This series will explore the macabre world of mythical monsters from Halloween staples to obscure oddities. Our first subject is the ever-ubiquitous ghost!
Ghosts are one of the oldest and most widespread of the classic Halloween monsters, appearing in ancient cultures as diverse as Mesopotamian, Roman, Celtic, and Chinese. Today we know ghosts as intangible apparitions often appearing in the state they died in, sporting mortal wounds, wedding dresses, or jack-o’-lanterns in place of missing heads. They walk through walls and interact with the living and objects in a limited capacity. Most mysteriously of all, they have a specific reason for hanging around. Superstitions surrounding ghosts still influence cultures, even in developed nations. For example, no one jumps at the opportunity to buy a “murder house” even for drastically lowered prices.
The word spirit originates from the Latin “spiritus,” also meaning breath. Researchers posit that ghosts originated from an ancient understanding of respiration. The dying breath became something we place a certain reverence on. This connection between breath and life was likely the basis for belief in an immortal soul. Today, we depict ghosts as pale, translucent, evanescent remnants of a once-living soul. The associations are obvious to those who’ve ever seen a steamy breath on a chilly day.
In the first century A.D., Roman author Pliny the Younger recorded one of the earliest ghost sightings. He offered some now-familiar imagery as his evidence. He claimed his Athens home was harboring the spirit of an old man who wandered about rattling chains. His story inspired similar reports from his friends and colleagues. Tales of the paranormal have always garnered attention and spread like wildfire.
In 856 A.D., residents of a German farmhouse reported the first poltergeist. Meaning “noisy ghost,” this unseen spirit threw furniture and stones and started fires. Subsequent tenants corroborated this story. This created the idea of a spirit’s connection to a specific location. In modern culture, poltergeists sometimes act as indiscriminate spiritual protectors. At other times they appear as a supernatural extension of teenage angst.
The Tower of London is one of the most haunted places on Earth. The infamous prison saw the final days of many prominent figures. Guy Fawkes and the wives of Henry VIII were just a few. For example, Anne Boleyn is most frequently spotted wandering the Tower Green, where she was executed in the 16th century. It is unthinkable that atrocities occur without leaving their mark, so some believe echos of the past stain the present. No monster we create is scarier than time’s indifference to suffering.
The Fox sisters were an early model of mediumship as a business and major proponents of Spiritualism. Like Mormonism, Spiritualism was an alternative perspective of Christianity created in the 1800s. Spiritualism offered people the agency to contact spirits for information or intervention. The sisters fabricated spiritual correspondences by cracking their joints and knocking on furniture. They admitted to this hoax later in life. However, preying on the credulous had already proven lucrative for the sisters.
Psychics and mediums persist in entertainment culture today and can still make a lot of money doing so. The most successful use a method known as cold reading. This method relies on inferring what information the client wants to hear or what might be pertinent to them based on obvious social factors. A medium assumes anyone coming to them has lost someone, who exactly can be inferred by age and gender and how long ago from visible distress level. Cold readers will “fish” for hints by offering bits of information like a letter common to most names like J or S. In comparison, hot reading involves prior research into a client, something easier to do than ever in the digital age.
Some other forms of spiritualism also thrive here in the United States. Voodoo has been an intrinsic part of New Orleans’ culture since the beginning. Marie Laveau was the city’s most famous voodoo practitioner. She was a free woman of color born in 1801 known for her intellect and charisma. She became a herbalist, healer, activist and religious leader of enduring renown. Visitors leave drawn X’s and offerings on her grave for luck.
Culture and the Afterlife
The first known instance of ghosts in literature was Homer’s “Odyssey.” The ghost of Elpenor appeared before Odysseus, requesting a proper burial. This establishes the long-held trope in ghost stories of the specter’s unfinished business. Many superstitions surround the proper treatment of the dead. Stories cited mischievous spirits as a common outcome of improper burials.
The first horror movie was a French silent-film called “Le Manoir du Diable” in 1896. This translates to “The House of the Devil.” English-speaking countries knew the film as “The Haunted Castle.” This short film featured a malevolent spirit terrorizing a couple. Justifiable revenge or senseless malice are common motivations for ghosts throughout history. Today, horror films make roughly $1 billion annually.
Ed and Lorraine Warren are the most influential ghost hunters in American culture. Ed being a self-taught demonologist and Lorraine, a professed medium. Their exploits inspired some of the most profitable franchises in the horror genre. As of 2018, “The Amityville Horror” and “The Conjuring” earned them an estimated $85 million. The popularity of the horror genre is proof of the gripping nature of ghost stories.
What does the Science Say?
As of 2019, 45% of US citizens claimed to believe in ghosts. They are one of the most well documented and researched of any modern monster. Some of the best explanations come from studies of the fallibility of the human mind. Sleep paralysis is a common example of a fault in perception. Sleep paralysis causes feelings of heaviness, immobility, dread, and visions of shadowy figures. Common causes are stress, sleep deprivation, and panic disorders.
Pareidolia is the human tendency to see faces in patterns. We can use it to manipulate perception. Bloody Mary is an urban myth designed to trigger pareidolia through confirmation bias. Those who already believe are more likely to attempt the myth’s rituals. They then convince themselves they’ve seen something because they wanted to. Ghost stories through history likely followed the same pattern.
Researchers found environmental factors common in old houses to have hallucinatory effects. Mold, pesticide, or carbon monoxide exposure could contribute to apparition sightings. Infrasound and electromagnetic fields may also be to blame. Electromagnetic waves can cause paranoid sensations. Affected people report feeling watched or even touched by unseen entities. Hampton Court is another haunted location of London found to have an erratic magnetic field.
“…researchers were able to artificially induce the sense of a presence using robotic stimulation, and concluded that this sensation is the result of activity in specific brain areas, and not actual ghosts…”Todd Murphy – “The God Helmet”
Infrasound tones beneath the human range of hearing also cause peculiar sensations. These can include cold chills, uneasiness, or even sadness. All symptoms of a classic ghost story. There is a reasonable explanation per first-hand witnesses to any tale. Yet mysteries still prevail. The excitement of wondering is always more satisfying than any answer we could find.
The mystery of the afterlife is one of humankind’s greatest to unravel. We’ve questioned the end of life since the moment we recognized its uniqueness. Speculation on spiritual matters serves as an outlet for fear and existential dread. The stories we share around the campfire mask our desire for knowledge we can never have. They assuage our uncertainty with wondrous possibilities. It is this fear of death and the unknown that makes the ghost a compelling monster throughout cultures the world over.