New Worlds: Ghosts

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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!

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.

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New Worlds: Ghosts — 11 Comments

  1. My father, who read Hebrew and Greek during his studies for the ministry, pointed out to me once that the Hebrew word for spirit also meant wind and breath, so that God breathing into Adam gave Adam his soul.

  2. I have lived with ghost most of my life and couldn’t understand why “Nana” didn’t come to dinner with the rest of the family. She moved on about the time we moved out of that house. I was 7 I think. After that I ran into people who other people ran through. Every time I visit a place with history more than 100 years I encounter people who continue through their normal routine endlessly.

    When in Edinburgh in 1971 I was rooming in a Georgian row house and had to get up early the next morning for a field trip. I swear the maid tapped on my door and said in a heavy country brogue “Miss, you need to be up.”

    There were other experiences on that trip I still can’t talk about. Like getting lost in time at Stonehenge.

    • As a child I used to be terribly disappointed that there weren’t any ghosts in my house — construction on it was completed right before my parents moved in, about eight months before I was born. (Doesn’t rule out the possibility entirely, of course, according to movies like Poltergeist. But my house was decidedly lacking in mystery and weirdness.)

      • I built a new house with my then-husband, but by the time I sold it, I seriously told the people buying it that it was haunted. That was not required by the paperwork in that state, but I wanted it said before witnesses that I warned them.

        It was my cat, who died young (8) of an enlarged heart. It seemed to take a year for her to find us, from the emergency vet clinic to the house. My Ex saw her via a bathroom mirror sitting quietly in a closet, and I had felt her more than once as an invisible weight on my lap or walking up the side of the bed next to me.

        I never saw her and he never felt her. My theory is that we all perceive spirits with our dominant sense, with occasional sprinkles of secondary senses. (I have smelled scents that reminded me of my parents, while preparing their condo for sale.)

  3. Pingback: New Worlds: Ghosts - Swan Tower

  4. I went to a summer camp one week a summer between fifth grade and graduating high school. All my favorite ghost stories come from there. There were two ghost/monster stories told every week along with the known history at a bonfire, and a host off less common ones and personal experiences that the councilors and fellow campers might tell. I had my own experience, but I believe it was probably a prank by the councilors who wasn’t there.

    My favorite was called “Satan’s white web of death.” This was one shared exclusively on the cabins before falling asleep.

    During the 5/6th grade girl camp(other grades were mixed sexed) all the male councilors stayed in Moose Cabin instead of in the camper cabins. As you can imagine, it sometimes gets very loud. One of the councilors was trying to fall asleep, but due to the other’s carousing couldn’t. He eventually got fed up and decided to sleep elsewhere. He had decided to sleep in every building before the summer was over and the only two he hadn’t stayed in yet were the Chapel and the Mainlodge. Now, the Mainlodge had a vast number of personal creepy events stories set there, so he decided to take his sleeping bag to the Chapel instead. Away from the noise, he fell asleep easily.

    He woke up in the dark, unsure what had woken him. He tossed and turned, but was unable to go back to sleep. Finally, he used a trick he had learned in childhood. He held his breath until he passed out. (They always included a warning not to do this) Sure enough, he fell back asleep, only to wake again. So he held his breath again. This time, he noticed that he could still hear /someone/ breathing. He was out of his bag and running through the dark back to Moose Cabin without conscious thought. He was almost there when something white caught him.

    The other make councilors heard his shouting about being caught by Satan’s white web of death and came stumbling out of the cabin, flooding the area with light. In our council’s panic, he had forgotten about the hammock some of the councilors had strung up earlier in the day and had tangled himself in it.

  5. In extreme cases you have the original grateful dead, who can pass as human until the very end of the story, where they explain to whatever character they aided that they were the dead person whose funeral he arranged for, and now he may enjoy the benefits their adventures together brought him.