Halloween is pretty much upon us: scary films, crazy costumes and spooky stories. What’s scarier, a vampire or a zombie? Will you dress up as a witch or a werewolf? In this series, Muriel Bailly profiles a famous Halloween monster every day this week to manifest the myths beneath the masks and make-up.
- Distinctive signs: Can appear translucent, bumpy sounds, objects moving “by themselves”
- Likely to say: “Boo”
- Good points: Can pass through walls, can’t be killed (as dead already)
- Bad points: Can’t be seen, can’t pick things up, dead
- Heroes: Casper, Slimer (Ghostbusters), Sam Wheat (Ghost), Annie Sawyer (Being Human),
- Villains: The Woman in Black, Poltergeist, Beeteljuice, Freddy Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Steet), Thirteen Ghosts, Sadako Yamamura (Ring)
Ghosts are considered to be the soul or spirit of the deceased and can, just like the living, be good and/or bad. In Christianity, the Spirit with a capital S refers to the Holy Spirit and, therefore, God.
The idea of spirits surrounding us is very popular in civilisations that observe veneration of the dead rituals, linked to the belief that the deceased continue to have an afterlife and that they can interact with and influence the lives of the living.
Into the afterlife
For instance, one of the most well-known pieces of literature from Ancient Egypt is The Book of the Dead: a funerary text inscribed in the tomb of the departed and presents all the spells needed to assist the deceased in their journey to the afterlife.
In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is one of the most important annual celebrations dedicated to honouring and remembering passed friends and family members. The rituals have their origin in pre-Columbian culture and they take place over three days, from 31 October until 2 November: on the 31st, children’s spirits are celebrated; on the 1st of November, adult spirits; and finally the 2nd of November is All Soul’s Day when families go to cemeteries to decorate the graves of their relatives.
In both examples, the living observe specific rituals to ensure their ancestors complete their journey in the afterlife and that the balance between the two worlds is maintained. Spirits are not to be feared as long as they can complete their journey beyond death. It is another matter entirely when they stay behind…
Pliny the Younger reported ghosts stories, as did many of his contemporaries. For example, Pliny wrote about a haunted house in Athens. To begin with, people could hear the sound of weapons and chains. Subsequently, the inhabitants started reporting the apparition of a filthy, emaciated man wearing chains on his hands and feet. The house was eventually bought by a philosopher, Athenodorus, who had been made aware of the situation but did not consider it to be a deal breaker. On his first evening in the house, Athenodorus saw the ghost and calmly followed him to an outside space that the ghost was indicating. The next day, Athenodorus started digging in the area indicated by the ghost and found the enchained bones of a man. After organising a proper burial for the deceased the ghost was never to be seen again.
This story illustrates a common belief that spirits who stay behind have an agenda. The ultimate goal may be to reach the afterlife, as in Egyptian and Mexican beliefs, but some may have unfinished business. In Christianity this idea is encompassed by purgatory. In order to eventually reach heaven, the souls have to stay behind and expiate their sins in purgatory.
During the Renaissance, a strong interest for the occult (“knowledge of the hidden”) and necromancy (communicating with the deceased) developed, influencing the arts and giving birth to one of the most famous ghosts of English literature: the ghost of Hamlet’s father in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
Whereon do you look?
On him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable.
(to GHOST) Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects. Then what I have to do
Will want true color—tears perchance for blood.
To whom do you speak this?
Do you see nothing there?
Nothing at all, yet all that is I see.
Horace Walpole was greatly influenced by Shakespeare’s play for his own novel, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. The story features fate, enigmatic deaths and animated portraits. This novel is often considered as the first of the Gothic horror genre which made great use of monsters (see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), ghosts (see The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) and other supernatural entities (see Bram Stokers’ Dracula). Gothic literature reinforced the notion of ghosts as spooky, revengeful spirits trapped on earth because of an injustice done to them during their lifetime which seems to persist today.
Ghosts, unlike werewolves or vampires, still seem to be less often dismissed by people as mere myths or legends. Many have heard a strange noise when they’re alone in the house or have (usually indirectly) witnessed inanimate objects behaving strangely. Perhaps it’s the comforting idea that loved ones are still with you or the very fact that, with ghosts, “not seeing” can still mean believing. Maybe our imaginations are just as active as they ever were.
The 20th century saw its fair share of ghost stories adapted or written for the big screen, which is still going strong today: from the “bump in the night” spooky B movie tales to more gory depictions in the ’80s, the wave of Japanese ghost horror stories and their Western remakes and, most recently, the found footage or home video style horrors.
Taking advantage of the broad parameters that make up the genre, films have been able to present ghosts in many different ways, from physical manifestations chasing promiscuous teens to invisible malevolent forces wreaking havoc on family homes, from benevolent individuals with unfinished business to entire armies of spirits.
Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.
Read the rest of the series as they become available.