Article begins

1) We begin with a premise and provocation: haunting is a universal condition. Where there is history, there is haunting. Being haunted is a condition of living in the world, and ghosts are everywhere, whether we attend to them or not. Ghosts also belong to all times. One of the great promises of the Enlightenment project was the “disenchantment of the world” and the banishment of ghosts to the realm of tradition. In the end, however, the Enlightenment only added new spaces in the world for novel kinds of haunting to emerge. Modernity’s rational secularism is similarly haunted, as is the professed hypervisibility of postmodernism and the surveillance state. Ghosts dwell at the heart of modern nation-states, late capitalism, and technoscientific materiality. There are ghosts in all of these machines, so to speak. The ghost may take on new forms and haunt in new ways, but they remain resolutely and stubbornly present, even in their assumed absence. Nearly half of all adults in Canada and the United States believe in—or have encountered—ghosts. According to a recent New York Times article, paranormal researcher John E.L. Tenney has even noted a distinct uptick in hauntings during the pandemic. In countless ways, we are all caught.

2) At the same time, there is no such thing as a universal ghost. Ghosts are singular and specific; they can only be understood within their own proper historical and ethnographic context. From this perspective, the ghost is an object (and a subject) ripe for ethnographic inquiry. Following Avery Gordon, we might say that the ghost is a “social figure” tied to a specific site or location. Engaging with ghosts as such necessarily involves investigating the economic, political, and socio-cultural landscapes that ghosts haunt. What makes a ghost, why they haunt, and what can be known about them are all culturally specific and historically contingent questions. How we act with and toward the ghost is likewise culturally prescribed. We have much to learn from each other about how to reckon with ghosts. Amid current global crises and decolonial projects that have been years in the making, this task is perhaps more urgent than ever.

3) Ghosts invite us to dwell on our relations with the dead, but also with the living: our family and friends, our neighbors and acquaintances, our enemies, even perfect strangers. Sometimes the ghostly encounter allows us to recognize the ghost as our own ancestor; it repairs a familial relation or undoes a forgetting. Other times, it involves recognizing that the landscape of the dead is populated by ghosts who we ourselves do not and cannot claim as ancestors but who nevertheless demand and deserve acknowledgment. It is about listening to and making space for these ghosts and realizing that our fates—those of the dead and those of the living—are bound together. Ghosts remind us that we live with and must be in good relation to people we may never know. The ghostly encounter is, after all, a matter of justice. It means coming to terms with how the past animates the present.

4) Engaging ghosts is a form of memory work. It is about reworking the past and establishing our relationship to it. It is about making claims on the past that implicate us in profound and enduring ways. As such, engaging with ghosts has transformative potential—it has the capacity to transform action, affect, and politics. As a form of memory work, engaging ghosts is an act of the imagination, an interpretive labor, and a moral practice all at once. It is at once a deeply personal exercise and always more-than-personal, an engagement within and beyond ourselves. We want something from ghosts, and our engagement with them has stakes; our presents and futures are tied up with their pasts.

5) Ghosts want something from us, too. Haunting is the way ghosts make their desires known. This means acknowledging two things. Firstly, the ghost is not just, as Sigmund Freud once framed it, a “projection of…mental entities into the external world.” Rather, ghosts are beings outside of us with their own agency and are therefore outside of our control. Secondly, through the ghostly encounter we might come to reckon with a ghost’s demands. These demands are always specific to the ghost. Sometimes these demands are satisfied through acknowledgment, but sometimes they demand action. We must also entertain the possibility that sometimes ghosts just like to haunt—that the act of haunting is satisfying in itself.

Credit: Charlotte Corden
Painting of a ghost in an office

6) Ghosts express unsettled relations, and they themselves are unsettled. Their very form indexes that which they represent. Ghosts trouble, inhabit, and mediate the borderlands between life and death, past and present. As transient beings, they signal to the living that the boundaries we draw—and which we then naturalize—are unsettled as well. To accommodate ghosts, we must make ourselves accountable to the pasts they bring into the present, even when those pasts are painful, and even when they threaten to unsettle our present and futures. Ghosts can perhaps never truly be settled because the “labor of memorialization is unlimited”—it is a repetitious act of care that carries itself into the future.

7) Ghosts invite us to think outside classic modes of representation. They are endlessly elusive, flashing up for brief moments as a whisper, a tap on the shoulder, a hazy specter, a rumor, a scent, or an uncanny feeling, only to disappear again. Ghostly encounters are often met with both indefinable certainty and nagging doubt: we feel the unsettling reality of what it is to be haunted, but we are left without a concrete image, a fixed meaning, or a cohesive narrative. We cannot reckon with ghosts without rethinking our contemporary evidentiary schemes and value systems. To think with and through ghosts, we must think beyond binary oppositions (like visibility/invisibility, absence/presence, now/then) to the excesses produced between and around them.

8) The ghost’s temporal mode is one of repetition. The arrival of the ghost (which is also always a return) disrupts linear time, bringing past, present, and future together in unexpected ways. As the past bursts into the present through and alongside the ghost, it makes demands on the future and forces us to contend with time differently. Ghosts disrupt linear time and trouble progressive historical narratives because they reveal multiple, coexisting temporalities and the complex layering of different pasts onto fractal presents and futures. Importantly, their returns present openings for imagining other pasts, presents, and futures, of what “could have been and can be otherwise”—and indeed, for reimagining temporal, social, and political arrangements at larger scales.

9) Ghosts make the present waver, but they also manifest in moments when the present is wavering. Ghosts manifest in times and places where radical change is afoot. Haunting occurs when the present feels inexplicable or unsatisfactory or when it punctures the present with a loss that has not been properly mourned. It may also occur when something has gone missing in the upheaval of things but was not noticed or replaced. But so too does the ghost’s appearance make the present waver in material and immediate ways, by way of an atmospheric charge, a glitch, a presence, a feeling that comes before (re)cognition. This feeling of disturbance is something to follow. It points us toward a fractured present. The work starts here.

10) While we began with the assertion that haunting is universal and ghosts are everywhere, we close with a reminder: Ghosts are but one of many types of spectral beings that occupy the invisible landscape. Not all spectral beings are ghosts, and not all haunting is ghostly. Ghosts often exist alongside elemental, familial, or wild spirits, jinn, angels, devils, and a whole host of other (super)natural beings. All of these have their own history, pedigree, and sets of demands, not to mention their own social meanings and rules of engagement. What is more, to be haunted always involves feeling the presence of invisible forces like power, global capital, and politics—forces that are more worldly than otherworldly. As Michel de Certeau reminds us: “There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can ‘invoke’ or not. Haunted places are the only ones people can live in.”


Kassandra Spooner-Lockyer

Kassandra Spooner-Lockyer is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, studying the ghostly landscapes of deindustrialized Canada. She has co-authored the article “Walking with a Ghost River: Unsettling Place in the Anthropocene” and collaborated to construct a ghostly story map with the Concordia Ethnography Lab.

Katie Kilroy-Marac

Katie Kilroy-Marac is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto. She is the author of An Impossible Inheritance: Postcolonial Psychiatry and the Work of Memory in a West African Clinic.

Cite as

Spooner-Lockyer, Kassandra and Katie Kilroy-Marac. 2021. “Ten Things about Ghosts and Haunting.” Anthropology News website, October 18, 2021.