Why Do Ghosts Go “Woo”? Part One.
OK, a light-hearted one this lunchtime. “why do ghosts go woo?” is an excellent question that was asked on Twitter by Ian Rennie to Hayley Stevens, and she, Kimberley Kendall and I discussed it for a while. I always joke that in Denmark ghosts go “WØØ! WØØ!” (they don’t), but it does lead to the question of what noise the ghosts of other cultures and languages make. When Hayley referred the question to me I thought the answer would be easy to find; after all, I have plenty of books on the cultural history of ghosts, Actually it wasn’t, and i can’t find much evidence they do go “woo!” even in my children’s books, but I certainly had that impression. I think actually the real answer if this is a modern sound that beasties are meant to make is it may derive from the use of the theramin for making spooky sound effects for films and TV: but I could well be wrong. Steve Parsons of Para.Science responded to my Twitter query with a suggestion of early talkies (sound films) with white sheeted ghosts going “woooooo!” so perhaps some people can have a quick look? The Laurel and Hardy Society produced this, but the music stops us telling what the original sound if any was…
While trying to look it up I also found the etymology of “woo” as in the modern sceptical usage of a “woo” as a “gullible believer” discussed: the phrase was of course originally “woo-woo” and some have traced it back as far as the end of the 1960’s employed in this sense. I think we might be able to work out one possible source for it through that…
I think that may answer that, though I can’t of course be sure? :)
OK, so what noises do ghosts make? Well first we have to decide what is actually a ghost in our modern sense. What is often cited as the first modern ghost story. Pliny gives in his Letter to Sura: LXXIII) the following account —
Now the following story, which I am going to tell you just as I heard it, is it not more terrible than the former, while quite as wonderful? There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled, hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued. Even in the daytime, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm. Consequently the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost.
However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold. It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, enquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention. The first part of the night passed in entire silence, as usual; at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard: however, he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but, in order to keep calm and collected, tried to pass the sounds off to himself as something else. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up, saw, and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger, like a person who calls another. Athenodorus in reply made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and threw his eyes again upon his papers; the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher, who looked up upon this, and seeing it beckoning as before, immediately arose, and, light in hand, followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him.
The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; for the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones, being collected together, were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.
Pliny gives some other (less often cited) ghost stories including one of his own, but here we have the prototype of many modern haunt stories. The philosopher in question, Athenodorus Cananites, lived from 74BCE-7CE, and so this is a ghost story from roughly the time of Christ. The ghost acts in archetypal form, rattling its chains, clanking and making a racket. And here we see why Victorian ghosts, and indeed many ghost in our Classically educated nation used to rattle chains! :) Actually the loud noise is similar to some cases of “phantom housebreakers” which I describe on my Polterwotsit blog; for here let us simply note the ghost is associated with human remains, and appears at night in human form, wanting repose and scaring folks. All pretty central to the ghost story?
Now of course there are much older stories of ghost and spirits, from Sumer, Babylon, the witch of Endor in the Bible raising the spirit of Saul, from Ancient India, China, I could go on for ages. I won’t though, because this is perhaps the ghost story that had the biggest impact on British culture. It’s maybe hard for people to get now, but in ye olden times (well Early Modern Britain) everyone educated gent learned Latin and Greek, from Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Plutarch etc. Right the way through from Shakespeare to the Victorians, we were a culture that was literate in both the Bible, and the Classic, and so tales of Greece and Rome were hugely influential. Pliny was someone cited as freely at Oxbridge in the 18th century as Shakespeare, Joyce or Ezra Pound are today, or if you prefer, as Dawklins, Ince, Cox and Wiseman are today!:)
So Victorian ghosts clanked and rattled chains? No, only in fiction and popular cultural representations. What “real” Victorian ghosts sounded like i will return to later, but for the moment let’s go back to the middle ages…
We have a number of sources for medieval ghosts. The miracula and mirabalia are books of miracles and wonders that were kept for the edification of tourists, sorry pilgrims, in many medieval abbeys. Ghosts sometimes crop up — and some are deeply, deeply, weird,more similar to what we today classify as “high strangeness” UFO accounts than apparitional reports. Ghosts change shape, being tortured souls seeking rest and entry to heaven – we encounter things such as a sinful knight who haunts in the form of a drinking horn, and souls trapped in the form of hats that fly around emitting sparks! For all the high strangeness cases, there are also a lot of fairly normal sounding apparition cases: and they do seem to groan, cry, or wail. Now Steve Parsons also mention the fact “woo!” sounds like the cry of an owl, and that immediately reminded me of Shakespeare, and from hence i recalled the imagery of Isaiah 34:13-15, here given in the King James version —
And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls. The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest. There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate.
This imagery of a desolate ruin, a potentially haunted place is certainly evocative, and would have shaped popular consciousness every bit as much as Pliny I guess. I may be unusual in that I know the KJV but even a century ago I think most people would know those words… (Incidentally there are much more accurate versions of the Bible around today, so don’t get too excited about the dragons!).
Anyway I can’t actually find a reference to a medieval spirit hooting like an owl: I read through the whole of andrew Joyce’s excellent book on Medieval Ghosts this morning, and had a quick flick through Jean Claude Schmitt’s (1998) Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, and found nothing useful here. Still I recall many passages about screech owls in classical texts on Necromancy, and while I do not have my coipy of Daniel Ogden’s Greek and Roman Necromancy to hand, I certainly can look it up later.
What is clear is that medieval ghosts speak: indeed there primary purpose often seems to be to dissuade a sinner from their wicked ways, lest they end up suffering the same miserable fate as the ghost! Sometimes they need to put matters right or seek revenge, like the woman who had cheated her husband and son out of her will, giving everything to her brother, or the case of the man who fell through the roof and died while trying to ctach his wife committing adultery, then returns to haunt her! Medieval ghosts are actually very vocal…
The Living Dead
As a bit of a digression to out main theme, 12th century England was a bit hammer House of Horror. Specialists often differentiate between the apparition and the revenant, with the latter being an animated corpse — a descendant of the draugr of Norse mythology, the dead who rise from their graves and seek to terrify and destroy the living. These are the British ancestors of the Vampires and Zombies of today, but they are far more horrific than Edward Cullen – in fact they are far more horrific than even Jedward Cullen would be! (You will have to be UK based to get that joke I’m afraid…)
The Medieval Chroniclers tell us quite a bit about these beasties, and my favourite tales come from William of Newburgh. He dedicates three chapters of the fifth book of his Chronicle to the theme, and I think his words are still spine chilling even today…
It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony. It would be strange if such things should have happened formerly, since we can find no evidence of them in the works of ancient authors, whose vast labor it was to commit to writing every occurrence worthy of memory; for if they never neglected to register even events of moderate interest, how could they have suppressed a fact at once so amazing and horrible, supposing it to have happened in their day? Moreover, were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome; so I will fain add two more only (and these of recent occurrence) to those I have already narrated, and insert them in our history, as occasion offers, as a warning to posterity.
If you are interested in the whole story, read chapters 22-25 here.
Now you may very well be thinking at this point “pah! old hat! I knew all this…” I shall therefore proceed in part 2, assuming I ever find the time to write it, to look at what noises Victorian and Modern Ghosts make according to the findings of psychical research – but for now I shall leave you with an anecdote. I have above offered what I hope is a sensible explanation as to why Victorian Ghosts clank chains – but many years ago my friend David Curtin suggested that gurgling, groaning and the clanking of chains in ghosts might coincide with the development of the indoor toilet – rather than tell visitors Aunt Fanny was locked in the lave with a very dodgy tummy, the ghost was blamed for the noises! :)
And just in case you all think I have finally taken leave of my senses in dedicating my leisure time to the pressing societal issue of “why do ghost go woo?”, a) will it really be any more irrelevant than anything happening at a political conference this week, and b) I’m not the first – Ian Topham has a thread on the topic on the Mysterious Britain forum!
I’ll be back with a part two at some point :)