Ghosts: To Believe or Not To Believe……That is The Question

I know I do, dear reader, and always have. I have had far too many encounters for me not to believe really. There are a lot of people out there who don’t believe and this may include some of you. I respect that, I really do, after all, how can you believe in something you have never felt; never heard; or never seen?

I keep ‘feel, hear and see’ separate because, like me, you may only experience one of these things. Only the very fortunate will experience them all; only a blessed few will be clairvoyant. I am a clairsentient; I feel. Some people are clairaudient (hear/listen); some are clairalient (smell); some are claircognisant (know); and some are clairgustant (taste). Which one are you?

If you don’t believe though, dear reader, I urge you to go out and experience the other world; the world where the living go to meet the dead; where non-believers believe; and where believers are continually astounded. For, only once you have experienced the paranormal, are you truly in a position to make the decision to continue to disbelieve, or to open yourself up to the possibility that there is life after death; that the spirit world exists; and that it could very well be sharing your house with you, as I share mine.

It is said that we are all born with six senses, but acceptable norms in society and in our familial upbringing drive out of us that all important sixth sense. You only have to observe a child at play, when they are unaware they are being watched, to see this sixth sense in action. For that child will invariably be talking to and playing with someone; someone you, as an adult, cannot see. But, believe me when I say, that someone is there. After all, how many children have imaginary friends? How many children get told off, for doing something they sincerely didn’t do? How many children hold tea parties for guests other than their dolls?

Is it really so hard to believe that these someones are not imagined; that they are actually there? It is just that you are too closed and jaded to see.

When you were constantly told as a child that ‘there are no such things as ghosts’, was this just an ingrained accepted society norm? After all, it’s easier to dismiss something you don’t understand or can’t see as not being real, isn’t it?

Ghosts, spectres, phantoms, spooks, apparitions or, if you are Scottish, wraiths and bogeys, are the soul or spirit of a dead person.

They tend to be lone essences which haunt a particular location, person or object which they were associated with in life. Despite the tendency for solitary ghosts, there have been many reports over the years of ghost armies, roman soldiers, ghost ships (most notable of these being ‘The Flying Dutchman’), or even ghost animals.

Ghosts take on various forms, from being an invisible presence, through a wispy/barely visible image, to a realistic life-like vision.

The belief in ghosts is not isolated to one era or one country. It pervades the world and transcends time. But, every culture and every country has a different understanding of ghosts and what they are around for.

Traditionally, ghosts are deceased people who are looking for vengeance or who are trapped on earth, due to the bad things they did in life. The appearance of a ghost was often seen as a portent of death, especially if the ghost was of you!

Although, traditionally, supernatural activity in homes etc. is usually associated with violent or tragic events in the building’s past – murder, accidental death, and suicide – this isn’t always the case. In some cultures and religions, it is believed that the essence (spirit) of a person continues to exist after death, regardless. Some argue that the spirits have not passed over because they are trapped inside the property where their memories and energy are strong.

So, that’s the traditional view, but what about history? What about culture? Just how ancient and widespread is the belief in ghosts? Antiquated and diverse, is how I would term it.

In Mesopotamian religions (those of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria), ghosts were believed to be created at the time of death and bore the memory and personality of the person they once were. They travelled to the netherworld, where they took on a role similar to that in life and their relatives were expected to make offerings of food and drink. If they didn’t, it was believed that the deceased would inflict misfortune and illness on the living.

In Ancient Egypt, ghosts were said to be the continual existence of the soul after death. They could help or harm the living and many of the beliefs over the years, have been recorded for posterity in the ‘Egyptian Book of the Dead’.

The classical world saw ghosts as vapour, smoke or substantial forms, appearing at the time of death with the wounds that killed them clearly visible.

By the fifth century, Greek ghosts were haunting, frightening creatures and ancient Greeks held annual feasts to honour the dead. Family ghosts were also invited and were then asked to stay away until the following year.

The ancient Romans believed a ghost could be used to exact revenge on an enemy, by scratching a curse on a piece of lead or pottery and placing it in the grave.

A recurring theme of improperly buried dead was prevalent around this time. The dead would return to haunt the living and the haunting only ceased when their bones were discovered and received a proper burial. This theme has appeared in episodes of popular TV shows, associated with the paranormal – ‘Ghost Whisperer’ and ‘Supernatural’ being two examples which spring to mind.

Medieval Europe divided its ghosts into two camps. The souls of the dead were ghosts who returned for a specific purpose, whereas demonic ghosts existed to torment and tempt the living. You could, apparently, tell them apart by demanding their purpose in the name of Jesus Christ. The soul of the dead person would tell you, while the demon would be banished at the sound of the Holy name. Wow, the power of the church, hey…..

A popular British belief, was that the dead haunted their lovers if they started a relationship with someone else, without first releasing them from the prior bond of love.

In Europe, there was widespread belief that ghosts arose due to the excessive grieving of the living. This mourning interfered with the deceased’s peaceful rest.

In India, a ghost is known as a ‘bhoot’ or ‘bhut’. It is thought to be restless, due to some factor that prevented it from moving on – violent death, unsettled matters in their life, or the failure of survivors to perform better funerals.

Polynesian legends are rife with stories of ghosts being consistently involved in the affairs of the living. These spirits could even cause sickness or invade a living body, only to be driven out by strong medicine.

Chinese ghosts take many forms, depending on how they died, and more often than not are harmful. The Chinese Annual Ghost Festival is a time when all ghosts and spirits are believed to rise from the ‘lower realm’ and join the living.

The Japanese ‘yurei’ (‘yu’ = faint/dim; ‘rei’ – soul/spirit) is thought to be a spirit kept from a peaceful afterlife.

In Thailand, ghosts are much more feared, with ‘Phi Tai Hong’ – the ghost of a person who has died suddenly of a violent death – being the most feared of all. The Thai people believe that sleep paralysis is caused by a ghost.

So, you can see, dear reader, that belief in ghosts is all encompassing and yet, sceptics remain. There is always someone who refuses to believe; who tries to use science to explain the unexplainable; who makes their name out of refusing to embrace what is.

Over the years, many sceptics have cited limitations on human perception and ordinary physical explanations as proof against the existence of ghosts.

Such examples are wide and varied. Air pressure changes have been used to account for slamming doors; Pareidolia – an innate tendency to recognise patterns in random perceptions – is said to account for people ‘seeing ghosts’; sensitivity of the human peripheral vision, especially at night when the brain is tired and more likely to misinterpret sights and sounds, can easily mislead; hypnagogic hallucinations (waking dreams); variance in magnetic fields; lighting level stimuli; changes in geomagnetic fields are said to stimulate the brain’s temporal lobes to produce many of the experiences associated with hauntings; sound or, more specifically, infrasound has been said to cause humans to experience bizarre feelings in a room, such as anxiety, extreme sorrow, a feeling of being watched, or even the chills.

Even carbon monoxide poisoning has been cited as a possible explanation for haunted houses, due to the changes in perception of the visual and auditory systems that it can cause.

So, we’ve seen the evidence for and against, but what about the arts? What have writers and film makes done with all this ghostly knowledge over the years?

Shakespeare liked his ghosts, didn’t he? One of the most memorable ghosts in literature has to be that of Hamlet’s father, murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, King Claudius. It is the ghost who demands that Hamlet investigate this ‘murder most foul’. Another famous Shakespearean ghost has to be that of Banquo, who returns to haunt, much to Macbeth’s dismay.

In the theatre, ghosts metamorphosed from the clanky armour clad puppets to the spookier sheeted version in the nineteenth century, with the metallic versions becoming a source of ridicule and cliché.

Two of the earliest mentions of ghosts, aside from Shakespeare, were ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole (1764), which was one of the key early appearances of ghosts in gothic tales; and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ in 1820, where Washington Irving introduced us to the headless horseman, a character based on an earlier German folktale.

It wasn’t until the Victorians, though, that the classic ghost story emerged, with writers such as M R James, Sheridan le Fanu, Violet Hunt and Henry James, penning spooky tales to make people shiver.

The most famous ghosts in literature, though, have to be those of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. Scrooge is visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve – Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future – all seeking to get him to remember what was; to change what is; and to influence what will be.

Ghost hunters started to appear in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until much later that ghost hunting became a hobby for many and TV shows like ‘Most Haunted’, dominated our screens.

For the children, dear old Casper was brought (back) to life in the 1930s, appearing in comic books and animated cartoons, and finally making it to the big screen in 1995.

The advent of film and TV, saw ghosts become a common theme, with the works of Dickens, Shakespeare and Wilde all making it onto celluloid. Books, though, didn’t fare as well, as it was seen as too difficult. The exception to this being Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, ‘The Haunting of Hill House’, which made it onto film twice – once in 1963 and again in 1999 – under the title, ‘The Haunting’. Only the 1963 version remained faithful to the story and received critical praise.

From the 1970s, screen depictions diverged into two distinct camps – romance and horror.

The common theme running through romantic ghost tales was that of the ghost being a benign guide or messenger, often with unfinished business. The best examples of this were ‘Field of Dreams’ in 1989 and ‘Ghost’ in 1990.

The horror version of the ghost tale created a trend for merging ghost stories with scenes of physical violence. Good examples are ‘The Fog’ in 1980 and the ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ series of films in the 1980s and 1990s.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the classic gothic ghosts returned with psychological, rather than physical dangers – ‘The Sixth Sense’ and ‘The Others’, 1999.

The turn of the millennium saw, in my view, the mix up of the genres of ghost stories, with films coming out in rapid succession, from the mass market scare fest of the ‘Paranormal Activity’ franchise to the eerie gothic tale of ‘The Woman in Black’ (2012).

The ghosts of the new millennium were out for vengeance (‘What Lies Beneath’, 2000); were out to scare you away from technology (‘The Ring’, 2002); were there to be, well, just plain nasty (‘Thirteen Ghosts’, 2001); were out to make you glad you had your adult teeth (‘Darkness Falls’, 2003); were there to make you think you were losing your mind, hearing disembodied voices (‘White Noise’, 2005); were there to ensure you treated gypsies with respect (‘Drag me to Hell’, 2009); and were there to use your child as a portal to the living world (‘Insidious’, 2011). Yes, the new millennium has a spooky tale to suit everyone’s palate.

And so, dear reader, to believe or not to believe…..that is the question. For, whichever path you choose to take, the dead cannot harm you…..or can they……?

In the words of M R James, the essential elements of a ghost story are: ’Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, the stony grin of unearthly malice, pursuing forms in the darkness, long drawn distant screams, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded…..’

May fear protect you when the darkness comes.

Til next time.