The unusually-named phenomenon ghost sickness is considered to be a psychological illness where a person believes that a ghost can take control of a living person's mind and body. Through psychological control over their daily thoughts, actions, and existence, people believe that they lose sense of their bodies. This belief is prevalent in indigenous North American culture. In this tradition, the physical manifestation of symptoms and reactions are closely linked to the spirit or ghost of a deceased loved one.
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The illness manifests in several ways and differs in how it affects each person. The different terms used to describe this phenomenon all relate to the same condition known as ghost sickness. You may have heard it referenced as a real ghost illness, ghost contamination, ghost alien disease, and a fore-ordained ghost disease.
Any of these terms can describe the same mythological illness. There are cultural rituals and traditions in place that are connected to the grief process after the death of a loved one that must take place to minimize the symptomatic effects.
What Is Ghost Sickness?
Ghost sickness is a pathological grief disorder that is attributed to suppressed or inhibited grief; it includes having a distorted view of the grief process that causes a grieving person to manifest their deceased loved one in their mind. Those suffering also tend to experience bouts of extreme anger and/or guilt associated with the death of their loved one. This is especially true if the deceased was under their direct care before dying.
A person who suffers from ghost sickness tends to blame others for their disruptive and dangerous behaviors. Unfortunately, they do not take into account their actions which can contribute toward negative outcomes. People suffering from ghost sickness blame the ghost or spirit of the deceased for “making them” do and act in certain ways atypical of normal behavior.
They not only blame their behavior on the supernatural but genuinely believe they have no outward control of their actions. Because they pass on the blame to the ghost, they take no responsibility for their actions and typically suffer no outside consequences.
When grief is unresolved, it may lead to greater issues later on. The typical grief healing cycle may be resolved in the first 12 months following the loss. However, not everyone will experience complete healing during this time frame and may continue to suffer from grief and mourning their entire lives. When grief is left untreated and unresolved, it can lead to certain other disorders such as chronic sadness and depression.
Grief can also manifest in other ways that are not typical. Manifestations of unresolved grief include:
- Seeking visions of spirits of the dead
- Obsessive thoughts about the dead
- Longing for and believing in reunification with the dead
- Belief in astral projection into the past and future
What cultures or Native American tribes experience ghost sickness?
Ghost sickness is a preoccupation with the dead that is prevalent among indigenous peoples in North America, Thailand, and China.
They believe that the dead are still among us, and through their grief, they display an obsessive preoccupation with the spirit world. This preoccupation can cause certain symptomatic effects to manifest that are specifically linked to this psychological disorder. In North America, the specific Native American tribes that have a history of experiencing ghost sickness are the Navajo, Muskogee, and Mohave.
Culturally-related grief disorder
This grief disorder is distinctly linked to Native American culture and is not generally known or recognized by non-Native American culture within the U.S. Mainstream American culture can and does suffer from most, if not all, of these symptoms at some point during their grief process. In a sense, ghost sickness is just another name for what other, non-Native groups experience after suffering the loss of a loved one.
During grief and mourning periods, others in mainstream American culture have reported having experienced similar things such as dreams, auditory, and visual hallucinations. The difference is that non-Native American culture does not widely accept this phenomenon as being real in general.
In 1971, a poll conducted in a Welsh community of widows and widowers who were experiencing similar effects admitted in a study to be experiencing these phenomena. And, either they didn’t report these experiences for various reasons, or just accepted them and allowed the event to help in their healing process. This is typical of mainstream American’s reactions to the same.
The history of ghost sickness goes back to indigenous Native American people’s beliefs in the afterlife. It includes the rituals and traditions that are in place to deal with the effects of ghost contamination in the lives of those afflicted by the death of their relative.
Traditionally tribal elders, shamans, and healers are those in charge of expelling these ghosts from the person or persons who are being affected by the dead relative. The rituals that are currently practiced have long been a tradition in Native American culture and do not vary much, if at all, from those practiced by their ancestors who came before them hundreds of years ago.
How Does Ghost Sickness Work?
Anyone who has suffered the death of a loved one is prone to get ghost sickness depending on their preoccupation with the death, their personal and cultural beliefs, and their susceptibility to falling victim to psychological manipulations.
Most often, those persons who had a close personal bond with the deceased, or who took care of them close to the time of death, are more likely to experience ghost sickness. This is typical of those persons who feel especially responsible for the death by not having done enough to prevent it.
A person who is preoccupied with thoughts of the deceased falls ill displaying symptoms that are inexplicable and not otherwise linked to any of the more commonly accepted stages of grief. A person who is said to be suffering from ghost sickness displays some or all of the following symptoms:
- General weakness
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling of suffocation
- Nightmares and dreaming of dead family members
- Direct contamination with the dead
- Chronic sadness
- Thoughts of suicide
Hallucinations and dreaming of the deceased relative can be a part of the grieving process and is also attributed as a symptom of ghost illness. Elevated stress levels, anxiety, fear of dying, depression, and disrupted family units all give way to the occurrence and recurrence of nightmares or dreaming of the dead relative.
In Native American tradition, dreams are regarded as being real events, and not a part of the subconscious state of mind one enters upon falling into a deep sleep. Because dreams are thought to be real, the dead relative’s appearance in these dreams is also interpreted as being real.
In general, Native Americans don’t seek out western medicine or doctors to treat the effects of ghost sickness. Instead, they rely on cultural rituals and ancestral religious processes to provide the traditional cure for this affliction.
Among the methods used are Native American death rituals. They may also include any of the following methods of cleansing and purification of the person affected:
1. Healing ceremonials
These spiritual healing ceremonies are a form of holistic medicine practice by generations of Native American healers. They are similarly practiced across different tribes with only slight variations on the specific healing practices or herbal remedies that are used. All include herbs, manipulative therapies, ceremonies, and prayer to treat or prevent this illness.
2. Evil chasing
These are purification rituals for mourning aimed at chasing away evil spirits. These rituals consist of burning sage or another spiritual herb for cleansing and purification of the area where it's believed that evil spirits lurk. Homes are “cleansed,” paying special attention to the corners of every room where evil is thought to lurk or “get stuck in the corners.”
There's also a ceremonial dance with the wearing of masks aimed at scaring away any residual evil spirits. The cleansing rituals can also be used to "sweep" a person's body with the burning of the ceremonial herb. The smoke produced by the burning washes away or sweeps away any evil spirits attached to the person.
3. Ceremonies to eliminate thoughts of the dead
Ghost way chant groups are special groups formed to chase away ghosts and spirits of the deceased. The chanting is done around the clock in some instances with different groups doing the chanting in shifts.
When a person is obsessively thinking of their deceased loved one, these healing sessions and rituals are layered to provide different levels of cleansing and protection. It is a very typical way of dealing with grief among the indigenous groups whose grief resolution processes differ from the mainstream.
Cultural Acceptance of Ghost Sickness
Ghost sickness is closely related to indigenous groups' cultural beliefs and traditions. And, although the symptoms may appear to be real and disturbing, little western medical intervention is actually sought in its treatment. Native American groups, in particular, depend on their cultural rituals to ease the patient’s suffering with a strong cultural acceptance of this psychological illness already in place.
- Putsch, R.W. (1988) Ghost illness: a cross-cultural experience with the expression of a non-Western tradition in clinical practice. American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research, 2:2, 6-26.
- Raphael, Beverley (1975) The Management of Pathological Grief, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 9:3, 173-180, DOI: 10.3109/00048677509159845
- Koithan, Mary, and Cynthia Farrell. “Indigenous Native American Healing Traditions.” The journal for nurse practitioners: JNP vol. 6,6 (2010): 477-478. DOI:10.1016/j.nurpra.2010.03.016