Dickens complained that ghosts ‘have little originality, and “walk” in a beaten track’. They are reducible, he said, ‘to a very few general types’: the chain-rattler; the ghostly walker or horseman; the forlorn-looking child; the pale doppelgänger; the wronged maid; the spirit of an evil ancestor whose painting hangs in a gloomy panelled hall; the friend or relative who is dying far away. Dickens was discussing tales told around the fire at Christmas, but similar types appear in accounts that claim to be true. In The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead, Carl Watkins tells one of the earliest ‘veridical’ English ghost stories, recorded by William of Newburgh, an Augustinian canon in Yorkshire in the 1190s. It’s a tale Bram Stoker could have used, one that could feature in the more old-fashioned sort of horror film even today. A local man who became convinced that his wife was unfaithful hid in the rafters of their bedroom; when her lover arrived and the man’s fears were confirmed, he fell from his hiding place in a fury and died, full of spite, without receiving the rites of the church. He returned from the dead ‘by the handiwork of Satan’, attacking people after dark and spreading disease with his rotting flesh. People began to die, one by one, so the villagers dug up the corpse. They found it bloated to a huge size; when they cut it open with a spade, blood gushed out. The men dragged the body out of the village, tore out the heart and burned the ashes, banishing the revenant for ever.
In A Natural History of Ghosts, Roger Clarke retells ‘the first true modern ghost story’, from Pliny’s letters, about a house in Athens haunted by ‘an old man, emaciated and filthy, with a long beard and unkempt hair’, who rattled his chains and drove the inhabitants to illness and death, or at least to alternative accommodation. Athenodorus the Stoic decided to investigate, and sat up late in the house with his books, waiting for the ghost to arrive. First he heard the chains; then he saw the beckoning ghost, which shuffled slowly to a point in the courtyard, where it vanished. In the morning a hole was dug at that spot and a human skeleton was found, complete with corroded chains. The bones were given a proper burial, and the house was no longer troubled by spirits. As Clarke points out, this could be an M.R. James or Sheridan le Fanu story. One detail – the house was suspiciously cheap for its size – features in countless modern ghost stories of the Amityville type.
There are, according to Clarke, eight main categories of ghostly phenomenon: traditional ghosts (the souls of the dead); elementals (primitive entities that squat in a single place, like kelpies in lochs or disembodied creatures in burial grounds); poltergeists; mental imprint manifestations (the figure seen crossing a particular room at a certain time); crisis apparitions (of those who are dying or in mortal danger); time-slip experiences (tourists in Versailles in 1901 find themselves in 1792); ghosts of the living; and haunted inanimate objects. In practice there’s a lot of crossover between the categories, and a vast number of accounts – at least of those that come with a backstory – include one or all of certain salient elements: a crime, an untimely or violent death, and some problem with the funeral rites or legacy. These, it seems, are what cause the veil between worlds to lift, even today. The Society for Psychical Research investigated a case in 1998 at Westwood Hall in Staffordshire. The caretaker was writing about Prudentia Trentham, who is supposed to haunt the house, when the spellcheck replaced her name with ‘dead’, ‘buried’, ‘cellar’. (Ghosts have always kept up with the available technology, invading photographs, audio equipment and even the Caterham bypass on the A22.)
Polls have consistently shown that between 30 and 40 per cent of people in Britain believe in ghosts – about the same proportion as, in principle, support the Labour Party. (Ghost-belief levels seem to be slightly higher in America, and much lower in France.) Why is this – when science can explain everything from the Higgs boson to the birth of the continents? I suppose you could turn the question round, and point out that these are world-historically low levels of ghost belief. From the beginning of human culture, the dead were buried with food and other trappings, suggesting that death was not accepted as the absolute end of life. Anthropologically speaking, spirit belief is near universal. The idea of death as extinction is relatively modern: it doesn’t appear in Western culture until Epicurus (341-270 BC) and was rejected, at least officially, until at least the 19th century. Once you’ve accepted the notion of an afterlife the fear of revenants naturally follows. As Watkins points out, funeral rites are, apart from anything else, banishment rituals, designed to protect the living from the dead: explicitly, in the case of foot-binding to prevent the corpse from walking, or the Iron Age body pinned with a stake so it can’t rise up; less explicitly but just as unmistakeably in the case of burial six feet under, entombment or cremation. He quotes a 12th-century ecclesiastical manual, warning that the dead should be properly buried ‘lest they take vengeance’.
In the days before TV, as Watkins reminds us, people would pass the long winter evenings with ghost stories. These would then influence what people saw on dark nights, which would in turn become ghost stories that influenced others visiting the same place – and so on. Since the Romantic era, ghost beliefs in England have tended to exist somewhere between religion and fiction, belief and entertainment. ‘It is pleasant to be afraid when we are conscious that we are in no kind of danger,’ Virginia Woolf remarked in her essay about ghost stories. And a certain level of credulity is necessary really to enjoy tales of the supernatural. ‘Do I believe in ghosts?’ M.R. James asked in one of his prefaces. ‘To which I answer that I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.’ I think this means: not really, but I’m going to leave the door open.
The will to ghost-belief is very strong. Clarke cites the interesting case of 50 Berkeley Square, notorious for a century as ‘the most haunted house in London’. It seems to have been lived in by a recluse for a short period. Thereafter a series of scary stories came to be associated with it: a haunted attic; an ‘evil room’; a housemaid struck dead with fright; the wraith of a sobbing child who had died in the nursery; the ghost of a betrayed woman who had thrown herself out of the window; a police notice forbidding anyone to use the upper floor. Clarke sent an email to the current resident, an antiquarian bookseller, and received the following response: ‘There are absolutely no first-hand accounts of anything at all. It’s fiction reversing into reality – similar to what folklorists call ostension.’ (Technically, I think, it’s quasi-ostension – the interpretation of real events according to folkloric or legendary templates: ostension is when people actually act out the folklore.) These fixed units of ghostly narrative seem to circulate endlessly – the body in the basement, the white lady, the hooded monk – just waiting for a suitable place to take up residence: often the same story concerning Anne Boleyn or the headless horseman or whoever will be found in various locations. And fiction constantly gives the ghost-seers new material. For instance, belief in spirit possession had all but died out in America before The Exorcist came out; now it’s widespread. As the ghost-hunter Harry Price put it: ‘People don’t want the debunk, they want the bunk.’
Clarke and Watkins have written very different books. A Natural History of Ghosts is a racy survey of five hundred years of spirit lore; The Undiscovered Country is a scenic but serious study of notions of death and the afterlife. One is by a journalist with an amateur interest in the supernatural, the other by a scholar of medieval religious culture. But they both tell a similar story about the evolution of ghost beliefs in England (with occasional forays into the rest of Britain and Europe). In medieval Europe, traditional stories about the returning dead were gradually co-opted by the church. Priests ‘crafted a framework in which ghosts might haunt, explaining them as souls from purgatory’, Watkins says. ‘They readily told improving stories about charred, blackened or burning souls wandering out of the next world discoursing on their misdemeanours, pleading for masses, warning the living to mend their lives or face the same fate.’
This comfortable accommodation with the spirit world was disrupted by the Reformation and the abolition of purgatory, along with masses for the dead, chantries, indulgences and so on. Souls were suddenly deemed to journey straight to heaven or hell, and ghost stories were condemned as works of ‘monkish ignorance and systematic priestcraft’. Nevertheless, the dead still returned. This made them even more scary, since – theologically speaking – they could only be evil spirits sent by the devil, not poor souls needing to be helped on their way to paradise. Meanwhile, the abolition of the monasteries gave us the ghostly monk – the violently ejected monks returned to their lost homes after death.
Each era had its own distinctive ghosts. After the Civil War, the Demon Drummer of Tedworth excited the interest of everyone from the era’s chief ghost-hunter, Joseph Glanvill, to Christopher Wren and Charles II. A Hampshire landowner called John Mompesson imprisoned William Drury, a busker and vagrant, and confiscated his drum. Mompesson’s house was then beset by terrible knockings from inside and out. Beds shook, heavy objects were thrown about, children were lifted up in the air. Most of all, a dreadful drumming sound came from the skies just above the roof – commemorated in a famous woodcut of a hovering devil banging a giant drum. The story illustrates a recurring theme: hauntings often result from getting on the wrong side of tinkers, or ‘cunning men’ – itinerant magicians. (Drury went ‘up and down the Countrey to show Hocas pocas feats of activity’.) John Wesley’s father, Samuel, made the same mistake half a century later by preaching against cunning men, with the result that a poltergeist, manifesting itself in the form of a badger or white rabbit, invaded his rectory.
The Age of Reason had the Cock Lane Ghost, a celebrated hoax, found to have been the work of a teenage girl. Around this time, ancient terrors begin to be reborn as mass entertainment – Defoe wrote a popular veridical tale, The Apparition of Mrs Veal, about a Mrs Bargrave in Canterbury who meets her dead friend Mrs Veal. The Gothic novel, launched by Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, initiated a new tradition of supernatural fiction, and Catherine Crowe’s still entertaining collection of weird ‘true’ stories, The Night Side of Nature, brought a touch of German Romanticism to British ghost lore, with the introduction of the doppelgänger and assorted Scotch wraiths, bogles etc. In 1848, the year Crowe’s book was published, the Fox sisters in upstate New York precipitated the mania for spiritualism that took hold of both America and Britain. After being disturbed by unexplained noises, the sisters established contact with the spirit of a murdered pedlar (buried, with wearying predictability, in their cellar). The Foxes effectively invented the séance. Using knocks and raps, Watkins writes, ‘a system of communication – a sort of bespoke Morse code – linking sublunary and spirit worlds was opened up.’ They were first promoted wildly, helped by P.T. Barnum, and then violently denounced by various rationalists. ‘Professional middle-class men would henceforth lose no opportunity to truss, strap, wire up, restrain and interfere with the flesh and clothing of lower-class mediums’ like the Fox sisters, Clarke tells us – he’s keen on the kinky side of spiritualism.
Two decades later one of the sisters recanted and denounced the whole thing as a fraud, demonstrating how she cracked her toe joints noisily to simulate the spirit’s rapping. She later recanted her recantation, claiming she did it for the money. This cycle of confession and counter-confession is absolutely standard, from the Demon Drummer of Tedworth to the Enfield Poltergeist in the 1970s, with boosters keen to prove the existence of spirits (and make money out of it) and detractors desperate to expose the hoax (and make money out of that too). But spiritualism was too big to be stopped. It proved irresistible to many Victorians, traumatised by evolutionary and geological revelations, and confused by newfangled technologies that seemed to make spirit telegraphy a reasonable prospect. It’s a fascinating episode, what with table-turning, faked ‘ectoplasm’ (‘scissored animal parts and regurgitated cotton smeared in goose fat’) and Daniel Dunglas Home (the king of all mediums, who could fly out of one window and back in another, like a Stephen King vampire). There’s enough there to sustain an entire book: see Deborah Blum’s very enjoyable Ghost Hunters. Spiritualism flared up again during the First World War: Sir Oliver Lodge, a professor of physics, wrote up his departed son’s dispatches from a distinctively Edwardian afterlife, complete with cigars, whisky, nice girls and ‘interesting’ jobs.
Clarke has handy information on the origins of well-known ghost stories. He tells you where Henry James probably got the germ of the idea for The Turn of the Screw – from Hinton Ampner, a Hampshire house so haunted it was knocked down. He gives a deft sketch of the original Woman in Black: Maria Manning, the Lady Macbeth of Bermondsey, who was sent to the gallows in a black dress and long gloves for killing her lover and burying him under the kitchen floor (‘I never liked him and I beat his skull with a ripping chisel,’ she declared); he also describes her many post-mortem manifestations, from the windows of empty Victorian houses to Downton Abbey’s O’Brien. His book is larky rather than literal and he sees the whole thing as one long, entertaining story of human folly or suggestibility. But surely a book about ghosts needs reams of spooky material, and Clarke isn’t really willing to be spooked. A typical sentence, concerning the ghost photographer or ‘mind-imagist’ Ted Serios, runs: ‘Later, sceptics pointed to his alcoholism and incipient sociopathy as discrediting factors.’ This is fine, but he doesn’t know what to do with, or doesn’t know how to laugh at, the more mysterious – the genuinely anomalous – cases such as the Rosenheim Poltergeist, which haunted a Bavarian lawyer’s office in the 1960s and caused police officers as well as physicists from the Max Planck Institute to issue statements saying they had seen ‘unexplained object movements’. The famous parapsychologist Hans Bender had to be called in.
Watkins’s book takes ghosts more seriously, by virtue of the fact that they exist as part of a continuum of human beliefs which are – or least were – passionately held and central to people’s lives. They thus deserve serious thought, he thinks. I have only one criticism of his book: he has a terrible way with hanging modifiers. The Theosophist Annie Besant’s life is measured out in heinous danglers, doggedly modifying the wrong noun (‘Intimate for a time with Annie Besant … , they had drifted apart in his later years’; ‘Intrigued by the idea that the spirits of the dead might commune with the living, her detractors said … she had gone … to observe a soul’s departure from a body’). Otherwise, his book is learned, full of interesting material and often moving. Watkins travels slowly around the country, like an old-school antiquarian, pausing to note a ‘cadaver tomb’ in an East Anglian church or a Cornish hillside mausoleum. At the same time, he moves forward through history, discoursing fluently on the medieval cult of death, or Puritan visions of the afterlife, or the vivisection of criminals in the 19th century, or the gradual replacement of prayers for the dead with their secular version: the sacred duty of memory. His stories are often strikingly macabre: the murderer whose skeleton ended up in a medical display case, the Welsh druid who burned his dead son in a barrel. He was prosecuted and cleared, establishing that cremation, though taboo, was perfectly legal.