The Forgotten Ghosts

Owen Davies. The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Ghosts have haunted our imagination from time immemorial, and here social historian Owen Davies tracks them through the early modern period, from the Reformation to modern times. Eschewing the usual chronological arrangement he tracks down the various manifestations ascribed to ghosts, the varying traditions of belief and disbelief, and the role of ghosts in popular entertainment and culture.

What emerges from his treatment is a greater sense of unity across the generations, it is perhaps in the rhetoric of the learned that the ghost has changed the most, the elite concentrating initially on ghosts which gave the right theological message, and later on the approved SPR type of apparition which like children and servants was to be seen and not heard. Owen deliberately sets out not to retell the stories of the upper-middle-class as recounted by the SPR or ghost collectors like Charles Harper and Lord Halifax, and rather tells the stories of the peoples’ ghosts as recounted in broadsides and newspapers, along with regional folklore studies. These were the classic ghosts which once haunted liminal places in the countryside, with vague and indeterminate apparitions, or rattled the pots and pans in old houses.

These became successfully urbanised, and became attached to places like deserted houses. Twenty-first century readers brought up with an idea of Victorian propriety may be astounded to learn how much ghost hunting was once a popular activity, with gangs of youths assembling outside ‘haunted houses’ calling on the ghost to appear. Teenagers were always teenagers and there are several stories of young girls faking poltergeist effects to get back at parents who wouldn’t let them go out on the town with ‘rough company’. Unlike other supernatural beliefs, such as those in witchcraft, fairies or the devil, the numbers of people saying they believe in ghosts has steadily grown since the war, from about 10% in 1950 to close to 30% today. Owen sees one possible explanation for this in the decline in the power of established religion and its theological orthodoxies.

We can perhaps also see it as an expression of the search for history and identity in a rapidly changing world. Owen notes that from beings of terror they have become tourist attractions. Most of these ghosts are expressions of periods of popular romantic history. Ghost stories were also popular in the Victorian period, another period of rapid social change. This book's major strength lies in its accumulation of lost detail of the beliefs of past times. Its main weakness lies in the treatment of the modern period, and in the meaning of ghost stories and memorates today. There is for example no discussion of the rise of orbs and other phenomena of modern technology, or the role of Hollywood in the construction of modern ghost lore (notions of “portals” “energies” and the like).

At the same time technology has replaced many of the functions of the old fashioned ghost, the mobile phone has replaced the crisis apparition, and perhaps the home video the memorialising apparition, perhaps this is why modern horrors rarely generate ghost stories, or perhaps these events are too raw for stories circulating around them to appear in the public domain. Perhaps ghosts are just echoes of what lies just beyond living memory. If that is the case, what will arise to haunt the imagination when the last few survivors of the Great War finally die, when there are no more holocaust survivors, no one left to recall the Second World War. Or will scratchy recordings, morphing from technology to technology be the ghosts to haunt generations to come. -- Peter Rogerson

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