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All It Takes to Create a Ghost Is a Good Story

Todd Cobb took on a project to write about ghosts, hauntings, and other urban legends of Portland, Oregon. He solicited stories from anyone who had one about the city. What he got was a range of interesting stories, not-so-interesting stories, and a few crackpots who wasted his time.

Serial disappointments have a way of dulling one’s ambitions. Cobb couldn’t help it if some of the supernatural anecdotes were a bit boring, or if Portland simply didn’t have enough well-documented ghost stories to fill a book. At least one time, he invented a story entirely. It always seemed odd to him to write about “true” ghost stories, but he did get nervous that he was stretching the truth a little too far. But the publisher accepted what he’d written and the book came out in 2007. He became known, at least for awhile, as Portland’s “ghost guy.”

As the ghost guy, he heard more ghost stories, and then a strange thing started happening. He would hear the stories he wrote—parts he knows he made up—repeated back to him, by people he didn’t know and who didn’t realize that they’d read them in a book. He had written in the introduction, “When we move beyond the realm of science, we’re in the realm of faith. We believe because we believe.” But he was surprised that people believed so thoroughly and eagerly in ghosts that he’d just invented.

“The first requirement for there being a ghost in a house is someone believing there’s a ghost in the house,” says Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman University in Orange, California, who has spent years studying paranormal beliefs in America. A good story can be enough. So now, two haunted bars featured in Cobb’s book—only one of which had a ghost story prior its publication—are equally haunted.

Sarah Laskow went to both bars and talked to employees about the ghostly manifestations, which were strikingly similar. And she talked to experts about how people believe in ghosts because they want to believe in ghosts, which you can read about at Atlas Obscura.

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