Last year I focused on funerary customs for the month of October, in honor of Halloween. This time around I’m going to talk about monsters and similar notions! Starting with those who should be dead . . . but aren’t quite.
I mentioned in my theory post on liminality that things which violate our symbolic categories generate a lot of tension, and therefore often generate monsters. Death is a prime case in point. The process itself crosses boundaries; someone who was alive is now dead, and so the transition is fraught with metaphysical danger, not only for the deceased, but for those around them. That’s why we have so many funerary customs — to protect everyone else in that perilous time. And when you don’t take the correct precautions, you wind up with problems.
As near as I can tell, ghosts are a universal concept, cropping up in every society I’ve studied. Without getting into debates over the nature of consciousness, it’s easy to look at human beings and conclude there must be more to us than gross matter; there’s some kind of animating spirit, that one could assume persists after the matter stops moving. When that spirit can be perceived by the living, we call it a ghost.
That perception doesn’t always take the form of a misty but recognizable shape. Sometimes a ghost is a more nebulous fog, or a gust of cold air, or just an unsettling sensation with no visible or tangible component. The linkage between ghosts and mist or air probably has to do with the breath: “spirit” comes from the Latin word spiritus, which means both “breath” and “soul,” and similar connections exist with the Greek pneuma or psyche, the Hebrew ruach, the Chinese qi, and possibly the Polynesian mana. When a person dies they stop breathing, and given the light, subtle nature of air, it isn’t surprising that many cultures have hit on that as the counterpart to the heavy substance of our bodies; Adam, for example, was made from the dust of the earth and the breath of God.
Ghosts may appear dressed as they were in life, or in simple, diaphanous garments that often echo funerary garments. Some of them show the marks of how they died — especially if they died of violence — while others are unmarred, or even younger and healthier than they were at their death. Japanese ghosts traditionally have no feet, fading off into mist; in horror movies, the malevolent kind may have long claws or sharpened teeth.
When ghosts haunt places, it’s most often where they lived or where they died — which can continue even after the original building is gone (so that you get ghosts in very incongruous places), though sometimes destroying the physical structure also banishes the ghost. Or they can haunt people: their killer if they were murdered or cut down in battle, or loved ones, or a person who disturbed their resting place, whether that was a formal tomb (grave-robbers beware!) or just where their body got dumped. They can even haunt objects, so that someone who puts on a article of clothing or jewelry finds themself possessed, or the owner of a piece of furniture or a painting suffers misfortune because of the angry specter attached. This is one of the reasons for grave goods — not only to supply the deceased in the afterlife, but to get rid of that person’s belongings and make sure their spirit doesn’t get tethered here.
Whether a ghost is dangerous to the living depends on what culture it comes from and often what type of ghost it is within that culture, as there can be more than one. Many societies make a distinction between the helpful spirits of ancestors or similar allies, and malevolent phantoms. The latter can pose threats ranging from ill fortune to possession to poltergeist activity to draining the life from their target — usually through either blood or the aforementioned breath. They can even be omens of someone else’s impending death, blurring over into fetches and similar concepts. Helpful spirits, by contrast, most frequently offer guidance and support, but occasionally intervene more directly to protect their loved ones, especially against malign spiritual forces.
Then there’s the question of why a ghost is around at all. Sometimes it’s seasonal: the whole reason I’m making this post in the month of October is because of the belief that the souls of the dead come calling during Halloween or Samhain, and similar beliefs show up in the Roman Lemuria, the Chinese Ghost Festival, and so on. Out of season, sometimes there are specific rituals to summon them, like séances or necromantic magic, in order to communicate with them or leverage their power for malicious uses.
But when we talk about hauntings, we usually mean situations where the ghost persists on its own, and the involvement of the living is more about getting rid of them than helping them come back. Many ghost stories feature the spirits of murdered individuals, or those whose remains weren’t given proper rites. Those phantoms want justice or revenge, and when their killer is brought down or they receive suitable burial or cremation, they pass on to their final rest. Other kinds of unfinished business can produce a similar result, such as passing on a message to a loved one.
In some cases a lingering ghost is the fault of the living, not the dead. Mourning customs can be a way of making certain spirits move on as they should — but the end of those customs can be equally important. Sometimes excessive grief is a chain, preventing the deceased from letting go. Or a haunting can be simple (preter)natural consequence of events in life: the person left an imprint of sorts on the world, repeating a particular activity so often or performing it once so memorably that it continues to echo long after they’re gone.
The methods for laying ghosts and other malevolent beings to rest are varied enough that I’m going to have to come back to the topic of exorcism at a later date. But for now, share your favorite ghost stories in the comments!