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 saw.” 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 researchers worldwide. 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 contemporary life. 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 Ghosts.” Further reading: Charles F. Emmons. Chinese Ghosts and ESP: A Study of Paranormal Beliefs and Experiences (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982). 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 Kong," 2010. This article was expanded from one that originally appeared on Sue Demeter-St.Clair and Matthew Didier’s Paranormal Blog on 13 June 2007.
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
Densely packed apartment blocks fill the mountainside in Central Hong Kong.  Photo by Christopher Laursen The famous double decker trams that run through Hong Kong's main streets.  Photo by Christopher Laursen
Dr. Charles Emmons
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