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Summary Article: Ghosts from Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained

The term ‘ghost’ has been used popularly for centuries, but defies precise definition. Broadly speaking, it encompasses alleged manifestations believed to arise from a human being or animal, once living and now deceased. Ghosts typically involve the sighting of apparitions, but a range of other phenomena are taken as indications of their presence (see hauntings). Traditional beliefs regarding ghosts have invariably viewed them as manifestations of spirits or discarnate entities, which may occur only once or reoccur over a lengthy period of time at a particular location. Attitudes to the reality of ghosts remain ultimately governed by personal belief, such as the question of life after death.

It has been said that every culture in human history has held some form of belief in ghosts and the possibility that the dead can return to the world of the living; this is a cultural constant, drawing its strength in part from continuing human experience. Numerous examples of ghost beliefs are found among indigenous cultures in North and South America, Africa, Asia, Australasia and the Pacific. Such beliefs also seem to have flourished in prehistoric Europe, where bodies might be weighed down with stones or pierced with stakes to prevent spirits from ‘walking’. The classical cultures of ancient Greece and Rome held that the ghosts of those who died by violence returned to prowl the battlefield or house where their bones had been deposited, and would continue to do so until they received proper funerary rites. Homer describes Hades as full of shadowy ghosts, crying, gibbering and calling for libations of freshly spilled human blood; and in Virgil’s Aeneid, those who venture into the underworld – ferried across the river Styx in Charon’s boat – find the souls of the dead swarming around them.

Both the Old and New Testaments include direct and indirect mention of spirits and ghosts. The First Book of Samuel includes the story of the witch of Endor, who conjures a spirit for Saul. In the New Testament, when Jesus walks upon the water, the disciples mistake him for a ghost (Matthew 14: 26). St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians lists the ability to identify good and bad spirits as a gift of the Holy Spirit. However, both Judaism and Christianity have historically stood against traditions of divination by spirits (see necromancy). For example, the early Christian writer Tertullian, in condemning table-turning, referred to:

… magicians [who] call ghosts and departed souls from the shades below, and by their infernal charms represent an infinite number of delusions … they perform all this by the assistance of angels and spirits, by which they are to make stools and tables prophesy.

Spiritual interpretations of ghosts have endured into the modern era, with ghost stories tending to reflect the prevailing religious attitudes of their historical period. In the Middle Ages ghosts were often described as revenants, delivering requests and complex messages (particularly regarding the fate of the soul of the deceased) to the living. During the 16th and early 17th centuries the meaning and nature of ghosts was the subject of controversy between Catholic and Protestant theologians, the former seeing apparitions as evidence of souls in Purgatory while the latter interpreted them as tricks played by the devil. However, in later years ghost stories were recounted as a rebuttal of atheist doctrines, or for propaganda purposes – particularly in the case of dramatic aerial phantoms.

From an evidential viewpoint, the more interesting accounts appear from around 1650 onwards in the form of direct witness testimony, rather than through a filter of preconceived religious doctrine. From the end of the 17th century, limited steps were taken to try to corroborate the authenticity of the reports of ghostly phenomena, as with Joseph Glanvil’s study of the drummer of tedworth. Even in such early accounts of alleged ghost experiences we can see patterns that persist to this day, particularly in cases of poltergeist disturbance. The rise of spiritualism in the mid-19th century stimulated a Victorian interest in ghosts, but was largely independent of ghost experiences; spiritualism concentrated on deliberate attempts at communicating with the dead, while ghost experiences tend to involve spontaneous and uninvited appearances, generally lacking any specific message or meaning. Indeed, the last 150 years have shown that ghosts continue to be reported even by people who reject the idea of any post-mortem ‘survival’.

The significance of ghosts in many forms of spiritual belief is matched by their popularity as a cultural theme. They are frequently used in literature and drama as symbols of emotional states, as representations of loss and grief occasioned through death or simply as entertaining subject matter. Shakespeare, Jonson and Dickens, to name but a few, all used ghosts as characters. Ghost fiction itself is still a popular genre, although some would say that its heyday was 100 years ago, in the era of m r james. Many writers have been interested in both fictitious and allegedly true stories; fictitious stories are often presented as fact, and elements of ‘real-life’ reports of ghosts have been woven into fiction. Behind the rich literature of ghosts is an even greater body of popular folklore. Generations of people have expressed a belief in ghosts in many forms – in Britain alone, this body of traditional and popular lore is so enormous that no complete catalogue of it has ever been made (or is probably even worth attempting). Folkloric apparitions tend to be dramatic but are now rarely reported, although popular examples such as a white lady, black monk and black dog do still sometimes occur in modern accounts. Others, such as phantom hitch-hikers, appear to have been adapted from older themes, but are now popular in urban legends. Published collections of ‘true’ ghost stories have been in vogue since the Victorian era, and it has been estimated that Great Britain has at least 10,000 reputedly haunted sites (see haunted houses).

The earliest ‘scientific’ attempts at studying ghosts were made in the late 19th century, contemporary with investigations into the phenomena of spiritualism. Scientific investigation in this area does not attempt to discover whether ghosts exist; instead, it starts with the question asked by English psychical researcher G N M Tyrrell in 1942: ‘Do people experience apparitions?’ The answer is that they undoubtedly do – the issue to be determined is what these experiences represent. It has long been recognized that the brain may generate hallucinations as a result of a variety of causes, and that many reports of ghosts are illusory, a misinterpretation of natural phenomena, or the result of imagination, wishful thinking or hoaxes.

One of the difficulties of studying ghosts is the fact that they are not seen by everyone, and even when they are seen it is usually only by one person at a time (although a number of multi-witness cases do exist). Such experiences are usually fleeting and, as with dreams, are not capable of independent corroboration. As a result, researchers have only ‘ghost experiences’ rather than actual ghosts to study, and the testimony is vulnerable to the usual human fallibilities. This aspect alone has provided sufficient excuse for most psychologists and scientists to ignore the entire area. With a few recent exceptions, such as the 2003 mass observation study in edinburgh’s vaults, the study of ghost experiences has remained a field for psychical researchers and parapsychologists (see parapsychology).

Most psychical researchers are prepared to entertain the possibility that ghosts form part of a wider category of personal psi experiences. Accordingly, ghosts now take their place alongside extrasensory perception, psychokinesis or precognition, telepathy and a range of other phenomena occurring outside laboratory and experimental conditions. Certainly, much of the material gathered by psychical researchers suggests that the simple and direct interpretation of ghosts as manifestations of spirits of the deceased is outmoded. Studies conducted by the society for psychical research, including Phantasms of the Living (1886) and its major Census of Hallucinations (1894), indicated that ghosts of the living might be encountered more frequently than those of the dead. A substantial number of apparitions recorded in these studies related to appearances of individuals at the moment of death or trauma; these crisis apparitions gave rise to speculation that telepathy might be a factor.

The results of ghost hunting efforts over the years have generally been inconclusive, and a number of investigations have been blighted with controversy, particularly that at borley rectory. A further handicap to such research is that there are no common protocols as to how investigations should be conducted, or even agreement on the nature of the phenomena being sought and to what extent (if at all) they are independent of the human brain. Attempts at photographing ghosts have been disappointing (see ghost photography), suggesting that they are largely a hallucinatory phenomenon, although some success has been claimed in recording poltergeist manifestations such as the rosenheim poltergeist. Success has also been claimed in experiments in creating ghosts (see the philip experiment), though there have been few attempts at replication.

No single theory appears to adequately explain all aspects of reported ghost phenomena. After centuries of belief and more than a hundred years of scientific study, ghosts still remain a mystery – further progress is only likely to occur when the intricacies of human perception, consciousness and the operation of the brain are better understood.

Alan Murdie

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2007

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