The following is excerpted from a book I am working on on the subject of hauntings, ritual magic, and how the marriage of these things can shed light on a haunting and even make it useful.
Ghosts are defined differently throughout the world. In a large part of the world, perhaps the larger part, they are rarely understood in the way we do in the Western world. Here, we often hold that ghosts are particularly the spirits of deceased people or animals that somehow linger on in a place. The idea that this is in fact a persisting soul, that a person has somehow become “stuck,” is far from universally accepted, however. Even within the magical community it is often held that the ghost is merely a reflection of the deceased: a last psychic imprint on the energy of a place, the side effect of an unhappy death but not the remains of the same. Like the crater left by Wile E. Coyote falling from the cliff, it resembles the person, but nobody would claim that the crater is Wile E., and so we often say the ghost is not the person but simply the impression left by the impact of their death. I have little contention with this idea, and think that in at least some cases cases, particularly in the immediate aftermath of traumatic deaths, this may be the case. I certainly find it more plausible than the idea that the soul of a person has somehow stuck around after death. I have seen the impressions the mind can leave on a place – that is, after all, what we’re aiming to accomplish through magic generally – but I have never seen a soul as such.
It is perhaps this belief that a ghost is merely an impression, a pernicious relic of psychic energy left in the wake of a strongly emotional event, that leads to so many ghost hunters and paranormal investigators to so cavalierly taunt or intentionally disturb the spirits in a place. Often we see an attempt to goad a manifestation out of a spirit, and often we see nothing at all but disappointment when it does not deliver. After all, if nothing manifested, perhaps there’s no ghost at all?
But I do not find that the majority of hauntings are merely psychic impressions left on the energy of a place. While this certainly does happen, it does not account for all or even most of hauntings. Generally, this kind of impression dissipates with some fair rapidity, first of all. Though the mind can imprint itself upon a place, and trauma or high emotionality can certainly contribute to the strength of that imprint, these imprints are less like the dramatic Wile E. Coyote shaped crater and more like ripples in water after tossing in a rock, like jet contrails, or even like the impact crater left by a plane crash. They are neither detailed nor particularly enduring. Even the plane crash grows over in not much time, how then do we expect that a person’s mind might impress without any intentionality in a way that endures for hundreds of years? Or even tens of years!
While trauma can certainly create lasting psychic impressions that leave their mark not only on minds, but on locations, I don’t think that this is the most common form a ghost can take. Beyond that, such an impression would be mindless, without any reactivity to the environment. These kinds of “hauntings” do occur, but I am reluctant to call them a haunting as the general gist of a haunting is that there is a presence, not merely an impression. Besides that, strongly imprinting on objects does not seem to behave in the arbitrary way that we consistently view ghosts. There is no sense to a ghost that comes and goes, that manifests from time to time, in this scenario. So we must consider that in at least some cases of hauntings, a ghost is a sentient being.
This does not mean, however, that ghosts are in fact the soul once inhabiting a body now unfettered from the body. Generally, I find that such ghosts are instead spirits, sentient beings like humans or animals but merely existing without physical bodies. As sentient beings, like us all, spirits have desires and preferences, dislikes and aversions. Sometimes spirits are sophisticated intelligences on the order of humans, or higher, even. Just as often, spirits have intelligences little greater than that of animals, but still just as prone to desire and aversion. With this in mind, we can begin to understand why hauntings and so on often present the way they do, at liminal and transitional periods or when things have changed recently, such as construction work, new home ownership, or so on.