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Appearances Of The Dead

Categories: Appearance of Dead
Scary Books: The Book Of Dreams And Ghosts
: Andrew Lang

We now pass beyond the utmost limits to which a "scientific" theory of

things ghostly can be pushed. Science admits, if asked, that it does

not know everything. It is not _inconceivable_ that living minds may

communicate by some other channel than that of the recognised senses.

Science now admits the fact of hypnotic influence, though, sixty years

ago, Braid was not allowed to read a paper on it before the British

ociation. Even now the topic is not welcome. But perhaps only one

eminent man of science declares that hypnotism is _all_ imposture and

malobservation. Thus it is not wholly beyond the scope of fancy to

imagine that some day official science may glance at the evidence for


But the stories we have been telling deal with living men supposed to

be influencing living men. When the dead are alleged to exercise a

similar power, we have to suppose that some consciousness survives the

grave, and manifests itself by causing hallucinations among the

living. Instances of this have already been given in "The Ghost and

the Portrait," "The Bright Scar" and "Riding Home after Mess". These

were adduced as examples of _veracity_ in hallucinations. Each

appearance gave information to the seer which he did not previously

possess. In the first case, the lady who saw the soldier and the

suppliant did not know of their previous existence and melancholy

adventure. In the second, the brother did not know that his dead

sister's face had been scratched. In the third, the observer did not

know that Lieutenant B. had grown a beard and acquired a bay pony with

black mane and tail. But though the appearances were _veracious_,

they were _purposeless_, and again, as in each case the information

existed in living minds, it _may_ have been wired on from them.

Thus the doctrine of telepathy puts a ghost of the dead in a great

quandary. If he communicates no verifiable information, he may be

explained as a mere empty illusion. If he does yield fresh

information, and if that is known to any living mind, he and his

intelligence may have been wired on from that mind. His only chance

is to communicate facts which are proved to be true, facts which

nobody living knew before. Now it is next to impossible to

demonstrate that the facts communicated were absolutely unknown to


Far, however, from conveying unknown intelligence, most ghosts convey

none at all, and appear to have no purpose whatever.

It will be observed that there was no traceable reason why the girl

with a scar should appear to Mr. G., or the soldier and suppliant to

Mrs. M., or Lieutenant B. to General Barker. The appearances came in

a vague, casual, aimless way, just as the living and healthy clergyman

appeared to the diplomatist. On St. Augustine's theory the dead

persons who appeared may have known no more about the matter than did

the living clergyman. It is not even necessary to suppose that the

dead man was dreaming about the living person to whom, or about the

place in which, he appeared. But on the analogy of the tales in which

a dream or thought of the living seems to produce a hallucination of

their presence in the minds of other and distant living people, so a

dream of the dead may (it is urged) have a similar effect if "in that

sleep of death such dreams may come". The idea occurred to

Shakespeare! In any case the ghosts of our stories hitherto have been

so aimless and purposeless as to resemble what we might imagine a dead

man's dream to be.

This view of the case (that a "ghost" may be a reflection of a dead

man's dream) will become less difficult to understand if we ask

ourselves what natural thing most resembles the common idea of a

ghost. You are reading alone at night, let us say, the door opens and

a human figure glides into the room. To you it pays no manner of

attention; it does not answer if you speak; it may trifle with some

object in the chamber and then steal quietly out again.

_It is the House-maid walking in her Sleep_.

This perfectly accountable appearance, in its aimlessness, its

unconsciousness, its irresponsiveness, is undeniably just like the

common notion of a ghost. Now, if ordinary ghosts are not of flesh

and blood, like the sleep-walking house-maid, yet are as irresponsive,

as unconscious, and as vaguely wandering as she, then (if the dead are

somewhat) a ghost _may_ be a hallucination produced in the living by

the _unconscious_ action of the mind of the dreaming dead. The

conception is at least conceivable. If adopted, merely for argument's

sake, it would first explain the purposeless behaviour of ghosts, and

secondly, relieve people who see ghosts of the impression that they

see "spirits". In the Scotch phrase the ghost obviously "is not all

there," any more than the sleep walker is intellectually "all there".

This incomplete, incoherent presence is just what might be expected if

a dreaming disembodied mind could affect an embodied mind with a


But the good old-fashioned ghost stories are usually of another type.

The robust and earnest ghosts of our ancestors "had their own purpose

sun-clear before them," as Mr. Carlyle would have said. They knew

what they wanted, asked for it, and saw that they got it.

As a rule their bodies were unburied, and so they demanded sepulture;

or they had committed a wrong, and wished to make restitution; or they

had left debts which they were anxious to pay; or they had advice, or

warnings, or threats to communicate; or they had been murdered, and

were determined to bring their assassins to the gibbet.

Why, we may ask, were the old ghost stories so different from the new?

Well, first they were not all different. Again, probably only the

more dramatic tales were as a rule recorded. Thirdly, many of the

stories may have been either embellished--a fancied purpose being

attributed to a purposeless ghost--or they may even have been invented

to protect witnesses who gave information against murderers. Who

could disobey a ghost?

In any case the old ghost stories are much more dramatic than the new.

To them we turn, beginning with the appearances of Mr. and Mrs. Furze

at Spraiton, in Devonshire, in 1682. Our author is Mr. Richard Bovet,

in his Pandaemonium, or the Devil's Cloister opened (1683). The

motive of the late Mr. Furze was to have some small debts paid; his

wife's spectre was influenced by a jealousy of Mr. Furze's spectre's

relations with another lady.