No ghost instinct

I recently had a discussion with a group of Taiwanese high school students about childhood fears. It turns out that roughly 100% of them had been afraid of the same thing: ghosts. One guy had a phobia of cats, but other than that it was ghosts all around.

When I was a little child, I was afraid of tigers. I slept on the top bunk, and I remember asking my mother how high my bed was and how tall a tiger was — trying to calculate whether or not a tiger would be able to climb up and get me while I slept. Leopards, too. One of my most vivid memories from early childhood is of sitting in the bathtub trying to decide whether I wanted the bathroom door to be closed (to keep leopards out) or open (so that I could see any leopards that might be out there). Later in childhood I was sometimes afraid to go into the woods alone, and when I tried to pin down exactly what I was afraid of, I found that it was the prospect of encountering a huge ugly beast which I could visualize clearly but which I only later learned (after seeing pictures in books) to call a Hyaenodon. I’ve been told that I also used to worry a lot about monkeys coming into my room when I was a toddler, but I have no clear memories of that. “Monsters” also featured in my early childhood fears — beasts corresponding to no specific animal, but sporting fangs and claws and fur clearly inspired by the big cats and other predators. Dinosaurs were also an occasional fear.

Until recently, I assumed that such fears were a pretty universal experience for children and that they were rooted in instincts which served our ancestors in the not-so-distant evolutionary past, when leopards and hyenas and such were among the leading causes of death. As silly as my fears were for a kid living in suburban New Hampshire, they would have been perfectly reasonable on the African savanna.

However, when I described my childhood fears to the high school students, they looked at me like I was from outer space. No one could relate — not even the ailurophobe, who feared only domestic cats and had never worried about lions or leopards. This was a bit of a shock to me. I was also surprised to find that they had never imagined “monsters” — the prevalence of which in popular culture (Monsters, Inc. and the like) had led me to believe that they were also pretty universal. They had feared ghosts, and pretty much only ghosts.

I, on the other hand, cannot remember ever experiencing even the tiniest hint of a fear of ghosts. I’ve been afraid of the dark from time to time, but that fear never took the form of worrying about ghosts. Walking through a graveyard at night would be no more scary than walking anywhere else at night. As a child I used to imagine that a leopard or a “monster” or Darth Vader was hiding in the dark corners of my bedroom, but it never occurred to me to imagine a ghost. I even thought I saw ghost-like apparitions a couple of times as a child (bright white human figures glimpsed out of the corner of my eye) but never thought to be afraid of them (or to think of them as “ghosts,” for that matter). As an adult, I lived alone for a year in a house which was supposed to be haunted (and which had very low rent as a result) without ever once feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable about it. I find the ghost movies that my wife loves to watch insufferably tedious because I simply do not respond to them at all on an emotional or visceral level.

This is not explained by the fact that I don’t believe in ghosts. For fears at this level, belief simply doesn’t enter into the equation. After all, I never really believed there were tigers in New Hampshire or Hyaenodonts in Ohio, either. I know plenty of people who “don’t believe in ghosts” but still feel a frisson of fear when passing a cemetery at night. It’s more likely that the causation runs the other way: I don’t believe in ghosts because I’m not afraid of them; the idea of ghosts can’t muster enough of an emotional response in me to make it a “live option” in Jamesian terms.

Nor is it explained by general fearlessness. In fact I’m quite easily spooked by things other than ghosts. I’ve been afraid of plenty of silly things over the course of my life, and even now stories about grey aliens can sometimes terrify me every bit as much as ghost movies terrify my wife.

One disadvantage of having lived in a foreign country for most of my adult life is that it’s hard to separate personal idiosyncrasies from racial or cultural differences. Am I personally unusual in having feared wild animals more than ghosts as a child? Or is it that Western children fear leopards and hyenas, and Chinese children fear ghosts? And either way, what accounts for the difference?


Filed under Anecdotes, Psychology, Taiwan

4 responses to “No ghost instinct

  1. (Love the new banner photo on the blog). As a child I too was afraid of leopards. I’m not even sure I knew what a leopard looked like, but I was sure there was one lurking in the dark corners of our basement. I have never feared ghosts, nor felt any discomfort in a cemetery at night. Don’t know that it gets you anywhere, but there it is.

  2. Could there have been an element of intentional conditioning? I’ve heard Thai people describe how parents will get their kids to go to bed by telling them that if they don’t, a ghost will get them. (Seems like a strange strategy to me — if I my parents had told me that as a small child, I might have gone to bed, but I think I’d have problems falling asleep!) And I’ve heard other stories of adults using the threat of ghosts to try to keep kids in line.

    By the way, I say “ghosts”, but I think that’s a rather narrow translation of the Thai word, which I’ve also heard used to refer to vampires. So now I actually think they’re talking about malevolent supernatural entities, in perhaps a very broad sense, rather than “ghosts”.

    “It’s more likely that the causation runs the other way: I don’t believe in ghosts because I’m not afraid of them” — that’s an interesting observation. The other side might be: if you’re that afraid of something, it’s not possible / doesn’t make sense, to treat it as if it didn’t exist. Emotion is primary.

  3. “The people should be actively encouraged to believe in and fear ghosts, because such a belief will motivate right behavior” as per Mozi (see Hmmm….

  4. The Chinese word for “ghost” is similarly broad in meaning; vampires, demons, and such are considered types of “ghost.” However, the word’s primary meaning is still apparitions of the dead, and that is what people are generally afraid of.

    As far as I know, Taiwanese parents don’t generally threaten their children with ghosts. The preferred bugbear for these purposes is Aunt Tiger — which only makes it more puzzling that kids are afraid of ghosts rather than big cats!

    The link to Mozi’s ideas is interesting, but his philosophy never became mainstream in Chinese culture. Modern Chinese culture is thoroughly Confucian — the opposite of Mohism. There are a great many superstitions about ghosts and how to protect yourself from them, but so far as I know none of them feature a moral element. You keep the ghosts away through certain superstitious rituals, not through being a good person.

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