Friday, 4 January 2019

Immunity to ghosts and stories about them

Ghosts don't show-up on photos, usually

I have had a lifelong uninterest concerning the subject of ghosts. I don't actively dislike, but am unmoved by ghost stories, and stories about ghosts.

I am happy to acknowledge that there are 'such things' as ghosts, since the credible eyewitness consensus of all times and cultures attest to their reality; but I haven't experienced ghosts (so far as I know) and don't bother trying to seek out such experiences.

Yet the British public are fascinated by ghosts; and belief in - and fear of, ghosts is widespread; including among people who are in other respects highly rationalist, atheistic types.

I lived for a year in Durham Castle, an extremely beautiful, ancient, and architecturally-multilayered set of buildings for which guided tours are given - and the guides reported that the single thing which most excited the guests was a story about a ghost seen around the sinister 17th century carved black oak staircase. This was what really gripped people. Yet the story seems to have been fabricated quite recently by a student guide trying to spice-up the tour experience (and maybe get a bigger tip?).

I once spent the night in this castle absolutely alone, among hundreds of empty rooms - and even the porter absent. The place was full of creaks and other noises, and I felt far more nervous and on-edge than I had anticipated. Yet it wasn't the possibility of ghosts that bothered me - although I'm not really sure what it was.

I once visited the old, rural house of a research scientist; and mentioned casually and jokily that it looked like 'the kind of place' that might be haunted. The next morning, this scientist came to work with hollow eyes and a haggard expression, having been awake all night worrying about ghosts - and very angry with me for having made that off-hand comment.

For many people, therefore, ghosts are a real possibility - whether exciting or sinister; including the Inklings. But not for me - at least not up to now. I'm a bit surprised by my 'blind-spot' on the subject of ghosts; but there it is...


Seijio Arakawa said...

If I recall correctly, the Inklings' analysis suggests many ghosts to be the object-memory of a particular building being affected by significant people or events... interesting, but hardly pointing to any deeper spiritual reality.

Amusingly, your attitude seems to be more or less in agreement with the Harry Potter universe, where ghosts are a commonplace and mostly irritating/uninteresting phenomenon at Hogwarts... they neither present any actual danger, nor do they reveal anything about life beyond death -- a question which becomes thematically important in the final books. The ghosts' only real value is the ability to provide testimony of crimes / historical events.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Seijio - Yes, that seems to be Tolkien's view of ghosts. His interest was probably that the same kind of 'memory' phenomenon might be used to intuit history; for example by touch (psychometry), as Tolkien seems to have done with a meteorite, and written up in Notion Club Papers.

Charles Williams has ghosts play a major role in his last novel - All Hallows Eve.

I can't offhand remember Lewis using ghosts in his stories, but his brother Warnie talks about ghostly visitations a bit in his journal; someone who claimed to have been visited by Jack post-mortem... well, probably that was not exactly as a *ghost*.

And I hadn't thought of the HP comparison, but it makes sense.

HofJude said...

In the first chapter of All Hallows Eve, neither the reader nor the ghosts know that the characters are ghosts until a casual adjective at the end of the chapter, something like "And then the two dead girls walked out of the park." That line stopped me several times over a couple of decades from trying to read further in the book, which I inherited from a dead father-in-law, and has haunted me ever since.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I have precisely the same ghost-shaped hole in my emotional repertoire, and have posted on the subject before:

I once shared a house for a year with the ghost of a Japanese suicide (seen by several people I know and trust, and so presumably "real"). The whole year I was there I never saw, heard, or felt anything out of the ordinary -- but when I moved out and a British friend of mine moved in (trusting my description of the ghost as "the best roommate I've ever had"), the ghost immediately began terrorizing him and his wife, first with poltergeist-type phenomena and later by bothering them in the bedroom with sudden appearances, screams, etc. In the end, the couple resorted to bringing in a team of professional exorcists from the local Taoist temple (resulting in much ribbing from other expats), and that apparently put an end to the persecution.

The Chinese explanation for this is that my "Bazi" (something like an astrological birth chart) is "strong," making me a "heavy" person who cannot see ghosts and of whom ghosts are afraid. My friend, in contrast, is astrologically much "lighter" and thus a prime target for ghostly shenanigans. Exorcism teams have to include both heavy and light members, to locate the ghosts and drive them away.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - Good blog post, which I don't remember reading.

More generally, these 'blind spots' are probably just as significant, in a different way, as our particular wishes and pleasures. My most significant blind spot (and here we differ, I think) is an indifference, almost hostility, to games, puzzles, pastimes. In fact I would like to like these; but as I 'play' I feel a cumulative crushing extreme boredom, rather like being in 'a meeting'. In fact I would be hard pressed to choose between the two.

William Wildblood said...

Two quick points.

One, a friend of mine's mother (I know, that's like I danced with a girl who danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales) swore she played piano duets with a ghost in an Irish country house. I think there might be various sorts of ghost, earthbound spirits strongly attached to physical things and the kind of psychic tape recording 'on the ether' referred to above.

Two, I can't abide board games either. I refused to be roped into them this Christmas and was accused of lacking Christmas spirit. But my reaction to them is just like yours, Bruce.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

As a child, I was extremely interested in everything about games -- except for actually playing them. I read scads of books about chess as a kid, and about D&D in my teens, and loved designing variants on those games and tinkering with rules and such -- but all that was always much more interesting than actually playing such games, something that I literally never did of my own volition, though from time to time it was necessary for social reasons.

Sean Davidson said...

I always like this quote on the subject from Tennyson.."Imaginative people do not see ghosts"

Steve Samson said...

I did not believe in ghosts until I experienced one... And have experienced several in several places including two work places where the ghosts were "just part of the furniture."
I don't believe they are your dead granny come back to tell you something really important though. At best they are some kind of psychic memory thing as described above and at worst they are demons. Or possibly both... The magic recordings theory seems plausible with the type of ghosts that just do the same things over and over and over... The throwing dishes at you type are more likely demonic.

Seijio Arakawa said...

Sean, that sounds exactly right to me.

The converse "ghosts are seen by unimaginative people" also explains neatly why many otherwise atheist / secular people (as in Bruce Charlton's anecdote) are so freaked out by ghosts and haunted locations.

TheDoctorofOdoIsland said...

Utterly bizarre synchronicity: just a couple days ago, when you made this blog post (which I haven't seen until just now), I was looking up an old American educational tv show about ghost stories I watched as a child. One particular episode was about haunted castles of Ireland; this episode consisted of recycled footage from a Robert Hardy-narrated BBC documentary that aired in the 90s, which I located on YouTube out of curiosity and watched the next night.

I was struck by the original being so shamelessly melodramatic; neither taking a skeptical nor a neutral stance on the subject matter, but actively egging on the audience to believe in the paranormal, and suggesting unlikely sounding psychic/esoteric explanations for things. The half-hour recut I'd watched in the tv series seemed far more informative simply for the fact it trimmed most the hour long program down to the essential details. Your comment about the British public being fascinated by ghosts is interesting in that light.

There were a couple of other documentaries about the castle ghosts of England and Scotland that were borrowed from in the same way that I plan on watching to see what material was maintained and what was cut.
- Carter Craft

Bruce Charlton said...

@Carter - The fact that so many many atheists believe in ghosts - which are surely beyond the bounds of materialism? - ought to lead such a person to further reflection on this inconsistency.

Likewise belif in synchronicity, or superstitions (about which people can be very serious, and get very worried when they have done some 'transgression').

It is one of the most dismaying, and significant, aspects of the modern mind that it is so incapable of consecutive thought as to live with contradiction without noticing the fact - or to respond by self-distraction rather than resolution.

HofJude said...

Bruce, in the axial age of the early 70s, Arthur Koestler published "The Roots of Coincidence," about parapsychology and ESP, but with, I recall, a Jungian cast to it. Did you encounter the book then, or later, or have you written about it? When I was an EngLit grad student at Oxford 72-74 I had a flat N. Oxford house whose only long-term residents were an spooky elderly lady and her dark, spooky 30ish son, who were employed, they told me, by Arthur Koestler to investigate actual spirits in haunted houses. The son, who looked like Rowan Atkinson as Black Adder avant le lettre, invited me to come along with him any time. This was just the sort of thing that terrified me, though I was deeply into Barfield, by way of Wordsworth and Blake, at the time.

Bruce Charlton said...

@HoJ - Of course I often heard about Koestler, but he never appealed much. I tried to read Darkness at Noon, on a recommendation - but didn't get far. From what I hear, he was an evil man who did considerable harm.