Personally, I have never seen a ghost, though once I heard my daughter, who was 2 1/2 at the time, having a conversation with one.
I was staying in my mother's 16th-century cottage in Hoveton St. John, Norfolk, on the east coast of England, where I was born and lived until I was 18. One night I woke with a start to the sound of childish laughter from Miranda's room next door.
"Give me, give me," she gurgled. "Give, give." It sounded as if someone in the room were holding an object just out of reach, tantalizing her. I froze, too terrified to get out of bed. "Give! Give!" she insisted impatiently. "Me! Me!" Her voice rose to a wail. But instead crying, she burst into peals of laughter. "Thank you, thank you," she chortled delightedly. For the next 25 minutes until she fell asleep she held a conversation with someone. "Look! Look!" she shouted. Then she would pause. "Here, give! Give me!" More laughter. The following morning I asked if anyone had visited her in the night and she said, "Nice man."
My mother "senses" that her house is haunted, though only with "friendly spirits" like the "nice man" playing with Miranda in the night.
This summer I returned to England to look up old haunts, leaving America in the grips of the Amityville Horror -- green slime oozing out of walls, blood dripping from keyholes, wives being seduced by demon lovers, a disembodied red-eyed pig's head floating through the window and lawsuits all around. Even in England, where hauntings are more easily accepted and ghosts more genteel, nobody could ever believe such extraordinary happenings.
Yet the English aren't embarrassed to believe in ordinary ghosts. After all, they have a long tradition of hauntings.
One expert estimates there are more than 20,000 haunted houses in England. Then there are the unrecorded haunted places. But tell an American, especially an American male, that you believe in ghosts and he will regard you with the skeptical amusement reserved for English eccentricities and female gullibility. I have noticed, however, that if you insist on pursuing the conversation, invariably he will recount some supernatural event, if not one he experienced at least one experienced by a friend. My husband, for example, after scorning such "way-out nonsense," reluctantly acknowledges that at 2 in the morning when his mother died 500 miles away, he awoke in a cold sweat, feeling very close to her. U.S. tourists, British travel authorities report, are the first to sign up for the ghost tours and overnight stays in haunted castles. The supernatural, it seems, fascinates believers and Americans alike.
Norfolk has the reputation as one of the most haunted areas of England. The flat coastal lands of East Anglia were fiercely fought over. For hundreds of years Anglo-Saxon pirates crossed the inhospitable North Sea making their way up the inland waterways and over the fens to sack and pillage. Then came the Vikings and the Normans. In the Middle Ages Norfolk grew prosperous on the wool trade, building a magnificent cathedral at Norwich as well as many large churches which now stand empty but for the ghosts and a scattering of worshipers on Sunday. Most of the early Puritan settlers in the New World came from this region, transporting the old place names with them.
As a child, it never occurred to me to question the existence of ghosts. Too many friends and relatives had encountered them. Most of the old houses like Blickling Hall or Polstead and Borley rectories had ghosts or poltergeists.
The troubles at Polstead Rectory were still going on as recently as last year, when the new vicar, the Rev. Hayden Foster, and his wife moved out after only five days' residence and asked to be transferred to Ireland. The Fosters hadn't believed the tales of ghostly footsteps and eerie sounds of a child wailing in the 200-year-old house, but decided to relocate after Mrs. Foster awakened in the middle of the night to discover that the contemporary furnishings of her bedroom had vanished and she was surrounded by a drab 18th-century decor and filthy, peeling wallpaper. Embarrassed by the publicity, Church of England authorities sold the house. It is now being modernized by a London antique dealer.
I recall my mother's friend Ula, an artsy-craftsy woman who lived at Ludham Hall, an old ivy-covered brick house standing on the edge of the marshes, two miles from St. Benet's Abbey. Today all that remains of St. Benet's, once the largest monastery in the area, are a few flint arches on the river bank where cows shelter when it rains. Villagers claim the hall, once the bishop's palace, is haunted by a monk who was trapped in a passage running under the marshes to St. Benet's. But Ula, a young woman with little use for gossip or ghosts, had no fear of sleeping alone at the hall when her husband was fighting in the Second World War.
"One night I remember waking up and seeing what looked like a gray figure standing at the foot of the bed," she told my mother years later. "I switched on the light and it disappeared. I thought it was my imagination and from then on always slept with the light on."
Years later, after her husband returned from the war, an old friend of Ula's revealed that she too saw a cowled figure at the foot of the bed when she was a guest at the hall. Not wishing to scare her hostess, she didn't mention it. This woman, however, had none of Ula's skepticism and asked the ghost his name. "Father Jeremy," he replied. "Pray for me." And he disappeared.
In 1947 my Aunt Joyce rode out of the driveway on her bicycle and was killed instantly by a passing truck. A few days later a white-faced gardener came to the door. He had seen "Miss Joyce" standing at the window.
As a child my cousin Suzanne had a terrible phobia about burned-out buildings, hysterically insisting she be driven miles out of the way rather than pass a gutted barn or a charred house. Years later she was driving at dusk along a lane in devon not far from their farm, when she looked up from the wheel and caught sight of a burned-down cottage at the side of the road.
"Look, that cottage has burned down," she said, pointing it out to her husband sitting beside her.
"I remember it clearly to this day," she told me when I asked her about it recently. "It was vivid. The roof was gone and the charred girders formed a distinctive crisscross pattern." But when her husband looked he only saw a neatly kept cottage, no sign of fire. When Suzanne looked back, that's what she saw too. That night the cottage burned down, gutting the roof and exposing the rafters in the same crisscross pattern.
There is a ghost which haunts nearby Hickling Broad, a large body of water that makes up part of the 200-mile stretch of inland waterways called the Norfolk Broads. In winter if Hickling Broad freezes over, a lone figure can sometimes be seen skating leisurely across the ice at night. Locals who have seen him say he wears a kind of uniform. The skater, according to legend, was a young soldier barracked in Norfolk during the Napoleonic wars. One night he skated across the broad to meet a girl and fell through the ice.
On dark stormy nights a huge black hound, saliva dripping from his mouth, is seen loping along the five-mile stretch of cliff between Sheringham and Beeston. Black Shuck, as he is called, disappears into the graveyard of the church at the top of the cliff, howling for his master who is buried there.
The phone never stops ringing at the British Society for Psychical Research, a hotbed of learned speculation about ghosts which is located at Adam and Eve Mews in Kensington. "The problem," laughs Nicholas Clark Lowes, librarian of the world's finest collection of books on psychic phenomena, "is that the public wants to get rid of ghosts and we want to keep them so we can investigate them."
Effort to understand ghosts and their habits dates back to Stone Age man, who buried his dead with elaborate ceremonies to ensure the souls rested in peace. The ancient Egyptians were plagued with spirits and deities in need of appeasement. Both the Greeks and the Romans as well as the Chinese and Indian cultures included ghosts and spirtis wandering the earth, interfering in the affairs of men. Ghosts appear in the Old Testament and in the writings of the early Christian Fathers.
Strangely, our scientific age, which puts men on the moon and babies in test tubes, has not undermined the belief in the supernatural. On the contrary, recnt years have witnessed an extraordinary interest in the occult in the form of books, films and weird cults. Though the Church of England hates to admit it, each of its dioceses includes an exorcist, a specially trained priest who regularly casts out spirits and devils from people and places. Moreover, both European and U.S. surveys show that between one-third and two-thirds of the population has experienced some type of psychic happening, like seeing an apparition experiencing telepathy, precognition, or the mysterious movement of objects.
Both the British Society for Psychical Research and the London Ghost Club are quick to deny a corporate line on ghosts. "We are a learned society. We encourage all views, but we have no official theories," insists Dr. Hugh Pincott, honorary secretary of the SPR, who views the 1,000-member group as a prospective bridge between science and age-old mysteries that hitherto have defied explanation.
To believe or not to believe in ghosts is hardly a question for scientific-minded ghost hunters. There is enough evidence contained in more than 10,000 files stored in the cramped attic archives of the SPR to convince most of them that people see ghosts, that houses are haunted and strange objects can fly around the room by themselves. The cause is another matter. Are they the creations of the human mind or are they related to some so far undiscovered outside influence -- or both?
Veteran ghost-hunters divide hauntings into two basic categories -- spontaneous and traditional. They call the first group "crisis apparition." At times of stress, as for example, in Hamlet, a ghost of a dead relative or close friend appears, usually with a message. In a recent medical study of 300 widowers and widows, 64 percent reported visits from departed spouses. The explanation for these apparitions lies within the little understood physical universe of the head, says Arthur Ellison, president of the SPR and professor of electrical engineering at London's City University. Research into altered states of consciousness (ALCs in the jargon) on both sides of the Atlantic show that the human brain, like a car, changes gears, locking into different levels of awareness. When idling in a low state of arousal, as for example in meditation, reverie or day-dreaming, the brain can create imagery from an enormous cauldron of unconsciously perceived material. (Neurophysiologists estimate that we only remember consciously about 10 percent of the information we perceive. The other 90 percent -- sights, smells and sounds -- are stored for future use.) To see a ghost the mind must be relaxed, which is why so many ghosts appear when last expected.
The mind is also a vehicle for triggering poltergeists, the experts maintain. An unexplained energy, emanating from the brain, especially of adolescents or people who are emotionally disturbed or upset, can transport objects. "It is more a haunted person than a haunted place," says Peter Underwood, president of the London Ghost Club. "You move the person to another place and it still goes on."
Obviously, traditional hauntings, i.e., apparitions seen repeatedly by different people, or poltergeists who continue for succesive generations to make pictures fall and doors bang cannot be explained by neurophysiology alone.
Spiritualists, of course, offer a traditional explanation. Ghosts, according to Basil Groves, a businessman recently called in to investigate a ghost at a charity gift shop in Norwich, are earthbound spirits who for some reason are unable to take up residence in the spirit world. He views his investigations as ghost rescue missions.
"I talked to the woman who was causing the trouble in the shop," he explains very matter of factly. "She was a very haughty lady who lived 200 years ago. Clothes from an old estate in West Norfolk had been brought into a shop including a ball dress she had worn the evening before her husband was killed in a hunting accident. She was upset about it being sold." h
Scientific investigators don't necessarily disbelieve survivalists like Basil Groves, though they maintain that spiritualism is riddled with fraud, much of which they have exposed over the years. Leaving aside frauds, many clairvoyants and sensitives genuinely do see and talk to ghosts. It's their explanations most researchers quarrel with. On the other hand, the "scientific" investigators have to admit that their theories don't make much scientific sense either.
"I think it is quite possible that there is some sort of automatic recording which we don't understand," says Peter Underwood, who was first introduced to ghosts as a small boy when he spent summers in his grandparents' haunted house. "Violent and dramatic happenings in some way could be imprinted on the atmosphere under certain circumstances."
This idea of an atmospheric video trace which is mysteriously turned on by human vibes sounds as strange today as the idea of television or satellite communications would have sounded to people a hundred years ago. Yet, ghost hunters like Underwood believe a time will come when we shall be able to artificially trigger or even create certain types of ghosts.
Speculations about past ghosts or even living ghosts seem within the realm of possibility. However, speculation about ghosts of the future, that is being able to see events which haven't happened yet, boggles the mind of the most blase ghost hunter.
One case on file at the SPR involves a couple who were looking for a house. In a reoccuring dream the wife had seen her ideal home down to the layout of the rooms and the details of the wallpaper. The couple looked at hundreds of houses, but none was the dream house. One day they went to see a cottage which had been on the market an unusually long time. As the wife walked up the path she recognized her dream house. The door was opened by the real estate woman. She looked taken aback although she was expecting them. The house was as familiar to the wife as it it had been her own. "We'll buy it," she told the agent. "It's a beautiful house, I can't understand why no one has bought it before." The agent looked uncomfortable. "There's something you should know," she told the couple. "The house is haunted. Several people have seen the ghost as well as myself."
"Who is the ghost?" asked the wife.
"You," replied the agent.
English ghosts are harmless. They can frighten you, but not hurt you, though some people believe you should carry a small religious artifact like a cross for protection if you know you are going to encounter an evil one.
Poltergeists, it is true, are mischievous and cause inconvenience by hiding things or making pictures fall and doors slam, as in the famous Borley Rectory case. For example, parents of a friend of my sister's opened a bookstore in an old Tudor house in Norwich. Books they swore they had placed on one shelf suddenly appeared on another. They attributed this to a poltergeist, for whom they eventually developed considerable affection.
Of course, a belief in ghosts is irrational. But who am I to pooh-pooh the supernatural -- all the demons, spirits, apparitions, wraiths and specters whose antics have so enriched our culture? Frankly, is it any more crazy to believe in ghosts than in the authorized apparitions of established religions? After all, they haven't been scientifically proved either.
One day, no doubt, science will explain ghosts. Then the mystery, fear and excitement of the supernatural will be lost. No longer will trick-or-treaters take to the dark streets expecting to meet ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night. Meanwhile, as Hamlet said to his friend after seeing the ghost of his father, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."