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John Harris’ Question: The Ghosts of the Challenged – Queries & Comments

When I die and come back, I wanna be able to f— with people.

The query below was tossed into speculation on the Facebook page of John Harris, the Buffalo jeweler, artist, musician, filmmaker, and bon vivant.

The epigraph above is a direct quote from a total stranger, uttered immediately upon finding out the subject of my specialization.


So for the past few days, I’ve seen people posting about so many different big and important topics. But frankly, I’m sick of thinking about them at the moment. So let’s start a discussion on a more conceptual basis. Somehow I know it will be turned into something overwhelmingly political eventually, but maybe we can enjoy it for a bit. So here’s a great jumping off point:

Are the ghosts of the developmentally disabled also developmentally disabled? I know this may seem offensive, but SOMEONE has to ask this question. So let’s hear it. I know paranormal investigators, therapists, parents of disabled children, teachers, anthropologists. Let’s hear it.


Let’s leave out all mention about the -abled, disabled, or terms related. Not only is terminology touchy these days, but you have to keep up with it. It shifts so fast that even well-intended people might find themselves provoking controversy. And your question concerns any persuasion, condition, or lifestyle that could mark a living personality. Let’s start by clarifying our terms about psychic-supernatural subjects.

From the way you use the word “ghosts,” I think you mean to use the word, “spirits.” I can’t tell you what either one of those things is, but I can tell you what the words mean. They should not be used interchangeably.

The Oxford Dictionary’s first definition of the word “ghost” is of an apparition, a presumably supernatural image. This means, “something you see.” That’s the way it’s most commonly used in conversation, though some of the time, many Americans use “ghost” synonymously with “spirit.” We should probably stick with the bottom line: a ghost is an apparition. It looks like what it was – at some point in time – or “is.” Many reported apparitions appear to be those of people who are very much alive.

The word “spirit” is generally used to mean, “a life-essence,” meaning the non-material part of the person, should there be such a thing, that animates the physical body; holds consciousness, character and personality; detaches at death or in shamanic trance; and goes on to the other world, should there be such a thing. English has two words, “soul” and “spirit,” for roughly the same thing. Colloquially they are interchangeable. We can get into the differences later. Neither one carries with it the sense of anything visible.

Ghosts are often reported by the general public. The ones that are the apparitions of recognizable people – not all ghostly forms are even people – are said to look just like those people did in life at one stage or another. If there happened to be a definitive look to being differently abled, the apparition of such a person would follow suit.

But I don’t think, John, you were asking if ghosts would look different. You were asking if they would act differently. Your question concerns personality, its survival of bodily death, and the likelihood of a carryover from living states into post-life manifestations. May I rephrase: “If there is an afterlife for human beings, would the people who occasionally return to the world still be affected by the conditions that affected them in life?”

This question about the after-life survival of bodily death is one of THE questions for humanity. It underlies speculation ranging from religion to parapsychology to Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” meditation. The direct answer to your question, John, is, “It depends on who you ask.” There are opinions based on major systems of thought. I should summarize a few of them.

  • Materialism/Physicalism. 

For materialist-physicalist thinkers, the universe is entirely material. There is nothing else to it. Materialist-physicalist (sometimes structuralist) thinkers are often labeled “skeptics,” but unlike skeptics – people who need everything proved to them – the ones I know have their philosophy pretty well set.

For them, existence is no more than physical. For them, there is no spirit, no God, no Heaven, and no angels. For them, there is no immaterial component to the human organism, and the sense of a detachable consciousness is just an illusion. For them, the species that produced Hamlet, the Great Pyramid, and Beethoven’s Ninth are no more than hair-deprived monkeys with opposable thumbs, a few extra gigs in the meat-computers held within their more orthognathous (flat-faced) skulls, and a tendency unique among animal species to be precious about themselves. This is a very popular theory in academia these days.

We cannot pretend that there are not a lot of these people around or that their opinions don’t deserve to be acknowledged. You can believe in spirits all you want, but it’s damned hard to prove anyone else should. So, John, if you ask this component of the population what a ghost or a spirit might do, you got a whole lotta nope coming back – and the suggestion that this, by the way, is a stupid article.

  • Spiritualism.

At the other end of the spectrum are the believers, the “spiritualists.” Capitalized, Spiritualism refers to a religion with its own philosophy and refinements. With a small “s,” spiritualist refers to an attitude, the general belief that spirits are ever hovering and likely to be interested in the operations of the material world. In spiritualist circles it’s presumed that spirits come back for the occasional after-life message or warning. Others may be regular, almost moment-to-moment communicators – “spirit guides” – who invisibly advise and look after their favored beings from cradle to grave.

For spiritualists of any stripe and much of the like-minded general public (including TV-style ghosthunters), “unfinished business” is the presumptive motivation for most manifestations, disruptions, or expressions that have unseen causes. (I call it, “the Hollywood-” or “the TV theory.”) If you take this line of philosophy, it would be expected that the quirks and motivations of late human beings might be among the things that would surface should they make statements in the world they have left. So, John Harris, you have your answer from this perspective. “Developmentally disabled” spirits would be so on the return trip.

But spiritualist thinking is no uniform thing, and there’s another side to this. It is presumed by some religious Spiritualists and in many other quarters that human spirits develop and progress after the death of the body. Even children might mature “in Spirit,” as they often say.

As a local example, a quarter century of Victorian-era seances involved published dialogues (channeled through a medium) between a grieving Buffalo family and a daughter who died before she could talk. Through the voice of their medium, she speaks to them from “Summerland” as a blissful adult. She grew up on the other side. From this line of insight, anyone with hangups of any sort would ascend after earthly life. So, never mind, John. On the other side, we would be our perfected selves. All Afterlife communications will be coming from graduates of the Wayne Dyer self-improvement School of Heavy Thoughts.

  • Parapsychology. 

The scientific study of psychic phenomena would have very little to say to anyone about spirits, at least not in 2015. Parapsychology is very different from the ghost hunting you see on TV. (Noon and midnight have less in common.) Parapsychology tends to be interested in what it can prove to a determined doubter, not what it can sell to the sold. Parapsychology deals with controlled phenomena and objective questions of cause-and-effect. Parapsychology pays very little attention to spontaneous psychic phenomena or anything else that cannot be isolated to the conditions of the lab. Most of parapsychology’s time is devoted to testing human abilities and reviewing statistics.

As for ghosts, well, many parapsychologists believe people see apparitions. They are not presumed to be spirits. They are thought to be like mirages, most of them: moments of past time that get repeated. They know not what they do. Their causes are debated. But, to return to your question, John Harris: As far as parapsychology would be concerned, the ghost/apparition of a person would look just like them, at least if it was completely formed and visible.

  • Major Western Religions. 

All religions are in the supernatural business. (When it’s our supernaturalism, we call it holy or spiritual. When it’s someone else’s, we call it magic or witchcraft.)

At one point or another in its past, every human culture has believed that the supernatural was a powerful force in the material world. Gods, demons, human ghosts, and hosts of beings in between… The traces of such belief can be found in every religion with deep roots.

As we move closer to the present and post-industrial age societies, systematized belief in a supernatural zoo and a pantheon of gods has given way. Even the idea that ghosts and spirits are likely to act up in daily life is an outlier. In the view of the world’s oldest and most developed western religions – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism – after we shuffle off the proverbial coil, we go to the afterlife we deserve. For these Abrahamic faiths, the estimated time of arrival is the only question. There are two big theories.

Some believe the arrival is right away. Others think it’s at some point in the future that everyone will be judged, generally en masse. (In the interim, we go into a state of dreamless sleep to await the judgement.) There are splinter cults, of course, with their own ideas. But in this perspective, John Harris, nobody comes back. If something unearthly is acting up on the earthly plane, it’s not a former human.

  • Major Eastern Religions.

The other major Eurasian theory is typical of Indian-influenced faiths (the India) and found in many parts of the world. It involves reincarnation.

There’s no automatic transfer into the afterlife in this system. It’s sort of an installment plan that varies case by case. Not every human soul/spirit is considered ready for its moment of becoming one with the greatest of spirits. It is said to take many lives to purify the soul. So in this line of logic it’s presumed that, after the death of the physical body, most of us go into some other earthly form, either nobler or lesser, in the quest to perfect the self before the eventual destination. Anyone with hangups, in this philosophy, will go back into another life for another go at it, hence questions of after-life act-ups are moot. Not only are you busy living your next life in the world, but you aren’t you anymore. So, John, if you look at things this way, there will be no after-life displays by late human beings.

  • African Religions.

If, however, we are looking for people to talk to us about attached spirits, they are in ready supply. Many traditions whose attitudes seem closer to humanity’s roots would consider the question about after-life carryover to be a no-brainer.

Many of the religions that spun out of the African Diaspora (dispersion) are virtually based on the concept of a middle-ground for spirits who have never lost their connection to things of this earth. They’ve taken great hold in many parts of the world – Africa, South America, the Caribbean – as well as within many population groups in the United States. Voodoo (Voudoun), Umbanda, Santeria, Candomble, and even “root magic” might be included within this category. Stateside, the groups tend to be underground, but without any doubt, there are practicing representatives in every large American city.

These religions tend not only to be syncretic, meaning that they assimilate stereotypically incompatible components of other traditions; but they are also classified as “animistic,” meaning, roughly, that they believe there might be many different kinds of spirits or souls likely to be active in the world. They have room in their philosophy for echelons of low-grade spirits who hang close to the world and even act up in it precisely because they could never let go of physical existence, including the body and the pleasures and pastimes of material life. While popular media has stereotyped these faiths as primitive and their ceremonies as garish, I would not disrespect them. Not only is their general system coherent and well thought out, but very mysterious things occasionally happen in the world, and sometimes this type of logic is one of the few that at least appears to explain them. I believe your question is answered here, John, in the affirmative.

  • The compound soul. 

We should bear in mind that John Harris’ speculation may not be an either-or question. Many world societies have held the belief that the human organism has more than one psychic component – more than one “spirit,” or “soul” – hence, one part of you may be ready to head for the next life and another might be left behind like the peel of the banana or the doffed clothes of the Invisible Man. Here’s where the two words reach their fine points in English and might explain why the language still has them both.

Spirit and soul have their shades of difference. We often sense this in our conversation. We might say that it is one’s spirit that wings into an uplifting sky-scene and begs angels to take words to a lost loved one. One’s spirit feels love for nature and all beauty. One’s spirit loves lovely things because they are lovely. It is one’s soul, though, that throbs with empathy for primal music and landscapes. One’s soul feels the chants of ancestral churches. One’s soul harkens to things that have touched it. Even though both soul and spirit are presumed to be non-material, one seems to be rooted and responsive. The other soars.

In this analogy, the more earthly psychic self, possibly that part of us that holds the emotions and frustrations, might be what acts up in the material world. If the incoherent manifestation-sequence we call poltergeist phenomena – the invisible prankster – were generally presumed to come from after-life sources (which it is not), this underdeveloped “lesser soul” would be a good candidate.

  • The Developmentally Disabled. 

In the circles of parapsychology it’s speculated that human powers of ESP or PK (psychokinesis, “mind over matter”) are displays of the unconscious mind, and that almost no one can consistently harness them voluntarily. In that sense, human psychic displays are eruptions and not decisions.

Many of history’s great psychic performers have been young people who seem to lose their gifts either because of the end of puberty or the dawn of adult reflection. It’s as if the minute people start to analyze their abilities they begin to weaken. It’s no wonder that so many of the famous adult psychics who truly seemed to have the power shorted out at unpredictable times or lost their talents after a short run of overusing them. It’s quite possible that the differently-abled could have greater psychic abilities than the rest of us. Many world societies have looked at it this way.

Indigenous societies have typically respected the developmentally disabled, whose mental focus seemed more to be with the Otherworld or the spirits of the elders. Since the eternal powers withheld from them some abilities that most other people have, it is only to be presumed that they will have other gifts that may not be easy to see. The developmentally disabled were often regarded as teachers or spiritual guides for the rest of the society. Even today, their hidden gifts could quite well be psychic ones.

In the back-channels of the ghost-business there’s a rumor about a developmentally disabled boy in the Toronto area whose psychokinetic displays were truly prodigious. They seemed to be precipitated by emotional stress. I heard about it in the 1990s. I do not know that the fellow was still active when he reached adulthood. This was a highly sensitive case, and I am lucky to have heard what I have of it. If the lad’s family had been willing to let him be tested, we might have the answer to many of our questions. This is far from the first case of this type that I have heard of.

This discussion could have gone in many directions, but we may have come full circle to John Harris’ question. If the psychic power of humans while they live could have anything to do with psychic expressions in the world after their deaths, it might be a character like the lad above who would be most likely to make them.

©2015 Mason Winfield

Mason Winfield is the author of eleven books on supernatural-paranormal subjects.
Twilight on the Western Door welcomes questions and comments.

Written by Mason Winfield

Mason Winfield

The founder of New York’s original “supernatural tourism” company Haunted History Ghost Walks, Inc., Mason Winfield studied English and Classics at Denison University and earned a master’s degree at Boston College. In his 13 years as a teacher/department chair at The Gow School (South Wales, N.Y.), he won a 50K cross-country ski marathon and was ranked among the Buffalo area’s top ten tennis players. A specialist in upstate supernatural folklore and an award-winning fiction writer, Mason has written or edited 11 books, including the regional sensation Shadows of the Western Door (1997) and Iroquois Supernatural (Inner Traditions International/Bear & Company, 2011). A lecturer whose talks have been sponsored by Poets & Writers, New York Council for the Humanities, “The Big Read,” and the National Endowment for the Arts, Mason is also a spoken word artist who has appeared at City of Night, Buffalo; Rochester Fringe Festival; and Piccolo Spoletto Festival (Charleston, S.C.).

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