A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Advice to Ghost Hunters (The Inevitable Ghost Entry, Part I)

When I was younger, I went through a phase of being very interested in ghosts. I grew up in the years when middle-school or elementary school students were ordering Alvin Shwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark from Weekly Reader, and I was no exception. Being a nerd, however, I actually found the "Notes" section at the back of the book to be of more interest than many of the stories. The stories scared me, but the notes -which described the folk backgrounds of these stories, their history, their variations- fascinated me. (No doubt this should have been one of my early clues that I was doomed to a life in academia, but somehow I missed it.)

Even today, though I like a good scary movie or novel, I tend to prefer "real" ghost stories to fictional ones. There's something fascinating to me about the way stories are passed down, how they are changed, how the core of them remains the same. (For similar reasons, I love to browse the old urban legends at Snopes, learning the background of stories I'd heard years ago. Try it sometime.) I would rather read a book of folklore on ghosts than a horror novel. And, though I am skeptical about people who say they've seen a ghost, in the concrete I believe it's possible that some ghost sightings really have been supernatural in origin . . .

. . . which provokes the question: just how does that work theologically? This seems to be a subject of considerable interest even to good, solid, feet-on-the-ground Christians. At times on Catholic message boards or in Catholic blogs, the question "what does the Catholic Church say about ghosts?" I have read some of these discussions with great interest. This entry may be considered my prerequisite addition to the great ghost discussion, but I am not going to spend a lot of time trying to answer the question above. As far as I can tell, the answer is "The Catholic Church doesn't say anything about ghosts, but we do believe in demons, angels, and the existence of souls after death." Appearances by "ghosts," therefore, if they are truly supernatural in origin, could be any of the spirits mentioned above: demons, angels, or the souls of the dead.
Or they could, conceivably, be something else entirely that hasn't been revealed to us in Scripture. (More on this in a future entry- I promise!)

I will simply take it as a given that it is possible for people to encounter spiritual forces, whether human and inhuman. And I'm going to give those who, like me, are interested in ghosts, a simple piece of advice: don't go ghost hunting. Or rather, don't go spend the night in the "haunted room" of a haunted house, even if it's in a bed and breakfast that serves up a good breakfast. Or -to be even more precise- if you ARE going to stay in a haunted bed and breakfast, don't read up on demonic possession and obsession the day before. Specifically, don't read Gerald Brittle's
The Demonologist, which is essentially an interview with Catholic demonologist and ghost chasers Ed and Lorraine Warren.

I don't know if Ed and Lorraine are quakes, flakes, or on the level. Their theology at times does seem to have been overly influenced by ideas and practices drawn from secular or even New Age parapsychology- but then they tend to have a good explanation for why X, which doesn't seem to be orthodox, really does work within Christianity. Their angelology and demonology is solidly Augustinian. It may simply be that they use phrases such as "positive energy" instead of "holiness" simply because they are talking the lingo of the profession. It doesn't seem to me that one can simply dismiss the book as being not from a Christian perspective (as one Amazon reviewer did), but I don't really know how solid the Warrens are, either in the accuracy of their observations, the veracity of their stories, or the orthodoxy of their theology.

Regardless of their theological eccentricities, the Warrens' advice seems good: don't conduct seances. If you see a spirit, don't try to communicate unless absolutely necessary, even if it seems beautiful or good. Don't use Ouija boards or automatic writing. Don't practice magic, even if it's "just for fun." If your house seems haunted or you think you are under demonic attack, get religion (make sure everyone in the house is baptized; go to church every week; call your priest, minister, or religious official to bless your home). In short, though their own personal views may be questionable, the advice they offer to others seems safe.

[Edited to add: It's been brought to my attention that the Warrens may have continued to pass on false information about the Amityville hoax and some of the people involved. (There are differing perspectives on the issue, and I am not informed enough to judge.) This does seriously call into question their creditability. I had assumed that they were merely taken in by the hoax, but other people maintain that they fabricated evidence in their books. If true, that's too bad, as I would have liked to read them as being truthful. Though this doesn't change the entertainment value of their work, it may mean that the works should be read as if they were fiction.]

While I may have lingering questions about the Warrens' theology, I can wholeheartedly say that their stories are freakin' scary, and to someone with a Judeo-Christian worldview, many of them sound plausible. Granted, some of them sound crazy. ("Annabelle" = Bride of Chucky?) But is it any crazier than dry bones being revived in the desert, or pigs being possessed by demons? Do Lorraine's self-proclaimed abilities seem significantly different from the gifts of prophecy and discernment of spirits in the Bible? (I suppose to spiritual gift successionists, they do. Well, sorry, but I'm not talking to y'all this time.)

Still, I can't recommend the Warrens as reliable authorities on demonic possession or haunting, because their printed works seem so theatrical at times. It's not so much that I'm accusing them of active dishonesty, as of exaggeration or hyperbole. In short, I wonder if their reliability has been compromised by their desire to tell a good story. I do, however, recommend this book both as entertainment (it really is better than Stephen King, in my opinion) and as a starting place for questions about ghosts, hauntings, and demons. Those specifically interested in ghost hunting may also be interested in the webpages of Jeff Messenger and David Considine. These individuals approach the paranormal from a Christian perspective. (I cannot vouch for these authors' faith or orthodoxy, of course. [Edited to add- but Considine has been recognized by the Catholic Church as a lay demonologist.])

The Warrens have a number of other books about demons and ghosts, but judging from the Amazon reviews, The Demonologist is the pick of the litter as far as entertainment value. Just don't read the book the day before you stay in a "haunted" house, if you plan on sleeping that night. That's my second piece of advice to amateur ghost hunters. The first, and most important piece of advice -picked up from the Warrens and Messenger- is to pray. If God is for us, who can be against?


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