Trick or treat: Are hauntings real?

News: Halloween

With Halloween around the corner, it’s the time of year for all things spooky. Between scary movies and haunted houses, we at The Pillar started to wonder - what does the Church actually teach about haunted stuff?

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Can houses — and other buildings — really be haunted? Can the spirits of the dead roam the earth? And is that weird noise in your house —  right now — possibly a ghost?

We wanted to separate fact from fiction, so we took our questions to Dr. Regis Martin, a professor of dogmatic and systematic theology at the Fransican University of Steubenville, and author of “The Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with Halloween. Can Christians celebrate Halloween, or has it become too connected with the occult?

Halloween can be a perfectly harmless and innocuous kind of festival, but it can also be Christianized. Sanctified, even. 

Those masks that you wear are really a way, I think, of ridiculing the devil. Unmasking the devil. You make fun of him. He can't bear derision. And Halloween is one of those wonderfully risible moments when we poke fun at the old guy, and when we look at him and say, “You are really quite laughable because you have no power, except for the power we give you.” And the fact that it's situated the very evening before All Saints, I think, ushers in that great festival of the redeemed. The saint doesn't need to wear a mask. He's wearing Christ. And that, I think, is enough for him.

What does the Church say about hauntings? Can places actually be haunted by a spirit? 

I think [they] can be...We're not alone. This [world] is a very rich sort of mosaic that we're looking at; there is a lot more than you can see.

When you die, you become more intensely real than you ever were in the flesh, and I don't see why that shouldn't spill over into this world from time to time. 

But when we die, don't our souls go straight to either heaven, hell, or purgatory? How would spirits still have a presence in this world?

You're quite right—the moment you die, your destiny is fixed forever. But whether provision can be made for spirits that journey about, travel, traffic in the things of men, I'd like to leave that open because it makes for a more richly imaginative life.

Reality is more than what you see. It's fraught with mystery, and mystery is something that is not immediately apparent. It's not matter. It has a meaning, and that meaning is beyond a sense or notion...I mean, the angels, they're everywhere. You bump into them all the time, even if you can't see them, and each of us has been assigned an angel to look after us. It wouldn't surprise me if they had left a kind of footprint in the sand to let us know they're here and to ask us to take notice, and maybe cultivate a relationship with them.

Should we worry about spaces being haunted, when we move into a new house or office space? What should we do about that?

I would certainly encourage anyone who moves into a new space to have it blessed. 

Have holy water sprinkled throughout, because that's a sacramental and it conveys a grace—an actual grace—that can put these demons, these spirits, to flight. The devil [and demons are] terrified of holy water. They're just traumatized by holy things, so we keep them close to us, and they do help banish these evil forces, especially if you don't know who has been there before, what transpired there...The holy water, I think, can sort of excise those spirits and forces, and maybe it cleanse and purify the memory so we don't dwell on that. We don't need to, because the sacramental has expelled all of that, and now we're free to take possession of this space.

If someone has had some specific experience that has left them unsettled or unsure, then by all means, they should seek out a priest and ask him to please come over and bless the house and say special prayers of deliverance and exorcism. But it all depends on the experience you may have. It's good to take counsel with a sensible pastor.

On a related subject, what does the Church teach about demonic possessions?

It does happen. I don't think it's all that frequent, and Mother Church, I think, is pretty sensible about all of that. She insists on exhausting the conventional explanations before we turn to something demonic. You know, maybe there's some psychological tic or problem or pathology. Let's focus on that first, and then, if that doesn't account for the phenomenon, then we have to reach for another hypothesis, which allows for demonic possession or infestation.

But do demons have authority in this world? They seem in Scripture to have real power.

The world no longer belongs to the devils; it belongs to Jesus and to those who love him, so the devils are determined on revenge. Sin entered the world because of the envy of the devil, and there are still sins being committed, and the devil is very active. 

What I find instructive is that, in the New Testament, Jesus is subjected to a temptation in the desert, and one of the temptations is “I'll give you the kingdom of this world if you'll fall down and worship me.” That seems to imply that the kingdom of this world was something that Satan could dispose of—he had charge over. He was, sort of, in possession of it. That's a terrifying prospect, but it doesn't surprise the followers of Jesus that the devils should be in hot pursuit of them.

Do you have any practical tips for Catholics who are anxious about demons and possession, and worried about attacks of the devil?

I think the Morning Offering is a pretty good beginning, and of course daily Mass, Communion, prayer, and a constant awareness that we're not alone, that God wishes to accompany us. He's more present to us than we are to ourselves, and so an active awareness of that. That's the safety net, and if you fall into that, you've nothing to fear. 

You're going to be tempted to take a wrong turn, but it's best to avoid those occasions of sins by staying constantly in the presence of God. And that's easy enough because he's everywhere. He's ubiquitous. 

You can't escape the all-seeing eye of God, so we should take comfort from that fact. We're never alone. [Your] soul belongs to God. God created [your] soul to be happy forever in his company. He's not going to give up so easily and concede the high ground to Satan.

A guest post by
Michelle McDaniel’s writing has appeared in Catholic News Agency, Catholic World Report, North Texas Catholic, and more. She studied philosophy and journalism at the University of Dallas and works at Word on Fire.