When you think Halloween, you automatically think ghosts. Or at least I do. Nothing gets me more in the Halloween mood than a few good scary books and movies featuring ghosts.
Ghosts are thought to be manifestations of deceased people. Apparitions range from mist and smoke to life-like formations. The most common way to contact a spirit is through a medium or a necromancer. Ghosts usually haunt certain locations, objects, or people. Humans aren’t the only ones known to manifest as ghosts, though; animals and objects have also been seen. One of the most famous of those types of spirits was the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman. Legends of ghost ships have existed since the 18th century, and this theme has been used in literature multiple occasions, for example in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
The word “ghost” is believed to have come from an Old English gást. Spook is Dutch, wraith is Scottish, and poltergeist (meaning noisy ghost) is German. Apparition, shade, and phantom are all words found in Greek mythology to denote spirits in the underworld. Revenants are used to describe ghosts that have come back to haunt the living, while the term fetch is used to describe a ghost or spirit of a person still alive. J.R. Tolkien used the term Ringwraiths to describe spirits in his books and and that influenced later works of fantasy.
Traditional stories dating back to before literacy tell that ghosts were often thought to be deceased people looking for vengeance, or imprisoned on earth for bad things they did during life. The appearance of a ghost is primarily regarded as an omen or portent of death. Seeing one’s own ghostly double or fetch is suppose to mean your own death is imminent. The ever popular lady in white always seems to appear in rural fog surrounded areas and is supposed to have died tragically. White Lady legends are found all around the world. Common to many of them is the theme of losing or having been betrayed by a husband or fiancé. They are often associated with an individual family or regarded as a harbinger of death.
Supernatural activity inside homes is thought to be associated with a violent or tragic event in the building’s past such as murder, accidental death, or suicide. But not all hauntings are at a place of a violent death, or even on violent grounds. Many cultures and religions believe the essence of a being, the soul, continues to exist after a body’s demise. Some religions argue that the spirits of those who have died have not passed over and are trapped where their memories and energy are strong. Others argue that they are not actual ghosts at all, but imprints created by the strong emotions and feelings of the individual(s). Rather like a movie set on a feedback loop, we “see” the event over, and over, and over again.
Though the arcane has been studied since the beginning of time, it really wasn’t until Spiritualism developed that the study of, and speaking to, spirits became a religion with a serious following in the United States and Europe. Between 1840-1920, membership reached over 8 million followers. A majority of followers were women who used this platform to promote women’s rights and abolition of slavery. The movement was severely weakened due to accusations of fraud among mediums. Famous mediums who spearheaded this movement were Edgar Cayce, Aleister Crowley, and Allan Kardec. Two of the most infamous mediums of this time were Kate and Margaret Fox. At the tender ages of 6 and 8, these young girls took the world by storm with their abilities and were the first to perform a public demonstration of their skills. It wasn’t until 1888 (approx 40 years later) that Margaret Fox gave an in-depth interview explaining the tricks of the trade she and her sister used to “manifest” the spirits.
From lost love to madness, many classic works feature ghosts and spirits. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar all featured ghosts as prominent figures. Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is based upon a German legend of a headless horseman. Who could forget Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” where the nasty, ill-mannered Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by not one, but four ghosts? Oscar Wilde’s comedy short “The Canterville Ghost” has been adapted to film many times and still remains a favorite. (Also see our post on Boy Meets Dead Girl: The Awesomeness of Anna Dressed in Blood).
While I am not sure ghosts exist, I myself have had some encounters that have left me less skeptic then most. Below are a few of my favorite ghost stories from some wonderfully talented authors that have had me checking closets, sleeping with the lights on, and refusing to leave the bed till dawn.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
Lost Boy Lost Girl by Peter Straub
Bag of Bones by Stephen King
The Restorer by Amanda Stevens
Ghost image courtesy of AirJOI via Flickr