Of God and Ghosts

Searching for spiritual explanations for ghosts in America’s most haunted city

Young lovers hear inhuman growls when they stroll past it. Passing tourists feel tugs at their shopping bags, but when they whirl around, nothing is there. Teenage thrill-seekers take photos of it and delight in the beast-like faces that show up in empty windows.

The abandoned Gothic mansion at 432 Abercorn in Savannah, Georgia is haunted, but it’s not the city’s only ghost-ridden structure. “Up to 80% of homes and buildings in the historic district of Savannah are haunted,” says Scott Warner, a ghost tour guide for Ghost Talk Ghost Walk in Savannah.

Shannon Scott, a local paranormal investigator, says that the American Institute for Parapsychology (AIP) recently designated Savannah, Georgia the most haunted city in the United States. “Savannah’s a living classroom for anyone studying the paranormal,” Scott says.

Savannah is noted not just for its ghosts, but also for the many houses of worship that line its Spanish moss-draped, tree-lined streets. So what better place than Savannah—locked in the Bible Belt—to learn what religion has to say about ghosts?

Luke 24: 37-39
James Caskey, a Savannah local and owner of Cobblestone Tours, a ghost tour company, says that he doesn’t see a contradiction between believing in the Bible and ghosts. Caskey, who researched the topic for his book, Haunted Savannah, says that the New Testament supports a belief in ghosts.

Caskey quotes Luke 24:37-39, where Jesus, after his resurrection, appears to the apostles and reprimands them for thinking he’s a ghost: “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

Caskey argues that Jesus did not chastise his apostles in Luke 24 for believing in ghosts but rather for believing that he (Jesus) was a ghost. Caskey writes in his book: “Jesus shows a familiarity with ghosts in this passage … He even notes the difference: he is flesh and blood, whereas a ghost is not.”

But Father Vasile Mihai of St. Paul’s Greek Orthodox Church in Savannah cautions that the Greek word for ghost in the New Testament is phantasm, and it can be translated in different ways, including “to bring to manifestation,” “appearance of wisdom” or “deception.” Mihai advises against assigning too specific a meaning to the word “ghost” in the Bible.

Mihai also says that after people die, their souls don’t rove freely. He says the soul goes into a spiritual “holding tank” until the resurrection and the final judgment of Christ. Consequently, souls—by definition—are constrained after death, he says.

The Purgatory Theory

Father Daniel Firmin, chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Savannah, agrees with Mihai, but adds that as a Catholic he believes that after death the soul goes to one of three places: heaven, purgatory or hell. “This doesn’t give much room for souls roaming about,” says Firmin.

But Joan Altmeyer, a Catholic and ghost tour guide for Oglethorpe Tours, believes that ghosts are souls that are stuck in purgatory, which overlaps our world. “That’s why you can see these souls or ghosts in the form of orbs [small sphere-shaped luminous entities] when you take pictures of haunted locations,” she says.

Atmeyer theorizes that larger orbs are souls that are beginning their stay in purgatory while smaller orbs are wrapping up their stint.

“But you’re not going to find any priest or nun who will argee with me,” she laughs.