Fans of fictional ghost stories from the early 1900s might have heard of Robert Hugh Benson’s brother, Edward Frederick — better known as E.F. Benson. Robert also penned ghostly tales (along with other kinds of fiction), and he wrote at least one expository essay on the topic of haunted houses. It is “Phantasms of the Dead,” published in a 1912 issue of The Dublin Review.
Early in this essay, Benson sums up his own attempts to hunt ghosts:
I have slept in haunted houses; I once took a suicide’s room, with a bloodstain under the bed, and slept in it for a whole year in the hope of seeing a ghost — and the total effect of all my pathetic attempts to arrive at some conclusion on the matter, to formulate some theory that should satisfy myself at any rate, has been that I stand now in a position of entire and complete agnosticism.
This, then, leads to the first of the two main goals of Benson’s essay, namely, to review then-prominent theories on why hauntings are so often reported. He clarifies the ideas advocated by the Society for Psychical Research, which lean heavily on, if not misperception, then telepathy. The latter often involves telepathic messages sent from the dying to the living, something to which the Society devoted much attention and which are now sometimes called “crisis apparitions.” Next, Benson touches on the “astral body” theory being spread by Theosophists, but he deems this “too complicated to discuss at length.”
Benson’s second goal is to support the theory he finds most persuasive, what is now sometimes called “residual hauntings” or “Stone Tape theory.” Much of Benson’s argument, he explains, is rooted in his spiritual convictions. Like this father, who had served as Archbishop of Canterbury, he went into the clergy. However, Robert converted to Catholicism, becoming an ordained priest in 1904. He openly admits that his views of haunted houses are shaped by a belief in the afterlife and by the Catholic tradition that both encompasses and explains the importance of relics:
All Catholics are perfectly familiar with the fact that spiritual impressions can be made upon material objects, and that these unintelligent material objects can retain the impression made upon them. Devotion to relics, for example, is an instance where an unanimated object so retains the effect, to some degree, of the personality that was once in close union with it.
One doesn’t need to be Catholic to recognize the special meaning contained in the brooch of a deceased grandmother or the desk of a famous nineteenth-century author. Maybe that’s not quite the same, but I suspect it comes pretty close for some. And a few of my readers might see here the same principle underlying psychometry, the drawing of psychic impressions from material things.
Building on the notion that “material objects have the power of retaining what may be called a certain aroma of the personality with which they have been in close contact,” Benson then directs this principle towards haunted houses. He suggests that, indeed, the houses themselves are haunted, the actions and emotions of former residents having permeated the fixtures and even the lumber itself. He illustrates this with a hypothetical case of a murder being committed in a house, creating “an emotional storm of extraordinary intensity.” He continues:
Does it not seem probable — if the law I have spoken of is true at all — that the very walls, and ceiling, and floor, and bedhangings, and furniture should receive a certain impression of the horror ? and that they should retain it?
It’s only a matter of time before someone comes to the house, sleeps there, and receives either a very vague or a very strong impression of the murder. Not from the lingering spirit of the murderer. Not from the spirit of the victim. From the house itself.
Interestingly, an article recapping Benson’s essay appeared in Current Literature — under the heading “Science and Discovery”! — and what Benson is advocating is described as “an entirely original theory of ghosts.” I’m not so sure that it’s entirely original. Instead, as happens with most so-called new ideas, Benson seems to be cobbling together various older ideas. Nothing wrong with that.
But Benson doesn’t discuss what measures can be taken to end such a haunting. There’s no ghost to urge to “move toward the light” or to exile to someplace away from the living. What’s to be done? Burn down the house and start over? Get rid of that “aroma” by smudging the house with sage or some other paranormal room freshener? Other solutions might come from the many fiction writers who have invented stories on this premise.
Instead of grappling with this, Benson concludes by saying the residual haunting theory is more in keeping with “our ordinary conceptions of Divine Justice” in that it doesn’t require that “two souls, one guilty, and the other presumably innocent, should be compelled to rehearse night after night, or anniversary after anniversary, the very sordid scene of their earthly experience.” That sure makes sense to me. On the other hand, a more psychoanalytic view might hold that trauma, depression, and other conditions can create behavioral cycles and neurotic loops. Maybe these persist even beyond death.
Benson departs by subtly championing the preservation of an open mind and the avoidance of dogmatic final decisions. “Well,” he writes, “such is the theory. But kindly remember that I am still an agnostic, and am open to persuasion.” For this admirable characteristic as much as for the essay itself, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson is granted Honorary Mention in the Ghost Hunter Hall of Fame.