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.