The seventh month of the lunar calendar, which started on Friday, is known as Ghost Month, when “hungry ghosts” are traditionally believed to emerge from the afterlife and haunt the land of the living. Each year, the arrival of Ghost Month is greeted by spooky news stories concocted by the media to boost their ratings and profits by preying on social fears.
Self-proclaimed fortune tellers and spirit mediums play their part by using all kinds of tricks such as “summoning ghosts.” Such performances might cause people with cognitive and nervous disorders to bring suffering upon themselves.
The Taichung District Court recently dismissed a lawsuit in which the plaintiff claimed that the social concept of “haunted houses” had caused the selling price of his property to fall. The plaintiff blamed the Ministry of the Interior, because its “model contract for the sale and purchase of an existing home” requires the seller to check boxes that indicate whether any unnatural deaths, such as homicides, suicides or carbon monoxide poisoning, have taken place on the property.
Why should there be this kind of discrimination against homicide or suicide, as opposed to other kinds of death? It amounts to rubbing salt in the wounds of bereaved family members.
There has been some discussion about whether death from COVID-19 counts as homicide. The Ministry of the Interior says it does not, but is the virus not a killer? What is the difference between various things that can kill someone, be it a virus, carbon monoxide, a burglar or oneself? The magic mirror of SARS-CoV-2 reveals how arbitrary the definition of a “haunted house” really is.
Unfortunately, about 2,000 new “haunted houses” appear each year in Taiwan, leading to lawsuits and other disputes. It causes a waste of resources when people dare not live in such properties or put them up for sale, not to mention the additional injury it inflicts on bereaved family members.
Behind the concept of “haunted houses” lies a fear of ghosts making trouble for the living. Modern science shows that the belief in souls was an assumption made by ancient people who did not understand physiology. The existence of mind-altering drugs shows that emotions are biochemical in nature.
If souls existed, an injury to one’s brain should not be able to injure one’s emotions. Why would pathologically abnormal levels of serotonin cause the soul to suffer from depression and mood disorders? Besides, vision requires retinas, neurons, neurotransmitters and so on. Since ghosts have none of these things, they cannot see anything.
In ancient times, ghosts and devils were invented to scare people out of doing evil things. Folk tales and urban legends can tell ghost stories in a vivid way, but can they show any proof? Classic books such as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊齋志異) by Qing Dynasty-era novelist Pu Songling (蒲松齡) can entertain the reader or deceive the uneducated, but can they stand up to scrutiny?
Scary tales about “auntie tigress” abducting children at night or the ghost of a drowned person turning into a city god make for good listening, but only a child would take them seriously.
Albert Einstein said that he cannot “believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotisms.” Let us hope that Taiwanese will not live in the shadows of misconception, and will soon discard false notions such as Ghost Month and haunted houses.
Lin Ji-sheng is an associate professor at National Tsing Hua University.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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