December 11, 2012
From June 1980 to January 1981, Dr. Charles F. Emmons, a sociologist
from Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania, and his wife at the time, Chee
Lee, embarked on a seven-month project to poll Hong Kong residents on
their beliefs and experiences in regards to ghosts. Influenced by similar
large-scale surveys conducted by the Society for Psychical Research in
the late nineteenth century of 17,000 Britons, Charles and Chee did
extensive telephone polls of over 1,500 people and distributed nearly
2,000 questionnaires to secondary school students, asking about their
views on the topic. Emmons’ academic colleagues were far from
encouraging, telling him that Chinese people would not wish to speak on
the subject, especially to a Westerner. But one sociologist Emmons
spoke with had done a small-scale survey in Hong Kong using Chinese
student interviewers and only encountered no more than 15% refusal
from those asked to participate.
With that single vote of confidence, the academic couple pushed forth,
and found Hong Kong’s residents quite receptive to the question, “Do
you believe in ghosts?” “My wife, Chee, a native speaker of Cantonese
and a sociologist, single-handedly called 1,668 telephone numbers over
a four-month period,” Emmons wrote in his book on the survey, Chinese
Ghosts and ESP: A Study of Paranormal Beliefs and Experiences. “I was
pleasantly astonished when she achieved a 90% completion rate, with
only 7% refusals and 3% disconnected or never-answering numbers.”
The incredible survey was documented in Emmons’ book, and contains a
wide range of Chinese ghost experiences. He wrote that the survey
revealed the universal nature of paranormal phenomena including
ghosts, ESP and reincarnation, but it also was “entwined with mysteries
of Chinese culture: ghost fear, ancestor worship, and lore about tree
spirits.” (Tree spirits I will write about in an upcoming article on the
Philippines, but let’s consider the ideas of ghost fear and ancestor
worship among Hong Kong residents in the early 1980s. Emmons wrote
that his hugest challenge was how to “disentwine the nature (or
supernatural!) from the cultural and social.”
For example, in many of the experiences relayed by Hong Kong
residents, they expressed deep fear over what had happened. The sight
of a ghost of a relative, for example, could be considered an omen. In
one case (G002, Harvest Homecoming), an apparition of a man in a
white robe was seen by many people late at night entering the house in
which he once resided. “My aunt yelled, ‘Look who’s here!’ and we all
saw him walk from one side of the patio to the other and go in the house.
We went into the house and asked the woman who lived there who had
come in. She was asleep inside, hadn’t seen him, and said that nobody
had come in,” the witness reported. But the people recognized the man
as her husband who had died in the house. The witness continued, “My
aunt was immediately afraid when she realized that she had been the
first to see the ghost. She got very sick one week later, and died a month
later.” The mere sight of the ghost instilled a great sense of fear in the
witnesses, and the death of the aunt was seen as resulting from it.
Emmons wondered what part culture and psychology played in the case.
Similar fear was struck when Boy Scouts witnessed something strange
in 1973 (Case G008, Boy Scout Picnic). One of the witnesses, who was
15 at the time, described marching in the evening with his troop and
leader. Two white lights approached, “self-lit, like two spotlights.” As they
came closer, it was apparent they were an elderly couple. The witness
recalled, “They had no expression on their faces, and were not looking at
anybody. Both of them were wearing white robes. Their hair was old-
fashioned and parted and short.” There was something strange in the
way they walked, swinging their arms in synchronization, and then
jumping, both at the same time before continuing their odd walk. Five or
six of the Boy Scouts saw the strange apparitions, but no one else did. “I
was very scared, and turned around to look at them again when they
passed by, but they were gone,” the witness said. “I’m very sure of what I
Those who participated in the survey also recalled experiences from
before they moved to Hong Kong. One 27-year-old man recalled a story
from when he had lived in Canton in the early 1970s (Case G042, The
Floating Tenant). A commerative tablet had been kept on an altar in
memory of a woman tenant who had lived in his building. He described
seeing her float by the altar. “Her face was green and horrible.
Otherwise, she looked normal. She didn’t look at anybody and
disappeared instantly after a couple of seconds. She had been dead for
a month,” the witness said. In many of the cases reported, apparitions
floated, many were shadowy in nature and many wore white robes.
Just as with any ghostly experiences from any part of the world, the
types of stories collected by the Emmons were varied and had universal
themes, including animal ghosts (such as the chilling tale of a witness
hearing the sound of screaming pigs after a slaughterhouse had been
shut down), phantom footsteps, poltergeist activity, partial apparitions,
Buddhist exorcisms, even the old hag.
Like most psychical researchers, Emmons pondered if the reports could
be trusted. “It is my distinct impression,” he wrote, “that very few of the
respondents in this study were fabricating or significantly distorting their
reports of their own firsthand experiences. On the contrary, there was
often either a ‘relectance to report’ (citing ufologist Allan Hynek) or a
stated desire for anonymity,” a condition that is prevalent for psychical
Emmons’ book on Chinese ghosts and
ESP is often cited as a valuable source
by psychical researchers. Such surveys
do indeed help put numbers on ghostly
experiences, and when you put these
surveys side by side, there are many
commonalities. Erlendur Haraldsson
released statistics related to a long-term
survey he conducted over 25 years ago
in Iceland, the results of which were
discussed at the Gwen Tate Memorial
Lecture in London in April 2007. Like
Frederick Myers of the SPR, the 1978
Gallup poll on paranormal beliefs in the
United States and Emmons’ work,
Haraldsson put together an array of
figures that help researchers understand
the types of reports found among a large
group of those who have had firsthand
paranormal experiences. Alan Murdie writes about the Icelandic ghost
survey’s results in Fortean Times Issue 224, August 2007.
As Emmons says, there is certainly universality in paranormal
experience as can be seen in the examples cited above. However,
cultural differences account for unique perceptions of what ghosts are,
how people react to them and how tradition seeps through into
Update: 26 October 2012. Dr. Emmons is updating Chinese Ghosts
and ESP for a second edition. He is particularly interested in seeing if
there have been any changes in how Hong Kong residents have
experienced ghosts since Britain transferred sovereignty to the People's
Republic of China in 1997. For more, read his article “Reviving Chinese
Charles F. Emmons. Chinese Ghosts and ESP: A Study of
Paranormal Beliefs and Experiences (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow
Agence-France Presse (AFP) article on the 2005 Hungry Ghosts
Festival in Hong Kong by Chitra Panjabi.
Tiffany Lam and photos by Andy Ho, "Haunted Hong Kong: Read
if you dare," CNN GO, 25 October 2011.
Patrick Zakhm, "Haunted Time Tower South of Kowloon, Hong
This article was expanded from one that originally appeared on Sue
Demeter-St.Clair and Matthew Didier’s Paranormal Blog on 13 June
by Christopher Laursen
Polls of paranormal encounters have
provided insightful data into the diversity of
such experiences. In the 1980s, one such
study was published by Gettysburg College
sociologist Charles Emmons, and he is
currently looking to revise it.
article | studies & research
Surveying Hong Kong’s Abundant Spirits
Dr. Charles Emmons
STUDIES & EXPERIENCES
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