A Brief History of Ghosts
Ghosts have always been with us. Seemingly every culture throughout all of human history has had some idea of survival after death, and has told stories about the living encountering the dead. But these stories are very different from culture to culture, and even within cultures they change very significantly over time.
Modern America is no different. But we can trace back the origins of the ways we think and talk about ghosts. Most of the language and ideas we use to talk about ghosts in America has its roots in Western Europe, and particularly in the British Isles. And that's the history we're going to take a look at, ghosts and how they evolved in the English-speaking world.
Some of the earliest surviving accounts of encounters with the dead in this tradition come from England around the 12th Century. These are stories of revanants, corpses that rise from the grave and go walking about town. This was apparently quite the thing in the North of England, where some of these revived bodies even went about the business they had when they were alive. There are stories of revenants climbing into bead with their widows or widowers. The canon William of Newburgh noted what a strange and seemingly recent phenomenon this was, while also taking care to comment that the bodies were moved about by "some spirit", and not the original inhabitant. These were close to, but not quite, what we would think of as ghosts. They were reanimated bodies, not returned souls.
The first recorded story in English which we would recognize as a ghost in something like the way we describe it today dates from the near the end of the 14th Century, when in a monastery in Byland, a monk recorded a series of strange and unusual events that had happened in the area. Among these was the story of a man who had encountered a ghost while walking on the road at night. The ghost first appeared in the form of a terrifying horse which begins following the man down the road. As the man tries to outrun the spirit, it reappears in front of him in the form of a glowing haystack. The man then commands the spirit in the name of God to speak to him, at which point it assumes human form, in the shape of a simple peasant. The spirit asks the man to carry its sack of beans across a nearby bridge, to which the man agrees. The man suddenly finds a sack of beans strapped to his back, which disappears, along with the spirit, when he has crossed over the bridge.
The three living and the three dead, the Medieval idea of ghosts
Recorded ghost stories begin proliferating after this. But the idea of these ghosts is very different from the modern one.Throughout the medieval English-speaking world, ghosts can appear and disappear, be human or animal, but they'e always visible, even tangible.
Ghosts are also not yet associated with traumatic death. A death by suicide or murder, however, could attract an evil spirit called a boggard or boggart. These would then lurk by the place where a violent death happened. And at this time its this sort of spirit, along with elves, spirits, or fairies that will haunt a place by permanently inhabiting it. Ghosts have other things to do than hang around and be wispy in front of strangers. That comes later.
When a ghost appears, it's only likely to appear to family or close friends, and only in the months immediately after death. Ghosts and dreams are also not really differentiated at this time, and dreaming of a dead relative was considered the same as seeing their ghost. Ghosts also usually came with a purpose, to disclose some secret or ask for some task to be performed. When the task is complete, the ghost disappears and does not return.
But the chief question on everyone's mind at this time is not what ghosts are, but where they come from. Understand that in this time in Europe, Church doctrine was the official, final explanation for everything. And the problem with ghosts is that they didn't entirely fit in to this everything.
After death, in Medieval Christian belief, there were four possible destinations. Good Christian people went to Heaven, bad Christian people and pretty much everybody else went to hell, unbaptized babies and the heathen just went to Limbo. Christians who died with some sins still clinging to their souls, not quite ready for Heaven, but not quite bad enough for Hell, spent some time in Purgatory. Purgatory existed as a place where souls went after death to have these sins burned away through punishments similar to those the damned would experience in Hell. But, unlike Hell, Purgatory was a temporary state. When all the sins has been burned away, a soul could achieve purity and ascend to Heaven.
Purgatory is the big one int the story of ghosts. While not technically Church doctrine, it was common folk belief that Purgatory was a space that souls were occasionally allowed to leave. In England, at least, this was considered good enough to become the semi-official explanation from about the 13th through the 16th Centuries. Reports of encounters with ghosts at this time would often note how the ghost's clothing was singed and burned around the edges, as if it had been in contact with fire, clear evidence of the existence of the fires of Purgatory.
A 15th century depiction of Purgatory, from theTrès Riches Heures du Duc de Berry
But when the Protestant Reformation sweeps across Europe, all of this changes. And in 1534, Henry VIII split with Rome, the doctrine of Purgatory was officially abolished in England. New religion, new rules. Purgatory was now a lie put about by the Roman Catholic Church, and a false doctrine. Believing in false doctrine was one of the gravest sins in the Protestant mindset, a sure-fire way to damnation. Now, when you're dead, it's Heaven or Hell and that's it, and wherever you go you don't come back. All of those fairies and elves are gone, too. Now there's only one official explanation for anything supernatural — demons. A ghost is a demon trying to deceive you, to get you to believe something against the new doctrine, and thereby condemn you to Hell forever.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare's haunted prince bounces back and forth between the old and the new world views, noting after seeing his father's ghost:
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee
Written in 1603, Hamlet recognizes that the old beliefs in ghosts and Purgatory were still popular, particularly in rural enclaves like Shakespeare's native Stratford. But Shakespeare is also smart enough writer to never explicitly contradict the new doctrine, since doing so on stage would have gotten you quickly clapped in irons.
It's the clapping in irons crowd that first brings these ideas to America when the Puritan settlers arrive in 1620. For the Puritans, anything which wasn't mentioned in the Bible was necessarily evil. And when you find yourself on a new continent, suddenly surrounded by new things, things that aren't mentioned in the Bible, that presents a problem.
These early settlements begin the association of the supernatural with the Other in the American mind. Because Native American religions were completely foreign to the English colonists, they fit these religions into the context of how they saw the world and believed that the Natives worshiped their Devil. And because they also believed that the Devil could give you fabulous, unnatural powers, this meant that the Indians must have strange and unnatural powers. A similar process happens with the introduction of enslaved Africans to America. A fascination with and repulsion from difference profoundly influences belief in ghosts and the supernatural in this country from the very beginning of European incursion.
But ideas about ghosts are also starts to change at this time. Part of this has to do with the increasing urbanization of the population back in England. The role of the ghost also starts to expand. These traditions of elves, sprites, boggarts, banshees lurking in the dark places in the countryside begin to disappear as fewer people are living in the countryside. The new, urban ghost takes its place, and we start to see the first permanent hauntings. Now, ghosts begin to be heavily associated with a location. Anyone in the right location might encounter the ghost. Also, as the Enlightenment begins and calms the religious fervor down a little, ghosts begin to be taken a little less seriously. And we even start to see ghosts as tourist attractions.
In 1762 in a house on Cock Lane in London, new owners began to tell the story that their house was haunted by the ghost of a woman named Fanny Lynes. This was a ghost that could not be seen, but only make its presence known through knocking. The story spread across the city, and curious spectators flocked to hear the ghostly sounds. At times hundreds of people would be crowded around the small house and the narrow lane, enough to cause the city to launch an official investigation. The Cock Lane haunting, it turned out, was a fraud. The owners were the ones making the noises. But this was the first widely publicized report of the idea of an invisible ghost, and one who seem to want attention. These idea spread to America, setting the stage for an event that would change ghosts forever.
A contemporary illustration of the spectacle at Cock Lane
In 1848, in a house in Hydesville, New York, three sisters, Leah, Margaret, and Catherine Fox claimed that they were able to communicate with the spirit of a peddler who had been murdered and buried in the house before the family moved in. Their method of communication with this spirit was through taps and knocks heard on a table. They worked out a simple code, and the ghost would even answer questions on demand. The story spread across the nation, and the thought of being able to communicate with the dead became a topic of international fascination. Just like the Cock lane ghost, the Fox Sisters spirit was also a fraud, manufactured by the sisters themselves out of boredom. But before they admitted this, a new religious movement had already been born.
This movement, Spiritualism, was dedicated to the idea that the afterlife, and specifically the Christian idea of the afterlife, was scientifically provable. The Fox Sisters and their table knocking were offered as incontrovertible proof of this. A craze for seances spread across America and the United Kingdom. Newspaper pages began filling with advertisements for mediums. Dozens of devices for communicating with the dead, such as Ouija boards, began not only to appear, but to be mass-produced.
Leah and Maggie Fox in 1851
The Spiritualist movement happens at a time when new technologies were being developed and transforming lives at a pace never before seen in human history. When telegraph lines were transforming tapping sounds into messages from miles away, tapping sounds bringing messages from the dead seemed like the next natural thing. And among these new technologies was the emerging art of photography. Along with this came the new art of photographic fakes. Double exposures could produce transparent figures on solid backgrounds, giving us what was supposed to be evidence for ghosts who seemed to have an unusual propensity for walking down stairs. These fakes seem obvious today, but at the time they were produced, no one had ever seen anything like this before. Similarly, the new technology of gas lighting in theaters allowed special effects shows, named with the newly invented word phantasmagoria, to spring up across the United Kingdom and America. These were shows where images of specters and spirits painted on glass slides would be projected onto a darkened stage. These new technologies profoundly affected the way people thought about what ghosts were and what they looked like. For the first time, ghosts were neither visible or invisible, but something in between. Ghosts became transparent.
The new, scientific way of looking at the world again completely changes the idea of ghosts. Ghosts were now phenomena. Something to be categorized and classified along with the rest of the natural world. in 1848, an English woman, Catherine Crowe, publishedThe Night Side of Nature: Or Ghosts and Ghost Seers, the first field guide to ghosts and hauntings. Organizations, such as the Society for Psychical Research, founded in the UK in 1882, began to seek scientific proof for Spiritualist theories about ghosts and the universe. Ghosts were now part of the new, rational order of the universe, classified with any other unusual phenomena, like ESP. The idea of the paranormal was born.
It was a popular idea. At the height of the Cold War, Josef Stalin's fascination with the possibility of psychic powers caused the Soviet Union to devote significant amount of time and resources to attempting to prove their existence. Never an organization to let itself be outspent on anything, the CIA secretly funded similar programs at institutions across the United States. Testing for psychic abilities with flashcards, attempting to find ways to measure the presence of a ghost electronically, monitoring for ghostly activity with video cameras, all of these ideas come from this time. And this was serious business. For many years, even Duke University had a department of parapsychology.
A double-exposure image by spirit photographer William Hope
These ideas begin to work their way into popular culture, which then feeds back into folklore. A craze for the supernatural in literature and entertainment begins sweeping the English-Speaking world in the 1960s and 1970s. The ghost, vampire, and werewolf filled soap opera Dark Shadows becomes enormously popular in America. In the UK, Hammer Films studios begins cranking out a series of classic horror movies. Ghosts begin filling the airwaves and lighting up the screens. These products have a profound effect on the way ghosts are thought of and discussed.
Take, for example, the stone tape theory. This is the idea that ghosts are essentially electromagnetic energy that is projected by human beings in times of great emotional trauma, and in some cases, the presence of certain materials in buildings can allow these emotions to be recorded, in much the same way that a magnetic tape can be used to record sound. A "playback" of these recordings can be triggered by the presence of other humans, and so people will see ghosts or hear sounds that are held in the walls around them. Hauntings are therefore a natural phenomenon.
This theory fits in perfectly with many late 20th Century ideas about ghosts, the idea that ghosts are an electromagnetic phenomenon, that they are observable and classifiable, and that the experience of haunting is tied to place and not person. The theory is also wholly derived from a 1972 TV Play shown on the BBC called The Stone Tape. Written by Nigel Keane, the science fiction writer best known for the Quatermass serials. It's an entirely fictional account of a group of engineers working in an old Victorian house who accidentally discover they can record ghosts. The stone tape idea was a creation invented as a piece of speculative fiction, broadcast in a movie which has largely been forgotten, but that lives on as in idea even though its origins in fiction have vanished into obscurity. There are still advocates for the stone tape theory today.
All of this led to what is probably the most significant event in the modern history of the supernatural on June 8, 1984, with the release of the movie Ghostbusters.
Ghostbusters writer and star Dan Ackroyd was fascinated with the techniques and terminology of Cold War era investigation into the Supernatural. He used this fascination as fuel for the action-comedy, but also simultaneously introduced those concepts to a wide audience. And this was a very, very wide audience. The movie and its marketing tie-ins were ubiquitous in 1984. It was also released at the beginning of the era of home video. This made it possible to be watched and rewatched at will and absorbed in a way that had been simply impossible before. The vast majority of movies and cultural products produced in the English-Speaking world since the premiere of Ghostbusters share its worldview. A rationalistic, phenomenological way of seeing ghosts. This the primary way that ghost have been discussed in our culture ever since. And the movie also spurned a movement. Without Ghostbusters, there would be no ghost hunting. The electronic equipment, the scientific language, even the idea of a small group going on an investigation, all have their popular roots in this movie
This is the pattern that emerges in the history of ghosts. Cultural, technological, and political changes produce folklore, which feed into popular mediums, which feed back into folklore, and wait for the next round of cultural changes to begin. The words we read, the images we see, affect what we expect to see when we see a ghost.
The history of ghosts is a cultural history, one which has changed as the culture that it is part of has changed. With the emergence of new media technologies, and as an oral culture moves online and into a written form, we seem to be at another time of significant transition in how we think about ghosts. But these technologies have also given us the ability to be conscious of that transition as it happens this time around, and to think about how we want to think about ghosts and what those ideas mean in our culture. We can move towards a new folklore, one that involves critical engagement with the stories we tell as we tell them. We can be aware of ghosts as both a cultural product, and as a way to shape our own culture.
— Craig Payst, 2018