While gathering material for my book Haunted Southern Tier (2011), I collected many stories about children who had encountered spirits of the dead. These were not morose, creepy-looking children like Cole in the popular horror movie The Sixth Sense (1999), but just average kids who talked about communicating with ghosts. It was, I learned, not unusual for kids to talk about having close encounters with relatives and others who were no longer alive.
I had known about children seeing ghosts for a long time, because when I was in first grade, I had a strange experience of my own. Sitting on a bed in my best friend's room on the top floor of her family's old house in Washington, DC, I looked up and saw what seemed to be the head of an old man floating in the air. Gray and opaque, the head hovered for a moment, then vanished. Was it an optical illusion or a ghostly apparition? I did not know and never told my parents what I had seen. Years later, however, I enjoyed telling my folklore students about seeing the old man's head and learning that a number of my students had had similar experiences.
Two of my students told me that they had, as children, seen their much loved grandparents shortly after those grandparents passed away. Andrea, a junior from Long Island, had seen her grandfather standing in the shower stall of her bathroom soon after he died. He didn't look at her, just continued taking his spectral shower and then faded away. Since Andrea had felt very close to her grandfather, she was glad to see him, though she didn't tell most people what had happened for fear that they would think she was strange. Similarly, Steve, a sophomore from upstate New York, saw his grandfather engaging in an everyday activity--eating a sandwich at the kitchen table late at night. His grandfather looked up, smiled, and then swiftly vanished. Like Andrea, Steve did not tell other kids what had happened. "They might have thought I was weird," he explained.
Stories about kids seeing and hearing ghosts have been told in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world. Some people think that children's openness to new experiences makes them more capable of seeing ghosts than adults; others think that children just have wild imaginations. Belief is, of course, a key factor here. A parent who believes in ghosts may be convinced that a child has had an extraordinary experience, while a more skeptical parent may think that the child has come up with an imaginary friend.
In New York State, children's encounters with ghosts have a long, well-documented history because of Margaret and Katherine Fox, who became international celebrities after demonstrating their communication with spirits in a small house in the hamlet of Hydesville in 1848. Relatives and neighbors gathered to hear Margaret and Katherine respond to what appeared to be spirit rappings. Soon these two young women became famous mediums who drew large crowds. Years later, Margaret confessed that she and her sister had made rapping noises by extending the joints of their toes. …