Ghost 002

This photograph, taken in December 1891, is said to show the ghost of Sir Wellington Henry Stapleton Cotton, 2nd Viscount Combermere (1818-91), whose funeral was being held at the time.[1]

Ghosts are the reported apparitions of (usually deceased) people, often similar in appearance to them, and usually seen in places familiar to them, the place of their death, or in association with the person's belongings. The word ghost may also refer to the spirit or soul of a deceased person, or to any spirit or demon.[2][3][4] A place in which ghosts are claimed to appear is described as haunted. A related phenomenon is the poltergeist, literally a 'noisy spirit' that manifests itself by moving and influencing objects. [5] Phantom armies, animals, ships and other vehicles have also been reported.[6][7] Although the evidence for ghosts is largely anecdotal, the belief in ghosts throughout history has remained widespread and persistent.

Parapsychologists have made studies of ghosts and hauntings, and have attempted precise definitions of the word. Summoning or exorcising the shades of the departed is an item of belief and religious practice for spiritualists and practitioners of the occult, and exorcism is performed in Christianity. No single explanation for ghosts has gained universal acceptance.[8]

Historical backgroundEdit

The belief in ghosts as souls of the departed may be closely related to the ancient concept of animism, which attributed souls to everything in nature, including human beings, animals, plants, rocks, etc.[9] Nineteenth-century anthropologist James Frazer stated in his classic work, The Golden Bough, that souls were seen as the creature within that animated the body. Sleep and uncosciousness were the temporary absence of the soul, and death its permanent absence.[10] It was widely held that the soul was an exact reproduction of the body in every feature, even down to clothing the person wore. This is shown in art from various ancient cultures, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which shows the deceased in the afterlife appearing much as they did before death, including their clothes.

Another widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they were composed of some "subtle" substance, possibly inspired by breath; this belief may have also fostered the metaphorical meaning of "breath" in certain languages, such as the Latin spiritus and the Greek pneuma, which by analogy became extended to mean the soul.

In many cultures malignant, restless, ghosts are distinguished from the more benign spirits which are the subject of Ancestor worship.[11]

In many traditional accounts, ghosts were often thought to be deceased people looking for vengeance, or imprisoned on earth for bad things they did during life. The appearance of a ghost has often been regarded as an omen or portent of death. Seeing one's own ghostly double or "fetch" is a related omen of death.[12]

Ancient ideasEdit

Ghost stories date back to ancient times, and can be found in many different cultures. The Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu (470-391 BC) accepted their existence, arguing that the eyewitness evidence compelled him to do so.[13]

Many other Eastern religious traditions also subscribe to the concept of ghosts. The Hindu Garuda Purana has detailed information about ghosts.[14]

The Bible mentions ghosts a few times, associating them with forbidden occult activities (Deuteronomy 18:11). The most notable reference is King Saul's consultation with the ghost of his predecessor Samuel. (I Samuel 28:7-19). In the New Testament, Jesus has to persuade the Disciples that he is not a ghost following the resurrection (Matthew 24).

The Sumerians were another culture with ghosts lore,[15] and many buddhist countries hold festivals to placate "hungry ghosts[16]; the Classical world also had its ghost stories, of which the tale of Athenodoros Cananites, who rented a haunted room to investigate it, is an early example of ghost-hunting.[17]

Historical European ideasEdit

From the medieval period an apparition of a ghost is recorded from 1211, at the time of the Albigensian Crusade.[18] Gervase of Tilbury, Marshal of Arles, wrote that the image of Guilhem, a boy recently murdered in the forest, appeared in his cousin's home in Beaucaire, near Avignon, France. This series of "visits" lasted all of the summer. Through his cousin, who spoke for him, the boy allegedly held conversations with anyone who wished, until the local priest requested to speak to the boy directly, leading to an extended disquisition on theology. The boy narrated the trauma of death and the unhappiness of his fellow souls in Purgatory, and reported that God was most pleased with the ongoing Crusade against the Cathar heretics, launched three years earlier. The time of the Albigensian Crusade in southern France was marked by intense and prolonged warfare, this constant bloodshed and dislocation of populations being the context for these reported visits by the murdered boy.

Many other stories from the Middle Ages and the Romantic era rely on the macabre and the fantastic, and ghosts are a major theme in literature from those eras. The ballad Sweet William's Ghost recounts the story of a ghost returning to beg a woman to free him from his promise to marry her, as he obviously cannot being dead; her refusal would mean his damnation. This reflects a popular British belief that the dead would haunt their lovers if they took up with a new love without some formal release.[19] The Unquiet Grave expresses a belief even more widespread, found in various locations over Europe: ghosts can stem from the excessive grief of the living, whose mourning interferes with the dead's peaceful rest.[20] In many folktales from around the world, the hero arranges for the burial of a dead man. Soon after, he gains a companion who aids him and, in the end, the hero's companion reveals that he is in fact the dead man.[21]

In SpiritualismEdit

In 1848 the Fox sisters of Hydesfield in New York State claimed to have communication with the disembodied spirits of the dead and launched the Spiritualism movement, which claimed many adherents in the nineteenth century.[22] The claims of spiritualists and others as to the reality of ghosts were investigated by the Society for Psychical Research, founded in London in 1882. The Society set up a Committee on Haunted Houses and a Literary Committee which looked at the literature on the subject.[23] Apparitions of the recently deceased, at the moment of their death, to their friends and relations, were very commonly reported.[24][25] One celebrated example was the strange appearance of Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon, walking through the drawing room of his family home in Eaton Square, London, looking straight ahead, without exchanging a word to anyone, in front of several guests at a party being given by his wife on 22 June 1893 whilst he was supposed to be in a ship of the Mediterranean Squadron, manoeuvering off the coast of Syria. Subsequently it was reported that he had gone down with his ship, the HMS Victoria, that same night, after it had collided with the HMS Camperdown following an unexplained and bizarre order to turn the ship in the direction of the other vessel.[26] Such crisis apparitions have received serious study by parapsychologists with various explanations given to account for them, including telepathy, as well as the traditional view that they represent disembodied spirits.[27][28]

Other theoriesEdit

One theory to explain ghosts was popularised by the author Tom Lethbridge, who believed that ghosts may be "recordings" of events onto their surroundings. Strong emotion my provide the energy to bring about this process, he surmised.[29]

Skeptical analysisEdit

Doubting the existence of ghosts goes back to antiquity, with Roman satirist Lucian of Samosata's The Doubter (c.150CE) an early example.[30]

Modern critics of "eyewitness ghost sightings" suggest that limitations of human perception and ordinary physical explanations can account for such sightings; for example, air pressure changes in a home causing doors to slam, or lights from a passing car reflected through a window at night.[31] The tendency to find patterns in random perceptions, is what some skeptics believe causes people to believe that they have seen ghosts.[32] Reports of ghosts "seen out of the corner of the eye" may be accounted for by the sensitivity of human peripheral vision, according to skeptical investigator Joe Nickell.[33]

Nickell also holds that belief that a location is haunted may cause someone to interpret mundane events as confirmations of a haunting.

Infrasound is thought to be another cause of supposed sightings. Frequencies lower than 20 hertz are normally inaudible, but scientists Richard Lord and Richard Wiseman have concluded that infrasound can cause humans to experience bizarre feelings in a room, such as anxiety, extreme sorrow or even the chills.[34]

Carbon monoxide poisoning, which can cause changes in perception of the visual and auditory systems,[35] was recognized as a possible explanation for haunted houses as early as 1921.

Another potential explanation of apparitions is that they are hypnagogic hallucinations.

The traditional perception of ghosts wearing clothing is considered illogical by some researchers, given the supposed spiritual nature of ghosts, suggesting either that the basis of what a ghost is said to look like is dependent on preconceptions made by society,[36] [37] or that ghosts are not spirits of the dead. Unclothed ghosts have, however, been reported. For instance in The World's Strangest Ghost Stories (1958) R. Thurston Hopkins gives a chilling account of the "Naked Ghost of Rattlesden" (Suffolk).[38]

Some researchers, such as Professor Michael Persinger of Laurentian University, Canada, have speculated that changes in geomagnetic fields (created, e.g., by tectonic stresses in the Earth's crust or solar activity) could stimulate the brain's temporal lobes and produce many of the experiences associated with hauntings. This theory is controversial; it has attracted a large amount of debate and disagreement.[39]

None of these explanations seem able to explain multiple, independent sightings describing the same ghost, nor do they explain such physical evidence as photographs.

External linksEdit

See alsoEdit

Notes and referencesEdit

  1. in Rickard, B and Kelly, R. Photographs of the Unknown (New English Library 1980) ISBN 0-450-04991-4 and Thornber, C. The Cottons of Combermere Abbey (retrieved 5 January 2009)
  2. Merriam Webster dictionary, retrieved January 1 2009 "a disembodied soul"
  3. [ Parapsychological Association, glossary of key words frequently used in parapsychology, Retrieved January 1 2009
  4. [ Retrieved January 1 2009 "The spirit of a dead person, especially one believed to appear in bodily likeness to living persons or to haunt former habitats."
  5. Daniel Cohen (1994) Encyclopedia of Ghosts. London, Michael O' Mara Books: 137-56
  6. Christina Hole (1950) Haunted England. London, Batsford: 150-163
  7. Daniel Cohen (1994) Encyclopedia of Ghosts. London, Michael O' Mara Books: 8
  8. Daniel Cohen (1994) Encyclopedia of Ghosts. London, Michael O' Mara Books
  9. "Some people believe the ghost or spirit never leaves Earth until there is no-one left to remember the one who died." Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology edited by J. Gordon Melton Gale Research, ISBN 0-8103-5487-X
  10. The Golden Bough, Project Gutenberg, accessed January 16, 2007
  11. Richard Cavendish (1994) The World of Ghosts and the Supernatural. Waymark Publications, Basingstoke: 5
  12. Christina Hole (1950) Haunted England: 13-27
  13. The Ethical and Political Works of Motse [Mo-tzu] Book VIII, Chapter XXXI "On Ghosts (III) Electronic republication of the translation by W. P. Mei (London: Probsthain, 1929) Retrieved January 11 2009
  14. Vedic cosmology, accessed February 27, 2007
  15. Gidim at Monstropedia (retrieved 11 January 2009)
  16. Hungry Ghost Festivals(retrieved 11 January 2009)
  17. "Classical ghost stories" (retrieved 1 January 2009)
  18. Mark Gregory Pegg (2008) A Most Holy War. Oxford University Press, New York: 3-5, 116-117. ISBN 978-0-19-517131-0
  19. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 227, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  20. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 234, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  21. Grateful dead (retrieved January 1 2009)
  22. John Fairley and Simon Welfare (1985) Arthur C Clarke's World of Strange Powers: 251
  23. John Fairley and Simon Welfare (1985) Arthur C Clarke's World of Strange Powers: 251
  24. John Fairley and Simon Welfare (1985) Arthur C Clarke's World of Strange Powers: 132-5
  25. Christina Hole (1950) Haunted England: 13-27
  26. Christina Hole (1950) Haunted England: 21-22
  27. Richard Cavendish (1994) The World of Ghosts and the Supernatural. Waymark Publications, Basingstoke: 35
  28. Fontana, David (2005). Is There an Afterlife: A Comprehensive Review of the Evidence. Hants, UK: O Books. ISBN 1903816904.
  29. in Ghost and Divining Rod (retrieved 8 January 2009)
  30. "The Doubter" by Lucian in Roger Lancelyn Green (1970) Thirteen Uncanny Tales. London, Dent: 14-21
  31. [ "The Visit"(retrieved 1 January 2009)
  32. [ "pareidolia" at (retrieved 1 January 2009)
  33. "peripheral vision is very sensitive and can easily mislead, especially late at night, when the brain is tired and more likely to misinterpret sights and sounds." "pareidolia" at (retrieved 1 January 2009)
  34. "Sounds like terror in the air" (retrieved 1 January 2009)
  35. Carbon monoxide poisoning: systemic manifestations and complications (retrieved 1 January 2009)
  36. "While I am prepared in principle to concede the possible existence of an astral body, I cannot bring myself to believe in astral shoes and shirts and hats," as Lyall Watson remarked. (Watson, L. Supernature. (Coronet, 1974 ISBN 0 340 18834 0), pp.306-7
  37. "Headless Ghosts I Have Known" (retrieved 1 January 2009)
  38. R. Thurston Hopkins (1958) The World's Strangest Ghost Stories. Kingswood, World's Work: 173-83
  39. Hauntings: Introduction (retrieved 1 January 2009)

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