Horla Essay (September 2020)





IT is probably fair to say that people have been aware of ghosts ever since Man first became aware of his own mortality. Someone, back in the mists of time, realised that there was a ‘something’ that was present in a living person and absent in a dead one. Where did the ‘something’ go when it left the inanimate body on the floor of the cave? And, just as important, what was the ‘something’?

There is no direct evidence that early man believed in ghosts – no cave paintings of spirits as far as we know. Though it is quite possible that cave paintings do represent the spirit of the hunter or of the prey, we don’t know what stories they tell

However, there is plenty of indirect evidence of some form of belief in the afterlife in the form of funerary rites, grave goods and monuments, and these are associated with the earliest stories about ghosts. They are not Ghost Stories in the sense that we understand them; as entertainment. They are mostly in the form of warnings.

There is a surprising degree of consistency in belief about what happens to the ‘something’ after it leaves the body. From Europe to China and Japan and Mesoamerica it was believed that the dead person’s spirit (though this is a specifically Christian term and not really appropriate, but it is better than ‘a something’) went to another land, which was often dull and uncomfortable but sometimes remarkably like their experience while they were living. They may have to make atonement in the land of the dead for their misdeeds in this life, and then they might move on to another land, better or worse, or return to this world through reincarnation. But the main point was that this was the proper place for them to be and was where they should stay. If they did return to the land of the living, this was Bad News.

Ghosts returned usually to deliver a message, sometimes of revenge, or other unfinished business, but in most cases because their funeral rites were incomplete or missing, or that they were not being properly treated in the way of offerings. If the sustenance and other resources needed by the dead were not provided, the dead would be left in distress. This was when they would come back to ask the living to put things right.

In these stories, the idea of location is not very significant, and this differentiates stories about ghosts from stories of hauntings. Ghosts appear where the descendent can be contacted and not necessarily where the dead person met their fate. One common issue in lack of funerary rites was death by drowning, where there was no body to perform the rites over.

Death in battle was a different matter and different principles applied. For a start, dead warriors went to a different place, such as The Elysian Fields or Valhalla (depicted, left, by Emil Doepler) , provided the death was in battle. The dead would, by custom, be buried or cremated on the field of battle so the relatives would not be able to carry out the usual rites. If you did return ‘on your shield’, you had better be dead because there was no honour, and no entry to Valhalla, if you died in your bed. The coup de grace, the grace blow, was the final mercy to ensure that a mortally wounded comrade died on the field of battle, with all the honour that entailed.

The stories about missing funeral rites relate to the funerary traditions but are not necessarily scary. They are often quite matter-of-fact, along the lines of ‘This person saw the ghost of their relative, they did the right thing and the ghost was content and went away’. Sometimes the stories were even quite romantic, sometimes they were tragic, but they were not intended primarily to be spooky. If they were scary it was only to underline the urgency of the message.  They were an integral part of the funeral tradition and their function was to persuade people to keep the traditions intact.

There is a significant exception to the idea that a ghost is a spirit with a grievance, and that is the idea that the veil between the lands of the living and the dead becomes thin at certain times of the year. It was still pretty bad news for the living, and the visiting dead still needed to be propitiated, but they were here because they could, not because they had a message. It is another very widespread belief and is found in the Chinese Ghost Festival, the Mesoamerican beliefs that are now the Day of the Dead and Celtic traditions of Samhain. These take place at the end of summer (‘sam hain’ literally means ‘summer’s end’) and are a time for the dead to be celebrated and propitiated. By pure co-incidence, they are also times when food is likely to be abundant, crops gathered in and livestock slaughtered. In Celtic tradition, the bones of slaughtered cattle would be burned on bone fires, which we now call bonfires.

Ghost stories and haunting stories have completely separate origins but have become conflated in the modern ghost story. In classical stories a haunting was quite different. They were stories about the presence of a daemonic entity, such as a djinni, in Middle Eastern stories, equivalent to a genius loci in classical stories. Genii locorum were specifically tied to a place. Djinn were much more generic but some were tied to a haunt. Djinn and genii were entities or beings, not people (or ex-people).

They were similar to people or animals and had to be dealt with in the same ways; by force, negotiation or escape, while the djinn tried to deal with the intruding human. The plot of haunting stories centred on the conflict between the human characters and the haunting spirit, competing to occupy the location.

The tension in ghost stories derived from the efforts of the living to satisfy the dead but there was no inherent conflict as the living and the dead both wanted the same thing: for the dead to get back to their proper place.

Stories of ghosts and stories of hauntings sought to deal with what were perceived as common problems. They did not exist in isolation. They were part of the culture of the time. You never knew when you were going to come across a haunted location but you would be very clear that they existed and that other people had come across them and dealt with them. There was always a possibility that your relative might come back with demands because this had happened to other people. The stories worked because they fitted with what people already knew.

Scroll forward a thousand plus years and the world as seen by Europeans was firmly moulded by the classical world. The stories from the classical world were known but they had lost much of their context. Christian funeral rites send the dead spirit on its way, but don’t focus on the provision of resources for the dead. This meant that stories about the dead returning to demand proper funerary goods degenerated into mere curiosities.

However, the rites themselves were still important and revenge was a concept that Christians understood very well, so the vengeful ghost, the dead with unfinished business, became the dominant strand of ghost in literature. This is where the most famous ghost of all, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, fits. He wants revenge and he wants Hamlet to know how he died. Banquo in MacBeth and the eleven ghosts in Richard III all want to remind the main character of his misdeeds.

They are not the centre of the story, but Shakespeare knew how effective ghosts could be as plot drivers and, of course, they make for terrific stage effects. He knew that his audience would know exactly what ghosts were, but he also knew that the audience would have no expectations as to what the ghosts would do. This gave him a great deal of flexibility in how he used them.

Shakespeare’s ghosts form a sort of bridge between the classical and the more modern ghosts of the Gothic and beyond. While he was drawing on the classical traditions, Shakespeare only used the elements that fitted with what his audience knew. The Gothic tradition drew heavily on the ideas of ghostly retribution, but Gothic ghosts are more violent and less ethereal than the classical and Shakespearean versions. They wreak havoc in their own right. In Lewis’s The Monk, the Ghost of The Bleeding Nun is sufficiently corporeal that the unfortunate Raymond elopes with her (instead of with Agnes who is merely pretending to be the Ghost of The Bleeding Nun in order to escape from her nunnery). In the Gothic, ghosts became part of the plot itself, usually as antagonists, rather than plot drivers and information sources.

The readership was invited to recoil in horror at these violent and unstoppable creations, rather than sympathise with their plight as a classical (and Shakespearean) audience would do. These were ghosts of horror, intended to shock and terrify. They were an aspect of the Romantic concept of The Sublime, producing the enhanced emotional reaction that the author was trying to achieve.

Eventually, even the most horrifying stories can become boring and humdrum and the Gothic morphed into a number of different genres. Ghosts were frequently present, as in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, which is part of the Romantic genre, and A Christmas Carol, which, like much of Dickens’s work, can be classed as Urban Gothic. Another major strand of Gothic, the Vampire genre does not feature ghosts to any great extent, vampires being quite horrifying enough in their own right.

Unfortunately for gore-laden Gothic ghost-fests, the Victorian era coincided with an increasing understanding of the natural world and a more sceptical attitude towards the supernatural. Vengeful, corporeal ghosts who could rip your face off did not sit well with the increasingly realistic settings demanded by discerning readers.

n those stories where ghosts feature as major plot elements, they are treated in an increasingly intellectualised way, stripped of the gore associated with Gothic. This was developed by writers like Sheridan le Fanu (left), who used tone and suggestion, not action and description, to achieve his effects.

This trend reached its culmination in the writing of M. R. James. His stories of imaginative horrors were set in an academic environment that would have been familiar to many of his educated readership and firmly rooted in reality. Writers could not assume that readers would identify with their characters if the environment in which the characters found themselves in was too unfamiliar. Readers had to be persuaded out of their familiar environment, and the discordant notes had to be introduced imperceptibly. As science and knowledge developed and expanded, the space left that could be occupied by the supernatural shrank. And that space is largely occupied by the imagination of the reader.

The latest development of the ghost story integrates the ghost element with the scientific element. In principle this is no different from M. R. James. In Oh, Whistle and I will Come to You, My Lad, he sends his character to ‘Burnstowe’ (in reality Felixstowe, the title is  taken from a poem by Robert Burns) where he finds a whistle in a Templar ruin. The readership should recognise the quotation in the title, know that East Anglia has many Templar remains and that James himself was a don at Cambridge. The difference in modern ghost stories is that they attempt to explain what ghosts are, to fit them into modern scientific ideas, without detracting from their capacity to scare.

The first major story in this trend was a television play, The Stone Tape, which explained ghosts as ‘recordings’ of emotional impact. These are impressed and retained in stone, much as sound is recorded in magnetic tape. The Stone Tape was written by Nigel Kneale who wrote the Quatermass plays and developed the combination of science and supernatural (which was, of course, originated by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein).

The concept of ghosts as recordings is known as the Stone Tape Theory and has had a major influence on parapsychology and on the portrayal of ghosts. Spielberg’s Poltergeist films use the idea and it is the basis of ‘vestigia’ detected by sensitives in Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series.

While the belief in the existence of ghosts is very fundamental to the human condition and fairly consistent across societies, the way in which the belief is expressed is not because it has to fit the society. The Ghost Story has changed and evolved over the millennia to fit in with whatever else societies believe. Ghosts, then, correspond very closely Richard Dawkins’s definition of a ‘meme’, in The Selfish Gene. A meme is an idea, or a piece of information, that is transmitted informally through a population. The culture of a society is an aggregation of the memes that it ‘knows’ and a meme is successful and spreads through the culture if it fits with all the other memes and elements of the culture. If it doesn’t fit, a meme will either die out or evolve until it does fit. All very Darwinian, which is the point – Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and wanted to propose a mechanism for cultural evolution, analogous to the gene. The idea that the living body has a physical being and a spiritual being, which leaves the physical body when it dies, is a very powerful meme.

The idea that a ghost is a spiritual body that stays in the physical realm, or returns to it (and is generally Bad News) is also very powerful. As knowledge of the physical realm develops, the existing idea of the ghost may not fit, so it has to evolve, and it has done so very effectively. Whatever the reality, the idea of ghosts still packs an emotional punch.

I don’t, intellectually, believe in ghosts. I’d like to, from an existential point of view, but I can’t see how they could fit into what I believe I know of the world. But if I go into an old church, the scene of so much emotion, positive and negative, over the centuries, I can feel the atmosphere. Am I experiencing the replay of a myriad emotional recordings, built up over the years? Or is it just the dust?

(For information about ghost stories in ancient times, I found this article very useful: https://www.ancient.eu/ghost/



Edward Alport describes himself as ‘a proud Essex Boy and retired lecturer’. He occupies his time as a gardener and writer. He also restores old keyboard instruments and other furniture. He says that when he has nothing better to do he posts ‘snarky micropoems’ on Twitter as @cross_mouse

Title photo credit –  Tony Detroit on Unsplash