Ghost lore has a long and colorful history. The word ghost has been in use since the late sixteenth century. It derives from a more ancient term, gast, in the language that evolved into modern German. For some time, ghost has usually signified the disembodied spirit of a deceased person. Earlier meanings still cling to this word, however. Gast originally referred to a terrifying rage. A person who experiences shock and terror can still be described as aghast (i.e., frightened by an angry ghost). Fear of angry ghosts is built into the word itself.
Etymology explains even more about the characteristics attributed to ghosts through the centuries. Ghost is created in part by way of spirit, and spirit by way of breath. The book of Genesis and many other world mythologies tell a similar story: God breathed into an inert form, and the creature then stirred with life. There has also been a widespread belief that each newborn becomes one of us in drawing its first breath. Each dying person leaves the world by exhaling the last breath, sometimes depicted as a soul bird. The breath is seen as life. Expelling the final breath is "giving up the ghost." The spirit is on its way, the body stays behind. So in traditional accounts, spirit was breath, but more than breath: It became a subtle, immaterial essence that departs from a person at death. This idea is at the core of theological dualism, the belief that a person is composed of a material, perishable body and an immaterial, imperishable essence. Greek and Christian thought held that imagination, judgment, appreciation of beauty, and moral sense are functions of the spirit within humans. The spirit is an individual's higher self, something of which survives bodily death in many religious accounts. In Western societies, people tend to speak of this surviving element as the soul.
Ghosts, however, do not necessarily emanate from the refined spirit of divinity within. It is fairly common among world cultures to believe in another spirit that accompanies them throughout life. This is a shadowy sort of spirit that could be thought of as a duplicate image of the physical body. The German term doppelganger clearly conveys the idea of a second spirit that moves mysteriously through one's life, sometimes serving as the ruthless Mr. Hyde to the everyday cultivated Dr. Jekyll. This shadow spirit is apt to leave the body from time to time and linger around a person's place of death and burial. A ghost, then, might either be a blessed spirit on a mission of mercy, or the tortured and malevolent image of a body that suffered an anguished death.
Varieties of Ghosts
Two sharply contrasting beliefs about ghosts have long coexisted, sometimes in the same society. The good ghost appears to be related to the higher spirit of a deceased person; the dangerous ghost, though, might be the shadowy doppelganger or a higher soul that has turned evil. The two opposing ghostly prototypes are the angry ghost, dangerous because it is angry about being dead, having been killed in an unacceptable way, having been treated badly by family and community, or just plain inveterate nastiness; or the emotionally neutral ghost, the spiritual essence of the deceased that lingers or returns in order to warn, comfort, inspire, and protect the living, making its rounds amiably and harmlessly.
It is not unusual to have a mixed concept of ghosts because the influence of both traditions persists in the twenty-first century in popular media. Ghosts themselves can have mixed feelings. There are lost souls who cannot find rest, and others, like Wagner's Flying Dutchman, who are condemned to a weary and aimless exile that can end only with the discovery of pure love. Such sad ghosts are capable of either good or evil, depending on how they are treated.
Funeral rites and prayers often have had the double function of providing safe conduct for the soul of the deceased while also preventing it from lingering or returning as a dangerous ghost. Candles or torches, for example, help guide the departing soul and at the same time discourage wandering evil spirits from entering the corpse or its attendants. Elaborate precautions are taken when the person has died by violence. An executed murderer, for example, might have all his body orifices sealed and his limbs amputated so the vengeful ghost cannot return to continue its evil career.
Ghost prevention remains a major concern in many world cultures. A Hindu ceremony conducted in Katmandu, Nepal, in June 2001 was intended to banish the ghost of the recently slain monarch. The ashes of the late King Birendra were mixed into the luncheon food, and a Brahmin priest, dressed to impersonate the king, rode astride an elephant as crowds of people chased him and the monarch's ghost away.
Encounters with Ghosts
According to lore, there is more than one way in which a ghost can present itself. The visual visitation is most common. Visible ghosts are often elusive, appearing only in glimpses, but some linger. Specialists in folklore and paranormal phenomena tend to speak instead of apparitions (from Latin for "appearances" or "presentations"). Apparitions include ghosts of deceased persons but can also represent living people who are physically absent, animals, objects, and unusual beings that resist classification. Phantoms can also include visions of either a deceased or an absent living person. Specter and shade, terms seldomly used in the twenty-first century, refer to ghosts or spirits.
Some ghosts are heard rather than seen. Poltergeists (noisy ghosts) are notorious for dragging their chains, dropping dishes from a shelf, or even hurling objects across a room. Unseen spirits that communicated by rapping on walls or tables became especially popular during the heyday of Spiritualism. In reports of haunted houses, poltergeists are usually the chief perpetrators.
A more subtle type of ghost is neither seen nor heard. One "feels" its presence. This sense of presence is perhaps the most common type of ghost-related experience reported. Most common among the recently bereaved, these visitations often take the form of a sense of the deceased's uncanny presence. Interestingly, the pattern found in the late nineteenth century is much the same as in current reports: the more recent the death, the more frequent the incidents in which a ghostly presence was felt.
The "felt" ghost was encountered in a wider variety of situations at the end of Christianity's first millennium. Mystical experiences of an invisible presence were frequently reported and made their way into the historical record. A new liturgy for the dead had been introduced in which symbolism became inseparable from physical reality. Praying for the dead became a prime responsibility for Christians, and these intensified symbolic interactions with the dead seemed to attract ghosts.
Dream ghosts have been reported in many times and places. These nocturnal visitations often have been taken as revealing past, present, or future realities. Even in contemporary reports, a dream visitation from a deceased person is sometimes accepted as a "real ghost."
The famous confrontation between Hamlet the king and Hamlet the prince demonstrates the witness's quandary. Was the prince only dreaming that the ghost of his father had appeared to him? And how could he be sure that this was a reliable ghost and not a demon or deceitful spirit who had impersonated the king in order to urge Hamlet to murder—and therefore to damn the young prince's own soul? Whether ghosts have appeared in dreams, visions, or daily life, they have often suffered from a credibility problem. Are they a misperception, a trick of the mind, a hallucination, or the real thing?
Ghosts are most commonly reported as solo acts, but sometimes they bring a supporting cast. The medieval mind occasionally encountered hordes of ghosts arising from their graves. Witnesses have sworn that they have beheld the apparitions of numerous slain soldiers arising from a battlefield such as Gettysburg. By contrast, some people have met an entire family of ghosts ensconced comfortably in an ordinary home. Several women who reported having seen or heard domestic ghosts had this explanation to offer:
As they see it, the events and emotions of former residents' lives remain locked in the form of "energy" or "waves" or an "aura" in the house where they lived. If it is pleasant, the present resident can absorb and benefit from the atmosphere; the memories in the house will make those who live in it happy, healthy, and wise. If the spirit is malignant, however, and the memories violent, the energy may transform itself into a force which can throw or displace objects or echo the events of real life by sighing, walking about, switching lights on and off, closing doors, flushing toilets, and so on. (Bennett 1999, pp. 47–48)
These domestic ghosts have become, literally, "the spirit of the house," as Bennett adds.
The conjured ghost is a commercial product, brought forth in return for a fee. Some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century mediums attracted participants to their séances by guest appearances from visual ghosts. After interest started to decline in spirit visitors, one could only hear ghosts. If the participants were sufficiently receptive and the ghost was in the right mood, they would be rewarded with the sight of a white ectoplasmic figure hovering, floating, or simply walking. (Ectoplasm is what ghosts wear or become when they allow themselves to be materialized; investigators discovered that the ectoplasm bore a remarkable similarity to the bladder of a goat.)
The Bible is almost devoid of ghosts. The strongest candidate for a ghost is the apparition that was conjured from the grave of Samuel by the necromancing Witch of Endor. Whether or not this figure was truly the ghost of Samuel remains a subject of controversy. Early Christian belief was not receptive to ghosts, in contrast to many of the popular cults of the time. Hamlet's chronic uncertainty was inculcated by a long tradition that cautioned against taking apparent ghostly visitors at face value.
What is the ghost's vocation? "To haunt" is the answer that first comes to mind. Many reports tell of a ghost that appears in a particular location, sometimes repeatedly for generations. In some instances the witnesses identify the apparition as a person who once lived in that home or vicinity; in other instances the ghost is unknown to the witnesses, but the same assumption is made. Ghosts have also been encountered in the wilderness— along the Cumberland Trail, for example. Members of numerous folk cultures would not be surprised that ghosts have been observed both around the household and in the wilds. Some firmly believe that the spirit does linger for a while before undertaking its postmortem journey, and some may be unwilling or unable to leave until unfinished business has been completed. The roving ghost that might be encountered could be lost and disoriented because the person died far from home and has not been sanctified by purification and other mortuary rituals. The "skinwalkers" reported in Native American lore are among these restless souls.
Usually, then, ghosts have unfinished business to complete or an inability to move on. Being a ghost is usually a transitional status. When somebody or something succeeds in "laying the ghost,"
There is another kind of ghost, however, whose origin is an unfortunate rebirth. Hungry ghosts ( e-kuei ) are Chinese Buddhist ancestors who are in constant torment because they are starving and thirsty but cannot receive nourishment. Whatever they try to eat or drink bursts into fire and then turns into ashes. There is hope for them, however. The Festival of Ghosts includes a ritual designed specifically to provide them with sanctified water that, accompanied by chant and magic, can release them from their terrible plight.
Fear of ghostly possession has haunted many societies. In these instances the disembodied spirit not only appears but also moves right in and takes over. Fortunately, the ghost often can be persuaded to leave once its demands are met. The ghosts of North India, for example, often require that they be given sweets. In the first phase of ghost possession, according to Freed and Freed, "A victim shivers, moans, and then falls down unconscious" (1993, p. 305). Next, the victim engages in various dissociative actions such as talking nonsense, running around wildly, and even attempting suicide.
These functions of North Indian ghosts vary with the stages of the life cycle: different ones appear in childhood, adulthood, middle age, and old age. Because ghost possession is one of the expected hazards of life, North India villagers have developed first-aid techniques to reduce the disturbance until an exorcist arrives. The victims are wrapped in quilts, propped in a sitting position, guarded against suicide attempts, and administered a series of shock treatments (e.g., hair pulling, slapping, and placing peppers in their eyes and mouths). The intrusive ghost is also engaged in conversation while other villagers fling cow dung and incense on a fire so their fumes might help to dislodge the unwelcome spirit. Exorcism is the most dependable cure, however, if the ghost is to be banished without carrying off the victim's soul.
One of the most learned scholars ever to devote himself to ghosts, phantoms, and survival has a different perspective to offer. Frederick W. H. Myers studied thousands of ghost-sighting reports. His conclusion: most ghosts do not do much of anything. This statement contrasts strongly with the usual belief that ghosts have intentions and missions. The typical sighting was of an apparently aimless, drifting entity that seemed to have nothing in particular on its mind. So the average ghost is not engaging in meaningful or purposeful behavior, according to Myers's studies.
Myers offers two noncontradictory explanations for the do-nothing apparitions that were most commonly reported. First, he emphasizes their difference from the lurid ghouls described in many ghost stories. The more reliable human testimony seems to pertain to more pedestrian hauntings. Myers next tries to fathom the nature of these oddly lackadaisical apparitions. These are not ghosts at all, in the traditional sense of the term; rather, they are "a manifestation of persistent personal energy after death" (1975, p. 32). It is not an independent, free-roaming spirit, nor is it a hallucination or other trick of the mind. What we have seen is a kind of after-image of the deceased person. We might compare these strange flashes with the light that comes to across from distant stars that have long since ceased to exist.
Myers's views were later seconded by Hornell Hart, who had another half century of material to analyze. Hart observed that most apparitions were "tongue-tied" and exhibited no sense of purpose. This line of explanation has the merit of sticking close to witness reports. It does not satisfy either side in the controversy about the reality of ghosts that gathered steam when science and technology started to challenge folk belief and religious dogma. Staunch critics are reluctant to admit the possibility that even a sparkle of energy might persist after death. This highly attenuated form of survival does not include the personality of the deceased, and so it fails to support the faith and hopes of some traditionalists.
The crisis apparition offers a partial explanation that lies somewhere between the Myers/Hart thesis and the more traditional view. The image of an absent person suddenly appears to a friend or family member. This is not a vague, wispy apparition; it seems to be the very person. In some reports the phantom appears at the time of the person's death, sometimes thousands of miles away. These reports could be taken as support for a personal form of survival, but this notion would not extend to all the legions of ghosts that have been perceived or imagined. Furthermore, a brief, onetime apparition offers no evidence of prolonged survival.
Ghosts have often been explained as hallucinations. Green and McCreery, for example, make an interesting case for the possibility that ghost sightings include hallucinations of the entire scene, not just the spirit figure. Defenders have tried to offer evidence that ghosts are not to be dismissed as hallucinations. So-called spirit photography was a popular effort in this direction. Thousands of photographs were produced in which deceased humans and animals appeared among the living. Several photographs even revealed a ghostly figure moving through a séance in all her ectoplasmic glory. Notwithstanding the adage that "seeing is believing," the credibility of spirit photography succumbed rapidly to critical investigations into the wiles of trick photography.
The purported acquisition of unusual but accurate information from ghosts has also been offered as proof of their authenticity. Many of these examples pertain to prophecies of warning. For example, a ghost tells warns a family not to go on their planned trip or confides where they can find the old strongbox filled with money and valuable gems. If events prove the information to have been trustworthy, one might then feel entitled to reward the ghost with a vote of authenticity.
These and other possible contacts with ghosts invite skepticism and outright derision in the mainstream of a culture with an essentially rationalist, materialist worldview. But few contest the vividness and tenacity of ghostly visitations in the human imagination.
Bennett, Gillian. Alas, Poor Ghost! Traditions of Belief in Story and Discourse. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1999.
Davidson, Hilda, R. Ellis, and W. M. S. Russell, eds., The Folklore of Ghosts. Bury St. Edmunds: D. S. Folklore Society, 1981.
Emmons, Charles F. Chinese Ghosts and ESP. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1982.
Freed, Ruth S., and Stanley A. Freed. Ghosts: Life and Death in North India. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1993.
Gauld, Alan. "Discarnate Survival." In Benjamin B. Wolman ed., Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.
Green, Celia, and Charles McCreery. Apparitions. Oxford: Institute for Psychophysical Research, 1989.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. Harper's Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience. Edison, NJ: Castle, 1991.
Gurney, E., Frederick W. H. Myers, and Frank Podmore. Phantasms of the Living. London: Trubner, 1886.
Kalish, Richard A., and David K. Reynolds. "Phenomenological Reality and Post–Death Contact." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 12 (1973):209–221.
Kastenbaum, Robert. Is There Life After Death? revised edition. London: Prion, 1995.
Lindley, Charles. The Ghost Book of Charles Lindley, Viscount Halifax. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994.
Montrell, William Lynwood. Ghosts along the Cumberland: Deathlore in the Kentucky Foothills. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.
Mulholland, John. Beware Familiar Spirits. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Myers, Frederick W. H. Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death, 2 vols. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Roll, William G. "Poltergeists." In Benjamin B. Wolman ed., Handbook of Parapsychology. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977.
Schmitt, Jean-Claude. Ghosts in the Middle Ages. The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.