What Do We Fear When We Fear Ghosts?

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.

6 Comments on "What Do We Fear When We Fear Ghosts?"

  1. bobbiethejean | Oct 29, 2012 at 10:02 pm |

    I thoroughly do not believe in any supernatural nonsense but it still scares me, especially in the dark.

  2. I’ve lived in homes with ghosts and seen them myself so I have no choice but to believe. I’m not generally afraid of them but I do think the thing that scares us is the fear that they will hurt us or want to. We grow up watching it in movies. The other thing I think is that we may not be able to see them or make them leave and they are hear uninvited. Anyone would be afraid of a stranger in their home or a stranger watching them now imagine they’re invisible. It’s unsettling.

  3. I don’t believe in ghosts, I just don’t.

  4. If the common beliefs about ghosts were true, they can see you. But, you can’t see them. They can hit you. But, you can’t hit them. They can walk through walls. You can’t. They can travel from place to place without having to cross the space in between. You can’t.

    In short, if they want to hurt you, there’s no way to prevent that from happening & no way to retaliate. That’s pretty scary.

  5. Dontknow5678 | Oct 31, 2012 at 4:22 pm |

    What Do Animals Fear When They Fear Ghosts? Isn’t a question if we, “rational” beings are afraid but animals sometimes can perceive them and are really affraid. Eg. (true) Somewhere in the world, my sister was in the house of her grandparents when she saw somebody dressed as the grandad used; the dog, a nice and friendly one becomed crazy and tryied to attack him as never did before with anybody. He asked for the gradmother and when my sister was for her listened him saying that the grandmother didn’t taked care of the garden. He talked with her and said something that made her affraid but never said to any other person. My sister followed until the corner were vanished and never back. Neighbours were scared and changed the matter or said nothing when my sister asked about the aparition of my one year ago deceased grandfather that day. Really is true and that house has and maybe have something wrong, when they lived in that country and passed my mother sometimes saw him sitted under a tree as he used to do years ago when alive.

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