Ghostly Beliefs

By P Michaelson

As indicated previously, ghost stories have been part of human culture for hundreds of years, with one of the first written records dating to the Roman author Pliny the Younger. Perhaps one explanation for the rich heritage of ghost stories dating from the nineteenth century is that this period offered the perfect combination of candlelit ambience with the rapid spread of literacy and printed media. However over a century on, interest in ghost stories and the supernatural seems to remain as strong as ever. So pursuing a philosophical tangent, why does humanity seem to have such a fascination with ghosts, death and the afterlife?

Perhaps it follows from the old adage that there are only two constants in life: death and taxes. As death will take all of us in time, one explanation for the seemingly collective fascination with ghosts may reflect a common desire to believe in something more, something that extends beyond our capacity to fully comprehend, and perhaps a desire to view death as a new beginning rather than an end. Ghosts offer this undefined capacity, extending beyond the explanations traditionally offered by religion for what will happen once we die. This may in part help to explain some of the enduring fascination with the supernatural in an increasingly secular society and an age of digital technology.

So what are ghosts? Despite extensive historical references describing ghostly manifestations and hauntings, attempts to establish conclusive scientific evidence which could answer this question remain inconclusive. Yet there remains a consistency between accounts of ghost sightings and paranormal events spanning time and cultures which suggest commonalities between observations. Why do some events seem to result in spiritual manifestations whilst others do not? Premature and violent deaths often factor in the histories of figures proposed to represent the ghost in question. This supports the suggestion that perhaps ghosts exist due to something remaining incomplete at the time of death; some form of unfinished business which is necessary to enable the soul to pass on to the next stage. Hence, existence of the supernatural would appear to confirm the existence of something extending beyond our mortal lifespan. Belief in the afterlife and the supernatural appears to represent a unifying facet of humanity bridging time and culture. Belief in the afterlife is perhaps best illustrated by the ancient Egyptian pyramids, however celebrations such as Halloween, Samhain and the Mexican Day of the dead remain current rituals celebrating the connection between the world of the living and what may exist beyond.

Of course charlatans playing on grief and human sensitivity have done great damage against attempts to answer the question: 'What are ghosts?'. Following the death of his mother, Harry Houdini (1874–1926) became famous for debunking spiritualists. Although his initial attempts at contact with his dead mother were allegedly from a point of belief, he became increasingly frustrated by identification of trickery and charlatanism. Associated with a Scientific American committee which offered a monetary prize for anyone who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities he became responsible for discrediting many famous spiritualists. Notably, although no prize money was ever paid out Houdini made a pact with his wife that if communication from beyond the grave was possible, he would send her the message 'Rosabelle believe'. His wife faithfully spent 10 years waiting for a message from beyond before giving up hope although there still remains a tradition within magicians' circles of holding annual seances in the hope of receiving spiritual contact from Houdini. Further the behaviour of debunking of psychics cost Houdini his friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was famous for his strong belief in spiritualism.

Ghost stories are most commonly designed to incite terror and raise the hair on the back of our neck. However, few individuals claim to have actually observed a spiritual manifestation. So, given the very limited experience most individuals have had with the supernatural, why does the supernatural hold such a fearsome fascination? In contrast, despite the fear that most appear to have regarding ghosts and the supernatural, the opposite effect is observed with respect to fortune telling. Why do tarot cards, palmistry, astrology and mystics offer such intrigue when the potential for interaction with beyond in the form of ghosts incites such fear? If the cards offer insight into the future, why does there seem to be such faith in the source of this divination if the paranormal and unknown generally pose such threat?

Furthermore, the list of legendary creatures cites legions of supernatural figures, so where do ghosts end and other supernatural beings begin? In the absence of a definitive explanation for what a ghost actually is then perhaps the use of ghosts to explain otherwise inexplicable phenomenon reflects an egocentric nature of human logic. As there are many reports of malignant hauntings, are there truly evil ghosts, or do malicious spirits represent something other than ghosts? Perhaps ghosts merely represent the tip of the iceberg as it were, and there remain legions of supernatural elements which exist beyond our ken? Global media was set alight in May 2013 following speculations of a public exorcism performed by Pope Francis; claims which were later denied by the Vatican. Irregardless of the explanation behind the occurrence, significant public interest in this story suggests that strong belief in the supernatural, both good and evil, remain strong as ever.

Following from these philosophical meanderings, perhaps ghost stories offer the best of all arguments; simple entertainments which enable a safe and controlled consumption into what may exist beyond. Whatever the explanation, a good ghost story appears to remain as popular as ever. Although M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu and Edgar Allen Poe remain the best known historical ghost story authors, the breadth of other authors who also composed at least one ghost story highlight the popularity of ghost stories at the end of the nineteenth century.

Those seeking further reading may find the Cyclopaedia of ghost story writers website a handy reference.

Further reading regarding Harry Houdini:

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