I don’t really believe in ghosts, or the supernatural, but I am fascinated by it. Rationally, I don’t believe in ghosts. Emotionally, I want to, or rather, want to be left with a feeling of mystery. I am caught between two worlds. Rational logic and emotional desire. I am not looking to explain, nor indulge in superstition. If you are happy with ambiguity, then please read on.
This is most ghostliest time of year, from November through to the end of December. It starts on 31 October, but doesn’t finish there. It gets better. The damp and cold of winter sets in, the red golden leaves start their decomposition and turn to a soggy mulch. The trees lose their flesh, become skeletal and gnarly as if age and arthritis have caused the branches to bend over each other like witch’s hands. The nights and morning draw in, we start missing the day light and greyness sets into the world we know. The closer we get to the 21st December, the happier I become.
Ghost stories and ghosts are inextricably linked to historic places. They are decayed, hold reflections of past lives and lend themselves to the unknown. After all, they are the places where dreadful events took place. Castles, houses, palaces are at their best in this time of year. With the rest of the world getting ready for the big day on the 25th December, they are empty. Corridors, rooms and corners are dark, almost disappearing. The atmosphere is misty, gloomy and oppressive. It is a time for ghosts.
The Ghost Story
I love the ghost story. When I talk of ghosts stories, I am thinking of the short occurrences passed on from person to person, rather than the stories written by Shelley or Dickens. They are often short, and as a narrative, can be disappointing. The most common narrative must be, “footsteps were heard…”, or seeing a “shadowy figure” in the corner of an eye. But the narrative is not the point of the story. Good ghost stories leave the listener with a lingering feeling of mystery, trepidation or sadness. One of my favourites is of a child-like figure that has been seen in Bolsover Castle, holding the hands of visitors without their awareness. I could picture the child immediately doing what all young children do, holding hands with an adult. I am left with a feeling of sadness from the back story that my mind has instantly created.
Andrew Martin highlights this in his radio programme, The Further Realm, which is worth a listen to. Martin “contemplates the ghosts of fact and fiction, plus some in his own life.” In some of the episodes, he explores the ghost story, the inextricable link with the ghostly experiences and folklore, and how one can emulate the other. I know from experience that a simple happening is turned into a Tall, Shaggy Dog story, through telling, re-telling and employing story telling techniques. We embellish and adapt stories, responding to audience reactions. This is very much in the oral tradition.
One such story relayed to me was of un-explained noises coming from the oldest pub in a village, in the middle of the night. Someone walking past the pub heard the sound of banging, human voices and laughter coming from within. This was in the days of 11pm closing and the sounds were obviously a lock-in. But, it was earnestly reported to me as a ghost story and there it has remained in the local collective conscious.
Every town has a “Ghosts of…” books where the author has gathered happenings and experiences from the local people. I enjoy reading them, but many can be explained. In a “Ghosts of Kingston” book, a story reports of two people driving on the Portsmouth Road that runs along alongside the River Thames. It was in the middle of a cold and un-stormy night. Suddenly the temperature dropped and they were shrouded in a grey light mist which appeared to glow. It disappeared as quickly as it appeared. That is the story and I believe it to be a real one without embellishment.
Along that road, on winter’s nights, there are many cold spots where mist forms, because of the temperature drop by the river. Inlets and undulations along the river’s edge causes these localised cold spots. The headlights of a car will light up the mist. If you didn’t know that, then it would be an unreal experience. This considered though, the road is an old coaching route between London and Portsmouth and is linked with murders, body snatchers and highwaymen. Those stories and that atmosphere alone is enough to scare you. It is worth taking a walk along there.
Such experiences people encounter are fleeting and insignificant. The majority have not been recorded or investigated, and nor could they, as a post-mortem of a story would be pointless. It would be one person’s word against another. As a child, I have vivid memories of a nice old man at the end of my bed telling me stories. In my adult years I have been prodded in the back, whispered into in my ear and once saw a woman looking out of my bedroom window at the foot of my bed. As the morning light was coming in through the large sash window of my small Victorian cottage, I stirred from sleep, and there she was, wearing a dark green, late Victorian dress with her grey hair tied back in a bun. It was a short-lived moment, half a second perhaps, but it left me with an image I will never forget. That is it though. I wasn’t shocked to the core, traumatised, nor was I sucked into the TV. If I ever tell that story it is part of a larger conversation with other people. It’s not something I can scrutinise and publish in its own right.
Another time, in the middle of winter, I was by myself after working late in an historic building in south west London. I suddenly became aware that I was being watched. It wasn’t a slight feeling, but very strong with a sense of pressure on the back of my head and neck. I looked around, up the stairs and, of course, there was nothing there. I went into another room, it (the strong sense of being watched) followed me. I smiled to myself, grabbed my belongings and left the apartments closing the large door behind me. Making my way down the staircase, as I didn’t want to take the lift, it followed me and continued to do so through the courtyards until I reached human contact. I caught a bus, went home and ate toast.
Again, not a great resounding story, but it stuck with me and I obviously remember it very well, considering how much I wrote about it in my first draft, which is not published here. As a piece of writing, it is quite boring. At the time, I did think I was just winding myself up. It was my imagination. But, looking back on it, that sense of being watched was very real. Can I explain this with certainty? No, and nor do I want to.
The visitor experience
Every now and then, working in various heritage sites, someone has pragmatically said to me, “There are ghosts here aren’t there?” These aren’t people after ghost stories or on a ghost hunt, they actually feel something. I don’t contradict or encourage them; I’m actually quite interested in what they have got to say. On a Roman site, located and accessed under a modern office block, a woman said just that, “There are spirits here. Not bad ones. But certainly here. Perhaps children”. She then started to back off from her conversation a little. In the same place, an engineer checking the alarms asked, “there aren’t any ghosts here are there?”, in rather exasperated way. “You’ve come across them then?”, says I. “Oh, yes, they tend to knock me off my ladder. Fed up with it.”. These are “everyday people”, in that, they aren’t wearing purple, don’t have a knowledge of pagan religions, or even claim to be spiritualists.
Can objects possess ghostly experiences in the same way that buildings can?
We alwasy think about haunted buildings, but what about curs-ed objects? Recently there has been a few cases of “bad luck” be-falling people who stole pieces of buidling material form Pompeii. They believed they had been cursed and returned the items.
A few years ago I came across a story concerning Dr Anne Ross, whose work I used for my undergraduate degree. In 1971 two large carved stone heads were sent to Dr Anne Ross, an expert in the Iron Age and the Iron Age head cult. They had been discovered near Hadrian’s Wall and sent to her for analysis. The following night of the arrival, she and her family started to experience an unpleasant, if not an evil presence in her house. She caught sight of a creature, half human, half animal. The story sounds quite terrifying and you can read it in The Folklore of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight by Wendy Boase. Apparently this was not the first sighting of the creature. Someone who lived near to where the heads were excavated had seen the figure in and around their house.
Are these stories really ghosts though? As usual, we put our perceptions upon the definition, what we think ghosts should be, that is dead people. In a BBC radio interview, the Rev. Ron Williams points out there are many spiritual forces in the world, both good and evil, that are part of the Christian tradition (and I would say folklore tradition too). We know they are there, but we do not make contact with them.
As it happens, it appears Dr Anne Ross was revelling in the fake. The full stories can be found on the Urban Historian’s blog (link below). I am interested in why Dr Anne Ross, an academic, would indulge. This brings me onto, Explanations…
Naturally, my mind attempts to understand these experiences, or at least philosophise on what they could be. I’ve often thought of all the anxiety that people go through. It is such an intense frenetic energy, that I can almost see it being absorbed by the physical fabric around us. Again, here is the link to the historic property. This is a popular theory of the historic “video tape” being repeated, or on a loop, in a certain place. Ghosts always do the same thing,don’t they? Could those energies be projected back into a room, repeating history at a point where someone was suffering most?
Another popular theory is the lost soul, the denial of death, unfinished business. A person who does not know he is dead, which is what my mind decided about the child ghost in Bolsover castle.
I have one question. How a spirit can be trapped in one place. Not having physical mass, they are not restricted to the physical Earth as we are. The world is spinning, orbiting the Sun and us having mass, are kept rooted to the ground by gravity. If spirits do not have mass, then surely, they would just float away.
Then there is us. There is plenty of “us” that we don’t understand. We all encounter premonitions, sudden feelings of intense emotion, deja vu, or even coming up with an idea or thought at the same as someone else. A psychologist I know used the word “uncanny” to describe this and was not in any way prepared to provide logical explanations, leaving his conversation very open ended.
Ghosts and ghost stories are inextricably linked with folklore as Andrew Martin says. They are also inextricably linked with heritage and our unconscious minds. Working at historic sites, I have often heard visitors say, “I feel I have been here before”, “it is very relaxing (or terrifying) here” and even “this place was special, yes?” They are experiencing something.
Experiences of ghosts cuts across demographics and age groups. People I least expect to believe in ghosts have owned up to seeing things. There is no one type of person who believes and one who does not. There are more personal experiences and stories of my own, most of which are mundane, some are not pleasant. I am happy to leave them where they are in my life. Just stories that I enjoy sharing to the right person at the right time.
I felt a little unease about publishing this post, as there is much condescension towards ghostly activity, or conversely, enthusiasm. Either side will find no satisfaction in what I say and me in the opposite camp. To be honest, I don’t want to explain the stories as either true, or a mis-interpretation of a logical reality. There’s no point explaining the existence of ghosts. If we prove them to be untrue, then there’s no mystery and we would no longer enjoy the stories. And, people would not believe that truth. The stories would continue. On the other hand, if we prove the existence of ghosts, what then? What Pandora’s Box would that unlock?
The Further Realm, BBC Radio 3, The Essay. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06k9yfc
Boase, Wendy, 1976, The folklore of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. Batsford, London.
Russell, Barbara and Russell, Tracy, Mysterious Kingston, 1996
The Urban Prehistorian, The Hexham Heads. https://theurbanprehistorian.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/the-hexham-heads-part-1-the-discovery/
Diane Morgan Believes in Ghosts. BBC4Extra. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/KCt2gf2MgqfMf21SRGVYZR/seven-terrifying-ghost-stories-from-diane-morgan