Ghosts are lame. Ghosts are boring. Ghosts are wholly uninteresting things. Spooks and ghouls trapped between this world and the next, ghosts are typically described as the soul or spirit of a person who has died and for whatever reason not gone to the place where everyone else goes. Typically they’re these semi-translucent shapes of their former selves trying to convey messages, scare people or just wait out eternity. I suppose the nicest thing that can be said about ghosts is that they aren’t real.

Let me state that emphatically: There are no ghosts. There are no hauntings. Everything that goes bump in the night has a name, and there is nothing under your bed aside from what you yourself have placed there. We do not live in a paranormal world. However, we also do not live in a normal world. Far too many of the possible experiences this universe has to offer are outside of sensible reality for us to call anything around us normal or ordinary. Our universe is extraordinary, and that’s my problem with ghosts.

If pop culture is anything to go by — and it probably isn’t — then the above description I gave for ghosts tends to hold true. This is what people report when they report seeing ghosts. When places are said to be haunted, they are often said to be haunted by someone who died there under bad circumstances — think Civil War battlefields, abandoned hospitals or hotels with a sordid past. Observers of ghosts will say they see soldiers, patients and caregivers — all people. And that’s my first gripe with ghosts: Why stay in the shape of one’s former body? Why not become gigantic or exceedingly small? Why not experience the world from the perspective of an amoeba or a nebula?

And beyond that, why stay in the shape of your former body, let alone go to the trouble of wearing the clothes you died in? Is there some limitation on how far ghostly particles can spread apart from one another or some inhibition from them assembling in some manner beside how they were moments before someone’s death? How do ghosts’ underwear know to travel with them to the other realm but not to do so if simply thrown away? And just which of a person’s earthly possessions knows to follow to the afterlife? Clothes have figured this out, but cars and computers are notably absent.

And exactly which moment before, during or after the death process does one become a ghost? The cells of a person continue living long after they themselves have died. So too do the populations of bacteria we culture all throughout ourselves — and the 100 trillion or so microorganisms in our guts surely appreciate it. A heart can stop beating before a brain ceases to work; a brain can die long before the rest of the body. Strokes and ablations can ruin parts of the brain years before death, so does my soul know this and adjust accordingly? And has the spiritual world figured out how blood transfusions and organ transplants affect their ghostly systems? They figured out their clothing policy, but have they really kept up with the medical literature?

And why is it that ghosts only seem to be found in dark/abandoned/scary places? As I said, ghosts supposedly walk the grounds of where they met their untimely deaths, but what is off-bounds here? Are there ghost police that say other ghosts can go a couple hundred feet from the spot of their demise, but not a couple hundred more? Can they go up in the sky, down in the ground? How far? Is it a spherical region equidistant in all directions? Referenced to the earth obviously, otherwise every death would just leave a spectral breadcrumb trail of the path of the earth as it spins (at about 1,000 mph), as it goes around the sun (at about 67,000 mph), as the sun goes through the galaxy (at about 420,000 mph), as our galaxy moves through the universe (at about 2.2 million mph). If ghosts like dark/abandoned/scary places, there are few better than the distances between galaxies.

Our universe is extraordinary and ghosts are boring. With this universe around all around us at its different scales of space and time, why would anyone bother scaring teenagers? Ghosts are free of their earthly limitations. They could hear the moan of space-time warping around giant stars, they could taste black holes and they could smell the void. Even if required to stay on earth they could experience the molten center of it, a thing of cosmic beauty just beneath our feet. They could watch evolutionary processes on a global scale. They could feel our world grow warm.

They could do so much and they don’t. This is why ghosts are lame. Or maybe I’ve gotten this all wrong, maybe that is what they’re all doing. At least that would explain why we don’t see them.

Barry Belmont can be reached at belmont@umich.edu.

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