Halloween History Week with your Friendly Neighborhood History Geek!
Ghosts, Beyond the Campfire
Since even Biblical times, people have spun yarns about spectral figures of dead loved ones who would come back and haunt the living. But what started this, and is there any truth to it?
Earliest reports of apparitions were documented by Roman and Greek authors and poets. Well-respected Roman statesman Pliny the Younger recalled a ghostly experience he had in a letter he wrote to a friend, describing seeing an old man wrapped in chains haunting his former home. In 856 A.D. the events of a poltergeist (noisy ghost) were documented in letters from a family who lived at a German farmhouse where this poltergeist was tormenting them; doing things like setting fires, throwing stones and other objects at the members of the family.
The existence of ghosts is based on the idea that there is an entirely separate body that exists within the human body, known as the soul, which becomes separate from the body after death and can wander the earth or move on to the next life. Life after death in itself sparks fierce debates, and adding to that, many people insist that ghosts are real and swear they have seen them. Actually, there are many places where stories are chillingly similar, places like the White House, where several first ladies, presidents, and even important visitors to the White House like prime minsters and queens have felt the presence of former presidents, namely that of President Abraham Lincoln whose ghost has been seen at the White House as soon as the day after he’d been assassinated. In fact, a few days before Lincoln was shot, he told his wife that he had a dream that he was walking through the White House where he then stumbled upon a funeral taking place. He asked the nearest person to him, “Who has died?” and the person told him, “President Lincoln.” Other famous White House ghosts include the ghost of Dolly Madison, who had been sighted numerous times by many visitors to the White House. In the early 20th century, she appeared to a gardener who was renovating the rose garden she had planted. The gardener claimed that he couldn’t hear what she was saying, but she looked angry and was pointing at him and at her roses he was transplanting and her mouth was moving as though she was yelling. Other visitors say that they smell Dolly Madison’s signature scent of rose perfume, usually in the ballroom area where she often hosted lavish parties.
Other haunted locations include The Tower of London, The Lizzie Borden Murder House, Gettysburg Battlefield, and the entire ghost town of Tombstone Arizona. Visitors have come and gone from these locations, and all of them share almost the same tale and claim to see the same figure. Now with the internet, one could easily say that the person read about the story online, but before the internet, things were spread by word of mouth, and even without collaboration, without knowing each other, and without even hearing about a supposedly haunted location, a visitor would still have the same experiences others claimed to have.
Places that are claimed to be haunted are usually those that were the scene of violent deaths, and those who are doing the haunting are people who died violent, sudden, and/or mysterious deaths, and there are many different ways a ghost is said to haunt. People don’t always have to see the apparition. A haunting is also suspected if there are strange sounds or smells that can’t be explained or objects move around on their own or disappear or reappear in odd places.
Science has yet to explain whether or not ghosts exist. There is no proof that they exist, yet there is also no proof that they don’t. Skeptics hold fast that any and all paranormal events attributed to ghosts can be explained, but believers insist that it is real. Many believers have come forward with what they consider proof; photographs, videotapes. Most have been refuted and were explained away as tricks of the light, odd camera angles, or in some cases, flat out very convincing hoaxes. But still there are some photos and videotapes that haven’t been explained, though skeptics are certain that there is a logical explanation for it even if it isn’t yet known. Photographs, especially those taken before the existence of photoshop and other photo altering programs, have ghosts also appearing on the negatives, which is difficult, if it is at all possible, to alter. Even some video evidence of ghostly activity cannot be explained. In 2004, a group of paranormal investigators made a documentary at the Goldfield Hotel where they caught video evidence of a brick levitating off the ground for a few seconds before it was flung across the room. Investigation claimed that there was no possible way a brick that heavy would have been thrown that far without a mechanism that would have been visible on the camera, and a professional cameraman came forward and asked to examine their tape, and went on the live news broadcast claiming that if that video was altered, it was done in a way he hadn’t seen in his 25 years of working with cameras. Probably the best evidence though, at least to ourselves, would be our own experience, and, while I won’t say my own beliefs on this matter, I will say, if ever you see or experience something that you can’t explain with any other reason except that it must be supernatural, then you will barely even believe yourself.
There are also many different types of ghosts that have been passed around in lore. Some of the following include:
The Eidolon (Pronounced I-Dol-En) is a Greek word meaning “Image.” By definition, it’s a specter or phantom that is an exact copy, or image of a person that can be living or dead. The idea of the eidolon was explored by both Homer and Euripides. Homer used the concept of the eidolon to give Helen of Troy a sort of life after death, and Euripides used the theory with the idea of ‘kleos’ which means ‘one being the product of the other.’ Another famous poet, Walt Whitman, described the eidolon in his 1876 poem “Eidolons.” One of the stanzas of the poem read “Thy body permanent, The body lurking there within thy body, The only purport of the form thou art, the real I myself, an image, an eidolon.” The myth of the eidolon, originating in Greece, is that a copy of a person living or dead can walk around completely separate from the person of whom they are a copy. In living people, the eidolon can also be described as a doppelganger. If the eidolon is a copy of a deceased person, they can continue living the deceased person’s life as if they didn’t die. Not to be confused with a ghost, an eidolon who is a copy of someone who has passed away has the capability to see and be seen by all, speak and be heard by all, and interact with all, to the point where no one even knows that the eidolon is actually a spiritual being, and not a physical person.
The Poltergeist, German for noisy ghost, was first documented at a German farmhouse in 856 A.D. terrorizing a family living at the farmhouse. This type of ghost is to blame for paranormal activity ranging from childlike pranks to tragic disasters. Different from a traditional ghost, poltergeists are often associated with haunting a person, rather than a location. Scientists have tried to explain poltergeist activity by saying that much of it is a trick of the mind or can be caused by natural magnetic fields, unusual drafts, or even seismic activity that we might not be able to feel but objects could react. Still, there are some poltergeist cases that have been investigated and scientists still have yet to explain them, such as the Enfield Poltergeist, The Rosenheim Poltergeist, and The Borley Rectory.
The Banshee is of Irish origin, and is portrayed as a female specter whose presence warns of impending death, either by shrieking or by appearing with the image of bloodstained clothes of the person who is about to die. Earliest sightings of the banshee started in the 1300s, shortly after a piece of literature, called Triumphs of Turlough was published, and the banshee legend is believed to be inspired by women called ‘keeners’ who would be hired to wail at funerals of prominent Irish families. The later versions of the banshees were said to be the ghosts of pregnant women or women who died in childbirth. They could also appear as terrifying old hags.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, the idea of them is pretty unnerving. And whether or not they exist could be something none of us finds out until we ourselves take the journey of life after death. Who knows. If they are real, perhaps you might one day become a ghost yourself.