In Ghosts: A Haunted History, Lisa Morton offers a compact account of the human propensity to believe in otherworldly apparitions. She discusses haunted houses, spiritualism, ghost hunting, Day of the Dead and spectral terrors in literature, film and popular culture. To give body and shape to these phantoms, Morton packs her book with images — of paintings, creepy spirit photographs, movie stills and even a full-page illustration of Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet talks vividly, if not quite accurately, of “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.” In fact, the traffic on the supernatural highway between the afterlife and this world is actually pretty heavy. “Nearly half of all Americans currently believe in ghosts,” Morton writes, “and in other countries belief runs even higher (for example, 87 percent of Taiwan’s office workers believe in them).”
Ghosts abounds with phantasmic lore of every kind. Did you know that there are distinctions among specters? A “wraith” or “fetch” is “technically the spirit of someone who is still alive.” A “revenant” refers to “a dead person who returns in a physical body.” Morton tells us about Egyptian soul essences — the ka, ba and akh — and ancient Rome’s demonic lemures and the Icelandic draugar, who were powerful, reanimated corpses. In Catholic doctrine, the departed do not return to Earth; instead, as Thomas Aquinas declares, “demons often pretend to be the souls of the dead.” If you want to summon up the dead, the 1521 spell book The Red Dragon — also known as The Grand Grimoire — contains the relevant instructions: To begin with, “it is absolutely necessary to assist at the Christmas Mass, at precisely midnight, in order to have a familiar conversation with the inhabitants of the other world.”
Does Morton herself believe in ghosts? She never says. But she offers extended accounts of famous hoaxes, such as Daniel Defoe’s A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs. Veal. When Morton considers the mediums of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Fox sisters, the Davenport brothers and Annie Fay, she emphasizes that almost all of them were ultimately proved to be fakes and charlatans. She explains that “ectoplasm” — the wispy white stuff glimpsed at seances — was usually made of chewed paper. When the spirits performed their tricks in a darkened room, it was secretly regurgitated or removed from an intimate body cavity.
Among the many haunted locales Morton describes are England’s Borley Rectory and Tower of London, Colorado’s Stanley Hotel (the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining), the Venetian island of Poveglia (where plague victims were quarantined) and the LaLaurie mansion in New Orleans. She also touches on Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror and similar books — often made into films — about families who, to their chagrin, move into houses inhabited by poltergeists and other entities. Ghost tourism is, believe it or not, a widespread and lucrative business.
At the end of her book, Morton glances at the ghost in literature, film, and popular culture. She rather scants fiction, only mentioning the major Gothic novelists (Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis). By contrast, she provides a virtual filmography of the ghost story on film, starting with older classics — The Uninvited, The Innocents and The Haunting — and concluding with later cult hits such as Poltergeist, The Sixth Sense and Ringu.
Because Morton ranges so widely, Ghosts: A Haunted History sometimes risks seeming just a grab-bag of spooky folklore. Still, the book reminds us that it’s when the days are shortest and the nights darkest that we most need warmth and light and family. Paradoxically, it’s at this same time of the year, and under just those cozy conditions, that we most enjoy spooky stories. “There was a man dwelt by a churchyard,” whispers a character in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale — and then breaks off. No matter. People have been imagining, and telling, what happened next ever since.
Michael Dirda reviewed this book for The Washington Post.