GHOSTS AND LIMINALITY:
A BRIEF INTRODUCTION
by George P. Hansen
Ghosts are odd.
Are they alive? Or are they dead? Are they fact? Or are
they fiction? Are they natural? or supernatural? hallucinations?
These questions are not
new. They’ve been asked for thousands of years, yet they remain unresolved.
Ghosts are inherently ambiguous. So how can we understand them?
of liminality may help because it addresses phenomena that are ambiguous
and paradoxical. The word liminal comes from limen, meaning threshold,
and liminality refers to the condition of being betwixt and between.
This concept is not well known, and it’s likely to be foreign to nearly
all persons involved with parapsychology or ghost research. Nevertheless,
this anthropological theory has innumerable implications for paranormal
Liminality applies to
change, transition, and transformation--conditions that are conducive to
psi phenomena. For instance, poltergeist effects tend to occur around
someone in puberty. A person at that stage in life is neither a child
nor an adult, but rather is betwixt and between those roles. Death
is another transition, and people are more likely to experience psychic
phenomena near the death of someone they know than during more normal periods.
Every culture has rituals surrounding death; it is a major rite of passage.
In fact, analyses of rites of passage led to the concept of liminality.
Ancient peoples recognized,
and respected, the reality of ghosts, and they had a deeper understanding
of them than we do now. Those peoples used rituals to summon and
channel supernatural power, but they also knew that the power was dangerous,
and they had taboos surrounding it. We can benefit by studying their
ways of thought.
that in earlier cultures, novices in ritual initiations were frequently
likened to “ghosts, gods, or ancestors.”2 But how in the
world are ghosts like initiates? That just doesn’t seem logical to
us. But the connection has
proven to be illuminating,
and other societies’ ideas will help us understand ghosts.
and Binary Oppositions
have shown that so-called “primitive” cultures often classified things
in terms of binary oppositions. The Figure below shows some of the
major binary oppositions recognized by many societies.
Figure -- Major Binary Oppositions
of Earlier Cultures (Items in italics are liminal persons or phenomena)
Usually one element in
an opposition has greater power, prestige, or privilege. Those in
the top line have the higher status. But it’s the area betwixt and
between the binary oppositions that’s especially interesting. It’s
a region of ambiguity and uncertainty. It’s also a realm of taboo,
and for earlier cultures, contact with that domain sometimes required protective
Notice that all of the
betwixt-and-between items in the Figure are paranormal or supernatural
phenomena, or are persons associated with such phenomena.
Spirits, ghosts, and
near-death experiences (NDEs) challenge the all-too-simple distinction
between life and death. Mediums serve as mediators between the living
and the dead.
Mystics strive to unite with god; thus they blur the boundary between
the human and the divine. They engage in extended periods of prayer
and meditation, and mystics have produced some of the most dramatic paranormal
phenomena ever reported (e.g., levitation, miraculous healings, multiplication
Berdache were persons in American Indian tribes who took the role
of the opposite sex. Many of them became shamans, but even those
who didn’t were looked upon as having supernatural power.
Angels and UFOs travel between the heavens and the earth.
Angels relay religious messages, and UFO occupants sometimes do too.
Bigfoot lies between human and beast, and so do vampires and werewolves.
Some North American Indian tribes knew that Bigfoot was not an ordinary
animal. If a member of the tribe wanted to pursue such a creature,
the individual had to be ritually purified.3 There was a contagious,
unclean aspect to encountering Bigfoot.
Paranormal phenomena have a betwixt-and-between aspect; as such,
they are liminal occurrences, and they display the properties associated
with liminality. Liminal persons, phenomena, and events tend to blur
boundaries, upset classification schemes, and foster ambivalence and ambiguity.
Such conditions are dangerous, but they can also be a source of supernatural
Relevance for Ghost Research
Ghost research faces peculiar problems:
For thousands of years ghosts have been reported, discussed, and denied.
Today the debates over their existence are as heated as ever. They
show no sign of being resolved.
Movies such as The Sixth Sense, Ghost, and Ghostbusters have been immensely
popular. Each has taken in hundreds of millions of dollars in box
office receipts. In contrast, the average support for serious ghost
research published in refereed, scientific, English-language journals is
probably less than $10,000 annually, and it may be less than half that
No scientific institutions (with offices, buildings, paid staff) are
devoted to investigating the reality of ghosts. There are virtually
no university courses on ghost research, and there is no credible academic
textbook on the topic.
Those who try to investigate
the phenomena are likely to be housewives, police officers, or college
students working on their own nickel, with no support from any institution.
Active ghost research groups
rarely last for more than a few years. Such organizations frequently
fractionate and dissolve, leaving behind feelings of bitterness and disappointment.
Conferences devoted to ghosts
often include presentations on UFOs, Bigfoot, aliens, and channelers.
The boundaries between these topics are blurred.
Many people will speak of
their ghost experiences, but often only in hushed tones, and maybe only
to close friends. They perceive a stigma associated with the phenomena.
The above facts are
well known to ghost researchers, but they rarely, if ever, are incorporated
into theories of ghosts. Yet any comprehensive theory must explain
these difficulties and peculiarities. Liminality theory directly
addresses the matters, and it is founded on understandings of earlier cultures,
which respected the reality of ghosts.
Liminal phenomena are
typically transient, ephemeral, and have an affinity for chaos, transition,
and instability. They are also usually viewed as slightly disreputable.
Ghosts themselves are transient; their manifestations are unpredictable.
They are neither solid nor stable. The question of their reality
is perennially in dispute.
Marginality is a type
of liminality, and ghost research is viewed as exceedingly marginal, even
laughable, by the scientific establishment.
Anti-structure is a synonym
of liminality in anthropological theory. The word reflects the transitory,
unstable nature of ghost research groups. Direct attempts to engage
the phenomena have side effects; they lead to instability.
of liminality tend to destabilize established social orders--including
bureaucratic institutions of government, business, academe, and religion.
Such institutions unconsciously avoid contact with liminal occurrences.
Liminal phenomena tend to blur together. Some suggest that
ghosts are telepathic hallucinations. Others ask if spirits exist,
or whether some spirit phenomena are a function of other psychic abilities
(e.g., clairvoyant powers of mediums). Professional parapsychologists
are still undecided whether there is any real difference between ESP and
psychokinesis. These issues of “blurred categories” have been argued
for over a century in psychical research.
Liminal phenomena are frequently presented in popular works of fiction,
but with fiction, a reader need not seriously consider reality issues.
Readers can indulge their fascination but remain distant from direct encounter
Earlier cultures understood that liminal conditions and persons
were dangerous; there were stigmas and taboos associated with them.
Approaching otherworldly powers was not done casually. Ritual protection
was required. Today such notions are considered to be “superstitious.”
Such attitudes serve to further marginalize the phenomena and thus reinforce
Like most discussions of liminality, the one here has been condensed.
The full scope of the theory cannot be presented briefly. The concept
is abstract, and my discussion has risked giving readers a too-limited
impression. So I should say a few words about its range of application.
The concept was initially explained by Arnold van Gennep (1873-1957)
and later advanced by Victor Turner (1920-1983) and then by his student
Barbara Babcock (1943-). Van Gennep’s formulation of liminality covered
matters such as initiations, vision quests, retreats into deserts by hermits,
travelers, strangers, sacred contexts, and territorial passage. Turner
expanded it to include: “subjugated autochthones, small nations, court
jesters, holy mendicants, good Samaritans, millenarian movements, ‘dharma
bums,’...and monastic orders.”4 It has since been applied
to literary theory, analysis of film, theories of postmodernity, and aspects
of the Internet.
Such a jumble may seem bizarre, but comparative methods of anthropology
do throw light on things that seem completely unrelated. Those methods
are not restricted by linear cause-effect thinking, which predominates
in most sciences. They
provide a more expansive
vision for understanding ghosts, suggest new ways to think about them,
and open up relevant literatures that most scientists have ignored.5
I would like to thank
John Kearney and Joanne D. S. McMahon for comments on an earlier draft
of this paper.
1. The concept of liminality
has been developed in folklore, religious studies, literary criticism,
counseling psychology, performance studies, and other fields. The
notion has proven effective in understanding shamanism, religious ritual,
and the trickster figure of mythology. Readers with an anthropological
background may recognize some of the synonyms and near-synonyms for liminality,
which include: anti-structure, interstitiality, communitas, betwixt and
between. Marginality and outsiderhood are types of liminality.
There are a few commentators
who have understood the relevance of liminality to the paranormal. Stanley
Krippner, an expert on dreams and a pioneer in dream telepathy (and an
eminent authority in humanistic and transpersonal psychology), has recently
published several papers that discuss liminality: Conflicting Perspectives
on Shamans and Shamanism: Points and Counterpoints (American Psychologist,
2002, Vol. 57, No. 11, pp. 962-977. Available at:
Dancing With the Trickster: Notes for a Transpersonal Autobiography (International
Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 2002, Vol. 21, pp. 1-18. Available
the Trickster: Hypnosis as a Liminal Phenomenon (Journal of Clinical
and Experimental Hypnosis, 2005, Vol. 53, No. 2, pp. 97-118.
Available at: http://www.stanleykrippner.com/papers/trance_trickster.htm).
Barbara Weisberg made
use of the concept in her book Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox
and the Rise of Spiritualism (2004. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco).
David Taylor and Peter
Rogerson briefly mentioned the idea of liminality in relation to haunted
houses. See Taylor’s essay: Spaces of Transition: New Light on the
Haunted House (Available
[First published in At the Edge, No. 10, 1998]). See Rogerson’s
essay: And the Dogs Began to Howl (Magonia, No. 27, September 1987, pp. 7-10).
Rogerson also applied the concept to UFOs in his article: Taken to
the Limits (Magonia, No. 23, July 1986, pp. 3-12).
The now-inactive online
journal Liminalspace (published 2000-2003) carried a number of articles
relevant to the paranormal. Back issues can be downloaded at:
2. Turner, 1982, p. 27.
3. Buckley, 1980, p.
4. Turner, 1969, p. 125.
5. Readers wanting more
discussion of these topics may wish to peruse my book’s Introduction, which
is online at: http://www.tricksterbook.com/Intro.htm
SOME USEFUL REFERENCES
(1975). “A Tolerated Margin of Mess”: The Trickster and His Tales
Reconsidered. Journal of the Folklore Institute. Vol.
11, No. 3, pp. 147-186. [The most important work applying liminality
theory to the trickster.]
(1980). Monsters and the Quest for Balance in Native Northwest California.
In Manlike Monsters on Trial: Early Records and Modern Evidence,
edited by Marjorie M. Halpin & Michael M. Ames, pp. 152-171.
Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press. [Other articles
in the volume also discuss liminality.]
Clements, William M.
(1987). The Interstitial Ogre: The Structure of Horror in Expressive
Culture. South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 86, No. 1, pp. 34-43.
Cole, Susan Letzler.
(1985). The Absent One: Mourning Ritual, Tragedy, and the Performance
of Ambivalence. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University
Hansen, George P.
(2001). The Trickster and the Paranormal. Philadelphia,
PA: Xlibris Corporation. [The most extensive discussion available of the
paranormal in terms of liminality.]
Hicks, David. (1976).
Ghosts and Kin: Fieldwork in an Indonesian Community. Palo Alto,
CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.
(1969). Genesis as Myth. In his Genesis as Myth, and Other
Essays, (pp. 7-23). London: Jonathan Cape. (Original essay
first published 1962.)
Palmer, Richard E.
The Liminality of Hermes and the Meaning of Hermeneutics [Essay].
(First published in Proceedings of the Heraclitean Society: A Quarterly
Report on Philosophy and Criticism of the Arts and Sciences. 1980,
Vol. 5, pp. 4-11.)
Simon, Bruce Neal. How
to Do Things With Ghosts [Essay]. Available at:
The Metaphors and Rituals of Place and Time — An Introduction to Liminality
or Why Christopher Robin Wouldn’t Walk on the Cracks [Essay]. Available
at: http://www.indigogroup.co.uk/edge/liminal.htm (First published
in Mercian Mysteries, No. 22, February 1995.) [Trubshaw has
published other articles mentioning liminality on the indigogroup.co.uk
Turner, Victor W.
(1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure.
Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing Company.
(1974). Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human
Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
(1982). From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play.
New York City: Performing Arts Journal Publications.
van Gennep, Arnold.
(1960). The Rites of Passage. Translated by Monika B.
Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago
Press. (Original work first published 1909.)
|This essay was first published on the Web, 14
June 2005, at www.tricksterbook.com