A Social Anthropology of Ghosts in Twenty-First-Century America

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Although belief in ghosts or analogous concepts is prevalent cross-culturally, including in contemporary Western cultures, social scientific treatments of spirit belief and experience often dismiss such views as superstitious, or overlook this dimension of culture completely. Using mixed methods, we examine ghost belief, experience, and media consumption, as well as the practice of ‘ghost hunting’ in the United States. Results from a national survey demonstrate that these beliefs and practices are common and concentrated strongly among younger generations of Americans, especially moderately religious ‘dabblers.’ Fieldwork with multiple groups centered on ‘hunting’ ghosts reveals several notable themes, including rhetorical appeals to both science and religion, magical rites, the extensive use of technology to mediate evidence and experiences of ghosts, and the narrative construction of hauntings. We argue that the inherent liminality of spirits as cultural constructs accounts for their persistence, power, and continual recurrence.