Phantom Histories

P. G. Maxwell-Stuart. Ghosts: A History of Phantoms, Ghouls and Other Spirits of the Dead. Tempus, 2006.

There has been a mountain of academic research published on witchcraft, but little on ghosts; the only significant general social history of ghosts has been Ronald Finucane’s Appearances of the Dead first published a quarter of a century ago. This book reprises much the same ground, from more of a believer’s point of view, though belief in exactly what other than a general distaste for science and the enlightenment is not entirely clear.

Maxwell-Stuart takes us on a tour of beliefs in the afterlife and ghosts from classical times onwards, which shows that such stories are subject to constant cultural change, though there may be a less variable core. In the middle ages they served as religious instruction, putting across the Church’s party line on matters such as purgatory. Later on they took on the role of simply providing counter evidence against ‘saduceeism’ or atheism.

Maxwell-Stuart really does not add much to Finucane’s account in this tour, and perhaps because it is outside his own area of specialism, his treatment of Victorian and modern ghost stories is much weaker. Though he is clearly aware of the existence of the literature of psychical research and quotes from it, he seems to have little interest in the meaning of ghost stories to a modern audience. He seems largely unaware of the rising popularity of books of ghost stories in the early 21st century. Nor does he address the question as to why certain sets of experiences become linked with the activities of the dead.

It is curious that in the midst of our high tech age stories of futuristic phenomena such as UFOs have lost much of their appeal, while stories of ghosts haunted houses, inns and such are enjoying one of their highest levels of popularity in a long time. Tempus, the publishers of this book, are specialists in works of popular and semi-popular history, they also produce a series of works on haunted towns produced mainly by ghost tour operators.

This points to some sort of connection with the massive appeal of family history and the rise of the heritage industry. At one level this material is a product of the tourist industry itself, but clearly deeper needs are being met. In confused and dislocated times people search for routes, for some connection to ‘history’. This history is however problematical, for it has power over us, haunting us through our genes and memes but we have no control over it, it is an unalterable brute fact of the world. – Peter Rogerson.

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