The excellent Hayley Stevens asked the following questions on Facebook, many of which are commonly asked, some of them less so, but all deserve detailed consideration. While I only have a few minutes free, I thought I’d make a quick response tonight with a few first thoughts…
Why are ghosts not naked? How do their clothes become ghosts? Why are there never ghosts under water? Where are the dinosaur ghosts? Why do ghosts from hundreds of years ago know how to speak and spell in our modern language? What is a ghost?
So let’s take them one at a time, even though we would perhaps be better off answering in reverse order, starting with “what is a ghost?”…
Question 1 – Why are ghosts not naked?
Some are. Naked apparitions make up a tiny percentage as i recall in the case studies, but examples DO exist — I believe Hilary Evans gives a few examples in his book Seeing Ghosts (2002) which I highly recommend as the best modern book on theory of apparitions, even if I disagree with some of the assumptions he carries over from Tyrell’s classic book Apparitions (1953) (and even further back, from the Report on the Census of Hallucinations (SPR, 1894). Becky Smith drew these assumptions to my attention – I won’t write on them just yet as they are examined in depth in her unpublished and ongoing PhD research on apparitional experience.
The question really has an assumption built in — that assumption being that ghosts are the spirits of the dead, who might be reasonably be assumed to dispense with clothing in the hereafter. If ghosts are the spirits of the dead the question becomes more pressing – but one rather assumes the dead can dress how they please, becomes purchasing latest spooky fashions from a ghostly department store in the world to come! I seem to recall spiritualists and those who tend to the surviving spirit hypothesis generally say the clothes are ideoplastic or somesuch – that is the spirit takes the form of the self image of the spirit. If so perhaps ghosts are rare from before the availability of high quality mirrors, which I see to recall is mid-13th century onwards in Western Europe? 🙂
I have never been troubled by ghosts wearing clothing, even if they are objective entities, perhaps because GNM Tyrell spent some time on the issue. He used it as part of his argument that ghosts represent as much a production of the percipient (the person seeing the ghost) as the appearant themselves. In fact almost all the early SPR theorists seem to favour a telepathic theory of ghosts: the ghost is created by the person seeing the ghosts mind (a hallucination, if you will). I agree from my study of apparitions that ghosts are in many instances it would seem hallucinatory; my own experience in “seeing a ghost” (previously discussed on this blog) collectively suggested strongly to me that we all did NOT see exactly the same thing.
In fact the process of perception is philosophically and neurologically far more complex than most people seem to realise: we tend to regard ourselves as if our eyes were just windows in our heads that let us see an uncomplicated external objective reality in which we all share. Reading anything on the process of visual perception and any number of psychological studies will show just how unsound this assumption is; terms like sense datum, qualia, percept and so forth can be ignored here think, as most of us are aware just how much what we think we “see” is conditioned by expectation, etc, etc.
So in a sense all sight experience is mediated: we create as well as perceive. Hallucinations, where there is no external stimuli for the vision is an extreme example – we also have illusions, where we misperceive things that are there as something else, but even in our normal visual perception the brain acts as a producer/director, and if we focus are attention on a picture we soon perceive far more about the colours, details, or anything else it occurs to us to query that we did when we first apparently unproblematically “saw” it.
So Tyrell, and before him Gurney and others, thought that seeing a ghost was a hallucinatory experince; like a dream, we create the ghost internally. For reasons too dull to discuss here (you can read them on my blog here I think) they decided that some ghost experiences were not just subjective hallucinations – they called them veridical hallucinations. Tyrell’s explanation is elegant – a ghost is an ESP piece of information: the percipient (person witnessing ye olde spook) creates the “windowdressing” of the experience. So in the Thetford Priory experience I thought I saw a ghost coming down a staircase – but assuming the spook really was the murdered Prior, then perhaps I received a telepathic impulse from him, and then my mind fille in the stairs to account for how the figure (which I at that time took to be real person) was descending through empty space. I am not in fact in agreement with Tyrell’s idea, but it has a definite appeal in making sense of the ghost experience. (Gurney I think actually looked at it the other way round, seeing the telepathic impulse as originating with the percipient, scanning the environment for sensory data, in at east some cases, but that can wait for another time.)
So we would not expect ghosts to be naked according to most theorists of apparitions: even if you reject the case for veridical apparitions and assume they are all plain old normal hallucinations, we do not expect to see naked people, so why hallucinate them?!?
Looking at the question from a different angle, as a folkloric narrative, we have another reason for ghosts to appear clothed. Very often in ghost narratives the ghost does not appear covered in blood, headless or even transparent or clanking chains. The clothing identifies the spook as unusual, as an entity from another age (or a Reenactment Event…) It’s not strictly necessary though – some beasties do prove their spookiness by just vanishing or whatever.
Anyway in response to Hayley’s question number one – some spooks are naked, and there is no reason for them to be so, the question seemingly arising from the equation of ghost = “soul” or similar.
Question 2 – How do their clothes become ghosts?
This is really just an extension of question 1: the answer is they don’t, the ghosts clothes are as much part of the ghost as the ghosts eyes, just as a tv picture of Tommy Cooper includes his fez and Tommy, but both are of the same substance. I am here reminded of recording theories of apparitions; the idea they are the past replaying themselves, but while all opinion is for it, all evidence is against it in my view, so I’ll ignore it for now. But ghost, clothes, the horse she rides upon – all same stuff. Can you imagine an apparition removing his hat, and placing it on a table. Interesting that – there must be cases where this sort of thing happens, but I can’t think of any in the case files. anyone Tom Ruffles or Ed Woods will doubtless think of an apparition that “divides” itself in some manner, but I can’t.
Question 3 – Why are there never ghosts underwater?
Simple answer here – there are, there are just less people underwater to observe them. Scuba divers do report apparitions of drowned scuba divers, at least I think can recall a case — anyone help, part of the folklore of this occasionally dangerous pastime perhaps. Divers off Dunwich have reported weird experiences for certain. Also remember Billy Bragg singing of “nuclear submarines off the coast of Sweden?” These phantom subs were probably NATO or Soviet vessels, but there are plenty of submarine UFO accounts, of flying saucers rising from or vanishing in to the se, and as Andrew Oakley sagely remarks a ghost is an unexplained sighting 15 degrees or less above the horizon, otherwise it is called a UFO! Charles Fort said “one measures a circle beginning anywhere” and so submarine or flying weirdness is just as much part of the weird experiential world of apparitions as anything else, unless they can be shown to be physical nuts and bolts machines – in which case we have more than enough to worry about what with aliens abducting backwoods farmers etc 🙂 Generally though we dont go underwater much to see ghosts?
Question 4 -Where are the dinosaur ghosts?
In Loch Ness, Lake Champlain, etc, etc? Baffling cryptozoologists? OK, if you won’t take that as an answer, you can invoke Andrew Green’s half life theory of ghosts where they decline over time. Or you can notice that while ghosts of domestic animals are very common, phantom cats and dogs most of all, our abbatoirs seem curiously lacking in ghostly cows and sheep, which is rather a pity, and baffling for those who link ghosts with violent death. Either the eating for the remnants of a beast prevent it returning (and slightly less silly than it sounds – there is a long association between ghosts and human remains after all – but more on that another time) or there s something about human consciousness that allows beasties associated with us to be perceived or be seen, perhaps something to do with mourning, or our rather unique status in the animal world. Dunno. I’d like to see a few ghostly dinosaurs strolling through Cheltenham town centre. (Oh, and i have seen reports of dinosaur ghosts, a lady reported some last year on the JREF – and was met with derision, as I recall)
Question 5 – Why do ghosts from hundreds of years ago know how to speak and spell in our modern language?
Do they? Most apparitions do not speak much as I recall – I need some cases to look at here. When they do they seem to be talking to people they knew in life. I can think of the Robert Webbe case where a ghost supposedly communicated through a computer if I remember correctly, or the Matthew Manning case – was that Webbe? Anyway at least two cases where the ghost spoke in Elizabethan or Stuart English. But certainly worth looking at closely. If Tyrell is correct, because the percipient renders the telepathic transmission understandable – but telepathy has plenty of problems of its own, so I’m not going there tonight.
Question 6 – What is a Ghost?
At some level probably a hallucination: there almost every ghost theorist seems to agree, even if we have to talk about collective and veridical hallucinations. However I am not sure I buy this, because there is certainly a huge body of neglected evidence for what appears to be physical interaction with these entities, one that has been ruled out of court since 1894, unless one calls them a poltergeist in which case its suddenly whatever passes for respectable in parapsychological circles – but here am wandering in to Becky’s work, so I will shut up, and just say Tyrells “faggot theory” does not see to hold as far as she can see, something I had independently concluded. I noted the clothing issue question seems to imply a ghost -= “dead guy/dead gal” way of looking at things; but the fact that 50% of the ghosts where the apparition was identified by the percipient in the Census of Hallucinations being of people alive and well (ie. NOT “crisis apparitions”), the well known Phantasms of the Living recorded in the book of that name, and reports of the spectres f double decker buses etc, etc seem to suggest that is not the whole answer at least.
I guess my default is a ghost is any experience that someone calls a “ghost”; note I place the emphasis on the experience, and the report of that experience, not the supposed originating entity, the spook itself. I don’t know how to study those, never having bought one in a bottle off Ebay!
Anyway it’s late, I need my bed, and I have gone on enough and everyone has grown bored and stopped reading. Still I hope at leat a few readers are interested and well read enough in the subject to notice my sly tribute to apparitional researcher Hornell Hart in the title of this piece.