japaneseghostI was at a meetup.com dinner recently with about a dozen people that I’d never met before. When we went around the table telling what we did for a living, my response garnered some attention.

“Are you a ghost hunter?”

“Er, well… no, not exactly.. you see…”

“I saw a ghost once.”

“That’s very interesting, but what I do at the JREF is…”

And so it went. This is not an unusual exchange, and I’m not annoyed in the least. Often, such awkward openings lead to something more interesting, and that was the case here.

An Asian man approached me and said something very interesting:

“Ghosts are cultural.”

Though his English was quite good, I didn’t understand what he meant.

“Do you mean ghosts only exist because they’re socially constructed?”

“In Japan, ghosts have no legs. In the US, they do.”

And at last, I understood. He wasn't about to discuss relativism with me; he was saying that ghosts had different characteristics in Japan, or rather, Japanese people see ghosts differently.

I was called away and didn’t get to have a very long discussion with him, but he set me to thinking about this. Sure enough, a quick bit of research showed that most ghosts in Japan are depicted without legs. Others had chains coming out of their chests.

And maybe this explains why Casper the Friendly Ghost seems to be able to shed his legs at will.

I also came across this article recently, about a man in Utah who searches for Bigfoot. Like ghosts, Bigfoot (or Bigfeet) are found in many cultures, though in varying forms such as the Abominable Snow Man, Nguoi Rung, or Yowie. The article itself was just the same old “there’s something out there, I just know it” type of filler, but it made me wonder… why do people see what they see?

And the answer, I’m pretty sure, is that “believing is seeing.” If you have an idea of something in your mind, you will unconsciously search for it, and random or unclear patterns will trigger recognition of this searched-for pattern.

Daniel Loxton pointed out in a Junior Skeptic some years back that we no longer see trolls or ogres in the forests. We simply don’t scan for those patterns anymore. These monsters of old have been supplanted by our new version, which in North America is Bigfoot.

So, what’s stopping us from creating new monsters? Why can’t we just invent something, plant the idea in people’s minds, and have people frantically dialing 911 to report our fictitious bogeyman in their back yards?

Nothing. In fact, people have.  You’ll be hard pressed to find stories of alien abduction before the 1961 case of Betty and Barney Hill. Now, they’re commonplace (not abductions mind you, reports of abductions). A new monster (or at least a new monster behavior) was created with the Hills.

So I wonder if we could create yet another new monster. It would have to lurk in dark, deserted places. It would have to be illusive, crafty and sly. And it should probably be scary.

The funny thing is… I can’t think of anything new. Every idea that pops into my head has been done already. Maybe you can help. Think of something that might be lurking near your home, making sure it fits all the criteria above, and post it in the comments. Who knows… maybe it will become something people believe in 20 years from now. And I'll bet when you come forward to admit it, you'll be dismissed.