A ghost has been defined as the disembodied spirit or soul of a deceased person, although in popular usage the term refers only to the apparition of such a person. Often described as insubstantial and partly transparent, ghosts are reported to haunt particular locations or people that they were associated with in life or at time of death. Phantom armies, phantom animals,phantom trains and phantom ships have also been reported. Ghosts or similar paranormal entities appear in film, theatre, and literature; legends and myths, and some religions.
Etymology and Synonyms
The English word ghost continues Old English gást, hypothetical Common Germanic *gaisto-z. It is common to West Germanic, but lacking in North and East Germanic (the equivalent word in Gothic is ahma, Old Norse has andi m., önd f.). The pre-Germanic form would have been *ghoizdo-z, apparently from a root denoting “fury, anger”, cognate to Sanskrithedas “anger”, reflected in Old Norse geisa “to rage”. The Germanic word is recorded as masculine only, but likely continues a neuter s-stem. The original meaning of the Germanic word would thus have been an animating principle of the mind, in particular capable of excitation and fury (compare óðr). In Germanic paganism, “Germanic Mercury”, and the later Odin, was at the same time the conductor of the dead and the “lord of fury” leading the Wild Hunt.
Besides denoting the human spirit or soul, both of the living and the deceased, the Old English word is used as a synonym of Latin spiritus also in the meaning of “breath, blast” from the earliest (9th century) attestations. It could also denote any good or evil spirit, i.e. angels and demons; the Anglo-Saxon gospel refers to the demonic possession of Matthew 12:43 as se unclæna gast. Also from the Old English period, the word could denote the spirit of God, viz. the “Holy Ghost”. The now prevailing sense of “the soul of a deceased person, spoken of as appearing in a visible form” emerges in Middle English (14th century) only.
The synonym spook is a Dutch loanword, akin to Low German spôk (of uncertain etymology); it entered the English language via the United States in the 19th century.
Alternate words in modern usage include spectre (from Latin spectrum), the Scottish wraith (of obscure origin), phantom (via French ultimately from Greek phantasma, compare fantasy) and apparition. The term shade in classical mythology translates Greek, or Latin umbra, in reference to the notion of spirits in the Greek underworld.
A revenant is a deceased person returning from the dead to haunt the living, either as a disembodied ghost or alternatively as an animated (“undead”) corpse.
The term poltergeist is a German word, literally a “noisy ghost”, for a spirit said to manifest itself by invisibly moving and influencing objects.
Also related is the concept of a fetch, the visible ghost or spirit of a person yet alive, a notion widespread in shamanistic cultures. The word “ghost” may also refer to any spirit or demon.
A notion of the transcendent, supernatural or numinous, usually involving entities like ghosts, demons or deities, is a cultural universal shared by all human cultures. In pre-literate folk religions, these beliefs are often summarized under animism and ancestor worship.
In many cultures malignant, restless ghosts are distinguished from the more benign spirits which are the subject of ancestor worship.
Ancestor worship typically involves rites intended to prevent revenants, vengeful spirits of the dead, imagined as starving and envious of the living. Strategies for preventing revenants may either include sacrifice, i.e. the provision of the dead with food and drink in order to pacify them, or the magical banishment of the deceased, preventing them from returning by force. Ritual feeding of the dead is performed in traditions like the Chinese Ghost Festival or the Western All Souls’ Day. Magical banishment of the dead is present in many of the world’s burial customs. The bodies found in many tumuli (kurgan) had been ritually bound before burial, and the custom of binding the dead persists, for example, in rural Anatolia.
19th century anthropologist James Frazer stated in his classic work, The Golden Bough, that souls were seen as the creature within that animated the body.
Ghosts and the Afterlife
Although the human soul was sometimes symbolically or literally depicted in ancient cultures as a bird or other animal, it was widely held that the soul was an exact reproduction of the body in every feature, even down to clothing the person wore. This is depicted in artwork from various ancient cultures, including such works as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which shows deceased people in the afterlife appearing much as they did before death, including the style of dress.
Another widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they were composed of a misty, airy, or subtle material. Anthropologists speculate that this may also stem from early beliefs that ghosts were the person within the person, most noticeable in ancient cultures as a person’s breath, which upon exhaling in colder climates appears visibly as a white mist. This belief may have also fostered the metaphorical meaning of “breath” in certain languages, such as the Latin spiritus and the Greekpneuma, which by analogy became extended to mean the soul. In the Bible, God is depicted as animating Adam with a breath.
In many traditional accounts, ghosts were often thought to be deceased people looking for vengeance, or imprisoned on earth for bad things they did during life. The appearance of a ghost has often been regarded as an omen or portent of death. Seeing one’s own ghostly double or “fetch” is a related omen of death.
White ladies were reported to appear in many rural areas, and supposed to have died tragically or suffered trauma in life. White Lady legends are found around the world. Common to many of them is the theme of losing or being betrayed by a husband or fiancé. They are often associated with an individual family line, as a harbinger of death. When one of these ghosts is seen it indicates that someone in the family is going to die, similar to a banshee.
Legends of ghost ships have existed since the 18th century; most notable of these is the Flying Dutchman. This theme has been used in literature in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Coleridge.
A place where ghosts are reported is described as haunted, and often seen as being inhabited by spirits of deceased who may have been former residents or were familiar with the property. Supernatural activity inside homes is said to be mainly associated with violent or tragic events in the building’s past such as murder, accidental death, or suicide—sometimes in the recent or ancient past. Amongst many cultures and religions it is believed that the essence of a being such as the ‘soul’ continues to exist. Some philosophical and religious views argue that the ‘spirits’ of those who have died have not ‘passed over’ and are trapped inside the property where their memories and energy are strong.
King Hsuan (827-783 BC) according to Chinese legend executed his minister, Tu Po, on false charges even after being warned that Tu Po’s ghost would seek revenge. Three years later, according to historical chronicles, Tu Po’s ghost shot and killed Hsuan with a bow and arrow before an assembly of feudal lords. The Chinese philosopher, Mo Tzu (470-391 BC), is quoted as having commented:
“If from antiquity to the present, and since the beginning of man, there are men who have seen the bodies of ghosts and spirits and heard their voices, how can we say that they do not exist? If none have heard them and none have seen them, then how can we say they do? But those who deny the existence of the spirits say: “Many in the world have heard and seen something of ghosts and spirits. Since they vary in testimony, who are to be accepted as really having heard and seen them?” Mo Tzu said: As we are to rely on what many have jointly seen and what many have jointly heard, the case of Tu Po is to be accepted.”
The Hebrew Torah and the Bible contain few references to ghosts, associating spiritism with forbidden occult activities cf. Deuteronomy 18:11. The most notable reference is in the First Book of Samuel (I Samuel 28:7-19 KJV), in which a disguised King Saul has the Witch of Endor summon the spirit of Samuel. In the New Testament, Jesus has to persuade the Disciples that he is not a ghost following the resurrection, Luke 24:37-39 (note that some versions of the Bible, such as the KJV and NKJV, use the term “spirit”). In a similar vein, Jesus’ followers at first believe him to be a ghost (spirit) when they see him walking on water.
A celebrated account of a haunted house from the ancient classical world is given by Pliny the Younger (c.50 AD). Pliny describes, in a letter to a friend, how Athenodoros Cananites (c.74 BC – 7 AD), a Stoic philosopher, decided to rent a large house in Athens, to investigate widespread rumors that it was haunted. Athenodoros staked out at the house that night, and, sure enough, a disheveled, aged spectre, bound at feet and hands with rattling chains, eventually appeared. The spirit then beckoned for Athenodoros to follow him; Athenodoros complied, but the ghost soon vanished. The philosopher marked the spot where the old man had disappeared, and, on the next day, advised the magistrates to dig there. The man’s shackled bones were reportedly uncovered three years later. After a proper burial, the hauntings ceased.
One of the first persons to express disbelief in ghosts was Lucian of Samosata in the 2nd century AD. In his tale “The Doubter” (c.150 AD) he relates how Democritus “the learned man from Abdera in Thrace” lived in a tomb outside the city gates in order to prove that cemeteries were not haunted by the spirits of the departed. Lucian relates how he persisted in his disbelief despite practical jokes perpetrated by “some young men of Abdera” who dressed up in shrouds with skull masks in order to give him a fright.
From the medieval period an apparition of a ghost is recorded from 1211, at the time of the Albigensian Crusade. Gervase of Tilbury, Marshal of Arles, wrote that the image of Guilhem, a boy recently murdered in the forest, appeared in his cousin’s home in Beaucaire, near Avignon. This series of “visits” lasted all of the summer. Through his cousin, who spoke for him, the boy allegedly held conversations with anyone who wished, until the local priest requested to speak to the boy directly, leading to an extended disquisition on theology. The boy narrated the trauma of death and the unhappiness of his fellow souls in Purgatory, and reported that God was most pleased with the ongoing Crusade against the Cathar heretics, launched three years earlier. The time of the Albigensian Crusade in southern France was marked by intense and prolonged warfare, this constant bloodshed and dislocation of populations being the context for these reported visits by the murdered boy.
Renaissance to Romanticism
Renaissance magic took a revived interest in the occult, including necromancy. The Child ballad Sweet William’s Ghost (1868) recounts the story of a ghost returning to beg a woman to free him from his promise to marry her, as he obviously cannot being dead; her refusal would mean his damnation. This reflects a popular British belief that the dead would haunt their lovers if they took up with a new love without some formal release. The Unquiet Grave expresses a belief even more widespread, found in various locations over Europe: ghosts can stem from the excessive grief of the living, whose mourning interferes with the dead’s peaceful rest. In many folktales from around the world, the hero arranges for the burial of a dead man. Soon after, he gains a companion who aids him and, in the end, the hero’s companion reveals that he is in fact the dead man. Instances of this include the Italian fairy tale Fair Brow and the Swedish The Bird ‘Grip’.
In 1848, the Fox sisters of Hydesfield in New York State claimed to have communication with the disembodied spirits of the dead and launched the Spiritualist movement, which claimed many adherents in the 19th century. The claims of spiritualists and others as to the reality of ghosts were investigated by the Society for Psychical Research, founded in London in 1882. The Society set up a Committee on Haunted Houses and a Literary Committee which looked at the literature on the subject.32Apparitions of the recently deceased, at the moment of their death, to their friends and relations, were very commonly reported. One celebrated example was the strange appearance of Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon, walking through the drawing room of his family home in Eaton Square, London, looking straight ahead, without exchanging a word to anyone, in front of several guests at a party being given by his wife on June 22, 1893 whilst he was supposed to be in a ship of the Mediterranean Squadron, manoeuvering off the coast of Syria. Subsequently it was reported that he had gone down with his ship, the HMS Victoria, that very same night, after it had collided with the HMS Camperdown following an unexplained and bizarre order to turn the ship in the direction of the other vessel.[[/footnote]] Such crisis apparitions have received serious study by parapsychologists with various explanations given to account for them, including telepathy, as well as the traditional view that they represent disembodied spirits.
Summoning or exorcising the shades of the departed is an item of belief and religious practice for spiritualists and practitioners of ritual magic. According to a poll conducted in 2005 by the Gallup Organization about 32% of Americans “believe in the existence of ghosts.”
Yrei are figures in Japanese folklore, analogous to Western legends of ghosts. The name consists of two kanji, meaning “faint” or “dim”, meaning “soul” or “spirit.” Like their Western counterparts, they are thought to be spirits kept from a peaceful afterlife.
Ancestor worship is central to Chinese folk religion. Other than the Qingming and Chongyang festivals, descendants should pay tributes to ancestors during the Zhongyuanjie, more commonly known as the Ghost Festival. Traditionally, other than the tombstones or urn-covers, descendants are expected to install altar in their homes to which they would pay homage regularly in the day, with joss sticks and tea. The ancestors, parents or grandparents, are worshiped or venerated as if they are still living. See also Chinese ghosts, Ghosts in Malay culture, ghost money, Hell bank note.
The Hindu Garuda Purana discusses ghosts. Ghosts in Bengali culture are a recurrent motives both in fairy tales and in modern day Bengali literature as well, references to ghosts may be often found. It is believed that the spirits of those who cannot find peace in the afterlife or die unnatural deaths remain on Earth. The common word for ghosts in Bengali is bhut.
In Central and Northern Asia, Shaman spirit guides play a central role. Near East and Mediterranean
The Greek underworld (Tartarus) from its Near Eastern templates (compare Hebrew Gehenna and Babylonian Kurnugia), depicts the spirits of the deceased as “shadows” languishing underground. They can be visited by heroes venturing a descent to the underworld, or they can be conjured as apparitions by seers or necromancers. The Christian Hell is a direct continuation of these underworlds. The Greek Hero cult involved the apotheosis of selected individuals after their death.
Ishara was a Near Eastern goddess associated with the underworld. Her name may continue a Proto-Indo-European notion, cognate to Welsh Gwen-hwyfar (Irish Find-abair, from Proto-Celtic *windo-seibaro – “white ghost”.
In Aztec mythology, the Cihuateteo were the spirits of human women who died in childbirth. They haunted crossroads at night, stealing children and causing sicknesses, especially seizures and madness, and seducing men to sexual misbehavior.
European Folklore and Modern Western Culture
Belief in ghosts in European folklore is characterized by the recurring fear of “returning” or revenant deceased which may harm the living. This includes the Scandinavian gjenganger, the Romanian strigoi, the Serbian vampir, the Greek vrykolakas, etc. British folklore is particularly notable for its numerous haunted locations.
Popular folklore has always been dismissed as superstition by the educated elite, but of course belief in the soul and an afterlife remained near universal until the emergence of atheism in the 18th century “Age of Enlightenment.” In the 19th century spiritism resurrected “belief in ghosts” as the object of systematic inquiry and popular opinion in Western culture remains divided.
The Spiritism of the 19th century has exerted a lasting influence on the Western perception of ghosts. Spiritist séancestogether with pseudoscientific explanations like ectoplasm and spirit photography appeared to give a quality of scientific method to apparitions. Such approaches to the “paranormal” have become a familiar topos in Western popular culture. The Ghost Club, founded in London in 1862, was an early “ghost hunting” organization. Famous members of the club have included Charles Dickens, Sir William Crookes, Sir William Fletcher Barrett and Harry Price.
In Modern Culture and Fiction
Ghosts are prominent in the popular cultures of various nations. The ghost story is ubiquitous across all cultures from oral folktales to works of literature. The 5th century BC play Oresteia contains the ghost of Agamemnon, one of the first ghosts to appear in a work of fiction.
Legends about haunted houses have long appeared in literature. Haunting is used as a plot device in gothic or horror fiction or, more lately, paranormal-based fiction. Roman-era authors Plautus, Pliny the Younger and Lucian wrote stories about haunted houses, as did the Arabian Nights (such as the tale of “Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad”).
One of the more recognizable ghosts in English literature is the shade of Hamlet’s murdered father in the play The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In Hamlet, it is the ghost who demands that Prince Hamlet investigate his “murder most foul” and seek revenge upon his usurping uncle, King Claudius. In the play Macbeth, Banquo returns as a ghost to the dismay of the title character.
One of the key early appearances by ghosts in a gothic tale was The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole in 1764. Other famous apparitions are the ghosts of A Christmas Carol, where the ghosts of his former colleague Jacob Marley, Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come help Ebenezer Scrooge see the error of his ways.
Oscar Wilde’s comedy The Canterville Ghost has been adapted for film and television on several occasions. Henry James’sThe Turn of the Screw has also appeared in a number of adaptations, notably the film The Innocents and Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw. Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, later made into a film, places a more humorous slant on the phenomenon of haunting of individuals and specific locations.
Washington Irving’s short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820), based on an earlier German folktale, features a Headless Horseman. It has been adapted for film and television many times, most notably in Sleepy Hollow, a successful 1999 feature film. Legends from further afield have been featured in literature; Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things is a 1904 collection of Japanese folk tales on ghosts by Lafcadio Hearn, and was later made into a film.
Peter Underwood is noted for his ghost books containing ostensibly true ghost stories such as Ghosts of Borley, while Patrick Lafcadio Hearn published books of Japanese ghost stories.
Film and Television
Films including or centering on ghosts are common, and span a variety of genres; the works of Shakespeare, Dickens and Wilde have all been made into cinematic versions. Novel-length tales have been difficult to adapt to cinema, although that of The Haunting of Hill House to The Haunting in 1963 is an exception.
Sentimental depictions have been more popular on cinema than horror, and include the 1947 film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, which was later adapted to television with a successful 1968-70 TV series. A common theme in romance or drama is the ghost as a benign guide or messenger, often with unfinished business, such as 1989’s Field of Dreams, the 1990 film Ghost, the 1993 comedy Heart and Souls, and the 2003 thriller Gothika.
Genuine horror films include 1944’s The Uninvited, 1945’s Dead of Night, 1980’s The Fog, and 1988’s The Lady in White. Freddy Krueger of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series is a notable modern ghost.
Asian cinema has been adept at producing horror films about ghosts, such as the 1998 Japanese film Ringu (badly remade in America as The Ring in 2002), and the Pang brothers’ 2002 film The Eye.
Ghosts have been popular in children’s media such as Casper the Friendly Ghost, created in the 1930s and appearing in comics, animated cartoons and a eventually 1995 feature film, his cousin Spooky and the Ghostly Trio.
Popularised in such films as the 1984 comedy Ghostbusters, the ghost hunting theme has been utilised in reality television series particularly Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters International, but also Most Haunted, and A Haunting. It is also represented in children’s television by such programs as The Ghost Hunter and Canada’s own Ghost Trackers.
Paranormal and Scientific Explanations
Some researchers, such as Professor Michael Persinger (Laurentian University, Canada), have speculated that changes in geomagnetic fields (created, e.g., by tectonic stresses in the Earth’s crust or solar activity) could stimulate the brain’s temporal lobes and produce many of the experiences associated with hauntings. This theory has been tested in various ways. Some scientists have examined the relationship between the time of onset of unusual phenomena in allegedly haunted locations and any sudden increases in global geomagnetic activity. Others have investigated whether the location of alleged hauntings is associated with certain types of magnetic activity. Finally, a third strand of work has involved laboratory studies in which stimulation of the temporal lobe with transcerebral magnetic fields has elicited subjective experiences that strongly parallel phenomena associated with hauntings. All of this work is controversial; it has attracted a large amount of debate and disagreement. Sound is thought to be another cause of supposed sightings. Frequencies lower than 20 hertz are called infrasound and are normally inaudible, but scientists Richard Lord and Richard Wiseman have concluded that infrasound can cause humans to experience bizarre feelings in a room, such as anxiety, extreme sorrow, a feeling of being watched, or even the chills. Carbon monoxide poisoning, which can cause changes in perception of the visual and auditory systems, was recognized as a possible explanation for haunted houses as early as 1921.
According to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, there is to date no credible scientific evidence that any location is inhabited by spirits of the dead.
Critics of “eyewitness ghost sightings” suggest that limitations of human perception and ordinary physical explanations can account for such sightings; for example, air pressure changes in a home causing doors to slam, or lights from a passing car are reflected through a window at night. Pareidolia, an innate tendency to recognize patterns in random perceptions, is what some skeptics believe causes people to believe that they have seen ghosts. Reports of ghosts “seen out of the corner of the eye” may be accounted for by the sensitivity of human peripheral vision. According to skeptical investigator Joe Nickell:
…peripheral vision is very sensitive and can easily mislead, especially late at night, when the brain is tired and more likely to misinterpret sights and sounds.
Nickell also states that a person’s belief that a location is haunted may cause them to interpret mundane events as confirmations of a haunting:
Once the idea of a ghost appears in a household … no longer is an object merely mislaid… . There gets to be a dynamic in a place where the idea that it’s haunted takes on a life of its own. One-of-a-kind quirks that could never be repeated all become further evidence of the haunting.