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Ghosts and Folklore

Ghosts are perhaps the most controversial and widely reported of all unexplained phenomena. But although ghostly visitors are sighted in their thousands all over the world and ‘true’ ghost tales are hugely popular, the whole subject of ghost lore is widely misinterpreted and misunderstood. The majority of people are familiar with at least one local or national ghost story but the role of folklore, folk tales and urban legend in connection with the supernatural is rarely touched upon outside of academic journals. But the connection between folklore and allegedly true accounts of the supernatural is an important and extremely relevant one.

Does this mean then that we can interpret the endless streams of headless horsemen, phantom nuns and monks, spectral armies, ghostly Roman legionaries, vanishing hitchhikers, black dogs and white ladies as figures of folklore and urban legend rather than physical reality?

Perhaps this is to oversimplify a complex phenomenon, but certainly the development of folk beliefs over the centuries has affected the way in which we report and interpret ghostly phenomena.

The History of Ghost Lore

Every culture has its own particular kind of ghost lore, some, like England, have a history of phantom reports stretching back to pre-Medieval times. Generally, ‘true’ accounts of ghosts and hauntings can be dated back at least as far as Classical Greece (5th – 4th centuries BC) and the genre shows no signs of waning in the 21st century.

But what exactly is a ghost? In general the term is used to describe the appearance of the souls or spirits of the dead before the living, while the word ‘haunting’ signifies the recurring manifestation of a ghost witnessed by someone in a certain location. A ghost is usually described as similar in appearance, if not identical, to the dead person when they were living. However, not all hauntings involve apparitions, they may be auditory (relating to the sense of hearing) or olfactory (relating to the sense of smell), types of phenomena most frequently reported in poltergeist cases.

But even with such apparently safe definitions we are not always on sure ground. As Owen Davies points out in his authoritative The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts(2007), in the past it was fairies that were believed to haunt certain locations, which would seem to indicate an origin in folklore and legend for the idea of haunted spots. Writing in his classic work on fairy lore The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies (1661) the Scottish antiquarian the Reverend Robert Kirk noted that it was a popular idea among some people at the time that fairies were the souls of the dead that remained on earth.

Indeed looking at accounts of hauntings from the 16th to 18th centuries it is notable that ghosts, fairies, angels and demons exhibit extremely similar characteristics. It was usually only the context in which they appeared which allowed them to be identified as one or the other.

Why are Ghosts Reported?

There have been a number of reasons put forward for why the spirits of the dead would want to haunt the living. Before the Reformation in England (during the reign of Henry VIII, 1509 to 1547) many ghosts returned to request masses to be said for their souls, bemoaning the fact that they could not otherwise enter heaven. In later centuries someone might come back as a ghost because their personal affairs had been left in confusion when they died.

Legal injustices were another reason for the dead to return. Perhaps the most dramatic motif for a haunting was that of revenge, the ghost often taking the form of the victim of a murder seeking retribution from their killer. Other hauntings were said to be caused by those whose life had been so wicked that they were condemned to wander the earth as lost, imprisoned spirits.

Other common candidates for a return from the grave were those who had died tragically, especially suicides. Some ghosts could not rest because their remains had not been buried with the correct rites, a particularly common motif in Classical tales, others due to the disturbance of their graves by some unfeeling mortal. A number of ghosts, though, were far less sensational, returning merely to continue the routine they had enjoyed on earth, perhaps visiting a favourite place or pursuing their former employment as if they had never left it.

It is impossible to separate the reasons for and functions of ghostly visitors from the purpose and motives of those who have recorded apparitions and hauntings over the years. Any examination of stories of hauntings from the ancient world up until the present will reveal how the reports are manipulated to reflect contemporary events and concerns. Indeed it would be true to say that every era experiences its ghosts according to a defined set of traditions and expectations, most frequently based on religious doctrine regarding the afterlife and social conventions.

There were a number of important studies of hauntings made in the 17th century which still exert an influence on the way we see, research and record ghosts today. Probably the most significant of these was Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus (1681). In this book Glanvill, a clergyman and philosopher who believed in the malign power of witches and magic, advocated the investigation and examination of supernatural occurrences in order to prove their existence. Glanvill vehemently attacked those skeptical of demonic powers and maintained that the denial of such spirits and demons was tantamount to atheism.

Other writers of the same period, including English Puritan church leader and theologian Richard Baxter (1615 -1691) and Richard Bovet, author of Pandaemonium, or the Devil’s Cloyster (1684), recorded accounts of hauntings and witchcraft with the express purpose of demonstrating and maintaining a religious system where ghosts and angels revealed the hand of God in human affairs, whilst witches and demons were proof of the very real existence and influence of the Devil, the arch enemy of the Christian faith.

Spiritualism and Ghosts

Similarly the rise of Spiritualism in the mid to late nineteenth century reflected the desire of many people for proof of an afterlife. In the more materialistic Victorian society people naturally required tangible proof of spirits, rather than mere tales, hence the appearance of the darkened séance rooms and such things as ‘spirit photographs’, ‘ectoplasm’ and scientific experiments into alleged spirit manifestations.

Nowadays there are a myriad of different reasons why a ghost is thought to appear and why such stories are recorded. The media, especially the internet, has a huge role in collecting, exaggerating and disseminating ghostly tales of varying degrees of reliability. Local books on ghosts and the supernatural are hugely popular, though similar works about regional folklore are much less well known, which is surprising since many of them contain the same tales, though told in a less sensational manner.

Haunted Hotels and Modern Ghost-Hunting

‘Ghost tours’ and ghost walks’, as well as ‘haunted’ pubs have become a significant part of the tourist industry, both in the U.K and in the U.S. Though, as Owen Davies notes, in the classic work on the English pub, Thomas Burke’s The English Inn (1930), there are only a few stories of ghosts, though plenty about murders, highwaymen, and the visits of various kings and queens.

But do ghosts exist? Those skeptical of ghosts and the paranormal in general object on many levels to the reality of the numerous hauntings and apparitions recorded over the centuries. They point out that second-hand anecdotal evidence is not scientific proof of the existence of spirits of the dead or any other kind of phantom.

Rather than indicating the existence of an afterlife or a fourth dimension, skeptics argue that all tales of ghosts can be explained by errors in human perception and misunderstood ordinary natural phenomena. While these explanations may very well be true for the majority of sightings, the ghost is such a complicated phenomenon that one or two relatively simplistic explanations cannot hope to account for the whole range of variations within the subject.

In one sense ghost stories are certainly ‘true’. They give us an important insight into the major concerns, the traditions and the psychology of the individuals and the societies in which they circulate. This alone makes them a vital and constantly developing aspect of popular belief.

Further Reading

Briggs, Katherine. A Dictionary of Fairies. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin Books Ltd. 1977.

Davies, Owen. The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Finucane, R.C. Appearances of the Dead. A Cultural History of Ghosts. London, Junction books, 1982.

Hole, Christina. Haunted England. London, Fitzhouse Books, 1990 (1940).

Kittredge, George Lyman. ‘Disenchantment by Decapitation’. The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 18, No. 68. (Jan. – Mar., 1905), pp. 1-14.

Ward, Donald (ed). The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm. London, Millington Books, 1981.

Westwood, Jennifer; Simpson, Jacqueline. The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys. London. Penguin Books Ltd, 2005.

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