THE LONG-WINDED BIT...
Spooks, phantoms, ghouls and wraiths – from the earliest legends to the latest films, ghosts walk a spectral path through our national psyche. Here, Peter Ackroyd steps into the realm of the supernatural
England is a haunted country. Several explanations, for the ubiquity of the ghost in this land, can be offered. Alone among the countries of Europe, England is bordered by original British (or Celtic) nations. The popularity of the English ghost tradition – the English see more ghosts than anyone else – is deeply rooted in its peculiar mingling of Germanic, Nordic and British superstitions. The English are also in many respects obsessed with the past, with ruins, with ancient volumes. It is the country where archaeology is placed on national television, and where every town and village has its own local historian. Ghosts therefore may be seen as a bridge of light between the past and the present, or between the living and the dead. They represent continuity, albeit of a spectral kind.
The word is of Old English derivation yet, curiously enough, the Anglo-Saxons did not see ghosts. But they told two strange stories of haunting. One of them occurs in Beowulf, where the monstrous figure of Grendel would immediately be understood by medieval listeners as a revenant. Grendel stands apart from life and joy. He is uncanny. He moves through walls, and cannot be touched by sword or spear. His only purpose is to destroy, and the terror he induces is one associated with primal fear of the darkness. The other Old English story is of more solid variety. The famous poem The Ruin opens with the line "Wraetlic is thaes wealhstane", to be translated as "Wraith-like is this native stone". In the stone of England itself lies the wraith. The wraith is an emanation of England. Although the Anglo-Saxons saw no ghosts, they knew themselves to be haunted. The English have a rich repository of words to describe uneasy soil – "marsh", "mere", "mire", "fen", "bog" and "swamp" among them – and it is not at all coincidental that they have also been used to describe the abode of ghostly apparitions.
In the medieval period, the English ghosts were deemed to be the souls immured in purgatory, pleading for prayers to absolve them from punishment. They were also happy to proclaim the values of the sacraments, and in particular of confession, extreme unction and infant baptism. Alternatively, ghosts were the spirits of saints sent from God with news of paradise. They could in certain circumstances be the machinations of the Devil. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, written in the early part of the 17th century, Robert Burton argued that "Divells many times appeare to men, & afright them out of their wits sometimes walking at noone day, sometimes at nights, counter – feiting dead mens ghosts". In any event, whatever their origin, they were part of the machinery of theology and of the supernatural; they were emanations from the eternal world of bliss and pain beyond the grave. They were an integral part of the communion of the living and the dead that the Church represented.
The doctrines promulgated at the time of the Reformation effectively dispensed with the notions of purgatory and its purging fires. But if there was no such place, then ghosts could hardly claim it as their home. That is why there was a strong tendency, among orthodox churchmen, to dispense with ghosts altogether or to treat them as manifestations of the Devil alone. Yet they could not be banished from the earth. The teachings of the Nonconformists tended to credit the existence of ghosts, if only to refute the far more serious phenomenon of atheism. The late 17th and early 18th centuries were the periods in which pamphlets were issued revealing the latest ghostly manifestation; they were generally entitled "Strange And Extraordinary News From..." and their content was attested by numerous witnesses.
That stentorian voice of 18th-century England, Samuel Johnson, said on the subject of ghosts that "all argument is against it; but all belief is for it".
Nineteenth-century England was perhaps the golden age of the ghost. It may have ceased to have any messages or any advice for the living, but it was everywhere. The yearnings associated with the Romantic movement of English poetry found fruition in the spectacle of the melancholy ghost. There was much popular interest in spirit-rappings and in spirit-tappings. The fashion for mesmerism, in the middle of the century, provoked belief in some form of plasma or magnetic fluid that might harbour the forms of spirits. Technological progress also seemed to affirm the existence of spectral bodies, with the appearance of photographs intending to reveal the ghostly occupants of rooms and chairs. The Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882, lent seriousness and credibility to the quest for spirits. A questionnaire sent out by the society in 1894 revealed that out of 17,000 people, 673 claimed that they had seen a ghost in one form or another. It is perhaps curious, however, that the majority of them did not know the identity of the spirit in question. The manifestation appeared arbitrary and purposeless. It is also worth observing that many apparent "sightings" of ghosts have been discredited, and that many photographs of spirits are the obvious products of fakery. In the field of ghost-hunting there were many frauds and charlatans, intent on producing a sensation rather than a verifiable record.
The 20th century marks the general popularity of the ghost story in English literature, with the advent of writers such as M R James and Algernon Blackwood. The quintessential English ghost story is alarming but also oddly consoling. It is inexplicable and yet perfectly credible. Some comfort, some confirmation of an alternative world, may be derived from the presence of ghosts. The English temperament, in its older manifestations, seemed to waver between the phlegmatic and the melancholy. In the English ghost story itself, a matter-of-factness is combined with an intense longing for revelation or for spirituality of the most basic kind. That interest has been maintained in the 21st century by the popularity of many television programmes devoted to the subject of haunting and ghost-hunting. It may be said that more people believe in ghosts today than at any other time in England's history.
Other words for ghosts can be found. "Spook" derives from Iceland, "dobie" from the Gaelic language and "wraith" from the Scottish Borders. The various names that begin with the prefix "bug" are of Welsh or Cornish ancestry. Reginald Scot, in The Discoverie of Witchcraft published in 1584, remarks upon "the spook, the man in the oke, the fire-drake, Tom Thombe, Tom Tumbler Boneless and such other BUGS". The commonplace phrase "stop bugging me" can perhaps be translated as "stop haunting me". Some ghosts seem to be unique to England, among them the phantom monks and silent nuns who, according to G K Chesterton, come to upbraid the heirs of those who despoiled the monasteries at the time of the Reformation. There may be intimations of religious guilt in the contemporary sighting of long-dead priests. Also unique to England are the bedroom ghosts, the "silkies" named after the fact that on passing by, they send out a low rustling sound such as that made by silk.
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In: Arts and Entertainment
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