Fei Xiaotong, a world-renowned Chinese anthropologist, visited America in the 1940’s and thought it was a country devoid of ghosts. Americans live in brightly lit cities, he noted. They illuminate all parts of a room. They believe in individual progress — not clanship, not past history. Americans move about, forming few, if any, permanent ties to places and people. So how could ghosts find room to dwell in such a place?
But the bright and shiny ghost-less land that Mr. Fei saw in World War II-era America is long gone. The America that believed in technology as a solution to all things, that believed in upward mobility as the norm, that saw itself as defender of the world from evil, has become almost a century later a landscape where ghosts comfortably dwell.
A poll conducted in December 2012 by The Huffington Post showed that 45 percent of Americans believe in spirits and 64 percent believe in life after death. Only a decade prior, a 2001 Gallup poll had found that only 25 percent of Americans believed in ghosts. And in 1990, a Pew poll found that only 18 percent believed in the ability of people to communicate or hear from the dead. In other words, the number of Americans who believe in ghosts more than doubled during the last two decades.
Which is to say, if the American gaze was once aimed relentlessly forward, its idea of itself based on a premise of ascendancy, the country has since turned nostalgic. With nearly half of the population now believing in ghosts, it may be that our once young, optimistic culture has reached middle age.
Indeed, America in the aftermath of defeat in the Vietnam war, the America of street violence and persistent gun deaths, of growing public distrust and disillusions with its government, of recession and economic stagnation, the America in which the soot from the destroyed twin towers in Manhattan continues to shroud our worldview — this America understands very well the language of nightmares, bad luck and the existence of ghosts.
The poet Robert Bly once observed that Americans have yet to experience ablution for past atrocities:
“We’re engaged in a vast forgetting mechanism and from the point of view of psychology, we’re refusing to eat our grief, refusing to really eat our dark side,” Bly told Bill Moyers on public television. “And therefore what Jung says is really terrifying — if you do not absorb the things you have done in your life… then you will have to repeat them.”
He was thinking of the Vietnam War in particular but we can now add several more countries to the list. Perhaps Jung could best explain why we ultimately continue to wage war overseas. The mess we left behind in Iraq continues to haunt us, as death and destruction rage on, unabated, two years after we pulled out our troops.
The war in Afghanistan seems never-ending, even as we talk of retreat and withdrawal. Our drones remain in the sky and the “collateral damages” continue to pile up, suggesting ablution will not happen there, either.
Adding to all this is the changing demographic in America itself. Immigration from the South and Asia is changing the face of America, bringing Old World traditions and beliefs with it. In the age of globalization, when connections with the homelands remain strong and not severed, many no longer feel the need to shed old beliefs, as compared to previous generations.
But the reason why more believe in ghosts may have to do with our anxious and darkening view of the future. One recent study suggests that parents increasingly see the future in pessimistic terms – they believe their children will do worse then themselves, and worry that the environment will continue to degrade, leaving future generations to deal with the profound consequences of the mess they will inherit.
Upward mobility, indeed, has slowed down for the first time in many generations. In some parts of the country, it has come to a standstill. A January 2012 article in the New York Times, citing various studies, reported that income inequality has reached an all time high, and younger Americans are less likely than their counterparts in Canada and Western Europe to make more money than their parents. Many will make less.
So it would seem that when there’s less upward movement, when the people’s gaze is trained backward, when a bright future is no longer assured, when national tragedies fail to find resolutions, and war and strife become perpetual – ghosts become part of the landscape.
On television these days, ghosts haunt the screen. From reality shows to sci-fi channels, ghosts are part of our shared psyche; spirits and specters and psychics populate our late-night TV. We may still be nomadic, but we carry a perpetual sense of the past with us. Actors long dead continue to dance and sing on our TV’s. Through reruns they remain alive, generation after generation. These American boxes, in some perverse way, serve to connect us to a large part of our past and form a kind of tradition. Plots are repeated; TV families live on; sitcoms we knew as children give us a sense of continuity.
Professor Xiaotong once saw his grandmother’s ghost in China. He lived in the house she lived in all her life, and when he saw her in her room as he walked in front of her doorway, it didn’t occur to him that she was already dead, until a few moments later. Life “melds past, present, and future” into one “multi-layered scene, a three-dimensional body,” Fei Xiaotong concluded. “This is what ghosts are.”
If America once stood in contrast to that Old World sensibility, in many ways since then, it has now absorbed it.
Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of three books, “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” and his latest, “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a collection of short stories about Vietnamese refugees struggling to rebuild their lives in the Bay Area. It’s now available on Kindle.