Phasmophobia: the Fear of Ghosts

May Be a Symptom of a More Serious Thought Disorder

Man visiting graveyard
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Phasmophobia, or the fear of ghosts, can be complicated to diagnose. Most of us experience a certain thrill of anxiety when telling ghost stories or watching movies that feature ghosts and other supernatural entities. Most people are able to control this fear, though, and even enjoy the feelings that it creates. For some people, however, this fear is overwhelming and life-limiting, thereby meeting the traditional definition of a phobia. Some experts feel that a phobia of ghosts may be symptomatic of a more serious thought disorder, as it may constitute a form of magical thinking.

Thanatophobia

Thanatopia, the fear of death, is common and can be found across cultures and religions. This fear may itself be related to other fears, including those based on religious beliefs and fear of the unknown. Some people fear the act of dying, while others fret about what may occur beyond the moment of death.

Phasmophobia is often related to thanatophobia. If you fear death, you may also fear signs and symbols that are related to its occurrences, such as cemetery tombstones or funeral homes. The fear of ghosts could be seen in the same way.

Magical Thinking

A broad definition of magical thinking could include virtually any beliefs that focus on irrational correlations between events. Some studies have shown links between magical thinking and psychosis, schizotypal personality disorder, and other serious mental health conditions.

Since the existence of the paranormal has not been scientifically proven, some experts feel that a belief in its existence may constitute magical thinking. Under this theory, phasmophobia could be seen as an extreme form of such thinking, possibly indicative of a more serious condition than a simple phobia.

Religious Beliefs

The corollary to magical thinking is the existence of religious beliefs. By definition, most religious teachings must be taken on faith. From Jesus to Buddha to the mystical shaman, virtually every major religion hinges on belief in the existence of one or more spiritual leaders who are or were granted the power to do things that are impossible under the laws of physics.

In addition, many major religions accept the existence of the supernatural, whether in the form of spirits, demons, angels, or other entities. Many religions teach that most of these beings are evil, capable of tempting or harming humans. Likewise, angels and other beings are frequently seen as benevolent and helpful. Therefore, it would be simplistic and unfair to assume that someone has disordered thinking based solely on a belief in or fear of the supernatural.

Parapsychology

Parapsychology is a branch of science that attempts to document and study occurrences of paranormal activity. Its status as a legitimate science has long been debated within the scientific community. Some of the results that have been obtained cannot be fully explained through current scientific principles, although many argue that this is due to a failure to use the established scientific method.

Regardless of their personal beliefs about parapsychology, good mental health professionals accept the client’s beliefs in such research without judgment. A client who has a fear of ghosts based on parapsychological research will not normally be suspected of magical thinking.

Parapsychology is not to be confused with transpersonal psychology, which centers on the spiritual aspects of human life.

Treatment

Since the existence of the supernatural cannot be proven, phasmophobia can be somewhat difficult to treat under conventional methods. Cognitive talk therapy may be helpful. In this type of therapy, the goal is to help you understand the root of your fear and learn to change the thoughts and beliefs that cause the fear. Care, however, must be taken to avoid trying to change your religious or scientific beliefs. In some cases, it may be best to refer you for counseling with your religious leader in addition to or in lieu of traditional therapy.

Teaching coping skills can also be helpful in this situation. Breathing exercises, guided visualization, and even biofeedback are methods that you can learn to use to manage your own fear.

Finally, it's important to understand what your goal is for therapy. Do you simply want to be able to enjoy ghost stories and horror movies without panicking? Are you questioning your religious beliefs? Is there a bigger issue, such as fear of death, that should be addressed? Your therapist needs to be careful to follow your lead.

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Article Sources
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Washington, DC: 2013.