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Scared of ghosts? That's because you want to be, SC researchers say


Many of Charleston's old sites such as Magnolia Cemetery conjure stories of ghosts. File/Staff

Barry Markovsky ought to be scared of ghosts. 

The University of South Carolina professor has heard unexplained sounds in the dark. He's fallen asleep hearing voices. But he doesn't think the phenomena are otherworldly. Markovsky teaches sociology of the paranormal and critical thinking.

"I think the simple explanations are more likely to be true," he said.

It's Halloween and any number of strange things could turn up at your door tonight. You might not want to look under the masks.

Anywhere from 33 to 45 percent of American adults believe in ghosts, demons or hauntings, according to a range of national polls. Anywhere from 18 to 60 percent of adults have actually seen what could be a ghost, according to other polls.

In other words, it's pretty creepy out there.

A lot of people want to believe in ghosts, Markovsky said. He cites a social psychology term for it — motivated cognition. "We believe what we want to believe," he said.

Motivated cognition does a number on you. Sales people use it all the time. To make sense of things, humans look for patterns. If someone tells us something convincingly enough, we start to look for it and will tell ourselves that what we find correlates.

And today's high-tech Americans are more likely to believe in ghosts than some of their contemporaries around the world, said University of South Carolina history professor Kathryn Edwards.

This country is a blend of cultures and religions, many of which believe the dead can return — including Native American, eastern and southeastern Asian, and African, Edwards said.

Southerners might be more prone to be spooked than others.

"Recent research on the Southern United States has stressed the extent to which Native American and African beliefs influenced the Europeans who settled there, and the enduring belief in ghosts is one example of that interaction," she said.

Plus, a lot of people just like the fright, Markovsky said. "They find it thrilling."

His students have spent the night in an old mill that is one of Columbia's notorious haunted houses, said to be the sanctum of the ghost of an employee who practiced voodoo there.

Walking in, "they instantly start feeling and experiencing things," he said — cold spots, creaky sounds that seem to come out of nowhere. Then they apply the critical thinking he teaches. There's always a real world explanation to be found.

Ahhh, man, you say. No ghosts?

The other category Markovsky cites is people who say they have witnessed a haunting, or seen a ghost.

"Almost always that takes place under really ambiguous circumstances," he said.

Almost always.

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