Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation, by R.C. Finucane (Prometheus, 1996) looks at the history of ghosts with a wide-angle lens. The author opens with classical Greek and Roman accounts and closes with a brief look at how ghosts manifest in the twentieth century. His emphasis is on Western Civilization with an open bias toward British specters.
This book is not for those seeking spooky ghost stories, though there are numerous, purportedly true spectral reports summarized. Instead, it deals more with the purposes ghosts were given in major historical periods as well as the shapes and sounds attributed to them. Regarding those sounds, Finucane writes: “The squeaker and twitterer of Homeric and Mosaic society turned into the basso profundo of the medieval era, took on more ordinary vocal qualities up to about the eighteenth century, then began to lose his voice entirely. Today most apparitions are mute and, apparently, deaf to the entreaties of their percipients” (223). That’s also a good example of the author’s own writing voice and his level of diction. This is not a book aimed at a popular audience, but it’s not exactly heavily specialized language, either. It’s simply very smart.
What I found most engaging was how the rise of Protestant Christianity — and, specifically, its rejection of Purgatory — changed the rhetoric concerning ghosts. No longer did phantoms appear before the living to plead for prayers and ascension to heaven. Instead, ghosts were portrayed by some authorities as demons in disguise. This chapter in ghost lore was completely new to me, but it only makes sense that how we interpret ghosts is shaped by how we envision the afterlife.
Finucane’s observations of nineteenth-century ghosts is most relevant to my own book Spectral Edition: Ghost Report from U.S. Newspapers, 1865-1917. He says that “the ‘purposeful’ spirit had become a decidedly second-rate citizen of the Victorian otherworld” (194). With some exceptions, ghosts no longer appeared to rectify debts, ensure justice, or solicit prayers. Respondents to surveys conducted by the Society for Psychical Research describe “wispy figures that floated about darkened chambers with no apparent reason for being there at all” (204), and that strikes a chord with what I’ve found in U.S. newspapers.
There is one difference, however. A lot of U.S. ghost reports in Spectral Edition note that the haunting resulted from a murder — or, at least, it’s speculated to be so. Notice how quickly murder is mentioned as not being a reason for spirits to return when Finucane ends his chapter on the nineteenth century: “Most Victorian ghosts were perceived as having nothing to say about buried treasure, murder, revenge, legacies, and most percipients evidently felt no need to provide a resolution to this puzzle. The apparition was there; that was enough.” A bit later, Finucane explains, “In a Christian society assailed by scepticism and science, but influenced too by romantic hopes and visions, Victorian apparitions satisfied the thirst for immortality” (212). With American newspaper accounts more frequently stressing the link between ghosts and murder victims, I wonder if Finucane’s “thirst for immortality” was, on the other side of the Atlantic, a hunger for a full and happy life. In other words, were ghosts in the States less about the mystery of the afterlife and more about the certainty of lives ending tragically? Having seen an atrocious number of young men lose their lives in the Civil War of the 1860s, were Americans more inclined than their British counterparts to interweave lives cut woefully short with the sad horror of ghostly hauntings?
I have a hunch that the answer to that might be more personal than cultural.
More of my “book reports” on works exploring the history of ghosts can be found here: