As skeptics we often criticize psychic mediums for exploiting their clients–John Edward, Sylvia Browne, and others are prime examples of “grief vampires”–but it’s important to remember that people speaking with ghosts have at times led to serious consequences. Ghost communications–whether real or imagined–has even cost innocent lives, for example during the Salem Village witch trials beginning in 1692. More than 150 people were accused of witchcraft, with nineteen of them being put to death. Many of them were found guilty based in part on what was known as spectral evidence: communications or sensations from ghosts.
“While nobody was tried entirely on spectral evidence, it was what was initially brought against almost everyone at Salem, becoming a litmus test for discovering a witch,” Emerson Baker notes in his book A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience (2015, 187). “Spectral evidence was not just drawn from written depositions made before the trial by the afflicted. It was also used in the courtroom, with high drama and to great effect. The climax of most trials occurred when the afflicted confronted the accused [witches]. When this happened, invariably the alleged witch’s specter harmed the afflicted, who writhed and shrieked in pain in response to spectral attacks invisible to the jury and the rest of the court. This very public demonstration of spectral evidence could not help but have a strong impact on the jury, giving such evidence far more weight than it deserved. Not only did the judges allow this, but they ignored the many suggestions that such afflictions were being faked” (pages 188-189).
Ghostly contact has not lost its ability to impress audiences over the centuries; though fortunately absent from modern courts, ghost hunters and psychic mediums reacting to unseen information, sensations, and even “attacks” are common. For those watching the reactions are vivid and compelling; something certainly seems to be causing the medium to speak in a strange voice or write out mysterious messages, and for many a ghostly presence seems more plausible than fakery, playacting, or the power of suggestion.
It’s important to remember that not everyone who claims to be a victim (of curses, witchcraft attacks, or anything else.) actually is one, even if they sincerely believe it to be true. All claimants, of any kind, should be given the benefit of the doubt until and unless evidence suggests otherwise. When ghosts are called as witnesses, however, skepticism can save lives.