There are countless stories of ghostly justice. Arnold does Bob wrong. Bob suffers, and later, dies. But then, returning as a ghost, Bob has the power to get back at, not to mention one-up, Arnold. How can this happen when Arnold is alive, and Bob only was?
Some suspension of reason is necessary: it’s legend and story and myth we’re dealing with. These are cautionary tales: live rightly, or else! It’s a grownup variation of the bogeyman theme in children’s stories.
Let’s create an example. A crooked agent, Steve, cheats his clients out of large sums of cash, leaving some of them impoverished. As a result, they lack for many things: health care, bank balances, pizza. Sadly, some of them die as a result of depression, frustration and, well, malnutrition.
Life goes on. Steve is living off the fat of their ex-land in some non-extradition country with good weather. Someplace ‘way, ‘way south of the border. There are palm trees and jungles. The hoots and shrieks of wild monkeys can be heard in his courtyard, along with some other sounds he doesn’t notice. Yet.
One day Steve’s footman (what can I tell you, labor is cheap there) Alfonso brings him a tall umbrella drink and, looking about nervously, asks to take the afternoon off. He claims his mama is ill. Who’s to say otherwise?
Steve says fine, run along. After Alfonso departs, it gets dark out. The jungle sounds ratchet up the decibels. There is a clap of thunder, and over the somewhat rank pool water walk a group of Steve’s former clients. He owes them a boatload. He offers them some money now, in desperation, but you know how it is: too little, too late. What good is money to them? It’s not like they can shop.
These ghosts carry a grudge, though. They met at group therapy on the Other Side, where their therapist said to let out the rage.
The ghosts don’t murder him. They let Steve do that himself. They glower, freeze the air, make the house shake (shattering the crockery), and generally go about looking deadly. In fact, they are quite terrifying. Steve dies of fear, his nitroglycerin just out of reach (one of the ghosts remembered the heart condition and threw the bottle out to the monkeys to play with).
The ghosts are now satisfied (as are we, don’t forget). They’ve extracted some measure of punishment. Steve finally felt their pain. The ghosts experience a sense of release. Each is now free to move on to his nirvana of choice, no longer bound to Steve by their own issues.
It was a just outcome, even if the fight wasn’t fair: the ghosts outpowered Steve Remember, in life it was the other way around, so we are not unduly dismayed by Steve’s fate. We believe there is justice in the afterlife whether it be heaven, hell, purgatory, sheol, or Valhalla. We reason that since Steve was a rotten apple, some bad karma was bound to come his way. He asked for it. And we’re pleased when the underdogs win (in this case, those wronged by Steve). It’s fair.
But wait. God wants us to forgive.
Yet there are there countless stories in which justice is meted out from the afterlife. What does that mean? What does it say about our ideas about the afterlife? We may talk heaven and hell, but this requires some hanging ’round the old mortal coil: as the song goes, “Taking Care of Business.” *
Are the ghosts actual independent entities or are they of Steve’s own making: products of his subconscious who came to life after the actual individual died? (The outcome doesn’t change, it’s still the same story).
We root for the the ghosts (real or shadow). Like Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider, the ghosts can make the evildoers suffer, as we often feel powerless to do ourselves in life situations). As beings outside worldly existence, we ascribe to them powers that are “supernatural,” and outside of the norm.
In terms of justice, ghosts sometimes resemble the superheroes so common in entertainment today: the Marvel and DC comic heroes: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, and legions more.
Ghosts are a kind of wild card, a deux et machina: they make things right, even when it seems nothing will. And maybe that’s why we’ve used them, in folklore and story, to do our dirty work.