Halloween isn’t the only time for ghosts and ghost stories. In Victorian Britain, spooky winter’s tales were part of the Christmas season, often told after dinner, over port or coffee. Just think of the opening of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw,” in which friends share eerie stories around the fire on Christmas Eve. During the coming week how many people will reread, watch, or attend performances of Dickens’s ghost-filled masterpiece, “A Christmas Carol”? From the late 19th to the early 20th century, the December issue of almost any general-interest magazine regularly featured a holiday horror or two.
In “Ghosts: A Haunted History,” Lisa Morton offers a compact account of the human propensity to believe in otherworldly apparitions. She discusses, among other matters, haunted houses, spiritualism, ghost-hunting, “Day of the Dead” and spectral terrors in literature, film and popular culture. To give body and shape to these phantoms and airy nothings, Morton packs her book with images — of paintings, creepy spirit photographs, movie stills and even a full-page illustration of Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” writes vividly, if not quite accurately, of “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.” In fact, the traffic on the supernatural highway between the afterlife and this world is actually pretty heavy. “Nearly half of all Americans currently believe in ghosts,” Morton writes, “and in other countries belief runs even higher (for example, 87 per cent of Taiwan’s office workers believe in them).”
“Ghosts” abounds with phantasmic lore of every kind. Did you know that there are distinctions among specters? A “wraith” or “fetch” is “technically the spirit of someone who is still alive.” A “revenant” refers to “a dead person who returns in a physical body.” Morton tells us about Egyptian soul essences — the ka, ba, and akh — and ancient Rome’s demonic lemures and the Icelandic draugar, who were powerful, reanimated corpses. In Catholic doctrine the departed do not return to earth; instead, as Thomas Aquinas declares, “demons often pretend to be the souls of the dead.” If, by chance, you want to summon up the dead, the 1521 spell book called “The Red Dragon”—also known as “The Grand Grimoire”— contains the relevant instructions: To begin with, “it is absolutely necessary to assist at the Christmas Mass, at precisely midnight, in order to have a familiar conversation with the inhabitants of the other world.”
Does Morton herself believe in ghosts? She never says. But she offers extended accounts of famous hoaxes, such as Daniel Defoe’s “A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs. Veal” and 18th century London’s “Cock Lane Ghost,” notorious for its knockings, scratchings and peculiar “fluttering sound.” When Morton considers the mediums of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Fox sisters, the Davenport brothers and Annie Fay, she emphasizes that nearly all of them were ultimately proved to be fakes and charlatans. She explains that “ectoplasm”— the wispy white stuff glimpsed at seances — was usually made of chewed paper. When the spirits performed their tricks in a darkened room, it was secretly regurgitated or removed from an intimate body cavity.
Among the many haunted locales Morton describes are England’s Borley Rectory and Tower of London, Colorado’s Stanley Hotel (the inspiration for Stephen King’s “The Shining”), the Venetian island of Poveglia (where plague victims were once quarantined), and the LaLaurie mansion in New Orleans. She also touches on Jay Anson’s “The Amityville Horror” and similar books — often made into films — about families who, to their chagrin, move into houses inhabited by poltergeists and other entities. Ghost tourism is, believe it or not, a widespread and lucrative business.
Many cultures believe that on a certain day — Halloween, the Irish Samhain Eve, Mexico’s “Dia de los Muertos” — the veil between this world and the next is especially thin. In her chapter on Asian beliefs, Morton emphasizes China’s “Hungry Ghost” festival, when it is said that “the gates of Hell are opened and ghosts return to our world to commune with their families.” She then goes on to discuss the classic collection of zhiguai, or uncanny tales, such as Pu Songling’s “Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio” (which this reviewer wants to read in the new Penguin translation by John Minford). In outlining Japanese supernaturalism, Morton naturally refers to Lafcadio Hearn’s “In Ghostly Japan” and “Kwaidan,” mentioning the eerie and beautiful movie made of the latter.
Turning next to India, Morton focuses on that country’s ghostly “bhuts”:
“Bhuts have some intriguing characteristics: they are always hungry and thirsty; they avoid salt; they attack people who have just eaten sweets (which explains why sellers of sweets sometimes provide salt); they especially like milk; they may be very malignant if the spouse they left behind remarries; they may enter the body during a yawn and be expelled by a sneeze; and they cannot sit on the ground. . . . Bhuts always appear stark naked (thus answering one of the principal objections that nineteenth- century Western skeptics had to their ghosts, which were always described as clothed), and they sometimes abduct women. Bhuts can appear almost indistinguishable from human beings, but there are three tests for detecting a bhut: it will cast no shadow; it cannot endure the smell of burning turmeric; and it always speaks with a nasal twang.”
In a chapter titled “The Quest for Evidence,” Morton examines the various tools of the contemporary ghost-hunter: the electromagnetic frequency meter, the “ovilus” for reading atmospheric changes, lasers, thermometers (for those sudden cold spots in haunted houses), thermal cameras and even apps for your phone. She also lists the common scientific explanations for seemingly inexplicable sightings: stress, suggestion, being in a hypnagogic state (the twilight period when you are just falling asleep), and the hallucinatory side effects from certain diseases such as epilepsy.
At the end of her book, Morton glances at the ghost in literature, film, and popular culture. She rather scants fiction, only mentioning the major Gothic novelists (Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis) and doing little more than alluding to the stories of Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James, before lingering a bit longer on Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House.” By contrast, she provides a virtual filmography of the ghost story on film, starting with older classics — “The Uninvited,” “The Innocents” and “The Haunting”— and concluding with later cult hits such as “Poltergeist,” “The Sixth Sense” and “Ringu.”
Because Morton ranges so widely, “Ghosts: A Haunted History” sometimes risks seeming just a grab-bag of spooky folklore. Still, the book reminds us that it’s when the days are shortest and the nights darkest that we most need warmth and light and family. Paradoxically, it’s at this same time of the year, and under just those cozy conditions, that we most enjoy spooky stories. “There was a man dwelt by a churchyard,” whispers a character in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” and then breaks off. No matter. People have been imagining, and telling, what happened next ever since.
Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of ”Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
By Lisa Morton
Reaktion Books. 208 pp. $25