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Ghost stories

MRU researcher collects accounts of phantasmal sightings


Photo of David Aveline, PhD.

David Aveline maintains there is no empirical evidence that ghosts exist but there are millions of reported sightings.


David Aveline, PhD, doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he does believe those who do can be affected in profound ways.

An associate professor of sociology, Aveline has collected stories across Canada from people who report having encountered not only ghosts, but also goblins, fairies, shadow people and demons. In a talk entitled, “I could see him clearly through my eyelids: Dealing with the Phantasmal in Qualitative Research,” he recently presented some of his findings at Mount Royal University and discussed the epistemological and methodological difficulties of the “sociologist as skeptic” hearing stories of the phantasmal. 

Aveline, who has been at MRU for 17 years, was not out to debunk, or support, his interviewees’ beliefs. Rather, he simply wanted to discover what people believed and how that affected their lives.

“I chose the title for a reason. There’s a touch of irony there,” he said. “You can’t see through your eyelids, of course.”

What that particular interview subject somehow “saw” was a seven-foot demon. 

Seeing is believing

Aveline maintains there is no empirical evidence that ghosts exist but there are millions of reported sightings. Ghosts remain a part of folklore and media culture, and there has been a recent explosion of paranormal reality shows, movies and books. 

“What is relevant is that people believe they exist,” says Aveline. “Beliefs influence behaviour and perspectives.” 

While Canadian figures are scant, Aveline found that six out of ten Americans believe places can be haunted and one in five say they have seen a ghost or been in its presence. 

“There are a lot of people who are highly distressed by ghosts,” he said. “Others are quite comforted.” 

Going into the project, Aveline wanted to know how people experience ghosts, how they explain ghosts’ existence, what they see as ghosts’ motivations and why they believe they can see ghosts while others don’t. 

His methods were based on grounded theory: entering the field with as few assumptions as possible, choosing a method of data collection (face-to-face interviews), transcribing and then coding those interviews, looking for patterns and building a theory. 

Crowdsourcing subjects


Photo of man and woman holding hands.

Ghosts remain a part of folklore and media culture, and there has been a recent explosion of paranormal reality shows, movies and books.


To find his 38 subjects, who ranged in age, ethnicity and socio-economic status, he put an ad on Craigslist looking for people who had seen ghosts. He met them in coffee shops, hotel lobbies and homes for semi-structured recorded interviews. His first question to each was: “Can you tell me the last time you saw a ghost?” And says his most common reaction to their answers was, “Wow,” or sometimes “Whoa!?” 

Interviewees described more than 100 ghosts. Some were deceased relatives, others were attached to buildings or objects. Some involved unfinished business and some didn’t know they were dead. 

Aveline said he found himself coming up with (but keeping to himself) logical explanations for many of the things people told him or feeling utter disbelief. It took a real shift in his own thinking to find a comfortable place to continue the research, to go from “outsider to insider.” 

“I stopped looking at people as if they were telling me something unbelievable and instead focused on how the ghosts affect people’s lives.”

Aveline is still coding the interviews at this point, and when he has finished that laborious process and found patterns he plans to write a book on his findings, likely a year or two away. 

Following a presentation from Aveline on his research, Tom Buchanan, PhD, chair of sociology and anthropology at MRU, reflected on the research.

“One of the important tasks of sociology is to look at people's perceptions and activities and how they influence behaviour,” Buchanan says. “We know from studies of conflict, religion and climate change the power of perceptions despite empirical reality. Dr. Aveline's research 

on perceptions of ghosts provide a critical lens through which we can better understand this power of beliefs and perceptions.”

Studies through the Department of Sociology and Anthropology provide students with a wide breadth of opportunities and experiences in two highly respected and widely recognized social science disciplines.

March 25, 2020 — Peter Glenn

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