The Science of Ghosts: how it went, part 3

OK, I may as well get on with the review I guess! Next up was The Haunted: A social history of ghosts by Professor Owen Davies. This moved form the science of ghosts to the history and cultural construction of ghosts, and was absolutely fascinating stuff – unfortunately I have read Professor Davies book of the same name as the talk which Becky gave me last year I think for my birthday, but I have not read it all yet. Then again, I also have spent many years of my life with the noted folklorist and historian of the supernatural David Sivier as a close friend, and working in a related field (the social construction of Earth Mysteries in the inter-war period was the subject of an MA dissertation I wrote.)

However, I still learned a great deal, and if I can try to briefly summarize – Davies concentrated on roughly Reformation to late 18th century spooks, and mentioned the tradition of the ghost in the white (winding sheet) as the standard depiction. This leads to an obvious question -did the percipients actually see ghosts in the burial garb, or is this simply an artistic convention used in illustrating them? I guess I shall have to look in his book! Davies mentioned the naturalistic looking spooks, which seem to be found in all ages – my mind was however working on how patches of ground mist can easily be interpreted as spooks in white clothes.  Some years ago now I was coming back from a meeting with Karl and Yvette having just stopped working for ANTIX as a researcher for Most Haunted, and having dropped Phil Whyman off on location we were driving back along a country road when Hugh slowed down and steered round “something”, as what looked disconcertingly like  a little old lady crossed the road in front of us, picked out in the car headlights. It was of course nothing more than ground mist! I also wonder how many “Black Monks” are down to shadows?

Owen Davies actually mentioned the prevalence of Roundhead and Cavalier ghosts – anachronistic but identifiable – but how reports of Roman ghosts were rare until the modern period, simply because kids in school were not taught how Romans dressed, so they have no concept of “Roman”.  This leads to two thoughts – a) we can not actually deduce from this Roman ghosts were not seen – they may have been, but were not describable as such, as they could not be identified as Roman  and b) it is curious that one of the best actual witness statements on Roman ghosts, that of Harry Martindale in his famous sighting under the Treasurer’s House, York, does NOT have classic Roman legionaires as the description, but auxilaaries with oval shields as I recall. Maybe thsi add credibility to that sighting? Dunno! Obviously by the 20th century Romans formed part of the taught history curriculum in most schools I guess – I’m surprised given the incredible importance of Classics that Romans were not discussed before. Generations of school children appear to have known The Aeneid of Virgil, Tacitus, Suetonius, Plutarch etc? Were Roman’s really obscure in the educational curricullum of the past? I’ll need to look this up too!

A couple more things stick in my mind. Davies stated that child ghosts are very uncommon – definitely odd, as he said, given the high level of infant mortality. Was there not one famous child ghpost associated with Laud or somesuch? Once again I shall have to look it up – Ed Woods is the best person for this kind of work by far. What I definitely do not think is the case was Davies speculation that psychologically people were less effected by the death of children : this was largely demonstrated as untrue by the nnales historians, and while admittedly I have not read much in Family & Children’s history since I finished my history undergrad in 1990, it was idea that had fallen significantly out of favour at that time, based on documentary evidence as I recall.   So why no kids ghosts? I certainly find, with my modern sensibilities, the idea of child ghosts creepy, and they crop up repeatedly in the cases I am called upon to investigate — but thinking about it, I can’t think of any children ghosts in MR James and early 20th century ghost fiction; I guess Henry James Turn of the Screw may be the moment that childhood and ghosts meet with eerie force.  Also, the Medieval sources, such as the Bylands Abbey chronicles are as far as I recall devoid of child ghosts, as are the classical sources I know of. Immediately though a cause springs ot mind, and this is based upon something that Owen Davies mentioned in his talk – modern ghosts seem curiously purposeless, whereas the ghosts who haunted (often literally) the dreams of the classical and Early Christian ear were motivated by unfinished business – indeed this last right through Davies period to the dawn of modern era, with even 19th century ghosts depicted “pointing” at some wrongdoer, where there bones are hidden, where the will is concealed, etc, etc. And of course we have this in the annals of Psychical Research – 19th century cases like the Chaffin Will Case.  Are modern ghosts really purposeless? I guess one might argue that we are simply less interested in the teleology of the ghost – it is not the goal of the ghost that makes a modern mind wonder, but the fact that we are witnessing a ghost at all! If they exist that is…


So why no child ghosts? I suspect the answer is simple – because children do not have “unfinished business” to the minds of this era, but are seen as innocents. Without getting in to a lengthy discussion of pre-Reformation notions of Purgatory (roughly 1200 and onwards at a popular level in this country I think)  think a lot of ghosts are denizens of Purgatory, seeking redress for wrongs, or prayer for salvation and entry to Heaven.  I’m trying to recall how Thomas argues in Religion and the Decline of Magic how ghost beliefs are effected by the Reformation, but certainly the notion is not immediately dismissed by the triumph of Protestantism, for sixty years later William Shakespeare uses exactly this motif, albeit perhaps with tongue in cheek, in Hamlet. The ghost of hamlet’s Father is back seeking justice – a pointing ghost!

I’d best wrap this up or it will get very long, but the other thing Owen Davies mentioned that sticks in my mind is there are no or very few disabled ghosts. I think this has changed by the 19th century, with the madwoman in the attic, who is often a physical invalid in some sense, and grotesque hunchbacked villains – physical deformity as a way of expressing supposed inner vices or sin I guess — terribly unpleasant and harmful, but seemingly unknown in earlier ages. This is according to Davies because of the theological belief the dead take on board perfected bodies – based on the Pauline Epistles, in particular Corinthians I think –  but I’m not entirely convinced there were not some disabled ghosts in British folklore. In fact I seem to recall a few stories, though most are actually perhaps witch or devil stories – I’ll look in to it!

A fascinating talk, well illustrated, I think Professor Owen’s book will prove a very entertaining read and look forward to getting back in to it.

more follows


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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2 Responses to The Science of Ghosts: how it went, part 3

  1. Murray66 says:

    Some thoughts on the absence of child ghost sightings…

    Perhaps the lack of reports would have something to do with not discussing a sensitive subject of a lost child. It could also be the puritannical idea of “children should be seen and not heard” leading to not speaking of child ghosts.

    I think an absence of child ghost sightings could strengthen the idea of ghosts being real. Certainly their would be a plethora of stories if ghosts were manufactured through a mental process rather than being real. Perhaps they were not earthbound long enough to develop a desire to return. Perhaps they were not here long enough to be “recorded” by the Stone Tape.

  2. David says:

    I am often puzzled by child ghosts, as I wonder why God would allow children to become ‘earthbound’ spirits.
    Just a small point – M.R James’s story ‘Lost Hearts’ concerns the ghosts of two children, who are murdered as a sacrifice.


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