign.

So are we being unjust to ghosts by constantly building up a fear psychosis about them? As Wagner pointed out, “in the vast majority of haunting cases, there really isn’t anything to be afraid of. Our own fear and lack of understanding is the problem.” In the final analysis, whether they are good, bad, benign or malicious depends on one’s own beliefs and experiences. But one bad or malicious encounter doesn’t mean all ghosts are alike. And as a friend quipped, “just as well there are invisible barriers between our world and the other world, otherwise our already overburdened courts would have to contend with a slew of defamation cases filed by maligned ghosts”.