"And sometimes he's so nameless"

Why Do Ghosts Go “Woo”? Part One.

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Paranormal by Chris Jensen Romer on September 21, 2011

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…

Medieval Ghosts

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 :)

cj x




Debunking the Myth that Jesus Never Existed – the Historical Sources for Jesus, Part One

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Religion by Chris Jensen Romer on March 9, 2009

It seems bizarre to many that some people believe that Jesus never existed. Not Jesus the figure of faith, miracle working Son of God – nope – even a historical holy man Jesus, who inspired the stories in the bible. Many honestly believe it is all made up. They are almost certainly wrong, and this is probably down to peoples lack of understanding of how historians work. This is not a religious question, not one of faith, but one of history, and historians atheist, Jewish, Hindu or Christian can all agree on this.  Hey, let me start at the beginning…

Spending a lot of time as I do chatting on hard core sceptic and atheist forums (and yes I’m a sceptic myself, but a Christian as it happens) I was increasingly bewildered in the middle years of this decade to find a massive upswing in the belief that Jesus who inspired the Christian faith never existed, but was a mythical construct, or based on earlier pagan redeemer figures. This is a position taken seriously by no mainstream historian, and complete rot, but after the QI Christmas special in which the usual Mithras crap was spouted and Stephen Fry put attempts to put the record straight down to Christian propaganda I was outraged enough to become combative and actually engage the “Christ Mythers”, that is not Christians, but people who deny there was a Historical Jesus.

I was astonished by the vehemence, ignorance and appallingly bad scholarship which met my early attempts, though the JREF forum (James Randi Educational Foundation Forum) had long since been a place where this nonsense was attacked, as befits a sceptical community, and after  a couple of years anyone arguing it on Richard Dawkins forum is likely to get shot down – but the real change there came where Timothy O Neil an Australian atheist joined me and made a principled stand against this nonsense.

* Pliny the Younger, writing in Bithynia c.111AD Pliny is concerned about how to handle an outbreak of Christianity in his region. He writes to the Emperor Trajan, and the relevant part for our inquiry is

“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

This merely shows Christ was worshiped in Asia Minor, and a reference later in the letter says that some has apostatized up to twenty five years before, so the churches were established there by c.85AD, and probably before. I don’t think Paul ever got this far north.

You can read the whole letter (and Trajan’s response) here


and the excellent historical resource Peter Kirby’s Early Christian Writings website has a couple of links to articles on this letter.


Trajan’s response was

“You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”

It seems that Trajan was well aware of Christians, and that some persecution occurred presumably as a threat to the State through their “atheism” as it was usually termed. Beyond establishing that Christ was worshiped as God this comparatively early stage, it leads us no closer to the Historical Jesus, but it seemed as good a point as any to begin!

Let’s move on to Suetonius, 115CE

Early Christian Writings  ( http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/suetonius.html )  is excellent as usual here – so it seems pointless for me to rehash what is said already there.

Suetonius wrote in The Life of Claudius (25.4)

“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.”

He also notes the presence of Christians –

“Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition “

Now Claudius from 41 to 54CE, so is this Chrestus actually Christus, Christ? Did rows in the synagogue (and recall Christianity was still part of Judaism at this point) lead to the expulsion? It seems not unlikely, and agrees with the account in Acts. Traditionally dated to 49CE, this event is probably within twenty years of the crucifixion so very early – but its not certain. the instigation of Chrestus seems to imply someone alive, but if Suetonius who was writing some seventy years later was using a lost source, it would be an easy mistake to make. I think this probably does represent the earliest Christian missions to Rome – and yet again, it brings us no closer to the Historical Jesus…

Nero ruled from 54 to 68CE. As we shall see other references exist tot he Christian community in his reign in Rome.

Tacitus, Annals – c.115AD

Annals, 15:44

Such indeed were the precautions of human wisdom. The next thing was to seek means of propitiating the gods, and recourse was had to the Sibylline books, by the direction of which prayers were offered to Vulcanus, Ceres, and Proserpina. Juno, too, was entreated by the matrons, first, in the Capitol, then on the nearest part of the coast, whence water was procured to sprinkle the fane and image of the goddess. And there were sacred banquets and nightly vigils celebrated by married women. But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.  Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.”

It probably goes without saying that Early Christian Writings is the best place http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/tacitus.html to start your evaluation.

The possibility this is a Christian interpolation strikes me as highly unlikely – we have an independent reference to Neronic persecution in Suetonius (see above) and it is very unflattering.  However none of the Christian Church Fathers make mention of it  .  It strikes me as entirely probable.   Note Pilate is described as a Procurator, but in fact was a Proconsul, a simple enough error, Tacitus using a contemporary title resulting in this anachronism.

The absolutely central issue here is where Tacitus got his information from.  It may well have been a Roman source, as Christian sources are unlikely to express these kinds of feelings, and Tacitus appears to have despised Christians. One can’t help feel Tacitus had some early reference from which he worked for the Neronic persecution at least — the references to public sympathy brought about by the persecution have that feel.

A common claim I often see is that it is odd that none of the Church Fathers mention the Neronic persecution (they do) or Tacitus’ mention of it. I may as well address it briefly here before proceeding.

Eusebius cites the Church Father, Tertullian (155-230), Defence 5

“Study your records: there you will find that Nero was the first to persecute this teaching when, after subjugating the entire East, in Rome he especially he treated everyone with savagery. That such a man was author of our chastisement fills us with pride.  For anyone who knows him knows him can understand that anything not supremely good would never have been condemned by Nero.”

I think that Tertullian is here drawing directly on Tacitus, and his account (cited above) of the Neronic persecution.  I may be wrong, but “Study your records” implies that Tertullian was referring to a Roman authority, and Suetonius or Tacitus fit the bill, and Tacitus best.

Phlegon of Tralles, c130-160??? EDIT: or possibly much earlier, writing circa 80CE – see links for detailed discussion.

Jerome  wrote —
Jesus Christ, according to the prophecies which had been foretold about him beforehand, came to his passion in the eighteenth year of Tiberius, at which time also we find these things written verbatim in other commentaries of the gentiles, that an eclipse of the sun happened, Bithynia was shaken by earthquake, and in the city of Nicaea many buildings collapsed, all of which agree with what occurred in the passion of the savior. Indeed Phlegon, who is an excellent calculator of olympiads, also writes about these things, writing thus in his thirteenth book:

(Phlegon) – “In the fourth year, however, of olympiad 202,* an eclipse of the sun happened, greater and more excellent than any that had happened before it; at the sixth hour, day turned into dark night, so that the stars were seen in the sky, and an earthquake in Bithynia toppled many buildings of the city of Nicaea. These things [are according to] the aforementioned man.”

The events referred to are from 32CE, a possible date for the Crucifixion and darkening of the sky.  Yet in Jerome’s translation Jesus is never mentioned!  My suspicion is that he was referring to Jesus, and that Jerome was honest here, as that is his implication. However Phlegon was clearly extremely credulous and loved fortean phenomena – see his

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phlegon_of_Tralles – Wikipedia entry
, so I hesitate to put much emphasis on him.  Still he mentioned Jesus and prophecies fulfilled, and was a secular historian.  Good technical discussion complete with excellent links and analysis to be found on Textcavation —


This brings us to Thallus, writing somewhere between 50 and 150CE

The key passage here by being quoted by Julius Africanus  in alost work, but quoted by George Syncellus in a 9th century text! Does not inspire confidence does it, but very normal for recovering historical data

Here is the passage from Africanus —

“A most terrible darkness fell over all the world, the rocks were torn apart by an earthquake, and many places both in Judaea and the rest of the world were thrown down. In the third book of his Histories Thallus dismisses this darkness as a solar eclipse, unreasonably, as it seems to me. For the Hebrews celebrate the Passover on Luna 14, and what happened to the Saviour occurred one day before the Passover. But an eclipse of the sun takes place when the moon passes under the sun. The only time when this can happen is in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last day of the old moon, when they are in conjunction. How then could one believe an eclipse took place when the moon was almost in opposition to the sun? So be it. Let what had happened beguile the masses, and let this wonderful sign to the world be considered a solar eclipse through an optical [illusion]. Phlegon records that during the reign of Tiberius Caesar there was a complete solar eclipse at full moon from the sixth to the ninth hour; it is clear that this is the one. But what have eclipses to do with an earthquake, rocks breaking apart, resurrection of the dead, and a universal disturbance of this nature”

There are three good sources for study of this – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thallus_%28historian%29 Wikipedia is succinct and good , but also see


Textcavation and for all you atheists out there the generally very sound  Richard Carrier.


I don’t aim to make any real judgements myself at this point, just chronicle the key texts,  but I will end here for today. More tonight or tomorrow!

cj x


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