Books

How ghosts went out of fashion – and returned

Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo, by Théodore Chassériau

The Ghost: A Cultural History
by Susan Owens, Tate Publishing, 288pp, £20

Zombies and vampires may be the fantastical creatures du jour in popular culture, but ghosts are sure to stage a comeback sooner or later. As Susan Owens suggests, it is perhaps a “reflection of the phlegmatic British character that, by and large, we quietly cohabit with our resident ghosts – whether we wholeheartedly believe in them or not”.

Spooks have suffered setbacks through the ages. The Reformation tried to obliterate purgatory, and the Enlightenment told us all to grow up, but the Brits were never willing to jettison their fascination with all things spectral.

The contours of Owens’s narrative are not groundbreaking: we encounter all the “decisive rearrangements in our mental furniture” that made belief in ghosts an object of ridicule or a hallmark of intellectual inquisitiveness. She does, though, have an excellent eye for the captivating story and the telling quotations come thick and fast in these pages.

We meet Robert Wisdom in 1543 declaring that “souls departed do not come again and play boo-peep with us”, and Thomas Hobbes, in thrall to modish 17th-century philosophising, insisting that the very word ghost “signifieth nothing, neither in heaven nor earth, but the imaginary inhabitants of man’s brain”.

But we also encounter those who simply weren’t sure: such as Daniel Defoe, who is found arguing for balance between “our ancestors laying too much stress” upon ghosts and a “present age endeavouring wholly to explode and despise them”.

Quite the most fascinating part of the book tackles the ghost-obsessed Victorian era. Oddly enough, it was technological advances that helped bring the spirits back into fashion and turned them into the vaporous, shifting caricatures with which we’re now so familiar.

You will likely emerge from this book agreeing with Robert Burton who, despite his know-it-all tendencies, conceded that, when it comes to ghosts, “the question be very obscure” and “beyond the reach of human capacity”.