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The Ghost: A Cultural History

29 October 2017

From The Guardian:

As Halloween approaches, we prepare to confront our ghosts. Soon we’ll be used to ghoulish children leaping out of shadows in the street. Meanwhile in churches, for the three days of Allhallowtide, Christians will remember the faithful dead.

But ghosts aren’t always as recognisable as they are now in the guise of trick-or-treaters. “Ghosts have grown up,” Elizabeth Bowen wrote in a preface to a new book of ghost stories in 1952. They had laid aside their original bag of tricks – “bleeding hands, luminous skulls and so on” – and were now more likely to be found in a prosaic scene. “Today’s haunted room has a rosy wallpaper.” Most frighteningly, “contemporary ghosts are credible”. They lurked at the border of known reality, just believable enough to unnerve those who encountered them in life or art.

In fact, the growing up that Bowen describes began much earlier. Ghosts in Britain have a long history since Grendel crashed through the door in Beowulf, eating the warriors who get in his way, and Susan Owens has set out to tell it in an eloquent and lively account. For Owens, ghosts – and especially their appearances in art and literature – offer a window on to “the great changes that, over time, have made us see the world in new ways”. The Reformation, the Enlightenment, the age of technology – all have shaped the development of ghosts, and look different when seen through a ghostly lens.

According to Owens, ghosts have performed two functions. The first is to scare us, reminding us of the presence of death. The second is to reassure us, promising that death may not be as final a state as it seems. In the 14th and 15th centuries, they dwelt in purgatory, hovering between heaven and hell, and so were able to warn the living of the dangers of sin at the same time as offering the promise of eventual redemption. This changed with the Reformation, when purgatory was officially abolished. The clergyman Robert Wisdom lamented in 1543 that “sowles departed do not come again and play boo peape with us”. But like so many beliefs, the notion of purgatory lingered in the popular imagination long afterwards. Thus in 1609 the ghost of Hamlet’s father informed his son that he was “doomed for a certain term to walk the night”, though he didn’t actually name it as purgatory.

. . . .

And so here we are now, in an age of sceptical belief. “All argument is against it; but all belief is for it,” Dr Johnson announced in the 18th century, and I agree with Owens that not much has fundamentally changed since then. She admits to a “balance of scepticism and credulity that would probably not stand up to rigorous scrutiny”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

The Ghost: A Cultural History


4 Comments to “The Ghost: A Cultural History”

  1. …promising that death may not be as final a state as it seems. In the 14th and 15th centuries, they dwelt in purgatory, hovering between heaven and hell, and so were able to warn the living of the dangers of sin at the same time as offering the promise of eventual redemption.

    Interesting. Speaking of ghosts, here’s some (true?) ghost stories from Orange County, Virginia…


  2. Interestingly, a friend here asked people on Facebook to post their own ghost stories on a single long thread, with no arguments, no debunking, just personal stories people perceived to be true. Most fascinating and varied thread I have read on Facebook in a long time! (Of course many of her friends are writers which probably skewed the results a little – and certainly made the stories readable.) What was really interesting was just how many of these experiences weren’t frightening or horrific, but either comforting, a little sad, or just plain ordinary and quite matter of fact.

  3. Why are ghosts always white? That’s some racist nonsense. Halloween should be banned.

    Signed, 2017.

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