Books

The spirits of the age

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

Children started knocking on my door last month wearing Donald Trump face masks and asking for money. Indeed, one enterprising group turned up as Trump, Kim Jong-un, a Disney Princess, and — I’ll admit that this had to be explained to me — a zombie Taylor Swift. Truly a quartet of contemporary horrors. Halloween, it is safe to say, is not what it once was: in my day, a gentle bit of apple bobbing, turnip carving and maybe a white sheet with holes for eyes at a fancy-dress disco was about the full extent of it. Ghosts and ghouls, it seems, change their appearance depending on time and place.

As Susan Owens notes, in her The Ghost: A Cultural History, ‘ghosts are mirrors of the times’ and her purpose is to hold up these cracked, spooky and cobwebby mirrors for our delight and examination. (The book, it should be said, is beautifully — the usual term I believe is ‘richly’ — illustrated throughout. Not quite large and lavish enough to count as a coffee-table book but much more pleasing to have and to hold than your usual scholarly tome, The Ghost hovers in tone and style rather magnificently somewhere between academic monograph and hefty gift, the kind of book that rather implies a television tie-in, perhaps presented by Simon Schama in a fright mask, with a sinister Tom Hardy voiceover.)

Owens is a former curator of paintings and drawings at the V&A, and her study focuses on the artistic and literary representation of ghosts and their symbolic role and function as signs and signals of mortality, as clues and keys to the mystery of human souls and selves, and as warnings and reminders of lost paths and troubling horizons.


Beginning around the 11th century, she is particularly good on the changing theological ideas and circumstances that allowed ghosts to come into being, to thrive and to transform. As she puts it, ‘The English Reformation had serious implications for ghosts’; because they no longer officially existed they had to be invented. The book combines readings of Beowulf (she reads Grendel as a ‘proto-ghost’), John Donne and Henry James, coming right up to date with a discussion of recent hauntological enterprises by artists such as Rachel Whiteread and Mark Wallinger.

‘I have never met anyone,’ writes Owens, ‘who didn’t have a ghost story of some kind to tell.’ Lisa Morton certainly has plenty. An American horror fiction writer, screenwriter, and the author of The Halloween Encyclopaedia (2003), Morton claims in Ghosts: A Haunted History that ‘Nearly half of all Americans currently believe in ghosts (and more than a third believe they have lived in a haunted house)’. One can well believe it. Attempting to answer the simple question ‘What is a ghost?’, Morton allows that some obvious scientific explanations do exist —including, say, ‘mental illness, repressed trauma, the hypnagogic state experienced between sleep and wakefulness, electromagnetic fields and extreme low-frequency infrasound’ — but quickly moves on to discuss the various forms of ghostly manifestation around the world and throughout history, rather than dwelling too much on their likely causes.

This is not to suggest that Ghosts: A Haunted History is in any way simply credulous, dim or shady. Morton’s admirably cool and dispassionate summary incorporates an astonishing range of reference, covering phantoms, spirits and wraiths worldwide, including the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, the Japanese holiday known as Obon (during which families leave food for wandering souls), the Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, and the various ghosts and legends of Brazil, Africa, Australia and India.

The book’s geographical scope is matched by its historical sweep, which begins with a discussion of the edimmu of ancient Mesopotamia and the various spirits of the classical world, and continues all the way through the Middle Ages, to 19th-century spiritualism and beyond. I had no idea, for example, that ‘In the 21st century, one of the hottest game genres is “survival horror”, in which players are thrust into a nightmarish landscape and must try to stay alive while solving some sort of puzzle or mystery.’ Sounds good. Sounds familiar.

Perhaps most usefully, Morton lists in detail the equipment necessary for contemporary ghost-hunting: a K-II EMF meter (which is more usually used, she admits, ‘to assist electricians and others in locating power lines’); a digital voice recorder; something called an ‘ovilus’ (‘an electronic version of a Ouija board’); something else called a ‘ghost box’ (‘a modified AM/FM radio’, apparently); plus various torches, lasers, thermometers, thermal cameras, cameras and apps, though Morton notes of the latter that ‘Certain ghost-hunting apps are less than practical, and in fact scientists and investigators both caution that many simply cannot do what a dedicated device can’.

If Trump and co. come knocking again I’m simply going to whip out my EMF meter and offer to test them for signs of life. That should scare the bejesus out of them.

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