Believing in Ghosts

Review: Lisa Morton, ‘Ghosts: A Haunted History’

• January 23, 2016 5:00 am


The importance of life comes from the future, but the richness of life—that comes from the past. What we do at given moment matters, because in later years our children will inherit the results of our actions. But here in the present, the fullness of experience, the weight of our presence in the world, derives from the strength of our connections to things gone by. The more we feel the reality of the past, the thicker and more fulfilling is our sense of life.

Think of it in simple terms—in terms of money, for example: the heft given a person by investments of previously earned capital. Or think of it in terms of family tradition, the extension of identity through previous generations that drives hobbyists of genealogy. Culture, too: the additive power of the past, in Matthew Arnold’s famous old definition of culture as "the best which has been thought and said." Education, for that matter, proves a cumulative process, both for the individual and society.

But perhaps the clearest extension of the past into the present is the existence of ghosts. Or, at least, the curious fact that most of the world, through most of human history, has believed in ghosts. Phantoms, wraiths, and apparitions. Shades, spooks, and specters. If you ever need an example of a past that lingers into the present, ghosts are happy to fill the bill. And more than happy, as Lisa Morton points out in her book, Ghosts: A Haunted History. Ghosts are determined—hungry and anxious—to flit back into reality and remind us that the past is just as real as the present.

Psychological explanations are easy enough to cobble up. Perhaps ghosts are perceptual expressions of the numinous and the uncanny feelings that we have around corpses. (Jung was a believer in ghosts). Or perhaps they’re just hallucinations born from grief at the deaths of others and anxiety about our own deaths. (Freud was not.)

But such therapeutic explanations falter, a little, when we consider all the different species of spirits that Morton catalogues in her history of ghosts. The author of The Halloween Encyclopedia and Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, Morton is an armchair scholar of the supernatural—and winner multiple times of the Bram Stoker Award for her own horror fiction. Her impulse toward categorizing leads her toward the didactic in places in Ghosts: A Haunted History, even while her preference for examples from movies and television, rather than from literature, makes her text seem incomplete in other places. What can you say about a book that gives more space to a picture of Casper the Friendly Ghost than to Hamlet’s father?

Still, Casper isn’t to be ignored, for mention of a "friendly ghost" reminds us that, as Morton knows, ghosts weren’t perceived as especially friendly for most of their history. From the angry shades in Gilgamesh to the blood-starved remnants of life in the Odyssey, the ancient world typically understood ghosts as dangerous and destructive—spirits brought out of time in unnatural ways that threatened the sanity and the safety of the world. They weren’t handsome Patrick Swayzes wrapping their safe arms around beautiful Demi Moores. They were soul-devourers, breath-stealers, and jealous haters of life. Beside the banshees, in Ireland, howling of death, there run the Gabble Ratchets: the souls of unbaptized children, returned as ghostly dogs to hunt the living.

Taoist priests burn ghost money, so the souls can buy their way through the land of death and not plague the living. On the holiday of Oban, the Japanese light candles to help guide the lost spirits on their way out of the world and into the afterlife. The Chinese similarly feed the dead during the Hungry Ghost Festival, and Morton devotes several pages to the Dia de los Muertos in Mexico—in which sugary skulls are offered the dead to keep them from anger and vengeance.

Morton refuses to tip her hand and say whether or not she actually believes in ghosts. Probably she doesn’t, for she pays a little too-loving, too-lingering attention to famous debunkings, from Daniel Defoe’s eighteenth-century A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs. Veal, through to the nineteenth-century Fox sisters (who started, in upstate New York, the American rage for ghostly séances), and on to Harry Houdini’s gleeful showing-up of spiritualists in the twentieth century.

Still, she gives accounts of famous ghosts and famous hauntings, from the Tower of London to the LaLaurie mansion in New Orleans. She mentions La Llorona, Mexico’s enduring ghostess, and she dashes through such regional variations as the Bhuts of India and the Duppy-Ghosts of Jamaica—together with the pabid spirits of Brazil, the raising of the undead through voodoo, the dreaming among the living dead by aborigines of Australia, and the spirits of Africa.

And then she turns to fictional ghosts and the big business of modern horror, including ghost-hunters and the money paid by "ghost tourists" as they visit the homes of hauntings made famous by the movies. Ghosts: A Haunted History is a fun book to browse through in an evening. Yes, it’s a little too much of an assembled book, built from a stacking of its pieces, and it strives a little too hard toward being a small coffee-table book of illustrations. But the work is solid, written in a quick and accessible prose, and I can’t imagine many reasons a reader wouldn’t enjoy the book.

Except, perhaps, for the fact that it lacks a thesis. An explanation of why the dead return to us. A serious attempt at understanding that every age is visited by the spirits that it deserves.

Like the ghosts who come to Scrooge, our hauntings are tailored to our faults. In metaphysical ages—in what Max Weber would have called the enchanted gardens of pre-modern cultures—the world already seemed thick with spiritual meaning, and ghosts of the time were typically experienced as foul intrusions into the natural order. In ages of metaphysical thinness—the disenchanted cultures of modernity—our wish is for friendly ghosts, filled with wisdom and spiritual guidance. The existence of ghosts would be a kind of re-enchantment of the world, and we hunger for that old sense of an eerie, supernatural presence.

We hunger for richness, in other words: a past that extends into the present and widens our experience of reality. The future, barreling down on us, gives us a sense of urgency and significance, as we shape the world that we will leave behind for our children. But we are also the ghosts that will haunt those children, in memory and phantasm, just as we were haunted by those who came before us. These days and in days to come, why wouldn’t we want the existence of ghosts to be true?

Published under: Book reviews