Ghosts as modern history (Book review)

Lisa Morton presents another version of the history of ghosts in Ghosts: A Haunted History (Reaktion Books, London, 2015). In this case, it is an international popular history of ghosts in philosophy, literature, movies, television and pop culture. It is general and short, but good. The glossy pages are full of illustrations. The theme of this, and other contemporary books on paranormal culture, is “ghosts are everywhere”. They certainly are ubiquitous in western pop culture. You can’t watch TV, go to the movies, or visit a historic city without bumping up against them!

The theme of this book might be that defining ghosts is not simple and then providing various examples to illustrate. ‘Ghost’ varies between cultures. Morton describes the standard classification of ghosts but notes how it changes through time, and certainly across the world. In Taiwan, she cites, 87% of the office workers believe in ghosts. We are introduced to China’s Hungry Ghost Festival and Mexicos’ Day of the Dead. These treatments are in stark contrast to the American and Western European treatment of ghosts. In real estate, a disclosure may include questions about any form of “stigmatization” of the property, such as violent crime or allegations of a haunting because some people consider this potentially objectionable (and negotiate a lower price). Ghosts are, respectively, part of the fabric of human society.

Morton points out that ghost tourism was given a major boost by the Ghost Hunters television show. The Stanley Hotel, as the example, only began to turn a profit in 1996 when they promoted it as the filming location of The Shining and its reputation as legitimately haunted (which is supported by subjective and weak evidence from paranormal teams including TAPS).

This is a good introduction to ideas about spirit photography, the long history of using “ghost” as a verb (Shakespeare did it in Antony and Cleopatra), and several famous ghost legends of the Tedworth drummer, the Cock Lane ghost Scratching Fanny, the Bell Witch, and La Llorona. The latter, brought with Hispanic immigrants to the US where it gained more widespread popularity including being featured in Universal Studios Halloween Horror Night maze and attractions.

Also of note is the section on the influence of an entirely fictional, satirical comedy movie Ghostbusters. I remain amazed at the stream of influence – not unlike the psychically-reactive stream of goo flowing under NYC in Ghostbusters II – that this movie has had in paranormal culture. It fueled the popular notion (though not a new one) that ghosts are energy that falls in the electromagnetic spectrum that can be detected by hand-held devices. I messaged my colleague Kenny Biddle when I found the book contained a mention of his debunking of the usefulness and accuracy of the infamous K-2 meter – a gadget that may perhaps claim direct lineage from the PKE meter in Ghostbusters.

Sadako does publicity by throwing pitches at a Japanese baseball game.

There are not that many books that reference modern ghosts such as Sadako of Ringu (1998) and The Ring, who has become the iconic ghost image of the early 21st century – the girl with long black hair in white clothes. However, Morton does not delve deeper into the Asian cultural folklore roots like more academic books – she sticks to modern touchstones like the re-emergence of Ouija board as the hot toy of Christmas 2014. Morton has a good feel for the modern popular ghost. She spots the various horror tropes used by television reality shows like Ghost Hunters that have shaped modern paranormal views, possibly eclipsing the historical view of ghosts entirely! I suggest this is immediately relevant in the fact that Morton fails to mention the SPR (Society of Psychical Research, U.K.) entirely. The history of ghosts in the spiritualism context is given very short shrift. For a book with a focus on that, see Peter Aykroyd’s A History of Ghosts (2009). Ironically, the Aykroyd family was originally instrumental in the Spiritualism explosion in the 1900s and kept the faith, so to speak, up to (and past) the generation of Peter’s grandson, Dan (who wrote Ghostbusters by drawing upon the historical knowledge of psychic mediums).

Morton’s Ghosts is a fun and easy, but incomplete jaunt through ghost lore. She points out a highly relevant point that regularly mentioned work by Persinger (tectonic strain theory) and Tandy (infrasound), lauded by modern amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs), has never been duplicated and is weak. Yet she fails to note that the ghost hunters “flashlight trick” has been debunked long ago. She seems to have a somewhat recent and shallow span of knowledge of the subject, but it’s far superior to the dozens of amateur attempts at ghost histories in self-published books and blogs. Another good history is Clarke’s A Natural History of Ghosts (2012). But the superior, if very much more detailed (sometimes more than you really want) is the volume by Davies: The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (2007). There have been a number of academic treatments of ghosts and hauntology in recent years. I hope to touch on them in future reviews as I tried to collect and examine as many as possible for a comprehensive review of paranormal popular culture for a paper (currently in the review mill).

2 thoughts on “Ghosts as modern history (Book review)

  1. I enjoyed your review books on the history of ghosts, but found it a trifle confusing due to a plethora of Peter Aykroyds

    Peter H. Aykroyd’s book is A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Séances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters.
    He and his brother Dan Aykroyd and are the sons of Samuel Cuthbert Peter Hugh Aykroyd.

    An unrelated Peter Aykroyd is The english novelist and cultural historian Whose book about ghosts is The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time (2010)

    • I included a link to the book by Peter H. I did mistakenly say Dan was his son instead of GRANDson. Fixed that. But, the review was not really about the Aykroyds as much as it was about Morton’s book, though.

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