Updated: Jan 16, 2020
In folklore, a ghost is the soul or spirit of a dead person or animal that can appear to the living. In ghostlore, descriptions of ghosts vary widely from an invisible presence to translucent or barely visible wispy shapes, to realistic, lifelike forms. The deliberate attempt to contact the spirit of a deceased person is known as necromancy.
The belief in the existence of an afterlife, as well as manifestations of the spirits of the dead, is widespread, dating back to animism or ancestor worship in pre-literate cultures. Certain religious practices — funeral rites, exorcisms, and some practices of spiritualism and ritual magic — are specifically designed to rest the spirits of the dead. They are believed to haunt particular locations, objects, or people they were associated with in life. According to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Center, 18% of Americans say they have seen a ghost.
The overwhelming consensus of science is that ghosts do not exist. Their existence is impossible and ghost hunting has been classified as pseudoscience. Despite centuries of investigation, there is no scientific evidence that any location is inhabited by spirits of the dead. Research has indicated that ghost sightings may be related to degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Early Ghost Sightings
In the first century A.D., the great Roman author and statesman Pliny the Younger recorded one of the first notable ghost stories in his letters, which became famous for their vivid account of life during the heyday of the Roman Empire. Pliny reported the sight of an old man with a long beard, rattling chains, was haunting his house in Athens. Centuries later, in 856 A.D., the first poltergeist–a ghost that causes physical disturbances such as loud noises or objects falling or being thrown around–was reported at a farmhouse in Germany. The poltergeist tormented the family living there by throwing stones and starting fires, among other things.
Three Famous Historical Ghosts
1- One of the most frequently reported ghost sightings in England dates back to the 16th century. Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth I, was executed at the Tower of London on May 1536 after being accused of witchcraft, treason, incest and adultery. Sightings of Boleyn’s ghost have been reported at the tower as well as in various other locations, including her childhood home, Hever Castle, in Kent.
2- America’s own rich tradition of historical ghosts begins with one of its most illustrious founding fathers: Benjamin Franklin. Beginning in the late 19th century, Franklin’s ghost was seen near the library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Some reports held that the statue of Franklin in front of society comes to life and dances in the streets.
3- Though many ghost sightings have been reported at the White House in Washington, D.C., over the years, perhaps no political figure has made so frequent an appearance in the afterlife as Abraham Lincoln, the nation’s 16th president, who was killed by an assassin’s bullet on April 1865. Lincoln, formerly a lawyer and congressman from Illinois, is said to have been seen wandering near the old Springfield capitol building, as well as his nearby law offices. At the White House, everyone from first ladies to queens to prime ministers has reported seeing the ghost or feeling the presence of Honest Abe–particularly during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, another president who guided the country through a time of great upheaval and war.
Ancient Near East and Egypt
There are many references to ghosts in Mesopotamian religions — the religions of Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, and other early states in Mesopotamia. Traces of these beliefs survive in the later Abrahamic religions that came to dominate the region. Ghosts were thought to be created at the time of death, taking on the memory and personality of the dead person. They travelled to the netherworld, where they were assigned a position, and led an existence similar in some ways to that of the living. Relatives of the dead were expected to make offerings of food and drink to the dead to ease their conditions. If they did not, the ghosts could inflict misfortune and illness on the living. There was widespread belief in ghosts in ancient Egyptian culture. The Hebrew Bible contains few references to ghosts, associating spiritism with forbidden occult activities cf. Deuteronomy 18:11. The most notable reference is in the First Book of Samuel (I Samuel 28:3–19 KJV), in which a disguised King Saul has the Witch of Endor summon the spirit or ghost of Samuel.
Archaic and Classical Greece
Ghosts appeared in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, in which they were described as vanishing “as a vapour, gibbering and whining into the earth”. Homer’s ghosts had little interaction with the world of the living. Periodically they were called upon to provide advice or prophecy, but they do not appear to be particularly feared. Ghosts in the classical world often appeared in the form of vapour or smoke, but at other times they were described as being substantial, appearing as they had been at the time of death, complete with the wounds that killed them. By the 5th century BC, classical Greek ghosts had become haunting, frightening creatures who could work to either good or evil purposes. The spirit of the dead was believed to hover near the resting place of the corpse, and cemeteries were places the living avoided. The dead were to be ritually mourned through public ceremony, sacrifice, and libations, or else they might return to haunt their families. The ancient Greeks held annual feasts to honor and placate the spirits of the dead, to which the family ghosts were invited, and after which they were “firmly invited to leave until the same time next year.”
Ghosts reported in medieval Europe tended to fall into two categories: the souls of the dead, or demons. The souls of the dead returned for a specific purpose. Demonic ghosts existed only to torment or tempt the living. The living could tell them apart by demanding their purpose in the name of Jesus Christ. The soul of a dead person would divulge its mission, while a demonic ghost would be banished at the sound of the Holy Name. Most ghosts were souls assigned to Purgatory, condemned for a specific period to atone for their transgressions in life. Their penance was generally related to their sin. For example, the ghost of a man who had been abusive to his servants was condemned to tear off and swallow bits of his own tongue; the ghost of another man, who had neglected to leave his cloak to the poor, was condemned to wear the cloak, now “heavy as a church tower”. These ghosts appeared to the living to ask for prayers to end their suffering. Other dead souls returned to urge the living to confess their sins before their own deaths. Medieval European ghosts were more substantial than ghosts described in the Victorian age, and there are accounts of ghosts being wrestled with and physically restrained until a priest could arrive to hear its confession. Some were less solid and could move through walls. Often they were described as paler and sadder versions of the person they had been while alive and dressed in tattered grey rags. The vast majority of reported sightings were male. From the medieval period, an apparition of a ghost is recorded from 1211, at the time of the Albigensian Crusade. Gervase of Tilbury, Marshal of Arles, wrote that the image of Guilhem, a boy recently murdered in the forest, appeared in his cousin’s home in Beaucaire, near Avignon. This series of “visits” lasted all of the summers. Through his cousin, who spoke for him, the boy allegedly held conversations with anyone who wished, until the local priest requested to speak to the boy directly, leading to an extended disquisition on theology. The boy narrated the trauma of death and the unhappiness of his fellow souls in Purgatory and reported that God was most pleased with the ongoing Crusade against the Cathar heretics, launched three years earlier. The time of the Albigensian Crusade in southern France was marked by intense and prolonged warfare, this constant bloodshed and dislocation of populations being the context for these reported visits by the murdered boy.
The Modern Period Of Western Culture
Spiritualism is a belief system or religion, postulating a belief in God, but with a distinguishing feature of belief that spirits of the dead residing in the spirit world can be contacted by “mediums”, who can then provide information about the afterlife. Spiritualism developed in the United States and reached its peak growth in membership from the 1840s to the 1920s, especially in English-language countries. he religion flourished for a half-century without canonical texts or formal organization, attaining cohesion by periodicals, tours by trance lecturers, camp meetings, and the missionary activities of accomplished mediums. Spiritualism is currently practised primarily through various denominational Spiritualist Churches in the United States and the United Kingdom.