Ghost Encounters Among Traumatized Cambodian Refugees: Severity, Relationship to PTSD, and Phenomenology

  • Devon E. HintonEmail author
  • Ria Reis
  • Joop de Jong
Original paper


Ghost encounters were found to be a key part of the trauma ontology among Cambodian refugees at a psychiatric clinic, a key idiom of distress. Fifty-four percent of patients had been bothered by ghost encounters in the last month. The severity of being bothered by ghosts in the last month was highly correlated to PTSD severity (r = .8), and among patients bothered by ghosts in the last month, 85.2% had PTSD, versus among those not so bothered, 15.4%, odds ratio of 31.8 (95% confidence level 11.3–89.3), Chi square = 55.0, p < .001. Ghost visitations occurred in multiple experiential modalities that could be classified into three states of consciousness: full sleep (viz., in dream), hypnagogia, that is, upon falling asleep or awakening (viz., in sleep paralysis [SP] and in non-SP hallucinations), and full waking (viz., in hallucinations, visual aura, somatic sensations [chills or goosebumps], and leg cramps). These ghost visitations gave rise to multiple concerns—for example, of being frightened to death or of having the soul called away—as part of an elaborate cosmology. Several heuristic models are presented including a biocultural model of the interaction of trauma and ghost visitation. An extended case illustrates the article’s findings.


Ghosts Hallucination States of consciousness PTSD Culture Complex trauma 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author has no conflict of interest.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all participants, and the study was conducted as per in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders, Massachusetts General HospitalHarvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA
  2. 2.Leiden University Medical CenterLeidenThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Amsterdam Institute for Social Science ResearchUniversity of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  4. 4.The Children’s Institute, School of Child and Adolescent HealthUniversity of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa
  5. 5.Center for Anxiety and Related DisordersBoston UniversityBostonUSA

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