The Winchester Mystery House
One of the most famous haunted houses in the world is the Winchester Mystery House, a Victorian-era mansion in San Jose, California. Once belonging to Sarah Winchester, the widow of gun maker William Winchester, people have long claimed that the house is haunted by the ghosts of those killed with Winchester rifles. Some say that Mrs. Winchester met with a Boston medium who channeled her dead husband, telling her she must continuously build on her home for these tragic ghostly spirits. Sarah’s mansion eventually grew to 160 rooms—including forty bedrooms, two ballrooms, forty-seven fireplaces, and stairs and doors that lead to nowhere! When Sarah died in 1922, construction ceased and the home became a tourist attraction.
Sarah Winchester’s beliefs are not unique, even amidst today’s skepticism. In a 2005 Gallup poll, for instance, a shocking 37 percent of Americans, 28 percent of Canadians, and 40 percent of Britons indicated they believe that houses can be haunted by ghosts.
Do You Believe In Ghosts?
Belief in ghosts goes back to our ancient ancestors who worshiped the spirits of the dead and the spirits of animals (called animism). The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead shows ghosts in the afterlife looking much as they did before death. Some religions today still practice rites to supposedly “rest the spirits” of the dead.
But what, exactly, is a ghost?
Typically, ghosts are said to be the spirits of dead people who have come back from an unseen world. They are said to often take the ethereal form of the body they once inhabited while alive, but they also can be invisible, a mere smoky wisp, or a fully realized translucent shape.
The attempt to make contact with ghosts is called necromancy, often through a spiritualistic ritual called a séance. Places where ghosts are said to have appeared are called “haunted.” People claim to have seen ghosts in abandoned houses, for instance, and it is often said these ghosts have a special connection to the home, building, or even bridges and caves where they are found. The supernatural activities in those places are often connected to tragic events—like a particularly violent murder or suicide. Some believe the spirit of a person lives beyond death and is sometimes trapped in places where it cannot pass over to the next world.
Skeptics explain that the perception of a house being haunted by the spirit of a dead person is no more than misinterpreting noises that naturally occur in old structures. It might also be a waking dream or the effect of a toxic substance in the environment, such as carbon monoxide. Some claim they are merely optical illusions or hallucinations.
With all the claims of haunted houses and ghosts floating around in tabloids and on the Internet, it’s worth asking, Can the spirits of the dead really come back and communicate with the living? Are phantoms just figments of spooked people’s imagination? Is there real evidence of the paranormal—or are people like Mrs. Winchester just being paranoid?
While there are concrete environmental explanations for some strange happenings, such as a door slamming shut because of a change in air pressure, could there be genuine sightings of mystical figures? Why do ghosts show up? And if they are not the spirits of dead people, who are they? Where do they come from? And does the Bible talk about such beings?