This is Halloween: Ghost

30 October 2014

Halloween is pretty much upon us: scary films, crazy costumes and spooky stories. What’s scarier, a vampire or a zombie? Will you dress up as a witch or a werewolf? In this seriesMuriel Bailly profiles a famous Halloween monster every day this week to manifest the myths beneath the masks and make-up.

Ghost

 A man is confronted by a ghost and a skeleton.
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A man is confronted by a ghost and a skeleton.

Fact File

Context

Ghosts are considered to be the soul or spirit of the deceased and can, just like the living, be good and/or bad. In Christianity, the Spirit with a capital S refers to the Holy Spirit and, therefore, God.

The idea of spirits surrounding us is very popular in civilisations that observe veneration of the dead rituals, linked to the belief that the deceased continue to have an afterlife and that they can interact with and influence the lives of the living.

Into the afterlife

For instance, one of the most well-known pieces of literature from Ancient Egypt is The Book of the Dead: a funerary text inscribed in the tomb of the departed and presents all the spells needed to assist the deceased in their journey to the afterlife.

 Book of the Dead, Anubis weighing the heart.
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Book of the Dead, Anubis weighing the heart.

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is one of the most important annual celebrations dedicated to honouring and remembering passed friends and family members. The rituals have their origin in pre-Columbian culture and they take place over three days, from 31 October until 2 November: on the 31st, children’s spirits are celebrated; on the 1st of November, adult spirits; and finally the 2nd of November is All Soul’s Day when families go to cemeteries to decorate the graves of their relatives.

 Sculpture of a human skeleton produced for the Day of the Dead festival at Lake Pátzcuaro, Mexico.
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Sculpture of a human skeleton produced for the Day of the Dead festival at Lake Pátzcuaro, Mexico.

In both examples, the living observe specific rituals to ensure their ancestors complete their journey in the afterlife and that the balance between the two worlds is maintained. Spirits are not to be feared as long as they can complete their journey beyond death. It is another matter entirely when they stay behind…

Unfinished business

Pliny the Younger reported ghosts stories, as did many of his contemporaries. For example, Pliny wrote about a haunted house in Athens. To begin with, people could hear the sound of weapons and chains. Subsequently, the inhabitants started reporting the apparition of a filthy, emaciated man wearing chains on his hands and feet. The house was eventually bought by a philosopher, Athenodorus, who had been made aware of the situation but did not consider it to be a deal breaker. On his first evening in the house, Athenodorus saw the ghost and calmly followed him to an outside space that the ghost was indicating. The next day, Athenodorus started digging in the area indicated by the ghost and found the enchained bones of a man. After organising a proper burial for the deceased the ghost was never to be seen again.

 Athenodorus rents a haunted house.
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Athenodorus rents a haunted house.

This story illustrates a common belief that spirits who stay behind have an agenda. The ultimate goal may be to reach the afterlife, as in Egyptian and Mexican beliefs, but some may have unfinished business. In Christianity this idea is encompassed by purgatory. In order to eventually reach heaven, the souls have to stay behind and expiate their sins in purgatory.

During the Renaissance, a strong interest for the occult (“knowledge of the hidden”) and necromancy (communicating with the deceased) developed, influencing the arts and giving birth to one of the most famous ghosts of English literature: the ghost of Hamlet’s father in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.

 Hamlet pointing to a ghost and asking Gertrude if she can see it too.
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Hamlet pointing to a ghost and asking Gertrude if she can see it too.

GERTRUDE
Whereon do you look?

Horace Walpole was greatly influenced by Shakespeare’s play for his own novel, The Castle of Otranto, published in 1764. The story features fate, enigmatic deaths and animated portraits. This novel is often considered as the first of the Gothic horror genre which made great use of monsters (see Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), ghosts (see The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) and other supernatural entities (see Bram Stokers’ Dracula). Gothic literature reinforced the notion of ghosts as spooky, revengeful spirits trapped on earth because of an injustice done to them during their lifetime which seems to persist today.

 The conjuring of a ghost.
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The conjuring of a ghost.

Modern wraiths

Ghosts, unlike werewolves or vampires, still seem to be less often dismissed by people as mere myths or legends. Many have heard a strange noise when they’re alone in the house or have (usually indirectly) witnessed inanimate objects behaving strangely. Perhaps it’s the comforting idea that loved ones are still with you or the very fact that, with ghosts, “not seeing” can still mean believing. Maybe our imaginations are just as active as they ever were.

The 20th century saw its fair share of ghost stories adapted or written for the big screen, which is still going strong today: from the “bump in the night” spooky B movie tales to more gory depictions in the ’80s, the wave of Japanese ghost horror stories and their Western remakes and, most recently, the found footage or home video style horrors.

Taking advantage of the broad parameters that make up the genre, films have been able to present ghosts in many different ways, from physical manifestations chasing promiscuous teens to invisible malevolent forces wreaking havoc on family homes, from benevolent individuals with unfinished business to entire armies of spirits.

 Nightmare on Elm Street
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Nightmare on Elm Street

 Poltergeist
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Poltergeist

 Paranormal Activity
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Paranormal Activity

 Return of the King
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Return of the King

 The Frighteners
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The Frighteners

 The Haunting
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The Haunting

 The Shining
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The Shining

 Ju-on The Grudge
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Ju-on The Grudge

 House on Haunted Hill
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House on Haunted Hill

 Sixth Sense
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Sixth Sense

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Read the rest of the series as they become available.