Inching toward the completion of Certain Nocturnal Disturbances: Ghost Hunting Before the Victorians, I realized I’ve assembled a tidy library of historical sources on how to lay a ghost. The term lay here suggests setting an unquiet spirit to rest. These days, we might call this cleansing a haunted place. In especially ugly situations, the term exorcism might be more apt.
The oldest source I found is Henry Bourne’s 1725 book, Antiquitates Vulgares; Or, The Antiquities of the Common People. This is a collection of what would come to be called folklore, recording a variety of popular customs and beliefs that were fading, if not already vanished. A chapter titled “The Form of Exorcising an Haunted House” details a week-long ritual, one involving daily prayers and scriptural readings led by a priest. After thoroughly relating the procedure, Bourne speculates that the reasoning underlying it “is that the Devil may be gradually banished.” He ends by arguing that it is “ridiculous to suppose that the Prince of Darkness will yield to such feeble Instruments as Water and Herbs and Crucifixes.” There’s some Protestant hostility toward Catholicism lurking here.
In 1777, John Brand reprinted Bourne’s book, adding his own commentary after each chapter. He called it Observations on Popular Antiquities, and following the chapter mentioned above, Brand says he has little to add. By this time, a wave of skepticism regarding ghosts was in full swing (and belief in witchcraft was considered by the majority to be a sorry thing of previous centuries). Brand’s few comments here reflect this attitude.
On a side note, in 1863, George Cruikshank reflected the mistaken view that people of the 1700s must surely have believed in just about anything: “The gullibility of the public was much greater at that time than now, and they would then swallow anything in the shape of a ghost.” In contrast, I have yet to find a historical period in which ghosts were anything other than a topic of debate. I also have yet to find a historical period that didn’t boast about being more enlightened than the ones before it. But I digress.
You’ll find a few comments on traditional ghost laying in Francis Grose’s A Provincial Glossary: With a Collection of Local Proverbs and Popular Superstitions, first published in 1787. In a section titled “A Ghost,” Grose looks at the topic with a bit of humor, saying that
there must be two or three clergymen, and the ceremony must be performed in Latin; a language that strikes the most audacious Ghost with terror. A Ghost may be laid for any term less than an hundred years, and in any place or body, full or empty; as a solid oak—the pommel of a sword—a barrel of beer, if a yeoman or simple gentleman—or a pipe of wine, if an esquire or a justice.
I suspect I’d wind up in a barrel of beer. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.
For a more cross-cultural look at such beliefs, take a look at the very interesting chapter titled “Ghost Laying” in one of the best books dedicated to ghostlore, T.F. Thiselton-Dyer’s The Ghost World, published in 1893. Many cultures hold that water can block ghosts, and some folks have said — perhaps, for the sake of the story — that ghosts can be trapped in bottles. The relationship between ghosts and candles is explored, and as Grose does, Thiselton-Dyer points out that the Red Sea has long been designated as a good place to incarcerate spirits.
So far, these sources have been the work of folklorists compiling beliefs they treat as curious, enchanting, and quaint. The authors don’t suggest any of the techniques they discuss will actually rid a house of ghosts. Let me end, though, with a work that addresses ghost laying in the mind frame of an author who, in the early 1900s, believed it just might work. It’s a chapter titled “Haunted Houses and Their Cure,” which appears in The Coming Science, written by Hereward Carrington and published in 1908. By then, ghosts were being treated with more open-mindedness by “psychical researchers,” though plenty of skepticism still existed — even among the psychical researchers themselves! Carrington recommends getting a clairvoyant/medium involved, someone who can rally the assistance of other spirits to guide, if not drag, the ghost away from the physical realm.
Bits and pieces of these works show up throughout Certain Nocturnal Disturbances. As I say above, this book is advancing. Slowly. It should be out by summer. For now, you can find out a bit more about the book here. And that illustration on the cover was drawn by none other than Francis Grose!