The spirits of England

Spooks, phantoms, ghouls and wraiths – from the earliest legends to the latest films, ghosts walk a spectral path through our national psyche. Here, Peter Ackroyd steps into the realm of the supernatural

Friday 29 October 2010 00:00

England is a haunted country. Several explanations, for the ubiquity of the ghost in this land, can be offered. Alone among the countries of Europe, England is bordered by original British (or Celtic) nations. The popularity of the English ghost tradition – the English see more ghosts than anyone else – is deeply rooted in its peculiar mingling of Germanic, Nordic and British superstitions. The English are also in many respects obsessed with the past, with ruins, with ancient volumes. It is the country where archaeology is placed on national television, and where every town and village has its own local historian. Ghosts therefore may be seen as a bridge of light between the past and the present, or between the living and the dead. They represent continuity, albeit of a spectral kind.

The word is of Old English derivation yet, curiously enough, the Anglo-Saxons did not see ghosts. But they told two strange stories of haunting. One of them occurs in Beowulf, where the monstrous figure of Grendel would immediately be understood by medieval listeners as a revenant. Grendel stands apart from life and joy. He is uncanny. He moves through walls, and cannot be touched by sword or spear. His only purpose is to destroy, and the terror he induces is one associated with primal fear of the darkness. The other Old English story is of more solid variety. The famous poem The Ruin opens with the line "Wraetlic is thaes wealhstane", to be translated as "Wraith-like is this native stone". In the stone of England itself lies the wraith. The wraith is an emanation of England. Although the Anglo-Saxons saw no ghosts, they knew themselves to be haunted. The English have a rich repository of words to describe uneasy soil – "marsh", "mere", "mire", "fen", "bog" and "swamp" among them – and it is not at all coincidental that they have also been used to describe the abode of ghostly apparitions.

In the medieval period, the English ghosts were deemed to be the souls immured in purgatory, pleading for prayers to absolve them from punishment. They were also happy to proclaim the values of the sacraments, and in particular of confession, extreme unction and infant baptism. Alternatively, ghosts were the spirits of saints sent from God with news of paradise. They could in certain circumstances be the machinations of the Devil. In The Anatomy of Melancholy, written in the early part of the 17th century, Robert Burton argued that "Divells many times appeare to men, & afright them out of their wits sometimes walking at noone day, sometimes at nights, counter – feiting dead mens ghosts". In any event, whatever their origin, they were part of the machinery of theology and of the supernatural; they were emanations from the eternal world of bliss and pain beyond the grave. They were an integral part of the communion of the living and the dead that the Church represented.

The doctrines promulgated at the time of the Reformation effectively dispensed with the notions of purgatory and its purging fires. But if there was no such place, then ghosts could hardly claim it as their home. That is why there was a strong tendency, among orthodox churchmen, to dispense with ghosts altogether or to treat them as manifestations of the Devil alone. Yet they could not be banished from the earth. The teachings of the Nonconformists tended to credit the existence of ghosts, if only to refute the far more serious phenomenon of atheism. The late 17th and early 18th centuries were the periods in which pamphlets were issued revealing the latest ghostly manifestation; they were generally entitled "Strange And Extraordinary News From..." and their content was attested by numerous witnesses.

That stentorian voice of 18th-century England, Samuel Johnson, said on the subject of ghosts that "all argument is against it; but all belief is for it".

Nineteenth-century England was perhaps the golden age of the ghost. It may have ceased to have any messages or any advice for the living, but it was everywhere. The yearnings associated with the Romantic movement of English poetry found fruition in the spectacle of the melancholy ghost. There was much popular interest in spirit-rappings and in spirit-tappings. The fashion for mesmerism, in the middle of the century, provoked belief in some form of plasma or magnetic fluid that might harbour the forms of spirits. Technological progress also seemed to affirm the existence of spectral bodies, with the appearance of photographs intending to reveal the ghostly occupants of rooms and chairs. The Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882, lent seriousness and credibility to the quest for spirits. A questionnaire sent out by the society in 1894 revealed that out of 17,000 people, 673 claimed that they had seen a ghost in one form or another. It is perhaps curious, however, that the majority of them did not know the identity of the spirit in question. The manifestation appeared arbitrary and purposeless. It is also worth observing that many apparent "sightings" of ghosts have been discredited, and that many photographs of spirits are the obvious products of fakery. In the field of ghost-hunting there were many frauds and charlatans, intent on producing a sensation rather than a verifiable record.

The 20th century marks the general popularity of the ghost story in English literature, with the advent of writers such as M R James and Algernon Blackwood. The quintessential English ghost story is alarming but also oddly consoling. It is inexplicable and yet perfectly credible. Some comfort, some confirmation of an alternative world, may be derived from the presence of ghosts. The English temperament, in its older manifestations, seemed to waver between the phlegmatic and the melancholy. In the English ghost story itself, a matter-of-factness is combined with an intense longing for revelation or for spirituality of the most basic kind. That interest has been maintained in the 21st century by the popularity of many television programmes devoted to the subject of haunting and ghost-hunting. It may be said that more people believe in ghosts today than at any other time in England's history.

Other words for ghosts can be found. "Spook" derives from Iceland, "dobie" from the Gaelic language and "wraith" from the Scottish Borders. The various names that begin with the prefix "bug" are of Welsh or Cornish ancestry. Reginald Scot, in The Discoverie of Witchcraft published in 1584, remarks upon "the spook, the man in the oke, the fire-drake, Tom Thombe, Tom Tumbler Boneless and such other BUGS". The commonplace phrase "stop bugging me" can perhaps be translated as "stop haunting me". Some ghosts seem to be unique to England, among them the phantom monks and silent nuns who, according to G K Chesterton, come to upbraid the heirs of those who despoiled the monasteries at the time of the Reformation. There may be intimations of religious guilt in the contemporary sighting of long-dead priests. Also unique to England are the bedroom ghosts, the "silkies" named after the fact that on passing by, they send out a low rustling sound such as that made by silk.

Yet each region of England has its own particular spirits. In Cornwall there was a strong belief in fairies as being part of the community of the dead. Since Cornwall is generally deemed to have been the last haven for "British" or "Celtic" people, these beliefs may represent the remnants of a very ancient folk tradition. The Celts do, in general, have more fantastical spirits. In Northumberland they were known as "dobies" or "dobbies", a name which derives from the Celtic dovach, meaning the black, mournful or sorrowful one. Many of these spirits were associated with particular places. There was "the dobie of Mortham", which walked in a ravine where the river Greta makes its way between Rokeby Park and Mortham. Dobies were known to lurk beneath bridges or ancient towers. Sometimes, they would clamber up from beneath the bridges and embrace an unwary traveller. The "Shotton dobie", by the river Dee, took the form of a large bird like a goose that would accompany travellers on the road before flying off with loud screams. The inhabitants of the neighbourhood refused to frighten it or disturb it for, in the words reported, "they knew what it was".

In Yorkshire and in the north Midlands, spirits were also known as "hobs" or "hobbits". They were popularly supposed to haunt caves, bridges and round barrows; but they were, in particular, associated with specific places. Thus there were the Lealholm Hob and the Scugdale Hob. There was a Hob Lane and a Hob Bridge at Gatley in Lancashire. Several Hob Lanes can still be found in Warwickshire. In the north of England, the ghosts were often known as "boggarts". This is derived from bwg, the Celtic word for ghost, and can be heard in better-known words such as "bugbear" and "bogeyman". It is also behind the Cornish hobgoblin Bucca and Shakespeare's Puck.

They had a habit of pinching or biting those whom they haunted, and were renowned for their custom of crawling into the beds of their victims. Sometimes, they shook the hangings of the beds, or rustled among discarded clothes. More seriously, they would snatch up sleeping infants and deposit them on the stones outside.

There are other names for apparitions, including "shellycoats" and "scrags", "fetches" and "mum-pokers", "spoorns" and "melch-dicks", "larrs", "ouphs" and "old-shocks". There are "swathes" and "scar-bugs", "bolls" and "gringes", "nickies" and "freits", "chittifaces" and "clabbernappers". In fact, there are more than 200 ways of describing the ghosts of England, a testament if nothing else to their ubiquity and their variety. There is also another expression. When a young woman in Shropshire screamed out "There's the know of a dog", she meant that she had seen the shape of a dog when no living dog was there. The "know" of anything is its spectral appearance. Another word for a ghost is "token". In Shropshire, a phantom was called a "frittenin'", as in the remark "Since then, there has always been frittenin' under this tree". Another expression from the same region, "There's summat to be seen", is meant to convey the presence of the unnatural.

Flames turn blue; dogs howl; a sound of rustling silk can be heard; the temperature is lowered. These are some of the signs of a haunting. Ghosts are not welcomed. The people to whom a ghost has appeared often recall that they could not speak at the moment of seeing. "I dare not speak," one witness wrote. "I was afraid of the sound of my own voice."

A report, from a hotel that in 1966 was besieged by unusual phenomena, records one occasion when a "ball of fluorescent mist" drifted past a group of spectators before vanishing through a doorway into the street. In another modern setting, where a married couple had been separately disturbed by an apparition and by the sound of scratching, the husband reported seeing a ball of light changing size constantly and floating around the living room. It has been suggested that these hovering or floating lights, well attested in many accounts, are some wayward form of energy. It has even been surmised that they are somehow produced and controlled by human agency, but no plausible explanation has ever been offered for their shape or nature. The curious phenomenon of the "will-o'-the-wisp" or "corpse candle" is still intriguing. It has often been suggested that it represents nothing more than the gaseous emanation from some rotting matter; this is a seductive, and even plausible, theory, but it is no more than a theory. The connection has never been proved. It is a hypothesis, not a conclusion. Then there is the testimony of the 19th-century poet John Clare, who had known of "bog vapours" throughout his childhood in Northamptonshire. But then he saw two of them seeming to play with each other and the sight "robd me of the little philosophical reasoning which I had about them. I now believe them spirits".

Noises are often the first inklings of a haunting. Knockings and tappings are frequent. The sound of footsteps is common. There are many reports of unseen visitors scraping the floor, as if they were covered with branches, or apparently dragging someone or something. The jingling of money is common. A person seems to be dragging furniture about the rooms, although the house is empty. Calls and cries have been heard. There may be the sound of laughter, of a newspaper rustling, of a dog growling. On the wall of a medieval manor house in Hertfordshire, Hinxworth Place, there was once a sign inscribed upon a wall – "This is where a monk was buried alive in this wall. His cries can be heard sometimes at midnight. 1770."

Then there are the voices. Andrew Lang tells us the story of a young lady who was in her bath when she heard a voice saying "Open the door" four times. She did so, and thereupon fainted. There was no one there. A woman rose up among cattle, in a farmyard, and said, "Never mind it John, you do your work and I will do mine." The head of a martyred medieval saint called out "Here, here, here" to those who sought it.

But many spectres cannot speak. It is commonly reported that ghosts are on the point of saying something, but unaccountably cannot. Some among them seem to be physically prevented from talking. Characteristically they gasp or emit a low and garbled sound.

Do ghosts smell? Some have claimed that they smell of stale food. Or, perhaps, of rotting food. Others claim to have a detected a "fetid" smell in the presence of apparitions. Yet that may be fanciful, a reminder of the association of ghosts with death. Rooms are suddenly filled with the smell of fresh cigar smoke. Floating perfumes issue from no visible source. And there are fugitive smells, of leather-working or brewing, that seem to hover in premises that were once devoted to a particular trade. Certain churches and abbeys are filled with an inexplicable odour of incense; this has been particularly remarked among the ruins of Glastonbury. In old buildings there may be the sudden emanation of the odour of herbs. The scent of thyme is supposed to be an indication of murder. There are cases involving the sudden and overwhelming fragrance of flowers.

Ghosts are sometimes seen at the moment of the death of a person. There are also ghosts of the living, often seen many miles from the location of the human being. Ghosts of the living also appear when the living subject is asleep or dreaming. Some ghosts appear as animals. The black dog or "shuck" was well known before Johnson borrowed it as an image of melancholy. Other ghosts come back because they have not been properly buried. There are ghosts who return to correct a wrong, or to fulfil a pledge. Some seem sent merely to cause mischief and alarm. But the vast majority of ghosts seem to be without a purpose. More than one witness has described them as "mindless" or "brainless". The ghost is normally seen by one person rather than a group of people. They can touch you, but you cannot touch them.

Our ancestors did not use the word "exorcise" to describe the containment or banishment of ghosts; they spoke of "laying" them, as if they are requested to sleep rather than be driven away. The laying of ghosts, in previous centuries, followed a customary pattern. The minister, when called to eliminate a spirit, was asked to "read it down". By the light of candles, the priest would read from the Bible, in the process diminishing the ghost in size until it could be placed in a bottle or box. The other form of laying a ghost was by incessant prayer, sometimes lasting for several days and nights. There is an account of one ghost "who refused to go into the bottle in which it was to be imprisoned, because there was a man outside eating bread and cheese... the poor minister was so exhausted by the task that he died". The bottle containing the ghost might then be thrown into a pond or pool; alternatively, the ghost might be consigned to a tree or to a chimney. The usual duration of this exile was 66 or 99 years. Yet a ghost under Eardisland Bridge in Herefordshire has been laid for the past 2,000 years. The other method of laying a ghost was to command it to perform an impossible task, such as weaving ropes of sand or emptying a pond with a sieve. Some ghosts, however, cannot be laid to rest. Wherever they are taken, they are allowed to move back to the site of their haunting at the pace of one "cock-stride" each year.

It was believed in some regions that the best method of exorcising a ghost was to throw graveyard earth at it. Earth from a graveyard was believed to be potent because it could dissolve human flesh. It is said that ghosts also have an aversion to iron. This superstition is suggestive. It would seem to have arisen in the neolithic period, when the mineral may have been an object of wonder and fear, its properties held to be magical. If this is indeed the case, then the belief in ghosts or spirits extends a long way back. The manner of address to a ghost, in previous centuries, was also laid down by custom. "In the name of God, what art thou?" A priest might say, "In the name of God, why do you trouble us?"

"There is no people, rude or learned," Imlac declares in Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, "among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. Those that never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible."

'The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time' is published by Chatto & Windus (£12.99). To order a copy for the special price of £11.69 (free P&P), call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit

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