“The problem with real ghosts, as opposed to the elegant fictional creations of the likes of MR James and Susan Hill, is that their behaviour is so erratic and irritating,” write the  Telegraph ‘s reviewer of a new book called  A Natural History of Ghosts . The book includes

a very long chapter about Hinton Ampner, an Elizabethan house where a tall dark female figure roamed around to the accompaniment of bangings, crashes, groans and shrieks. Was she the spirit of the illegitimate child fathered by the lord of the house and throttled by his manservant? Who knows or cares? She certainly made life unpleasant for those living there.

I’ve thought that myself, when reading stories about ghosts, who act like very very bored and very ill-mannered children, of the sort who find bothering people for no reason amusing. Sometimes they’re reported to do things worthy of a ghost, but not very often. But that childish malevolence may be an argument for their existence, since it’s not the natural form a myth would take or a conman invent.

The reviewer asks what are they? The author of the book, Richard Clarke,

quotes, without comment, one ghost-hunter’s belief that they are “the electrical residue of emotions that became entangled with the living”. Lord knows what that is supposed to mean. Another “seminal figure”, Hans Holzer, defined them as “a surviving emotional memory”, unaware of their own death and therefore in need of help.

Not very helpful. But whether or not the ghosts people think they see or claim to see are real, the book looks interesting as a cultural history.

I am myself agnostic about the existence of ghosts, being restrained from my preferred disbelief by the weight of evidence. There’s the testimony you read and hear about and the occasional story from people you know. Two people who were about the last people who would see strange ethereal presences told me privately about their experiences, and were rather eager that I not repeat the story because they knew other people would think they were nuts. One told a story I can’t find a way of discounting.

In any case, the review reminded me of an enjoyable passage from G. K. Chesterton’s  Orthodoxy . It’s not entirely fair to the skeptic’s case — it is easier to be fooled by the appearance of a ghost than of a murder — but he makes a good point about the way many skeptic’s weigh testimony.

The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both.

Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story.

That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism — the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence — it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed.

But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle. If I say, “Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,” they answer, “But mediaevals were superstitious”; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles. If I say “a peasant saw a ghost,” I am told, “But peasants are so credulous.” If I ask, “Why credulous?” the only answer is — that they see ghosts.

Articles by David Mills


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