14 December 2015


Lisa Morton. Ghosts: A Haunted History.  Reaktion Books, 2015

Ghosts haunt our imaginations and our culture, from high art to the most kitsch pop culture. Half feared, part domesticated into the tourist/heritage industry. In this book Lisa Morton traces the development of ghost beliefs from ancient times to today’s (pseudo?) technical ghost hunting equipment. She explores their role in classical Greece and Rome, the advent of Christianity and its changes.
While elements remain the same, others change with time, for example with the development of spiritualism. Though here, the notion of materialisation and ectoplasm tended to revive the notion of the ghost as a physical or quasi physical revenant, rather than a wispy disembodied essence.

Ghosts in the east were also more physical in some ways, and decidedly nastier than those in the west. Unlike western ghosts, Indian ghosts - bhuts - are naked, but may be mistaken for living people except that they cast no shadows and speak with a nasal twang, Chinese ghosts may be appointed to bureaucratic posts in the otherworld but if not propitiated properly can become hungry and mean. Early Christian ghosts call on sinners to repent, other return to point out hidden treasure.

This book covers a wide range of such experiences after an introductory chapter there are sections of ancient ghosts, ghosts in the western tradition, ghosts in the eastern tradition, ghosts in Latin American and the southern hemisphere, ghosts and science, ghosts in literature and film, ghosts in popular culture. Covering such a broad remit in less than 200 pages means that this something of a whistle stop tour and if it has a major omission, it is any account of actual ghostly experiences, so this is not a book for the dedicated psychical researcher or the academic folklorist, but makes a really good Christmas gift. - Peter Rogerson.

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