A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof, By Roger Clarke

This is a compelling historical analysis of apparitions, otherworldly beings and ghost-hunters

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The Independent Culture

The most chilling moment in A Natural History of Ghosts occurs when Mrs Maria Manning stares out of a window. She looks down on the street below, dressed in a black satin dress, her hands sheathed in long black gloves. To those below her eyes are the eyes of a murderess: she had already killed her lover and buried him in quicklime under the kitchen floor. "I never liked him," she said at her trial, "I beat his skull with a ripping chisel." This forensic detail is ghastly, but no less chilling than the cold, dead eyes of the woman at the window: for Mrs Manning has been dead for 20 years, hanged for murder in 1849.

She was the "black ghost". As Roger Clarke argues in his compelling account, early ghosts tended to appear in white, either in the remnants of burial shrouds or draped in some sort of translucent clothing, but by the Victorian period they were dressing in fashionable black. Mrs Manning was a posthumous celebrity, and within minutes of her reappearance, nearly 400 onlookers had gathered: she had provoked a ghost-hunting flash mob.

Clarke's analysis of Manning's ghost relates her apparition to the 19th-century suppression of strong women, sublimated Catholicism, and social class – ghosts appeal more to aristocrats and workers, and tend to be ridiculed by the middle classes.

Manning is also an uncanny double of Queen Victoria, who mourned the death of Albert for over 40 years, herself dressing in black and having hot water brought for her dead husband's shaving cup every morning. She was, as Clarke puts it, "living with a ghost".

Alongside all of this was the obsessive contemporary fascination with séances, the occult, and mediums disgorging otherworldly ectoplasm from various orifices. In this hothouse of superstition, ghosts were for many a reality. Earlier in the century, a bricklayer dressed in white trousers, waistcoat and apron had been walking home in the winter twilight. "There goes the ghost!" He was shot dead by an excise officer who received a royal pardon within months.

Clarke's book provides an alternative history of such belief, from notorious cases – the Angel of Mons and Borley Rectory – to less well-known instances such as the mysterious and convoluted events in Hinton Ampner House, which possibly influenced Henry James's story The Turn of the Screw.

Clarke makes striking connections across the centuries, linking the 17th-century "Drummer of Tedworth" with later poltergeist activity, now familiar through Hollywood horror films, also noting that the word "poltergeist" was used by Martin Luther and seems to identify a particularly Teutonic form of haunting.

Research into the paranormal necessarily involves a fair degree of debunking, and Clarke is careful to be sceptical. The narrative of ghost-hunting is simultaneously a history and exposure of fraud and popular delusion.

Ghosts also draw one inevitably towards the whole bizarre suite of psychic research and occult technologies: mesmerism, ESP, and devices such as the "brain mirror", not to mention contemporary manifestations through mobile phones that text from beyond the grave, and even sinister spellcheckers.

But despite the doubt and the digressions, Clarke retains a boyish and, despite the odd slip, a usually well-informed enthusiasm for his subject: "It could… really be a ghost," he comments of the iconic photograph of the "Brown Lady", taken at Raynham Hall in 1936. He clearly hopes that it is.

There are supposedly more ghosts per square mile in England than anywhere else in the world. The isle, as Shakespeare said, is full of noises – and we should be afeared.

Nick Groom's book 'The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction' is published by Oxford