When investigating the unknown, it’s best to leave obtuse hypotheses aside until all the evidence has been gathered. For many mysteries, this quest for truth can take centuries, for some even centuries mark only small intervals in our understanding, and in the midst of it all changes in fashionable intellectualism obscure and unmoor previous investigations.
Our search for answers into the nature of hauntings and apparitions has been a source of interest since the beginning of recorded history, with the familiar arguments of both skeptics and believers changing little over the years. Yet the experiences persist, and evoke the deeper levels of our existence, and the nature of our relationships with each other, with ourselves and even with the passing of time itself. Michael Newton explores some of these nuances in his review of A Natural History of the Ghosts by Roger Clarke:
“What do we fear when we fear ghosts? Certainly, they evoke the possibility of elemental entities hidden in the world, at least mischievous and even malevolent. Chillingly, the “Enfield poltergeist” remarked to an interrogator, “I like annoying you.” There is the terror too of the touch of a ghost, the paradoxical physical presence of the disembodied. Or sometimes, in the most ghastly tales, the horror that the ghost may drag us off to whatever alternative space they so drearily inhabit; that we might become like them. Yet, ultimately, the greatest fear must be that, due to some madness or mistake in perception, some hunger or lack, the ghost that dogs us comes from within.
In a 19th-century treatise, the Scottish physician Robert MacNish unravelled the “philosophy of sleep”. He describes a woman trapped in a stultifying marriage, who haunted herself. Beckoning from above, or glimpsed in further rooms, her own apparition, a kind of mirror, flitted and passed. Having lost herself in the process of living, she had doubled up as a kind of ghost, a split figure answering mysteriously to some otherwise unexpressed inner need.
On the evidence of this highly enjoyable (and disturbing) work, Roger Clarke proves impervious to such wimpy frights. Where others naturally flee ghosts, he pursues them. There turns out to be so many British ghosts that it starts to seem odd we all haven’t seen one. Yet sightings remain rare – and for all his assiduous pursuit, Clarke has never himself caught a glimpse. Bernard Shaw remarked to the more credulous Henry James: “No man who doesn’t believe in a ghost ever sees one.” I wonder if that is the case, and side more with the marquise du Deffand, who declared: “Do I believe in ghosts? No, but I am afraid of them.”
Ghosts certainly exist in the sense that people report experiences of them – but what, this book sets out to ask, are they? What do we talk about when we talk about ghosts?”
To continue reading the review, head over to the Guardian UK.