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Twenty-First-Century American Ghosts: The After-Death Communication—Therapy and Revelation from beyond the Grave

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2018


This paper examines a recent arrival on the American pop cultural scene, a type of ghost encounter called After-Death Communications (ADCs). Delivered in dreams, visions, voices, odors, coincidences, etc., these cheerful greetings from deceased loved ones help bereaved survivors cope with their loss. Since the Enlightenment, spirits of the dead have become increasingly irrelevant to collective life. The new phantoms, however, are assigned roles in the family, health, and faith. How has this occurred? Strands of a complicated process are delineated, including medical origins in the bereavement hallucination, a designated symptom of grief. Cultural dynamics behind the current ADC phenomenon are contrasted with national trends that shaped the nineteenth-century spiritualist enthusiasm for ghosts. The literature, published since the 1990s, is reviewed in which the ADC has been formalized as a source of bereavement therapy and revelation. A tally of the peculiar features and functions of this twenty-first-century ghost experience links it to two American industries, psychotherapy and spiritual seeking.

Research Article
Copyright © Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture 2009

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1. In pertinent literature, authors have used various labels for this type of ghost experience: “Afterlife Encounters” (Dianne Arcangel, Afterlife Encounters: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Experiences [Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads, 2005]); “after-life gifts” (Sinclair Browning, Feathers Brush My Heart: True Stories of Mothers Connecting with their Daughters after Death [New York: Warner Books, 2002], xxiii); “postdeath communication” (Woods, Kay Witmer, Visions of the Bereaved: Hallucination or Reality? [Pittsburgh: Sterling House, 1998], 1)Google Scholar; and “Extraordinary Encounters” ( LaGrand, Louis, Love Lives On: Learning from Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved [New York: Penguin Group, 2006])Google Scholar. However, the most common formal designation is “After-Death Communication,” coined by Bill and Judy Guggenheim in their preeminent study of the phenomenon (Bill Guggenheim and Guggenheim, Judy, Hello from Heaven! A New Field of Research—After-Death Communication—Confirms that Life and Love Are Eternal [New York: Bantam Books, 1996])Google Scholar. I will follow this usage.

2. Finucane, R. C., Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996), 223 Google Scholar; on the medieval period, see 49–89.

3. Greeley, Andrew, “Mysticism Goes Mainstream,” American Health 6 (January/February 1987): 47 Google Scholar; “Traditional and Non-traditional Beliefs Exist Side-by-Side in United States,” Emerging Trends 23, no. 7 (September 2001): 3; “Growing Number Believe in Ghosts, Witches,” Emerging Trends 22, no. 10 (December 2000): 2; HumphreyTaylor, “The Religious and Other Beliefs of Americans 2003,” available online at, accessed July 24, 2007; Scheitle, Christopher, “Bringing Out the Dead: Gender and Historical Cycles of Spiritualism,” Omega 50, no. 3 (2004–2005): 237 Google Scholar.

4. By “postmodern” I mean originating in a cultural environment of extreme ideological pluralism, in which individuals are not merely free but “required,” as Walter Anderson puts it, “to make choices about [their] realities” (Anderson, Walter, Reality Isn't What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990], 7)Google Scholar. In traditional societies, the existence of ghosts was given within a dominant, broadly reinforced world view. In modern cultures, those who believe in ghosts must defy or negotiate with science as the arbiter of reality. In a postmodern setting, individuals approach ghost beliefs as one among many ideological options which, self-consciously and for personal reasons, they select, edit, reject, or revise. In depicting the nineteenth- and late-twentieth century religious background of ADCs, I return to this theme.

5. Some ADC writers tout ghost encounters reported by famous persons, such as C. S. Lewis, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Winston Churchill, Carl Jung, Charles Dickens, and Otis Williams (founder of the Temptations). Thus, the reader is assailed with what may be America's favorite argument for legitimacy: celebrity endorsement. One ADC Web site ( presents quotes from Dr. Phil, Paul McCartney, and Michael Landon's daughter attesting to belief in or actual contact with the dead. See also the Hollywood testimonies from Shirley MacLaine, Cher, Jane Seymour, Beau Bridges, etc., in Greer, Jane, The Afterlife Connection: A Therapist Reveals How to Communicate with Departed Loved Ones (New York: St. Martin’s, 2003), 5057 Google Scholar.

6. Amanda Onion, “Seeking Meaning Beyond: Can People Send Signals after They Die? Psychologist Claims Science Has the Answer,” June 18, 2002, http://wysiwyg://1/, accessed August 25, 2003.

7. Carter-Scott, Cherie, “Presence from Mom,” in Hot Chocolate for the Mystical Soul: 101 True Stories of Angels, Miracles, and Healings, ed. Ford, Arielle (New York: Plume, 1998), 295 Google Scholar, 296.

8. LaGrand, Louis, Messages and Miracles: Extraordinary Experiences of the Bereaved (St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1999), 151 Google Scholar.

9. Ibid., 152, 153–54.

10. Duminiak, Christine, God's Gift of Love: After-Death Communications (Xlibris, 2003), 131–33Google Scholar.

11. Martin, Joel and Romanowski, Patricia, Love beyond Life: The Healing Power of After-Death Communications (New York: Dell Books, 1997), 187, 188Google Scholar.

12. Botkin, Allan, with Craig Hogan, R., Induced After-Death Communication: A New Therapy for Healing Grief and Trauma (Charlottesville, Va.: Hampton Roads, 2005), 4041 Google Scholar. In regard to EMDR, it is a technique used to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The therapist moves his or her hand left and right before the patient's eyes while the latter follows the movement and thinks of the traumatic event. According to practitioners, the technique alters the brain process of remembering so that the troublesome memory may be more fully recovered and its intrusive recurrence stopped (see ibid., 3–10).

13. Aries, Phillippe, The Hour of Our Death, tr. Weaver, Helen (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 409556, 609–11Google Scholar; Douglas, Ann, “Heaven our Home: Consolation Literature in the Northern United States, 1830–1880,” in Death in America, ed. Stannard, David (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 55 Google Scholar.

14. Guggenheim and Guggenheim, Hello from Heaven!

15. See Laurence Moore, R., In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977)Google Scholar, and Finucane, , Ghosts, 172216 Google Scholar.

16. See, for example, Rosenblatt, Paul, Bitter, Bitter Tears: Nineteenth Century Diarists and Twentieth Century Grief Theories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 128–32Google Scholar, for the case of nineteenth-century Canadian diarist Marcus Gunn, whose wife, in the absence of a spiritualist medium, began to facilitate “delightful and long communication[s]” with the couple's dead sons.

17. See Moore, , In Search of White Crows, and Finucane, Ghosts, 172216 Google Scholar.

18. Moore, , In Search of White Crows, 61 Google Scholar; Fuller, Robert, Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 8 CrossRefGoogle Scholar (on Fuller's location of spiritualism outside the Christian mainstream, see 38–43).

19. See Wuthnow, Robert, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Fuller, Spiritual, but not Religious .

20. Roof, Wade Clark, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 12 Google Scholar.

21. This is the postmodern scenario. Reflecting popular usage, I will refer to the nonecclesiastical, eclectic approach to faith, wherein the individual is the arbiter of truth, as “spirituality” and the traditional reliance on the authority of a religious institution as “religion” (following Fuller, Spiritual, but not Religious, 2–7).

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29. See Walter, The Eclipse of Eternity .

30. See Aries, , The Hour of Our Death, 557614 Google Scholar.

31. See Walter, , The Revival of Death, 1213 Google Scholar, and Bregman, Lucy, Death and Dying, Spirituality and Religions: A Study of the Death Awareness Movement (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), 13 Google Scholar

32. See Rando, Therese, Treatment of Complicated Mourning (Champaign, Ill.: Research Press, 1993), 79 Google Scholar.

33. Freud, Sigmund, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia, tr. Whiteside, Shaun (1917; repr., New York: Penguin, 2005), 204 Google Scholar.

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35. Dewi Rees, W., “The Hallucinations of Widowhood,” British Medical Journal 4 (1971): 41 Google ScholarPubMed; Dewi Rees, W., Death and Bereavement: The Psychological, Religious and Cultural Interfaces (London: Whurr Publishers, 1997), 198 Google Scholar.

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38. For example, see Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 16 Google Scholar.

39. For example, see Daggett, Luann, “Continued Encounters: The Experience of After-Death Communication,” Journal of Holistic Nursing 23, no. 2 (2005): 191207 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

40. Morse, Melvin M.D., with Perry, Paul, Parting Visions: Uses and Meanings of Pre-death, Psychic, and Spiritual Experiences (New York: Villard Books, 1994)Google Scholar; Anderson, George and Barone, Andrew, Lessons from the Light: Extraordinary Messages of Comfort and Hope from the Other Side (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1999), 1820 Google Scholar; Wills-Brandon, Carla, A Glimpse of Heaven: The Remarkable World of Spiritually Transformative Experiences (Avon, Mass.: Adams Media, 2004), 7593 Google Scholar.

41. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 322 Google Scholar.

42. Ibid., 13.

43. Devers, Edie, After-Death Communications: Experiences with Departed Loved Ones (London: Robert Hale, 1997), 16 Google Scholar.

44. LaGrand, Louis, After Death Communication: Final Farewells (St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1997)Google Scholar; LaGrand, Messages and Miracles; LaGrand, Louis, Gifts from the Unknown: Using Extraordinary Experiences to Cope with Loss and Change (San Jose, Calif.: Authors Choice Press, 2001)Google Scholar; and LaGrand, Love Lives On .

45. Moody, Raymond M.D., with Perry, Paul, Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones (New York: Ivy Books, 1993), xvii, 81, 22Google Scholar.

46. Botkin, , Induced After-Death Communication, xixiii Google Scholar.

47. On the emotional exchange and results, see ibid., 3–19, 47–52; on the percentage of clients having an ADC, see ibid., 53–54, 129–30.

48. Greer, , The Afterlife Connection, 811, 23Google Scholar.

49. Martin, and Romanowski, , Love beyond Life, xvxxii Google Scholar.

50. Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 1323 Google Scholar.

51. Rosenblatt, , Walsh, , and Jackson, , Grief and Mourning in Cross- Cultural Perspective, 5355 Google Scholar, explain ghost perceptions from a behaviorist perspective. Sensing, seeing, or hearing the dead, survivors are enacting established responses to environmental cues that previously signaled the presence of the deceased. For example, at 5:00 P.M., when the decedent used to arrive home, the widow still hears him open the door.

52. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 226 Google Scholar; LaGrand, , After Death Communication, 103 Google Scholar.

53. Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 185–86Google Scholar; Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 38 Google Scholar.

54. Devers, , After-Death Communications, 15, 26.Google Scholar

55. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 269 Google Scholar; Greer, , The Afterlife Connection, 100101 Google Scholar; Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 185 Google Scholar; Browning, , Feathers Brush My Heart; Hobe, Phyllis, ed., Until We Meet Again: Stories of Everlasting Love (Carmel, N.Y.: Guideposts, 2003)Google Scholar.

56. Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 222 Google Scholar.

57. Greer, , The Afterlife Connection, 35 Google Scholar.

58. Hobe, , Until We Meet Again, 109114 Google Scholar.

59. Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 226 Google Scholar.

60. See Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 375–78Google Scholar; Martin, and Romanowski, , Love beyond Life, 245–66Google Scholar; and Greer, , The Afterlife Connection, 107–42Google Scholar.

61. See Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 191 Google Scholar, and Woods, , Visions of the Bereaved, 113 Google Scholar.

62. Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 225 Google Scholar.

63. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 134 Google Scholar.

64. Finucane, , Ghosts, 81 Google Scholar; Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 8283, 99.Google Scholar

65. Browning, , Feathers Brush My Heart; xix Google Scholar; Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 94 Google Scholar.

66. Encounters with sad spirits should not be confused with socalled fearful or negative ADCs. The latter are characterized by a percipient reaction of panic, terror, or renewed grief (see Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 229–42Google Scholar, and LaGrand, , Messages and Miracles, 154–57)Google Scholar. Not everyone, it turns out, likes seeing a dead person, even a loved one, at the foot of the bed. According to ADC promoters, the negative reaction reflects percipient shortcomings—ignorance of ADCs, naïve acceptance of Hollywood portrayals of the dead, or a perverse determination to be sad rather than comforted.

67. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 235, 241Google Scholar.

68. See ibid., 175, and Woods, , Visions of the Bereaved, 112–13Google Scholar. Like spirits in crisis, souls with chronic emotional problems also receive therapy. For example, Martin and Romanowski, Love beyond Life, 211–12, report a visitation from an unhappy dead man who, in life, tended to blame his troubles on others. The percipient, his daughter, felt that, in the next life, her father was finally “working through” unresolved psychological problems and recognizing his own part in them. Psychic John Edward reveals that, when spirits cross over, their first business is to “understand why they made the choices they did, see how their actions affected others, and realize what they still need to work on while on the Other Side.” “If you have a difficult relationship with a parent, child, or someone who has crossed over,” he reassures the living, “please know that you still have a chance to work on that relationship after they’re gone.” John Edward, “‘Dad, Can you Hear Me?’” 2003, available online at, accessed January 25, 2005.

69. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 83 Google Scholar.

70. Ibid., 260.

71. Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 223 Google Scholar.

72. Martin, and Romanowski, , Love beyond Life, 193207 Google Scholar, quote on 201; Botkin, , Induced After-Death Communication, 114–18, 122–28Google Scholar, on Tucker in particular, see 124–26;.

73. Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 355–56Google Scholar. Frazer, James, The Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion (1933; repr., New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1966), 33 Google Scholar; Finucane, , Ghosts, 2233 Google Scholar, 98–100, 126–28, 137–38, reference to the trivial offense at 137.

74. On European spirits making amends, see Finucane, , Ghosts, 5968 Google Scholar; for the dead medieval father and the seventeenth-century spirit, see, respectively, ibid., 83 and 134; quote at the end of the paragraph comes from Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 135 Google Scholar.

75. LaGrand, , After Death Communication, 171–89Google Scholar; LaGrand, Gifts from the Unknown ; LaGrand, Love Lives On ; Botkin, Induced After-Death Communication .

76. See William Worden, J., Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, 2d ed. (New York: Springer, 1991), 1618 Google Scholar; Rando, , Treatment of Complicated Mourning, 48 Google Scholar; Silverman, Phyllis and Klass, Dennis, “Introduction: What's the Problem?” in Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief, ed. Klass, Denis, Silverman, Phyllis, and Nickman, Steven (Washington, D.C.: Taylor and Francis, 1996), 327 Google Scholar; Klass, Dennis, The Spiritual Lives of Bereaved Parents (Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel, 1999)Google Scholar; and Botkin, , Induced After-Death Communication, 2634 Google Scholar.

77. Klass, Dennis, “Grief, Religion, and Spirituality,” in Death and Religion in a Changing World, ed. Garces-Foley, Kathleen (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2006), 287 Google Scholar; for Klass's argument on the best way to continue a relationship with the deceased, see Klass, The Spiritual Lives of Bereaved Parents.

78. See Shuchter, Stephen, Dimensions of Grief: Adjusting to the Death of a Spouse (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986), 78 Google Scholar, 116–64; Rando, , Treatment of Complicated Mourning, 5358 Google Scholar; and Silverman, Phyllis and Nickman, Steven, “Children's Construction of their Dead Parents,” in Continuing Bonds, ed. Klass, , Silverman, , and Nickman, , 7386 Google Scholar.

79. LaGrand, , Messages and Miracles, 239 Google Scholar.

80. See Rando, , Treatment of Complicated Mourning, 453–88Google Scholar, 503–16; Worden, , Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, 6580 Google Scholar; and Shuchter, , Dimensions of Grief, 2427, 34–41Google Scholar.

81. Rando, , Treatment of Complicated Mourning, 6669 Google Scholar, and Shuchter, , Dimensions of Grief, 146–51Google Scholar.

82. Klass, , The Spiritual Lives of Bereaved Parents, 8993 Google Scholar. The recognition of ADCs in Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Parents of Murdered Children originates with the founders’ experiences. Candy Lightner had a vision of the daughter killed by a drunk driver ( Lightner, Candy and Hathaway, Nancy, Giving Sorrow Words: How to Cope with Grief and Get On with Your Life [New York: Warner Books, 1990], 4)Google Scholar; Phyllis Hotchkiss received numerous communications from her murdered son, Brian (Duminiak, , God's Gift of Love, 127–30)Google Scholar.

83. Patrick McGee, “UNT Professor, Students Believe Contact with the Dead Can Aid Healing,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 13, 2006, B1, available online at, accessed May 17, 2006.

84. While the Guggenheims relentlessly argue for the reality of the ghosts ( Guggenheim, and Guggenheim, , Hello from Heaven! 243–58, 275–90, 323–40Google Scholar), and other ADC writers clearly assume it, two authors, both therapists, stop short of explicit endorsement. LaGrand attributes ADCs to “a Loving Intelligence” ( LaGrand, , Messages and Miracles, 96 Google Scholar), leaving the existence of the ghosts per se unconfirmed. Still, in his most recent book, he presents stories that, he notes, would require “a real stretch” to dismiss as hallucinations (LaGrand, Love Lives On, 43). Similarly ambivalent, Botkin deftly evades taking a stance on the origins of ADCs ( Botkin, , Induced After-Death Communication, 161, 167–69Google Scholar) but devotes three chapters to IADCs that cannot be explained as mere hallucinations (ibid., 71–91). The distinctly postmodern nature of the ADC is reflected in the fact that writers vary in their commitment to “proof.” They stand united not on the ontological status of the ghosts but on the therapeutic effects of encountering one. Thus, Arcangel instructs readers: “Regardless whether [the spirits] are, or are not, from the hereafter … recognize and appreciate them for what they have been proved to be—growth promoting” ( Arcangel, , Afterlife Encounters, xiii)Google Scholar. Likewise, Linda Pendleton observes of ADCs: “It is our experience, our perception, our reality. So we can choose to call it what we want—imagination or reality” ( Pendleton, Linda, A Walk through Grief: Crossing the Bridge between Worlds [New York: Writers Club Press, 2003], 49)Google Scholar.

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