What we read about when we read about ghosts

The internet has been good for ghosts. A quick search will throw up page after page of links to almost every kind of phantom, haunted house or supernatural entity you care to imagine.

Search ‘ghosts’ and you’ll soon learn that – to paraphrase Agent Fox Mulder – ‘You are not alone’. Perhaps the best thing about the internet if you’re interested in ghosts is that there’s always someone, somewhere talking about them. You’ll find reports, articles, photos, footage and groups online – from the academically serious to the seriously deranged. A small percentage of what you discover may even be relatively sane and well-balanced.

However, for me, when it comes to reading about the subject, you can’t beat a good book for detail, depth and interest. But what makes a good book about ghosts?

Over the years I’ve found a useful thing to do is to learn how to spot the typical negatives of what I’ll term ‘true-ghost books’ and work backwards.

Here is a quick spotters’ guide to some of the more common tropes, clichés and themes that crop up time and again.

1.    Stale material.

Once you’ve read a few books about ghosts and hauntings, you’ll quickly realise that many of the same famous ones keep turning up. In a standard round-up of British ghosts, for example, you’re pretty certain to come across at least some of the following:

Borley Rectory, 50 Berkley Square, Berry Pomeroy Castle, The Screaming Skulls of Agnes Burton, Lord Soulis of Hermitage Castle, the menagerie of ghosts at The Tower of London, the Royalty and serving staff of Hampton Court, the ‘monster’ of Glamis, the ghostly Roman legionaries of York, and – no laughing at the back – Scratching Fanny – The Cock Lane Ghost.

Of course at some point these stories will be new to people – there’s always a first time. My problem is that the same selection of hoary old tales is often included by writers and anthologists almost by default. So many writers rehash them that you begin to feel as though the old stagers concerned are haunting you personally – drifting from book to book and growing duller by the page.

What the better writers do with these famous examples is to add something fresh in terms of insight and information. Recent reports of related activity will be included, anniversary ghosts are checked out in person when due to appear and eyewitness reports are examined carefully. The stronger collections also include less well-known stories, along with more contemporary reports and sightings.

2.    Cut and paste jobs

You’d think the very least that someone putting together a volume detailing apparently real hauntings could do would be to visit the sites they cover. Far too many books simply repeat stories without their investigations taking them any further than the cuttings library.

A clue to this kind of book can be found in the way they introduce their ghosts; if a sentence begins with something like: “It is said”, “Many years ago”, or “About 1870 some boys were…”, then be sure to treat what follows with caution.

Quite a few collections on the ghosts of specific regions or cities are guilty of this sort of behaviour – the kind of thin volumes you can usually find in the town museum or tourist office. Often written by local authors or journalists, you’d think they’d have no excuse for not taking a closer look into things, but you often get the sense that even accounts of hauntings round the corner have gone unchecked.

Another thing to look out for with this type of guide is the name of the author. If, like me, you stumble across a book apparently written by persons named Mr and Mrs P. Dreadful, it’s probably best not to take it too seriously.

However, some of these short, locally focused volumes are excellent. For example Bristol Ghosts (Abson Books, 1977), by Margaret Royal and Ian Girvan – which I acquired long ago in Bristol Museum. As with all the better examples, this short volume rounds up a wide variety of tales and sightings from the city, sets them in context and is written by people who actually bothered to visit sites of supposed hauntings (at least they give that impression). When authors also make the effort to dig out first-hand accounts, question contemporary witnesses and generally delve a little deeper, reader’s are even better served.

3.    I want to believe

With some authors you get the impression that they’d accept much pretty anything they are told or read about. Every last Orb, moving object, shadow, strange noise, gipsy curse, Indian spirit guide and fantastical incident they read or hear about is included and given equal weighting.

The trouble is that while there may well be something to the some of the stories and folklore featured, but with such credulous guides it’s difficult to separate a potential haunting from mere hearsay. Usually in books taking this approach, witnesses are either absent, or their accounts go unquestioned and unverified.

Sensational local and national newspaper reportings often follow the same pattern; reporting a so-called ghost once, spraying about a few random quotes and never following up.

Andrew Mackenzie, in his book Hauntings and Apparitions (one of the good ones), notes that in the years before the founding of organisations such as the SPR or The Ghost Club, writing about ghosts tended to be: “heavily encrusted with the stuff of folk belief, legend and superstition”.

Sadly, many modern-day books continue to fall into the same trap, accepting everything at face value and making no attempt to get to whatever truth may lie beneath the surface.

The more considered contributors set apparent hauntings in context; look into dates and check that stories tally up, by delving into first-hand accounts and cross referencing. Then if any witnesses are alive, they find them and talk to them. In some instances it’s not that hard to check – if there’s an Anniversary Ghost for example – i.e. one that is supposed to appear at a regular date and time – go there, see what happens, or what doesn’t and record it.

4.    The sensationalists

In these cases, the facts don’t matter a jot, the story is all. A frequent practice of authors indulging in this approach is to include details and observations that they cannot possibly know. A serial offender in this area is Elliot O’ Donnell. Take this example from his 1954 book Dangerous Ghosts, concerning a female ghost at Fair Snape Fell, Lancashire, a Belle Dame sans Merci style, evil faerie-temptress type who appears to a man crossing the moor:

she smiled provocatively and beckoned to him to come to her. He needed no second bidding…”

I’ll bet he didn’t. Though of course quite how O’ Donnell knows what expressions were pulled by our spectre or how her victim felt about it, is never explained.

Entertaining though this kind of thing can be, the problem is there’s rarely any contextual or specific factual information supplied and the recorded accounts are often ripe with campy horror and speculative exaggeration.

Occasionally you also find authors taking the opposite course and dismissing absolutely everything and anything ghostly in a rationalist rage, but again, not actually checking individual cases out.

Based on my reading experiences in this area, the better balance a writer achieves between genuine interest and valid scepticism, the more worthwhile the book tends to be.

So there you have it, a short guide to some of the positives and pitfalls of ‘true-ghost books.’ If you like that kind of thing it’s almost as much fun tracking them down as reading them: from White Ladies, Black Monks and Poltergeists to Angry Ghosts, Time slips and Revenants, not to mention haunted houses, inns, castles, theatres and cars, there are volumes about them all.

I’ve also found that so-called true ghost stories can turn up in the most unexpected places, in books that are in the main about something totally different – I’ve found examples in actors’ autobiographies, history books and recently a terrifying aural experience one night in Chanctonbury Ring on the south downs, in Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways.

If you want to read more about ghosts, head for the library, while that increasingly rare breed the local second-hand bookshop  always seems to have one or two ghost books knocking around, long after they probably should have vanished into the night. If your interest runs a little deeper, join The Ghost Club.

This article first appeared in the Journal of the Ghost Club, first quarter 2013. I’ve been reading about ghosts since I was about eight years old, starting with, I think, the Usborne book of Ghosts. This is a little of what I’ve learnt. 

A few personal favourites to look out for are:

Mark Alexander –  Haunted Inns, 1973, Frederick Muller Limited

Andrew Green – Ghosts of Today, 1984, Kaye Ward

Our Haunted Kingdom, 1973, Wolfe Publishing Limited

Phantom Ladies, 1977, Bailey Brothers and Swinfen

Andrew Mackenzie – Apparitions & Ghosts and Hauntings and Apparitions

Andrew Martin – Ghoul Britannia, 2009, Short Books

Leon Metcalfe – Discovering Ghosts, 1972, Shire Books

Diana Norman – The Stately Ghosts of England, 1963, Frederick Muller Limited

Will Storr – Will Storr vs. The Supernatural, 2006, Harper


2 thoughts on “What we read about when we read about ghosts

  1. I agree with all of the points you’ve made in your post. Strong enough to comment apparently 😀 I think the ‘All About Ghosts’ was my nonfiction entry as well. Though in North America it was EMC not Usborne.

    When I set out to write ‘The Haunting of Vancouver Island’ I vowed it would be different. I approached as a skeptical believer, more interested in the stories than proving anything was real. I used my property crime investigation background and experience as a museum assistant researcher to look at the history and included sources in text and pages of them at the end.

    I HATE the cut and paste you talk about as I see it as theft. One other thing I disliked – that isn’t on your list (more of a North American thing maybe) – was the exclusion of Indigenous stories. Or, if included, them being marginalized as “myth” by mainstream Christian old timers. So I included them with sources as well.

    I just want you to know their are others who feel like you do. Thanks for your post!

    Liked by 1 person

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