ghosts


ghosts
   English folklore of all periods is full of references to ghosts, and there is a widespread current belief that the dead can reveal their presence to the living, and that some people are better able than others to perceive them. First-hand experience stories on this theme are abundant today, and probably always have been. Some describe how the teller felt that someone he/she loved was nearby to comfort or advise, though dead; others describe fears and distress experienced in some uncanny place, interpreted as due to unpleasant ghosts, whose identity is usually unknown. Folklore collectors have not published much primary material of this kind, partly out of respect for their informants' privacy, and partly because it is 'personal', not 'communal, traditional' (Bennett, 1987: 17-19); however, newspaper files and books on psychic phenomena have numerous examples.
   Communal tradition shapes our expectations of how ghosts manifest themselves. Hence even a memorate is likely to include details highlighted because they fit a stereotype (e.g. a drop in temperature, sounds of footsteps, an animal refusing to approach the eerie place), and these become more numerous as the story spreads into the community as rumour. There it may become linked to other anecdotes about haunting set in the same house, road, etc., which ultimately may coalesce into a *local legend. The latter are found everywhere, in great numbers; some are purely oral, others pass to and fro between orality and print, since there is a keen market for books and pamphlets on the ghost-lore of particular towns or districts, which perpetuate older tales and publicize new ones. Monks, nuns, Roman legionaries, named historical personages, and nameless White and Grey Ladies, abound now in stately homes and old buildings throughout the land, to the delight of tourists.
   Evidence for beliefs and tales of past centuries is patchily distributed, and often transmitted through educated writers who had some axe to grind; there are marked differences from one period to another. Among Anglo-Saxons, violent *burial customs indicate fear of the malevolent *undead. Some remarkable tales written down by a monk in 14th-century Yorkshire (James, 1922) concern tormented souls who roam about in terrifying shapes - several appear as grotesque animals (or even 'a whirling heap of hay with a light in the middle of it'), while others are undead corpses which must be held down by force. All find peace through posthumous absolution of their sins. The *Lyke-Wake Dirge, though only recorded in the 17th century, also describes purgatorial punishments.
   After the Reformation, in order to debunk Purgatory, some Protestants redefined all alleged apparitions of ghosts as devils in disguise, but others thought this went too far. Much learned writing in the 16th and 17th centuries is focused on this debate, eventually won by those who held that ghosts must be possible, though rare - to deny it was to be a 'Sadducee' (i.e. one who denies the afterlife), and hence an 'atheist'. Books setting out this view included Joseph Glanville's Saducismus Triumphatus ( = 'Sadduceeism Crushed', 1681), and Richard Baxter's The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits (1691); they include many contemporary accounts of apparitions seen by members of the aristocracy, gentry, and educated persons, whose status gave them authority. *Aubrey collected similar anecdotes, though without polemical purpose. A few of these ghosts seem motiveless, but most appear for helpful reasons: to ensure their debts are paid and wills correctly executed, to denounce a murderer, to warn a friend that he will die soon, as *wraiths announcing their own deaths. These spectres behave with dignity, and are not horrific or dangerous. Glan-ville and Baxter also describe noisy, invisible, stone-throwing spirits of the type later called *poltergeists, but as demons, not ghosts.
   Eighteenth-century intellectuals generally mocked belief in ghosts as ignorant superstition - 'a received Tradition among the Vulgar' and 'Legendary Stories of Nurses and Old Women', as Henry *Bourne, a clergyman of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, put it in his Antiqui-tates Vulgares (1725). Drawing on oral rural material, he presents ghosts as frightening and/or grotesque, never as helpful: they wander from midnight to *cockcrow, especially in and around churchyards; they haunt houses where they died, often by violence; they may appear as spectral cows, dogs or horses, and as fiery or headless shapes. As good Christians, people should not believe such things, but they do, and by talking of them make them more persuasive:
   Nothing is commoner in Country Places, than for a whole Family in a Winter's Evening, to sit round the Fire, and tell Stories of Apparitions and Ghosts. And no Question of it, but this adds to the natural Fear-fulness of Men, and makes them many Times imagine they see Things, which really are nothing but their own Fancy. (Bourne, 1725/1977: 76-7).
   The regional folklorists whose collections began appearing in Victorian times amply confirmed that these beliefs were widespread, recording them with amusement or amazement as examples of 'superstition' which they themselves definitely did not share. They also included lively, dramatic *local legends about *laying ghosts, *phantom coaches, *skulls, *black dogs, *boggarts, *bar-guests, etc. There is often a note of humour in these, and a good deal of storytelling skill, though how far it derives from the informant and how far from the folklorist's retelling is hard to guess. A better testimony to the strength and seriousness of the underlying communal tradition is Charlotte Latham's account (from Fittleworth, Sussex, in the 1860s) of children spontaneously pouring out their ghost-lore:
   A short time ago there was committed to me the teaching of a Sunday School class composed principally of tradesmen's children, who, on my asking them if they knew what was meant by their 'ghostly enemy', one and all replied, 'Yes, a spirit that comes back from the grave; ' and as they showed an eagerness to tell me everything they knew upon the subject, I allowed them to go on. They then spoke all at once, and quite overwhelmed me with the stories of what their fathers, mothers, brothers, or relations, in whom they placed implicit trust, had seen. Some spirits were reported to walk about without their heads, others carried them under their arms, and one, haunting a dark lane, had a ball of fire upon its shoulders instead of the natural finial. (Latham, 1878: 19).
   Paradoxically, while Victorian folklorists made no attempt to record personal narratives about first-hand ghostly sightings from working-class informants, psychical researchers and spiritualists at the same period began collecting them in abundance, mostly from middle-class sources, and seeking empirical verification. One result, which has fed back into current popular belief, was a theory redefining apparitions as not involving the actual presence of dead persons, but merely some kind of mental flash-back whereby the percipient 'sees' a past event 'imprinted' on the surroundings by the emotional energy it once generated. This period also saw a rising fashion for fictional tales of the supernatural, often with macabre and malevolent ghosts, which in turn led to the hugely popular horror films of the 20th century, which have raised renewed fear of the occult power of the dead.
   Current belief takes such varied forms that it is impossible to generalize about it. A mourner finding private consolation in feeling the presence of a loved one; tourists enjoying a 'ghost-walk' in an ancient city; a frightened family getting their house exorcized; people using an ouija board, seriously or in fun; people avoiding a reputedly haunted wood; people talking with affectionate pride of the 'grey lady' sometimes seen in their old house; youngsters sharing a culture of 'spooky' horror tales and personal or family experiences - all are concerned with the dead, but beyond that, have little in common.
   ■ For the evolution of ideas among the educated, see Finucane, 1982; Thomas, 1971: 587-606. Brown 1979 discusses folkloric material from the West Country and the impact of the Reformation. Bennett, 1985, 1987, and 1999, describes fieldwork among bereaved women in 1981. For current teenage ghost lore, see Wilson, 1997. Virtually all regional folklore collections have a section on ghosts, and there is a glut of books presenting stories about hauntings from a believer's point of view.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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