Days before Halloween, a new poll has found almost half of British Columbians believe in ghosts.
Of those surveyed, half said they had witnessed “something supernatural” and over a third said they “believe the being was trying to tell them something,” said a spokesperson for BC Hydro in a press release.
Meanwhile, more than a third of respondents have encountered a supernatural being, such as a ghost or spirit.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Sabina Magliocco, a professor researching ritual, religion and magic at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Anthropology.
“When you talk about spooky things, belief in ghosts is probably the most common form of supernatural belief... because it’s experienced-based. ”
A belief rooted in loss
Magliocco says modern beliefs in ghosts have deep roots in personal loss.
“It’s very, very common for someone who has lost a loved one. It’s really common they’ll see, hear or smell them, especially between six weeks and six months after they die,” she said.
Magliocco says cognitive psychologists believe humans have a hard time adjusting to the absence of someone who has passed away. In processing that absence, our brain tricks us into smelling their perfume or hearing a car pulling into the driveway.
“A lot of belief is rooted in experience,” she said.
A story we tell ourselves
On the other hand, the stories we tell ourselves go a long way in shaping the way we perceive the existence of ghosts or spirits, says Magliocco.
Look to the origins of Halloween, she says, and you will transport yourself to ancient Ireland, at a time of year when everything was dying.
Cattle would be brought in from far-off pastures to shelter from the winter. Along the way, they would be driven between bonfires to purify them of disease and to rid them of evil spirits, Magliocco explained.
“This is a time of year when in the Northern Hemisphere, the season changes, crops look dead, livestock needs to be slaughtered, frozen or salted, and preserved for the winter,” she said.
“There was a belief that the boundary between this world and the world of the dead was thin.”
In its attempt to stomp out those indigenous European beliefs, the Christian world created All Saints Day on Nov. 1, and All Souls Day on Nov. 2.
For the Scots living along their southern border with England, the night before the two events on the Christian calendar had a special name: All Hallows' Eve, what today has transformed into Halloween.
“What we have is a mashup, a syncretism of Christian tradition, the love of ones who have passed on, and pagan beliefs,” Magliocco said.
Halloween came with the colonists
Back in Europe, children had long called on their neighbours to hand out soul cakes at this time of year — the idea being the neighbour wouldn't know if it was really a child or a spirit doppelganger taking advantage of the thin veil separating the world of the living from that of the dead. Give them something sweet and you keep them happy.
When European colonists crossed the Atlantic to take and settle land, some brought those traditions with them.
By the end of the 1800s, Magliocco says things started getting out of control. In the cities of North America's Eastern Seaboard and in communities along the Great Lakes, playing tricks on neighbours escalated.
Newspaper reports tell stories of young men lighting fire to sacks of horse manure on people's doorsteps and even stretching ropes across horse and carriage ways to clothesline passersby.
“Devils Night” and “Mischief Night” were so intense the police would often get in involved.
“They were not just turning over outhouses, they were lighting buildings on fire,” said Magliocco.
“It’s always been a time of year when all of our skeletons literally come out of the closet.”
Fast-forward through the last 100-plus years, and Magliocco says the supernatural stories B.C. residents tell themselves have been made even richer by new Canadians who bring rich traditions of ghost folklore from countries like China, Korea, Japan and India.
Ghosts in the circuits
Why would an electric utility poll British Columbians on their supernatural inclinations?
For that you need to go back to the rise of electrification in the late 1800s. Almost in lock-step, North America and Europe were gripped in spiritualism — a movement advancing the idea that spirits survive death, humans can contact them, and spirits can use electricity to manifest themselves (think ectoplasm in Ghostbusters).
“This is emerging as electricity is being used for the first time to create machines, the electric lightbulb,” Magliocco said.
A night in with Netflix may have supplanted seances in the drawing room for many people. But for others, electricity and the dead remain inextricably connected.
According to BC Hydro's poll, 14 per cent of B.C. residents have had unexplained encounters with electricity, such as lights dimming on their own. Another 11 per cent said lights or appliances have turned off and on in their presence without a human involved. And two per cent said they have seen appliances shake or move on their own.
A curious 17 per cent of those polled said they tried to contact a supernatural being — 52 per cent through a Ouija board and 27 per cent through a medium. More than half said they were successful.
Like generations of people before, many B.C. residents showed an interest in finding out: 43 per cent said they are interested in visiting a haunted site and almost a quarter of those polled said they'd already done so.
Handful of B.C. residents say they have seen Bigfoot, witches, vampires and demons
Beyond ghosts, B.C. residents reported encounters with a number of supernatural beings, according to the BC Hydro poll.
Four per cent say they’ve seen Bigfoot or Sasquatch, six per cent say they’ve seen a witch, one per cent say they’ve seen a vampire, and three per cent say they’ve had a run-in with a demon.
Another two per cent of those who took part in the poll said they have seen the elusive Ogopogo, a lake monster said to ply the waters of the Okanagan Valley.
It’s not clear how many maintain faith in the existence of the Ogopogo’s saltwater sea-serpent cousin, the Cadborosaurus.
The online poll, conducted by Majid Khoury from Oct. 4 to 7, 2022, surveyed 1,000 British Columbians. It carries a margin of error or +/- 3.1 per cent.