15/05/2013 08:33 BST | Updated 14/07/2013 06:12 BST

In Hard Times, We See Ghosts More Often

By A N Donaldson author of Prospero's Mirror

Last time we had a global depression the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to buck people up by announcing: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself". The trouble is that fear itself can be very frightening. And, whether it is economic or personal, it has a nasty habit of being self-fulfilling.

This may be partly to do with what psychologists call 'hyper-vigilance': when we're anxious about anything we become more cautious and our senses to go into hyper-drive, looking for possible threats. Of course the harder we look the more likely we are to see them. Indeed we have evolved to think we see threatening figures even when they aren't there: after all that's safer than taking the risk of not seeing them when they are there. No doubt this is why it turns out that ghost sightings are more common during recessions. That doesn't mean the dead are really returning because they are worried about the latest growth figures. It is just that we are more likely to see them - or think they do.

A MORI poll found that 19% of British people claim to have seen a ghost, with two in five of us believing in their existence. That might seem strange in a society that has become ever more scientifically advanced and sceptical. Stranger still when you realise that number has significantly increased in recent decades, even as other superstitious and religious beliefs have declined. But of course far from conflicting these trends may actually be linked: Science has pushed back the boundaries of our understanding and arguably undermined other reassuring spiritual beliefs. But Science makes it no easier for us to conceive of or come to terms with the idea of death and our own mortality, and ghosts are often a representation of those fears.

It is precisely because they are such a good metaphor for our other anxieties - be they economic or personal - that people continue to enjoy ghost stories and horror films, whether or not they believe in the supernatural. These stories are cathartic: a sort of escape-valve. They allow us to exorcise our deepest subconscious fears. They let us test-drive and purge these most powerful of emotions in the comfort and safety of our own homes. And when we've finished screaming or laughing or hiding behind the sofa, we can put down the book or turn off the TV - turn on all the lights - and feel safe. Horror provides what M R James, the greatest horror writer of all, called 'a pleasing terror'. So paradoxically horror plays a vital role in allowing us to feel better about the World. And perhaps if we don't purge these fears they might manifest themselves some other, more dangerous way. So we should be careful not to scoff at the enduring popularity of spooks. At times like these, we need our ghosts.

A N Donaldson is author of Prospero's Mirror, a literary gothic novel about M R James.