27 December 2012


Roger Clarke. A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof. Particular Books, 2012.

As a teenager in the 1980s Roger Clarke was a ghost hunter and his interest went beyond the usual legend questing to being a correspondent of the likes of Peter Underwood and Andrew Green, the latter proposing him as a member of the SPR when only 14.
Roger didn’t just hunt other peoples ghosts, he lived in two haunted houses, and heard things in a third. He never saw anything though, and as the 1980s ended he took up other interests, and his interest in ghosts subsided, but he has now decided to revive it, more perhaps as on onlooker.

His account tells the history of ghost hunting mainly through a series of key stories. There is the late eighteenth century haunting of Hinton Ampner, which Clarke argues is the first modern ghost story, the one that takes the genre out of the realm of witchcraft and theology, and to establish what would be a standard theme of many later stories, both ‘real’ and fictional. A family rent or take a lease on a house in the country. They move in, the neighbours look at them with a querying eye and things start to happen; noises are heard; things are seen, in this case a man and woman; servants leave; eventually the whole family leave. There is a classic psychological angle that will be repeated time and again: the woman left alone in charge of the house, while the husband is away on business. There is the suggestion of a great secret, in this case as in so many others a sexual crime. Not surprisingly it is suggested that this story is not the actual template on which Henry James built The Turn of the Screw, it is at least one of them. However to be honest, the Hinton Ampner ghost is a more than a little too noisy, too common, for Victorian sensibilities.

Clarke now takes us back to times before the modern ghost story, to the beginnings of modernity, the tales of the Drummer of Tedworth, the ghost of Macon, the thing in Epworth Rectory. These are really ancestors of modern poltergeist stories, but whereas in recent years these have been blamed on the ‘sexual energies’ of teenagers, in the past they were squarely blamed on witchcraft. The more cynical might suggest that a mixture of the children in the house and locals outside were to blame. Sceptics at the time thought that was the case, but, were puzzled by how so many strange things could happen when there were large numbers of people present, but the more people around the easier for people to get distracted, and the greater the temptation for the witnesses to get in on the act themselves.

These stories from a sort of liminal zone between ghosts and witches arouse at the end of the seventeenth century and in the early eighteenth because the establishment had begun to fear ‘Sadducees’ rather more than Catholics, and so ghosts which had been exorcised along with purgatory at the Reformation, were allowed back.

Clarke continues with accounts of the ghost of Mrs Veale, an early example of a crisis apparition, the Cock Lane imposture, the rise of rationalism with its medicalization of ghosts, the Gothic/Romantic backlash. Traditional motifs continue: ghosts come in the night to demand vengeance, to point to hidden treasure, to demand the wrongs of the ghost be righted by the living. New themes come into existence, Mrs Crowe imports the word poltergeist from Germany in the collection of ghost stories she called The Night Side of Nature, a collection she compiled a few years before she went mad and ran through the streets of Edinburgh stark naked. Clarke notes how various people such as Sechaverall Sitwell compared Nazi Germany to a poltergeist outbreak. It is less well known that in the original German edition of the Communist Manifesto published in the same revolutionary year as Night Side, communism was a poltergeist, a rampaging wild spirit, not the Banquo’s spectre at the rich man’s feast.

As the industrial revolution led to the urbanisation of society, belief in ghosts did not die out, instead they became mass sources of entertainment leading to the near riotous situations that Clarke likens to ‘flash mobs’, crowds of hundreds or even thousands of people gathering outside allegedly haunted locations. These might be thought of as substitutes for the riotous popular entertainments such as the fairs, freak shows, bull baiting and cock fighting that were gradually being eliminated from the folk calendar in favour of rational entertainment.

Edmund Gurney
There was now a clear folk divide between the ghosts of folklore and urban flash mobs and those of the rising middle class. From the mid eighteenth century onwards the ‘respectable’ people had tended to, at least publically, look down on tales of ghosts, witches and hobgoblins as things that only the plebs and the servants believed in. The National Schools, British Schools and Board Schools would soon educate or at least beat that sort of superstition out of the mob, or so it was thought. By the end of the nineteenth century however the establishment faced a new enemy, Darwinism and the new materialism. Once again, as in the late seventeenth century, the respectable let the ghosts out of their coffins to confound the unbelievers.

Clarke seems to think that ghost stories in this period were the exclusive property of the landed and working classes, but this is not really true, the huge numbers of stories gathered in Edmund Gurney’s Phantasms of the Living come from the ‘respectable classes’, as do the ghost stories in Myers’ Human Personality. The point is rather that they were much tidier ghosts, decent respectable ones, which, like the children, are seen and not heard, or it they are heard it is as delicate rustling of silk or footsteps in the night.

But such was the fear of Darwin and materialism that the SPR eventually got down deep and dirty with the likes of Eusapio Palladino, though they never really reached the bottom represented by Eva Carriere or Mina Crandon. They took spiritualism from working class radicals and made it respectable.

Clarke vividly demonstrates how times change ghost stories and shows how at the beginning of the First world War, the supernatural is represented by the bowmen of Mons, motifs out of ancient English rural tradition, and ends with the haunting of the UB65, a mechanical horror, which Clarke sums up neatly as “a mobile haunted house from which there is no escape”. Neither of these narratives are factually true, but they are powerful metaphors, for the lost innocence of those who went to war, the wrecked post-war world and the submarine becomes a symbol of European civilisation, and the ghost standing on the prow represents all the unnumbered dead whose names litter vast mausoleums and who Carl Jung in his madness imagined coming back from Jerusalem “for they found no answer there”.

The ghosts of the interwar years, at least as portrayed here, are almost a light relief. there is the phantom photograph of Raynham Hall, taken by a photographer as fictional as the photograph (Clarke suspects either the photographer’s wife or some sort of religious statue was used). This was perhaps the last high society ghost. Much closer to the modern was Borley Rectory, and its publicist Harry Price, a man, Clarke notes, whom the respectable members of the SPR would have sent round to the tradesmen’s entrance. Borley itself becomes a symbol of decaying gentility, the vicar who marries late in life to a woman his sisters think poisoned them, rumours that their father had murdered an illegitimate child, the outsider couple one suspects were harried out by racist locals, then the Foysters, for whom the term dysfunctional family might have been invented, surely the prototype of the people whose chaotic lifestyles feature in TV chat shows and confessional magazines “I told my lover my hubby was my Dad!!”

In the post-WWII era ghosts like everything else have become a commodity, where once a suggestion that a house was haunted invoked the danger of being had up for ‘libel of title’ (actually ‘slander of title’), now it is a selling point. The number of haunted pubs, hotels and the like grows by the day; ghosts sell visitor attractions at stately homes. There are legions of books of local ghost stories, written by a wide variety of people, local historians, folklorists, spiritualists, amateur ghost hunters, wannabe psychics, teenage thrill-seekers, the odd psychical researcher or two, and on the fringe characters who are on, if not over, the edge of criminality.

The class division remains, it was the main reason for the split between the SPR and ASSAP, and the partition of the Ghost Club. It is represented by the division between the tourist and heritage industry ghosts, and usually poltergeists, which emanate often from places where no tourist would ever want to set foot, and the police and social workers do so only with reluctance. The stories themselves are often ones of class oppression and class conflict, the wicked aristocrat, employer, landlord, publican etc. and the wronged or murdered servant girl. The flash mobs appear from time to time, but now they hunt for paedophiles rather than ghosts.
  • Peter Rogerson

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