Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Evolution of Ghosts

From Hamlet to American Horror Story, ghosts have been part of our entertainment and even our darkest fears. The first (known) ghost stories date back to the Roman Empire, when Pliny the Younger wrote about an old man with chains who haunted his home. People visit grave sites, not just to pay respects to the person buried there, but sometimes to encounter the ghost of that person as well. And people report sightings of famous people who have died, like Anne Boleyn, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln.

But you may be surprised to realize that the way ghosts are portrayed in pop culture has changed over time. And these changes have likely also changed people's reported experiences of the paranormal. (Which, in my opinion, lends some credence to more mundane explanations for supernatural experiences.)

A new book, The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens, explores how portrayals of ghosts have changed over time:
Susan Owens begins not with the specters of Halloween or some drafty Victorian haunted house, but with this scene where Scrooge is visited by his former partner.

Charles Dickens described Jacob Marley as “transparent,” and laden with “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel”; otherwise he had “the same face” and garb. Ghosts in the late 18th century and into the 19th century became translucent in part due to new optical shows (like phantasmagoria) and lantern-slides that projected luminous images, as well as the increased use of watercolors in art. “When Dickens made Marley’s ghost see-through in A Christmas Carol, he was drawing on a convention that had only relatively recently been established,” she writes.

Owens is formerly a curator of paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and she explains that as she began to research ghosts in art and literature, she found written records dating back to the eighth century.
Owens book explores a variety of cultural and doctrinal forces that shaped our concept of ghosts, such as the English Reformation - rather than considering ghosts to be souls in purgatory, the belief that souls went directly to heaven or hell meant that wandering spirits had to be something else.

As a lover of horror movies and ghost stories, I will definitely check this book out.

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