Navajo Yebichai (Yei Bi Chei) dancers. Edward S. Curtis. USA, 1900. The Welcome Collection, London

Can a Ghost Make You Ill? The Ghost Sickness Belief of the Native American Indians


Ghost sickness is the belief that ghosts are able to cause a living person to fall ill. This particular term is used by the Native Americans, especially amongst the Navajo people. Nevertheless, this belief can also be found in other Native American cultures. Furthermore, this concept may also be found in other cultures of the world, though with certain slight variations. So how does a ghost make you sick, and why?

Navajo Attachment Belief

According to the Navajos, as well as certain other Native American cultures, ghost sickness is caused by a spirit of the dead attaching itself to a living person. This attachment causes harm to the living person, as the ghost drains his or her energy. The effects of this energy drainage manifest itself in certain symptoms, including weakness, a loss of appetite, depression and nightmares. Furthermore, it is believed that ghost sickness can even result in death, as the soul of the affected person could be carried by the ghost into the realm of the dead.

Navajo Hogan, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, USA

Navajo Hogan, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, USA ( CC BY 2.0 )

The Navajos believe that ghost sickness is caused by a person communicating with the dead or by connecting the thoughts of a living person with those of the deceased. In a case mentioned by Putsch, for example, a Navajo woman develops nightmares about her father following his death from a ruptured appendix. The woman’s mother felt that her daughter was somehow connected with her husband’s death, and that she was plagued by the malignant influence of his spirit.

Navajo Girl, Navajo Reservation, Window Rock, Arizona

Navajo Girl, Navajo Reservation, Window Rock, Arizona ( CC BY 2.0 )

Several years later, the woman had a child, and it was after giving birth that she was stricken by ghost sickness. Some of the symptoms experienced by the woman included “irritability, decreased interest in daily activities, and inability to relate well to her husband”. The woman’s ghost sickness was treated using an approach that addressed both the traditional causes of the illness, as well as the biomedical ones she was facing. For instance, a traditional Navajo ceremony was conducted to treat the nightmares, whilst diagnostic measures were taken to determine if her post-partum depression was caused by other endocrinological problems or not.

Chinese Ghost Treatment

Apart from Native Americans, other cultures also believe that illnesses may be caused by ghosts. In ancient China, for instance, illnesses were sometimes attributed to the influence of ghosts. This idea may still be seen in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine today, though with some modifications. In acupuncture, there are a set of special points known as Baxie, which may be translated as the ‘Eight Ghosts’ or, in modern texts, the ‘Eight Pathogens’.

The Ghost by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi The print depicts Mitokomon Mitsukuni-ko defeating a ghost in Yahata

The Ghost by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi The print depicts Mitokomon Mitsukuni-ko defeating a ghost in Yahata ( Public Domain )

For the Chinese, illnesses may be attributed to the influence of ghosts if they are very serious, unusual or cannot be treated by Western medicine. The Chinese believe that the main reason for ghosts to return to the realm of the living is that they had not received a proper burial. Nevertheless, these spirits may also return to seek vengeance, or to seek help in righting a wrong they had caused / had suffered. Illnesses caused by ghosts may be physical or mental, though unexplainable by modern Western medicine, as mentioned earlier. Therefore, to treat these illnesses, other measures have to be taken, for instance, by praying to a particular god, by seeking the aid of a local healer, or by appeasing the spirit.

Samoan Spirit Sickness

A form of ghost sickness can also be found in the beliefs of the Samoans. In this culture, ghosts are also thought to have the power to punish the living. Amongst the causes of a spirit’s displeasure is a living person still harbouring hatred towards the dead person, or not showing proper respect to him or her. Some common symptoms of a possessed person include spitting, grimacing, and bulging eyes. In some cases, the presumed possession has been diagnosed as ‘hysterical excitement’. To cure suspected possessions, Samoan folk medicine is often used, and involves removing the ghosts from a person’s body.

Top image: Navajo Yebichai (Yei Bi Chei) dancers. Edward S. Curtis. USA, 1900. The Welcome Collection, London ( Public Domain )

By Wu Mingren


Capps, C., 2012. The Navajo Ghost Sickness. [Online]
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Jaffee, L., 2015. A Short History of Ghosts in Chinese Medicine. [Online]
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Palmer, D. A., 2011. The Body: Health, Nation, and Transcendence. In: D. A. Palmer, G. Shive & P. L. Wickeri, eds. Chinese Religious Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 87-106.

Putsch, R. W., III, 1988. Ghost Illness: A Cross-Cultural Experience with the Expression of a Non-Western Tradition in Clinical Practice. [Online]
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Taylor, J., 2015. W3 Activity: Ghost sickness. [Online]
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Absolutely, YES, a ghost or spirit of the dead can make you very ill because it happened to me. This came about from what I thought was innocent noble gesture on my part to clean up a long neglected and abandoned grave site as well as scrub and polish the old head stone of a woman who passed in the 1920’s. That evening I began to feel ill and sick to my stomach in ways that I never felt before. That night I had very disturbing dreams and was restless. Two days later I was weak, nauseous, and began having nose bleeds and eyes that would fill blood. When I went to my doctor she had no idea what was making me so ill and couldn’t explain it as all of my lab-work came back fully normal.
Then it really got weird. We heard knocking and thumping from inside the house walls. Doors would mysteriously open or slam shut. Lights flickered. Things would fall off of shelves that were fully secure otherwise and things inside of dresser drawers were all messed and looked as though they had been searched and tossed. We’d find things in the house that didn’t belong there. Then we heard the most awful clamor in the basement that sounded like two cars in an accident.
Our dog would growl and bare her teeth while looking at the walls or at a darkened but empty hallway. She also came running out of a room and sat next to be alarmed and looking at me and then back at another room and was extremely resistant about entering it with me to what was going on. There was nothing there… but to her there was and she wasn’t having any part of it.
We finally figured out we had a full blown possession going and it was attached to me. Finally, the nightmares got so bad and vivid – I had to seek someone who could help. So, I talked with our minister and told him about it. At first he thought it was a joke and didn’t take it seriously. Then one day while visiting us – he heard a loud thump and bang! He asked; “what was that?” we told – That’s what we’re dealing with – everyday. His eye got as big as saucers. This is when I told him that the woman from an old grave site was bothering me and making me sick because she was so unhappy and angry over the way she was buried.
Apparently she was buried in a coffin too small for her and both of her legs were broken just below the knees and then crammed into the too short cheap wooden coffin. She wanted help. I told her repeatedly I could not help her…
Two days later he brought another Minister and a group who in prayer told the “woman” to go away and return to her grave. It was a Banishment and a blessing of the house and us.
It went away and never returned. Poor tormented soul. Now, I refuse to go into any cemetery for any reason. When I die – I’m going to be cremated and have my ashes sprinkled into Lake Michigan and then I want my family to have a big party and celebrate as if it national holiday. Don’t morn me.


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