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Are ghosts real? What to know about hauntings and paranormal activity

Have you ever felt an unseen presence? Caught something – or someone – moving out of the corner of your eye? Walked into a cold draft in a warm room ?

If you've ever experienced something you just can't explain, something that can only be described as supernatural , you aren't alone.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they've experienced a paranormal encounter of some kind, according to a 2022 YouGov poll. That includes things like hearing unexplained voices, seeing objects inexplicably move on their own, as well as other events that defy all logic.

And one in five people polled claimed to have seen a spirit or a ghost .

While hauntings and visits from the great beyond make for scary horror movies and ghost stories , the question "Are ghosts real?" is one people of almost every culture have been pondering for thousands of years, if not since the very beginning of time.

To help answer it, TODAY reached out to a trio of experts including a medium, a psychic and a professor specializing in parapsychology, to share their thoughts on the spirit world , ghosts, apparitions and whether or not they really exist.

And, if you're experiencing a haunting or hosting an unwanted visitor, they've got some advice that just might help.

Here's what you need to know.

So: What are ghosts?

For many people, the word “ghost” conjures up one of two images: A menacing apparition that terrorizes unsuspecting homeowners, or a cute trick-or-treater covered in a white bed sheet.

Pop-culture perceptions aside, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a ghost as a “disembodied soul,” or the soul of someone who’s died that either lives in the spirit world or, somehow, still exists in ours.

Sherrie Dillard , medium and author of the book “I’m Still With You,” says it's important to distinguish between ghosts and the spirits of loved ones who have passed on. Because according to Dillard, they aren't the same thing.

When loved ones die, she says they leave the earth and pass into a "higher loving existence," whether it be heaven, "the light" or any other concept of the afterlife.

Similar to ghosts, Dillard says that we may occasionally feel the presence of those loved ones after they are gone, whether it be in dreams, paranormal activity or other encounter. And in those instances, she says we typically have feelings of warmth, recognition or love.

“It doesn’t emotionally incite,” she tells TODAY.com. “For most people, we don’t get scared or fearful. Most of the time people will recognize, ‘Oh, I feel like my grandmother was here, or my mother or father, or just have that feeling.’”

Ghosts, however, are a different story. Dillard says we rarely, if ever, know who they are. “Usually, it strikes us as a different energy. It strikes us as something we’re not familiar with,” she explains.

If not acquaintances or loved ones, then...who are they?

“Most commonly, ghosts are human beings, people who pass over and, for various reasons, resist going into that higher level of love and resolution," says Dillard. She explains that one of the reasons a ghost might stick around instead of moving on to “the other side” is trauma.

“They may have been in a sudden accident, or some trauma unexpectedly, and they don’t realize that they are actually passed over,” she says. “I know that sounds strange, but it’s true.”

Confused or “lost,” the ghost lingers. “What they do is they try clinging to any kind of energy source; they’ll cling to a house or the people in the house.”

Ghosts can also be attached to other physical objects, she says, including antiques or anything with a “strong emotional energy.”

Psychic and medium Chip Coffey has appeared on more than 130 paranormal TV shows, including “Kindred Spirits.” And much like Dillard, he considers ghosts to be deceased people whose souls haven’t properly transitioned.

“They’re kind of stuck in the middle someplace. They’ve remained on the third-dimension plane and, for whatever reason, they may have, they haven’t completed their transition into Spirit,” he tells TODAY.com.

What does science say about ghosts?

Christine Simmonds-Moore, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of West Georgia who specializes in parapsychological research.

According to Simmonds-Moore, ghosts are found in every single culture and have been recorded throughout history.

“Ghosts come from experience,” she tells TODAY.com. “So, human beings have had experiences with spirits — and we can be neutral on whether some of those are genuine spirits, or whether they are explained more normally. But irrespective of that, people have had experiences because it’s a big part of being human.”

Whether those experiences are related to more earthly things like a near-death experience, loss of a loved one, or occur in an altered state such as a dream, deep relaxation or are chemically induced, in trying to understand them, they can change our perception or beliefs.

From there, those beliefs can lead to other experiences, including seeing ghosts. Bottom line? If you think there are ghosts, then you’re more inclined to think you’ve seen one.

“There’s a whole hierarchy of different types of ghost experiences,” Simmonds-Moore says, “and some of them are much more easy to explain using normal psychology than others.”

That said, Simmonds-Moore says that there are incidences in which people have paranormal encounters and inexplicably gain “access to information that they didn’t have access to” prior to those encounters. And those are somewhat less easy to explain.

Examples include things like people traveling to a location they’ve never been to, yet they “seem to know things what they shouldn’t know,” including events that occurred there or what a person they’ve never met was wearing, and other unexplainable circumstances.

“It doesn’t mean that it’s the media idea of a ghost, that there’s something persisting and haunting. It could be that it’s information that is tied to a place ,and some people who are in these different states are more able to notice that information and have access to than others,” she says.

According to Simmonds-Moore, some people believe they’ve had encounters with deceased loved ones, which is understandable given feelings of bereavement and loss, she says.

“But sometimes they might know that somebody’s going to pass before they do, or they might an encounter with an apparition, and they don’t know that the person has actually passed away and they see the apparition at the point of death and dying,” she says.

More than that, they might know how the person died even before the information has been relayed.

“I think that there are probably some extremely strong cases that are very rare, where you can’t always apply the normal explanation,” Simmonds-Moore says. “But the fact that they occur at all is interesting.”

So does all of this information make the case that ghosts are real?

“I think it’s probably more like information that has aspects of somebody’s life that might persist, and then other people might be able to access that field of consciousness," Simmonds-Moore says.

Whether they exist in the traditional sense or not, Simmonds-Moore says that there are many, very rare experiences that are difficult to explain.

In those cases, normal explanations don't necessarily fit.

"This implies that there are some experiences that are more intriguing, so there is a big question mark for those."

Let's say ghosts are real: What do ghosts want?

When it’s a loved one visiting us, Coffey says there are a variety of reasons to explain why they’ve come.

“Sometimes it’s because they love us and they want us to understand that death is not the end, that death doesn’t end relationships — it just alters them, changes them. Sometimes it’s because we call them up and they can choose whether or not they’re going to interact with us. But many times, they’ll willingly come through and bridge that gap where our two realms connect,” he says.

Ghosts, however, have a different agenda, says Dillard.

“Wherever there’s strong emotional energy, they’re attracted to it because they need a source of energy,” she says. “And sometimes ghosts will want to be known, they’ll want to be recognized, because they want our emotional reaction.”

Even if that reaction is stress or fear, Dillard says ghosts don’t mind because one way or another, they’re receiving the attention or emotional energy they’re seeking. “They sometimes want help, too. They’ll want someone to see them, know them, know there’s something here and tell them where to go.”

In rare cases, Dillard says certain ghosts, like poltergeists, have a darker purpose and, unlike lost souls seeking direction, they gravitate toward negative energy.

For instance, places with a lot of history or where bad things or traumas have occurred can attract these negative spirits.

“They invoke an incredible amount of fear in people for good reason. If you’ve got something flying across the room, it could hurt you. And they don’t tend to react or respond to us in any other way than invoking fear in a negative, powerful way,” she explains.

Even more rare are demonic spirits like the one portrayed in the horror movie “The Exorcist.” But according to Dillard, they do exist. “They will happen,” she says. “There’s documented cases of things.”

What to do if you think you have a ghost?

While some people are convinced that ghosts, spirits, poltergeists or other otherworldly apparitions are real, there are, of course, skeptics.

“In my line of work, I get that all the time,” says Dillard. “I just tell people that it’s fine. With things like this, we can only really believe if we’ve experienced them.

"We can believe it’s possible, we can believe that maybe someone else may believe it. But, normally, we become true believers when we’ve had some form of experience.”

According to Coffey, he’s seen far too much to not believe there’s more than meets the eye.

“How can there be so many stories about ghosts and spirits and paranormal things and just the realm of the weird for there not to be something there? I mean, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

He also dismisses the idea that only certain places on earth are “haunted.”

“I think every place is haunted. ‘Haunted’ is not a bad word. It’s just the presence of paranormal or spiritual activity,” he says.

“There can be the 'mom-and-pop' garden variety, non-malicious, non-malevolent haunting. Absolutely. A lot of people have died throughout history. There are a lot of dead people out there. So, ‘haunted?’ You’ve probably got spirits floating in this space right here. Most places have spirit activity,” Coffey explains.

For the average person, however, a ghost encounter, whether benign or not, can be pretty unsettling, if not downright scary.

If you believe it’s happening to you, Dillard suggests firmly, but kindly, telling them to leave.

“You can send a thought message, you can send a verbal message,” she says. “And that is: ‘You don’t belong here. You’re no longer in the physical world, and there’s a better place for you.’”

And in most cases, she says that it’s enough.

When it’s not, then it might be time to enlist the help of an expert.

“If you have a malicious or malevolent haunting, that’s when you have to call in the troops and get the help you need in trying to expel it,” says Coffey. “Get in touch with a reputable paranormal team that’s going to give you some good, sound advice on how to handle what’s going on in your house.”

Find out more fascinating facts

  • Are witches real? Here's what to know
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  • Are vampires real? What to know about the undead

Sarah Lemire is a lifestyle reporter at TODAY.com with more than a decade of experience writing across an array of channels including home, health, holidays, personal finance, shopping, food, fashion, travel and weddings. An avid traveler, foodie, helicopter parent and couch film critic, Sarah is originally from Minneapolis and has spent the last two decades unsuccessfully trying to figure out the difference between a hoagie and a sub.

Are Ghosts Real? We Got to the Bottom of the Age-Old Question

Are these spooky specters fact or fiction?

preview for 10 Haunting Facts About Halloween

Believers Gonna Believe

If you are reading this article, there is a good chance that you already believe in visitors from the other side, as nearly half of Americans believe in ghosts , according to a recent poll. And unlike questioning if vampires or werewolves are real, questioning whether or not ghosts or spirits exist draws on a lot of people’s personal experience with unexplained phenomena over centuries. But what are we actually talking about when we talk about ghosts? While there are many different types of experiences from floating shoes to glowing orbs, these are the most common spirits people say they have experienced.

Plain ol’ Dead People: This is your classic dead person with unfinished business. Typically they don’t know they are dead and are on a mission to figure out how or why they are dead (ex. the movie Ghost ), or, like Jacob Marley, make up for wrong-doings in their lifetime. Sometimes these ghosts, like those in Harry Potter , are around forever, while some manage to transition to the beyond through good works or an enlightenment of some kind.

“Psychic Residue”: This is a person but usually an event that permeates a space but does not affect or interact with the people around them. An example might be that a death, horrible accident, or event occurred in a particular home or place and it is “haunted” by that specific event and the people who were a part of it.

Crisis Apparition: This is something that happens very soon after a person’s death, and the ghost is aware of its own death. They are usually coming to a loved one to bring a message, closure, or comfort.

Sounds plausible right? Well, with so many movies , reality tv shows, campfire stories , and a whole tourist industry behind it, ghosts have not only become a normal part of popular culture, but a lucrative business as a well. So it’s often hard to tell fact from fiction nowadays. Where can we find explanations for all the spooky goings on? Can science help?

What’s Science Got To Do With It?

While science can neither confirm nor deny the existence of ghosts, it can speak to a lot of the key psychological and physical factors that could be affecting you when you have an experience with something that is ghost-like or things to watch for when you get hooked on your next ghost hunting reality show. Some have suggested that the next time you see ghost-watchers with their electro-magnetic devices, roaming around suburban homes trying to find evidences of ghostly “energy,” rather than calling the priest for an exorcist, you might want to call an electrician. Those readings they pick up on a lot of the shows you see are evidence that the electrical wiring in the home needs work.

are ghosts real

Some may tell you, “It’s all in your head.” But there may be some truth to that statement when it comes to believing in ghosts and the experiences surrounding them. Going back to our girl with her haunted reno, here are a few of the psychological explanations for what may be happening in her house:

Avoiding Scary Situations: The dark basement, the scary part of the yard, or forest behind our house. We all have places or situations that make us feel a little fearful or wary. Being in a big new house with unknown nooks and crannies and sounds is bound to make anyone of us uneasy. So it’s easier for us to put the weight of our fears on the idea of a place being haunted and maybe avoid someplace altogether rather than face what scares us.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Sometimes we are just in the room at the exact moment the wind blows over something in our house and it produces a loud crash and another thing in our house that was unstable happens to crash at the same time. You could blame this on a naughty specter or it could be that you happened to just be in an incredible place at a very unique moment.

Feeling Alone: Taking on the renovations of a big house alone can make anyone feel overwhelmed and lonely, but add onto that the fact that you may be in a new town and that it may be rural. Loneliness can account for our minds filling with lots of anxiety and fear and with that, every sound and creak and light change is amplified and could be the sign of something ghostly. When really, maybe, you just need to invite a trusted and safe friend over for a porch hang.

Sound and Vibrations: Some houses have high-pitched sounds and vibrations that are almost undetectable but can do damage on our psyches. Find yourself strangely irritable and sensitive even thought you’ve already eaten and exercised and taken time for self-care ? That strange “vibe” you sense in your space could just be the sound or vibration in your environment that needs to be shut off or changed.

Fungus-umongus: In older homes, it’s a common problem to find mold growing in places you never thought possible. Nooks and crannies can have all types of spores, and living with undetected mold in your home has been known to cause all kinds of health problems as well as in some cases of messing with people’s minds. That hallucination you see could very well be your house’s mold haunting you!

Ultimately though, when it comes down to it, even if the rationalizations make sense, sometimes you just want to believe. It helps you feel like you’re living on the edge or living in a world that has more layers to it than just the one you see in front of you. So wherever you land on this issue…let’s hope that only ghost you meet this Halloween season is the good kind…like Casper. Oh, and our Reno-girl—well, she would rather face her fears than give up her built-ins, so she’s staying for the long-haul. Ghost or not.

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