Monday, October 26, 2015

The ghosts? Oh, they all moved out long ago.

In my October wanderings, I've drawn before from A. Roger Ekirch's history of nighttime, At Day's Close, because of course when there is darkness there are ghosts. But their number, it seems, varies with time.

Though 1762 was the year of the celebrated Cock Lane Ghost, Ekirch notes that the same year, nonetheless, also brought a bit of rationalist cheerleading from the Public Advertiser:
We experience every day, that as science and learning increases, the vulgar notions of spirits, apparitions, witches and demons decrease and die of themselves.
By 1788, the Daily Universal Register was ready to take it a step further, making the bold claim that
Not a single building in all London is perhaps now to be heard of, which bears the repute of being a haunted house.
Methinks the editors of the Daily Universal Register, even granting that they were accurate at that moment, may have been extrapolating too much into the future. As Peter Ackroyd points out in his introduction to The English Ghost, the best, ghost-wise, was yet to come:
Nineteenth-century England was perhaps the golden age of the ghost. It may have ceased to have any messages or any advice for the living, but it was everywhere. The yearnings associated with the Romantic movement of English poetry found fruition in the spectacle of the melancholy ghosts. There as much popular interest in spirit-rappings and in spirit-tappings. The fashion for mesmerism, in the middle of the century [Which, let's not forget, swept up Dickens!--ed.], provoked belief in some form of plasma or magnetic fluid that might harbour the forms of spirits. Technological progress also seemed to affirm the existence of spectral bodies, with the appearance of photographs intending to reveal the ghostly occupants of rooms and chairs. The Society of Psychical Research, founding in 1882, lent seriousness and credibility to the quest for spirits. A questionnaire sent out by the society in 1894 revealed that out of seventeen thousand people, 673 claimed that they had seen a ghost in one form or another. It is perhaps curious, however, that the majority of them did not know the identity of the spirit in question. The manifestation appeared arbitrary and purposeless.
Beyond that--and setting science, rationalism, and facts aside--the Daily Universal Register's assertion seems questionable. Has there ever been a human settlement of more than about 100 souls where someone wasn't claiming to be haunted? It seems a basic condition of a species that lives with the awareness of mortality. I can't think of any haunted houses in my small hometown, but I know second-hand of such a claim in London (to say nothing of the many post-1788 accounts found in Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts), and third-and-beyond-hand of countless claims in Chicago. And, on this autumn evening, blessed with the full moon: what about you and your hometown?

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