It has nothing to do with education.
“I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, which is a town with wonderful ghost stories,” Carson Mencken tells me. “I certainly heard many growing up as a kid.” Those tales from the crypt stayed with Mencken, who grew up to be a sociologist. Now he studies the sociological aspects of the paranormal at Baylor University.
A lot of Americans believe in ghosts: from one-third to two-thirds of us, according to polls taken over the last six years. Interestingly, several surveys show that black and Hispanic Americans believe in ghosts a little bit more than white Americans do: 62% to 60% in a 2013 HuffPo/YouGov poll, for example.
I wanted to know why, so I contacted Mencken, because he literally wrote the book on this subject.
Mencken’s own study shows that white men have the lowest belief in ghosts (but they tend to believe more in Bigfoot and aliens). He found black and Hispanic Americans did believe more in ghosts. When it came to blacks, he said regional variation accounted for a significant portion of the difference.
“African Americans are more likely to live in the South than in other parts of the country,” Mencken tells dose. “The South has an interesting history of belief in ghosts. African religions at the time [slaves were brought to America] were polytheistic and believed that lesser gods (dead ancestors) were go-betweens. Even though slaves were forced to convert to Christianity, there is no reason to believe that some of the old beliefs were not retained.”
Furthermore, Mencken found that “plantation owners feared retribution from the ghosts of abused slaves.” Because of this, “white Southerners have higher ghost belief rates than white non-Southerners in most surveys.”
With Hispanics, Mencken says belief in ghosts has to do with how new religions form when cultures collide. “Maya and Aztec cultures emphasized beliefs in spirits of the deceased,” he says. “When the Spanish conquered and converted them to Christianity, some of the Mayan and Aztec beliefs found their way into this new belief system. In Mexico, Christianity today is a mixture of medieval Catholicism and Aztec and Mayan beliefs.” For example, the best-known Mexican holiday is Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead. It’s the day “dead ancestors return for a visit,” Mencken says.
“You are not required to believe in ghosts to participate in the numerous Day of the Dead ceremonies,” he says, “but active participation will lead to belief, for some.”
Mencken makes sure to point out that belief in ghosts is not a hallmark of the less educated. “One of the myths we like to dispel with our research is that belief in the paranormal is somehow a sign of ignorance,” he says.
“Frankly, I see nothing in the cards to suggest that paranormal beliefs will go down over the next 20 years,” Mencken says. “In fact, we are suggesting that, overall, they may increase.” That’s despite the fact that oral history?—?which was traditionally how ghost stories were passed down?—?has become less a part of our culture over the past 100 years.
So with all his studies of ghosts, does Mencken believe in them himself?
“I have never seen one and I am not a believer in ghosts,” he says. Still, he has participated in a ghost hunt, and he’s keeping an open mind.