A Fascination Most Phantasmal

IT’S THAT TIME of year again. Indeed, when pumpkin farmers are making more money than they’ll take all year, but the time of year when the “boundary of the living and the dead become most blurred”. Of course, Hallowe’en might not unite the world in terms of culture, but there’s one element about it that does: ghosts. Spirits, spectres, phantoms, apparitions, ghouls, spooks, phantasms – whatever you want to call them – have been prominent features of national cultures ever since the first human death on Earth, I suspect. Ghosts crop up in legends from every corner of the globe, from Japan to Latin America, and still today we see (or should that be don’t actually see?) ghosts making an appearance in film, books and theatre. But what’s the fascination?

I have always loved all things ghostly and my interest came from, well, I don’t quite know. It might have something to do with how close my birthday is to Hallowe’en, and how that whole week used to be just a fireworks display of excitement and calories (now it’s assignments and feeling depressed about getting closer and closer to thirty). But even so, I still read up about hauntings and sightings, and immediately think of reading and writing ghost stories above anything else. I’m not alone, though. As I mentioned earlier, every culture has a tradition of ghosts, and it’s certainly interesting – if not risible – to see how much relevance ghosts have had. For example, in Ireland, it was believed that the screeches heard at night belonged not to owls or bats but to banshees, female ghosts who foretold death. Not only that, but the dead play such a large part in contemporary culture that there are entire festivals dedicated to them – China’s ‘Ghost Month’ and the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (‘Day of the Dead’), which is even a national holiday. And naturally, this fascination with ghosts and the ambiguity of what happens after death has seeped its way into the arts. Two of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Hamlet and Macbeth, prominently feature ghosts, and the 19th century obsession with mortality, which kickstarted our modern day interest, heavily inspired writers such as Charles Dickens, Henry James and Wilkie Collins. But the concept of ghostly malevolence is challenged – some might say trivialised – in the film Ghost and the world of Casper the Friendly Ghost, not least the ghosts of the Harry Potter series, who were fully-formed, conscious characters. Of course, the sinister elements of the paranormal linger as they always will do, as we can see in the pages of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and The Man in the Picture as well as that never-ending conveyor belt of Paranormal Activity films.

But this enduring popularity of ghosts has to be attributed in no small part to this rich and varying volume of fiction, surely? The fact that a ghost can be a murdering, vengeful widow with a “pale and wasted face” just as much as it can be a slightly overweight cartoon child desperate to make friends is reflective of the indefinite status of what a ‘ghost’ is. Everybody in every culture has their own image of what a ghost should look like, sound like, act like; but at the same time, nobody really knows at all. It’s a mystery, and I love that. There’s something about the ghost that delights yet unnerves my soul, and I can’t decide if I like what it does to my psychological disposition or not but it nevertheless intrigues me. That is the haunting beauty of it all.

Nevertheless it seems that the popularity of the poltergeist is still going strong. We mustn’t forget, of course, that as well as fascination, ghosts have been the subject of fear for as long as they (or indeed the concept) have been alive. So much so, in fact, that a fear of ghosts has its own bona fide name: phasmophobia. It’s not surprising, I suppose, given the idea of dead people drifting around the earth out of revenge or desperation. In fact, when I researched phasmophobia a few years ago, it was one of the world’s more common fears. How can this be when the majority of us have never even seen a ghost? Polar bears are the only known animals to seek human blood, and can kill us in an instant if we come face to face with one, yet I don’t think polarbear-o-phobia is a recognised phobia yet (I will have to work on its nomenclature beforehand, though). The questionability of the ghost’s existence has a part to play here, not least the countless October tales we are fed as children. It’s the fear of the unknown – perhaps the greatest fear there can be.

And now for the million dollar question: do I believe in ghosts? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I sit on the fence. I’m a lot closer to falling into the garden of disbelief rather than the garden of unfounded conviction, unfortunately, but I still can’t make up my mind. You see, as much as I’ve saturated myself with all things supernatural for as long as I can remember, there’s something stopping me from fully believing: proof. I speak for myself here, but I struggle to accept something as fact without some form of convincing evidence. So without seeing a ghost, or having one hurl books at me or strangling me in the night I just can’t do it. I love the idea, and would love even more for it to be true, but who knows. If ever I hear wailing in my attic one evening, I’ll let you know. Now for those calories; Happy Hallowe’en!

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