2 March 2018


Susan Owens, The Ghost: A Cultural History, Tate Publishing, 2017.

Although this book is published by the Tate Gallery itself and is the work of one of its most eminent and respected curators, don’t let that put you off. Not even if you’re an active ghosthunter or, conversely, a nuts-and-bolts-Dawkins-is-God kind of Skeptic/sceptic. With some reservations – see below - Ms Owens is good.
She writes like a dream and tackles her subject with a deft balance between an emotive perspective and, inevitably, a cultural one. Her turns of phrase satisfy, amuse and inform. For all its potentially off-putting cultural garb (should you be more a Most Haunted devotee than a Tate regular), this mostly excellent book succeeds where considerably less sophisticated works all too often fail, despite their pretensions to be uncomplicatedly readable. Owens’ book actually entertains. It is not a chore, not one to stick on the bedside pile that we ‘ought’ to get round to … one day… (And, as might be expected from such a refined publisher, its pages are beautiful. Plus, it even smells like a proper book.) This is a volume to get stuck into, heartily.

Ms Owens is a sort-of believer, or rather not a non-believer, in the reality of ghosts. However, that is not strictly relevant. This book, is – as it says on the cover – about the place of ghosts in British culture over the centuries. And it doesn’t have to be Culture with a capital ‘C’. As she notes, ‘Ghost stories are, and always have been, tales of the people, treasured, told and elaborated from one generation to the next’. Treasured by the medieval agricultural communities as almost the only form of entertainment in the long hours of winter dark, treasured through every layer of society right through to today, when if nothing else, ghosts help sell Brand Britain to foreign tourists. Owen quotes Noel Coward: ‘The Stately Homes of England/Though rather in the lurch/Provide a lot of chances/For Psychical Research’. That was in 1938, but little has changed. Even in the 21st century, a visit to Olde Englande wouldn’t be complete without a delicious shiver at the prospect of encountering at least one of Henry VIII’s unhappy queens, with or without their heads.

However, the perception of ghosts – or perhaps the theory behind their manifestation – has changed enormously from the medieval appearances of saints and demons, when they were almost always accompanied by dire underlying messages about the perils that confront the sinners’ souls in the afterlife (and sometimes in this life, too). Revenants, often almost indistinguishable from modern ideas of vampires or even zombies, molested and stalked the living. Usually a turn to piety was enough to drive them off to Hell, though sometimes their bodies had to be staked or burnt. Never, ever, die unrepentant. Not a great move. Be warned.

The Reformation got rid of inconvenient apparitions – or did it… When reformers excised the idea of Purgatory from the believers’ mindset, many thought ‘the gospel hath chased away walking spirits’. Or not. Soon ghosts became ‘the puppets used on both sides’ – by both old-school Catholics and the new Protestants. Ghosts were, too, associated with witchcraft, which rather complicated matters. ‘Both camps agreed that many apparitions were diabolic illusions designed to trick people. It was a compelling idea, and one that, to most people’s minds, added a fearful new dimension to a ghostly appearance. The involvement of Satan himself in what was already regarded as an uncanny encounter was a downright terrifying prospect.’

There were, even then, sceptics, and sort of proto-psychologists, who argued that it’s ‘melancholie’ – depression – that causes a tendency to see the mournful or menacing what-isn’t-there. Some, less sceptical, argued that conversely, it was seeing ghosts that made you depressed. Actually, things haven’t moved on much further today.

Perhaps, simply because it’s chronologically and figuratively nearer our own time and culture, the second half of this book is the more intriguing. We enter the world of the ghost stories of the very famous, such as Samuel Pepys and Dante Gabriel Rosetti. But of course the biggest name of recent times who popularised ghosts more successfully than anyone else was Charles Dickens, with his publishing phenomenon, A Christmas Carol (1843). Owen notes that this ‘turns the traditional ghost story inside out’, Scrooge, when we first encounter him, having more in common with traditional ghosts than the actual apparitions. ‘He is shunned and feared, and is considered such an anti-social figure that no one ever stops to ask him the way or the time.’

London – the everyday world of Dickens and his first readers – was teaming with invisible ghosts, ‘wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went’. But their angst has a subtle cause: in their disembodied state they can’t help the needy. This is their punishment for being so aloof and anti-humanitarian in life.

All through the humour and the celebrated vivacity of Christmas jollity, this world-famous book is based on the idea that it ‘was an apt time to re-shape the ghost as a moral teacher.’ ‘The hungry 40s’ saw masses living in exceptionally dire conditions, under the unyielding gaze of an oblivious or uncaring ruling class – a situation that drove the fire behind Dickens’ pen. Such was his genius that what was, in many ways, a dramatized moral and political tract, is actually loved by all levels of society and all ages, even in the 21st century. This is the perfect example of the useful ghost. Surely few have served a more useful purpose than Ebenezer Scrooge. (If nothing else, one more or less immediate result of this tale was that many employers gave their underlings a decent amount of time off at Christmas – and better heating, or indeed, any heating at all, in their places of work. The very worst insult that could be levelled at bosses was to be called ‘Scrooge’.)

Obviously a historical overview about apparitions like Owen’s book will take in the rise of the Spiritualist movement and the Society for Psychical Research on the one hand, and the chilling genius of master-story tellers like M.R. James on the other. These might be well-worn paths for authors on this subject to tread, but Owen handles them with both unusual insight and her usual panache.

This is, as I hope I have made clear, in many ways a deeply satisfying book on a vexed and often difficult subject. But, ah…

Although it’s impossible for one volume to include every ghost story and legend, and to some extent, what is included or omitted will always be a matter of authorial preference, there are still some glaring omissions. Yes, we get in some detail classic historical cases such as the Cock Lane Ghost, but where, for example, is the (in)famous Enfield Poltergeist of the 1970s?

The controversy and appeal of this poltergeist saga show no signs of diminishing, especially since the success of its dramatization on Sky Living as The Enfield Haunting (2015), starring Timothy Spall and Matthew Macfadyen as the original investigators, Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair.

But perhaps even more to the point, where is the considerably more controversial television mockumentary Ghostwatch, which was based on the earlier goings-on at Enfield? Shown at Halloween in 1992, and starring Mike Smith, Sarah Greene, Craig Charles and Michael Parkinson, it purported to be a live ghostwatch, with studio link-up. Things rapidly got out of hand, not only in the haunted house itself, but the terrifying poltergeist activity crossed over into the studio, causing mayhem around the cowering presenters. It caused widespread panic among viewers: over 30,000 calls were made to the BBC in a single hour, jamming the switchboard so that most of the traumatised callers never had a chance to hear the recorded statement that made it clear the event was totally fictitious. It was surely a landmark moment in the cultural history of ghosts, but there is no mention of it here.

There are, of course, limits to the basic principle of this book. Yes, undoubtedly, it’s fascinating to see the evolution of culture through the story of ghosts. But some ghosts simply don’t fit the neat chronology of art, poetry, religion, or even television. Some ghosts just are. Just as in life most people don’t easily fall into cultural categories, once in the realm of ghosts, why should that change? -- Lynn Picknett

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