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An Essay On Ghosts And Apparitions

Scary Books: Apparitions; Or, The Mystery Of Ghosts, Hobgoblins, And Haunted Houses

There is no folly more predominant, in the country at least, than a

ridiculous and superstitious fear of ghosts and apparitions. Servants,

nurses, old women, and others of the same standard of wisdom, to pass

away the tediousness of a winter's evening, please and terrify

themselves, and the children who compose their audience, with strange

relations of these things, till they are even afraid of removing their

eyes from
one another, for fear of seeing a pale spectre entering the

room. Frightful ideas raised in the minds of children take so strong a

possession of the faculties, that they often remain for ever fixed, and

all the arguments of reason are unable to remove them. Hence it is,

that so many grown-up people still keep the ridiculous fears of their

infancy. I know a lady, of very good sense in other things, who, if she

is left by herself after ten o'clock at night, will faint away at the

terror of thinking some horrid spectre, with eyes sunk, meagre

countenance, and threatening aspect, is standing at her elbow. And an

Officer in the Guards, of my acquaintance, who has often, abroad, shewn

no concern in marching up to the mouth of a cannon, has not courage

enough to be in the dark without company. As I take the fear of ghosts,

like all other prejudices, to be imbibed in our infancy, I would

recommend this advice to parents--to use the utmost care, that the minds

of their children are not vitiated by their servants' tales of ghosts,

hobgoblins, and bugbears; which, though told to please, or frighten them

into good, seldom fail of producing the very worst effects.

There are some who are ghost-mad, and terrify themselves, because the

Scripture has mentioned the appearance of ghosts. I shall not dispute,

but, by the power of God, an incorporeal being may be visible to human

eyes; but then, an all-wise Power would not have recourse to a

preternatural effect but on some important occasion. Therefore, my

intention is only to laugh a ridiculous fear out of the world, by

shewing on what absurd and improbable foundations the common nature of

ghosts and apparitions are built.

In the country, there are generally allowed to be two sorts of

ghosts;--the vulgar ghost, and the ghost of dignity. The latter is

always the spirit of some Lord of the Manor, or Justice of the Peace,

who, still desirous to see how affairs go on in his parish, rattles

through it in a coach and six, much about midnight. This ghost is, in

every respect, the very same man that the person whom he represents was

in his life-time. Nay, the spirit, though incorporeal, has on its body

all the marks which the Squire had on his; the scar on the cheek, the

dimple on the chin, and twenty other demonstrative signs, which are

visible to any old woman in the parish, that can see clearly in a dark


The ghost keeps up to the character of a good old grave gentleman, who

is heartily sorry to think his son will not live upon his estate, but

rambles up to London, and runs it out, perhaps, in extravagance. He

therefore does nothing inconsistent with the gravity of his character;

but, still retaining the generous heart of a true Briton, keeps up his

equipage, and loves good living and hospitality; for, a little time

after the coach and six has, with a solemn rumble, passed through the

village into his own court-yard, there is a great noise heard in the

house, of servants running up and down stairs, the jacks going, and a

great clattering of plates and dishes. Thus he spends an hour or two

every midnight, in living well, after he has been some years dead; but

is complaisant enough to leave every thing, at his departure, in the

same position that he found them.

There is scarcely a little town in all England, but has an old female

spirit appertaining to it, who, in her high-crown hat, nicely clean

linen, and red petticoat, has been viewed by half the parish. This

article of dress is of mighty concern among some ghosts; wherefore a

skilful and learned apparition writer, in the Preface of Drelincourt on

Death, makes a very pious ghost talk to a lady upon the important

subject of scouring a mantua. Before I leave my ghost of dignity, I must

take notice of some who delight to seem as formidable as possible, and

who are not content with appearing without heads themselves, but their

coachmen and horses must be without their's too, and the coach itself

frequently all on fire. These spirits, I know not for what reason, are

universally allowed to have been people of first quality, and courtiers.

As for the vulgar ghost, it seldom appears in its own bodily likeness,

unless it be with a throat cut from ear to ear, or a winding-sheet; but

humbly contents itself with the body of a white horse, that gallops over

the meadows without legs, and grazes without a head. On other occasions,

it takes the appearance of a black shock dog, which, with great goggle,

glaring eyes, stares you full in the face, but never hurts you more than

unmannerly pushing you from the wall. Sometimes a friendly ghost

surprises you with a hand as cold as clay; at other times, that same

ghostly hand gives three solemn raps, with several particularities,

according to the different dispositions of the ghost.

The chief reason which calls them back again to visit the world by

night, is their fondness for some old broad pieces, or a pot of money,

they buried in their life-time; and they cannot rest to have it lie

useless, therefore the gold raises them before the resurrection.

Mr. Addison's charming Essay, in the Spectator, is so applicable and

prefatory to a work of this nature, that we cannot resist inserting that

inimitable production in his own words.

"Going to dine," says he, "with an old acquaintance, I had the

misfortune to find his whole family very much dejected. Upon asking him

the occasion of it, he told me that his wife had dreamt a strange dream

the night before, which they were afraid portended some misfortune to

themselves or to their children. At her coming into the room, I observed

a settled melancholy in her countenance, which I should have been

troubled for, had I not heard from whence it proceeded. We were no

sooner sat down, but, after having looked upon me a little while, 'My

dear,' says she, turning to her husband, 'you may now see the stranger

that was in the candle last night.' Soon after this, as they began to

talk of family affairs, a little boy at the lower end of the table told

her, that he was to go into join-hand on Thursday. 'Thursday!' says she;

'no, child; if it please God, you shall not begin upon Childermas-day;

tell your writing-master, that Friday will be soon enough.' I was

reflecting with myself on the oddness of her fancy, and wondering that

any body would establish it as a rule to lose a day in every week. In

the midst of these my musings, she desired me to reach her a little salt

upon the point of my knife, which I did in such a trepidation and hurry

of obedience, that I let it drop by the way; at which she immediately

startled, and said it fell towards her. Upon this I looked very blank;

and, observing the concern of the whole table, began to consider myself,

with some confusion, as a person that had brought a disaster upon the

family. The lady, however, recovering herself after a little space,

said to her husband, with a sigh, 'My dear, misfortunes never come

single.' My friend, I found, acted but an under part at his table; and,

being a man of more good-nature than understanding, thinks himself

obliged to fall in with all the passions and humours of his yoke-fellow.

'Do not you remember, child,' said she, 'that the pigeon-house fell the

very afternoon that our careless wench spilt the salt upon the table?'

'Yes,' says he, 'my dear; and the next post brought us an account of the

battle of Almanza.' The reader may guess at the figure I made, after

having done all this mischief. I dispatched my dinner as soon as I

could, with my usual taciturnity; when, to my utter confusion, the lady

seeing me quitting my knife and fork, and laying them across one another

upon the plate, desired me that I would humour her so far as to take

them out of that figure, and place them side by side. What the absurdity

was which I had committed, I did not know, but I suppose there was some

traditionary superstition in it; and therefore, in obedience to the lady

of the house, I disposed of my knife and fork in two parallel lines,

which is the figure I shall always lay them in for the future, though I

do not know any reason for it.

"It is not difficult for a man to see that a person has conceived an

aversion to him. For my own part, I quickly found, by the lady's looks,

that she regarded me as a very odd kind of fellow, with an unfortunate

aspect. For which reason I took my leave immediately after dinner, and

withdrew to my own lodgings. Upon my return home, I fell into a profound

contemplation on the evils that attend these superstitious follies of

mankind; how they subject us to imaginary afflictions and additional

sorrows, that do not properly come within our lot. As if the natural

calamities of life were not sufficient for it, we turn the most

indifferent circumstances into misfortunes, and suffer as much from

trifling accidents as from real evils. I have known the shooting of a

star spoil a night's rest; and have seen a man in love grow pale, and

lose his appetite, upon the plucking of a merry-thought. A screech-owl

at midnight has alarmed a family more than a band of robbers; nay, the

voice of a cricket hath struck more terror than the roaring of a lion.

There is nothing so inconsiderable, which may not appear dreadful to an

imagination that is filled with omens and prognostics. A rusty nail, or

a crooked pin, shoot up into prodigies.

"I remember, I was once in a mixed assembly, that was full of noise and

mirth, when on a sudden an old woman unluckily observed there were

thirteen of us in company. This remark struck a panic terror into

several who were present, insomuch that one or two of the ladies were

going to leave the room: but a friend of mine, taking notice that one of

our female companions was big with child, affirmed there were fourteen

in the room; and that, instead of portending one of the company should

die, it plainly foretold one of them should be born. Had not my friend

found out this expedient to break the omen, I question not but half the

women in the company would have fallen sick that very night.

"An old maid, that is troubled with the vapours, produces infinite

disturbances of this kind among her friends and neighbours. I once knew

a maiden aunt, of a great family, who is one of these antiquated sybils,

that forebodes and prophesies from one end of the year to the other. She

is always seeing apparitions, and hearing death-watches; and was the

other day almost frightened out of her wits by the great house-dog, that

howled in the stable at a time when she lay ill of the tooth-ach. Such

an extravagant cast of mind engages multitudes of people not only in

impertinent terrors, but in supernumerary duties of life; and arises

from that fear and ignorance which are natural to the soul of man. The

horror with which we entertain the thoughts of death or indeed of any

future evil, and the uncertainty of its approach, fill a melancholy mind

with innumerable apprehensions and suspicions, and consequently dispose

it to the observation of such groundless prodigies and predictions. For,

as it is the chief concern of wise men to retrench the evils of life by

the reasonings of philosophy, it is the employment of fools to multiply

them by the sentiments of superstition.

"For my own part, I should be very much troubled, were I endowed with

this divining quality, though it should inform me truly of every thing

that can befal me. I would not anticipate the relish of any happiness,

nor feel the weight of any misery, before it actually arrives.

"I know but one way of fortifying my soul against these gloomy presages

and terrors of mind; and that is, by securing to myself the friendship

and protection of that Being who disposes of events, and governs

futurity. He sees at one view the whole thread of my existence; not only

that part of it which I have already passed through, but that which runs

forward into all the depths of eternity. When I lay me down to sleep, I

recommend myself to his care; when I awake, I give myself up to his

direction. Amidst all the evils that threaten me, I will look up to him

for help and question not but he will either avert them, or turn them

to my advantage. Though I know neither the time nor the manner of the

death I am to die, I am not at all solicitous about it; because I am

sure that he knows them both, and that he will not fail to comfort and

support me under them."

In another paper, the same gentleman thus expresses himself on the same


"I remember, last winter, there were several young girls of the

neighbourhood sitting about the fire with my landlady's daughters, and

telling stories of spirits and apparitions. Upon my opening the door,

the young women broke off their discourse; but my landlady's daughters

telling them it was nobody but the gentleman (for that is the name which

I go by in the neighbourhood as well as in the family), they went on

without minding me. I seated myself by the candle that stood on a table

at one end of the room; and, pretending to read a book that I took out

of my pocket, heard several dreadful stories of ghosts as pale as ashes,

that stood at the feet of a bed, or walked over a church-yard by

moonlight; and of others that had been conjured into the Red Sea, for

disturbing people's rest, and drawing their curtains at midnight; with

many other old women's fables of the like nature. As one spirit raised

another, I observed that at the end of every story the whole company

closed their ranks, and crowded about the fire. I took notice in

particular of a little boy, who was so attentive to every story, that I

am mistaken if he ventures to go to bed by himself this twelvemonth.

Indeed, they talked so long, that the imaginations of the whole assembly

were manifestly crazed, and, I am sure, will be the worse for it as long

as they live. I heard one of the girls, that had looked upon me over her

shoulder, asking the company how long I had been in the room, and

whether I did not look paler than I used to do. This put me under some

apprehensions that I should be forced to explain myself, if I did not

retire; for which reason I took the candle in my hand, and went up into

my chamber, not without wondering at this unaccountable weakness in

reasonable creatures, that they should love to astonish and terrify one

another. Were I a father, I should take particular care to preserve my

children from those little horrors of imagination, which they are apt to

contract when they are young, and are not able to shake off when they

are in years. I have known a soldier, that has entered a breach,

affrighted at his own shadow, and look pale upon a little scratching at

his door, who the day before had marched up against a battery of cannon.

There are instances of persons who have been terrified, even to

distraction, at the figure of a tree, or the shaking of a bulrush. The

truth of it is, I look upon a sound imagination as the greatest blessing

of life, next to a clear judgment and a good conscience. In the mean

time, since there are very few whose minds are not more or less subject

to these dreadful thoughts and apprehensions, we ought to arm ourselves

against them by the dictates of reason and religion, to pull the old

woman out of our hearts (as Persius expresses it), and extinguish those

impertinent notions which we imbibed at a time that we were not able to

judge of their absurdity. Or, if we believe, as many wise and good men

have done, that there are such phantoms and apparitions as those I have

been speaking of, let us endeavour to establish to ourselves an interest

in Him who holds the reins of the whole creation in his hand, and

moderates them after such a manner, that it is impossible for one being

to break loose upon another without his knowledge and permission.

"For my own part, I am apt to join in opinion with those who believe

that all the regions of nature swarm with spirits; and that we have

multitudes of spectators on all our actions, when we think ourselves

most alone. But, instead of terrifying myself with such a notion, I am

wonderfully pleased to think that I am always engaged with such an

innumerable society, in searching out the wonders of the creation, and

joining in the same concert of praise and adoration.

"Milton has finely described this mixed communion of men and spirits in

Paradise; and had, doubtless, his eye upon a verse in old Hesiod, which

is almost, word for word, the same with his third line in the following


'----Nor think, though men were none,

That Heav'n would want spectators, God want praise:

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth

Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep;

All these with ceaseless praise his works behold,

Both day and night. How often from the steep

Of echoing hill or thicket have we heard

Celestial voices to the midnight air,

Sole, or responsive each to other's note,

Singing their great Creator? Oft in bands,

While they keep watch, or nightly rounding walk,

With heav'nly touch of instrumental sounds,

In full harmonic number join'd, their songs

Divide the night, and lift our thoughts to heav'n.'--"

Another celebrated writer says--"Some are over credulous in these

stories, others sceptical and distrustful, and a third sort perfectly


"Mr. Locke assures us, we have as clear an idea of spirit as of body.

But, if it be asked, how a spirit, that never was embodied, can form to

itself a body, and come up into a world where it has no right of

residence, and have all its organs perfected at once; or how a spirit,

once embodied, but now in a separate state, can take up its carcase out

of the grave, sufficiently repaired, and make many resurrections before

the last; or how the dead can counterfeit their own bodies, and make to

themselves an image of themselves; by what ways and means, since

miracles ceased, this transformation can be effected; by whose leave and

permission, or by what power and authority, or with what wise design,

and for what great ends and purposes, all this is done, we cannot easily

imagine; and the divine and philosopher together will find it very

difficult to resolve such questions.

"Before the Christian aera, some messages from the other world might be

of use, if not necessary, in some cases, and on some extraordinary

occasions; but since that time we want no new, nor can we have any

surer, informations.

"Conscience, indeed, is a frightful apparition itself; and I make no

question but it oftentimes haunts an oppressing criminal into

restitution, and is a ghost to him sleeping or waking: nor is it the

least testimony of an invisible world, that there is such a drummer as

that in the soul, that can beat an alarm when he pleases, and so loud,

as no other noise can drown it, no music quiet it, no power silence it,

no mirth allay it, and no bribe corrupt it."

Inexhaustible are the opinions on this subject: therefore we shall

conclude this Essay, and proceed to the more illustrative part of our

work, without any further quotations; for various are the methods

proposed by the learned for the laying of ghosts and apparitions.

Artificial ones are easily quieted, if we only take them for real and

substantial beings, and proceed accordingly. Thus, when a Friar,

personating an apparition, haunted the apartment of the late Emperor

Joseph, King Augustus, then at the Imperial court, flung him out of the

window, and laid him upon the pavement so effectually, that he never

rose or appeared again in this world.