In the 1940s, two American folklorists undertook the monumental tasks of collecting then-contemporary ghost stories. Despite being separated by over 2,000 miles (one in CA, the other in NY), their findings were eerily similar.
The findings were published in two different journals. First, "California Ghosts" by Rosalie Hankey was published in California Folklore Quarterly in 1942. This was followed by Louis C. Jones' "The Ghosts of New York: An Analytical Study in the Journal of American Folklore in 1944.
At this time, the most common ghost story across the country was that of the 'vanishing hitchhiker'. Now, if you're into the paranormal even slightly, or ever told ghost stories around a campfire, you probably are familiar with this apparition. The ghost, almost always a woman, appears to motorists on the highway as a totally normal human being in desperate need of a ride. However, after the being has been in the car for some time they either disappear in the actual car, or, when dropped off, disappear then.
The interesting thing about this is, at the time, more people reported seeing solid human-like ghosts, rather than the wispy white ghosts with barely-human shapes, or even blurred edges, that dominant most of our thinking. In fact, many people were completely unable to tell the ghost WASN'T a ghost until it was 'too late'. Or, even more interesting, they would drop them off and then later find out the person they talked to and dropped off had been dead for months or even years.
This is linked to another part of the study - the idea that more than a third of our ghosts died violent or sudden deaths." With hitchhiker deaths, many were accidents or even suicides, and even murders. Thus, those people who suffered greatly at their end of their life now seem to suffer in the after, or pre-after, life.
Even as early as the 1940s, ghosts still played a major role in the human psyche. And, what's more, is that they were becoming more real, more human, and, arguably, more tragic and relatable than the ghosts of yesteryear. Jones wrote that advancements in science of course is correlated with advancements and changes to our ghost lore. In fact, in his article he writes that these advancements allow people to "open their mind to possibilities,"
Our continue updates to ghost lore, and the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, new ghost stories, videos, and photographs circulate on the internet and on major news channels regularly seems to support this 50+ year old belief.
I think it's time for an update, though. What does the contemporary ghost look like in he 21st century? Has it changed due to the prevalence of visual culture like TV, movies, youtube, and more? Have we maintained the more human-like ghosts of the 20th century? Have we regressed to more fanciful and older ghostly traditions? Or, perhaps most interesting of all, have we created a whole new conception of what a ghost is?
The above image is from Flickr User Josh Meek and is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.