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There are many reports of unseen visitors scraping the floor, as if they were covered with branches, or apparently dragging someone or something. The jingling of money is common. A person seems to be dragging furniture about the rooms, although the house is empty. Calls and cries have been heard. There may be the sound of laughter, of a newspaper rustling, of a dog growling. On the wall of a medieval manor house in Hertfordshire, Hinxworth Place, there was once a sign inscribed upon a wall – "This is where a monk was buried alive in this wall. His cries can be heard sometimes at midnight. 1770."
Then there are the voices. Andrew Lang tells us the story of a young lady who was in her bath when she heard a voice saying "Open the door" four times. She did so, and thereupon fainted. There was no one there. A woman rose up among cattle, in a farmyard, and said, "Never mind it John, you do your work and I will do mine." The head of a martyred medieval saint called out "Here, here, here" to those who sought it.
But many spectres cannot speak. It is commonly reported that ghosts are on the point of saying something, but unaccountably cannot. Some among them seem to be physically prevented from talking. Characteristically they gasp or emit a low and garbled sound.
Do ghosts smell? Some have claimed that they smell of stale food. Or, perhaps, of rotting food. Others claim to have a detected a "fetid" smell in the presence of apparitions. Yet that may be fanciful, a reminder of the association of ghosts with death. Rooms are suddenly filled with the smell of fresh cigar smoke. Floating perfumes issue from no visible source. And there are fugitive smells, of leather-working or brewing, that seem to hover in premises that were once devoted to a particular trade. Certain churches and abbeys are filled with an inexplicable odour of incense; this has been particularly remarked among the ruins of Glastonbury. In old buildings there may be the sudden emanation of the odour of herbs. The scent of thyme is supposed to be an indication of murder. There are cases involving the sudden and overwhelming fragrance of flowers.
Ghosts are sometimes seen at the moment of the death of a person. There are also ghosts of the living, often seen many miles from the location of the human being. Ghosts of the living also appear when the living subject is asleep or dreaming. Some ghosts appear as animals. The black dog or "shuck" was well known before Johnson borrowed it as an image of melancholy. Other ghosts come back because they have not been properly buried. There are ghosts who return to correct a wrong, or to fulfil a pledge. Some seem sent merely to cause mischief and alarm. But the vast majority of ghosts seem to be without a purpose. More than one witness has described them as "mindless" or "brainless". The ghost is normally seen by one person rather than a group of people. They can touch you, but you cannot touch them.
Our ancestors did not use the word "exorcise" to describe the containment or banishment of ghosts; they spoke of "laying" them, as if they are requested to sleep rather than be driven away. The laying of ghosts, in previous centuries, followed a customary pattern. The minister, when called to eliminate a spirit, was asked to "read it down". By the light of candles, the priest would read from the Bible, in the process diminishing the ghost in size until it could be placed in a bottle or box. The other form of laying a ghost was by incessant prayer, sometimes lasting for several days and nights. There is an account of one ghost "who refused to go into the bottle in which it was to be imprisoned, because there was a man outside eating bread and cheese... the poor minister was so exhausted by the task that he died". The bottle containing the ghost might then be thrown into a pond or pool; alternatively, the ghost might be consigned to a tree or to a chimney. The usual duration of this exile was 66 or 99 years. Yet a ghost under Eardisland Bridge in Herefordshire has been laid for the past 2,000 years. The other method of laying a ghost was to command it to perform an impossible task, such as weaving ropes of sand or emptying a pond with a sieve. Some ghosts, however, cannot be laid to rest. Wherever they are taken, they are allowed to move back to the site of their haunting at the pace of one "cock-stride" each year.
It was believed in some regions that the best method of exorcising a ghost was to throw graveyard earth at it. Earth from a graveyard was believed to be potent because it could dissolve human flesh. It is said that ghosts also have an aversion to iron. This superstition is suggestive. It would seem to have arisen in the neolithic period, when the mineral may have been an object of wonder and fear, its properties held to be magical. If this is indeed the case, then the belief in ghosts or spirits extends along way back. The manner of address to a ghost, in previous centuries, was also laid down by custom. "In the name of God, what art thou?" A priest might say, "In the name of God, why do you trouble us?
"There is no people, rude or learned," Imlac declares in Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, "among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. Those that never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible."
'The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time' is published by Chatto & Windus (£12.99)
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