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The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee; be still.
- Edgar Allan Poe
As this extract illustrates, the commonly-held view on ghosts is that they are spirits of the dead. If every account of ghostly occurrences is to be believed, however, then this is not strictly true. Some stories tell of phantom vehicles or ghostly animals that had never been alive in the first place. Some tales even speak of apparitions of people who are still alive.
So, if they are not necessarily spirits of the dead then what exactly are these bizarre supernatural phenomena? In truth, no one knows but here are a few theories:
A popular view among Christians at one time, although not so much now, was that all ghosts were demons in disguise. They were supposedly sent by the Devil to try and convince the living that there was no such thing as life after death.
Another possibility is that ghosts are merely hallucinations, created in the mind of the emotionally unbalanced viewer. This would explain why grieving friends and relatives may 'see' the ghost of the deceased. Even more simply, ghosts could be put down to nothing more than an overactive imagination.
The few scientific types who believe in ghosts at all have extended the hallucination theory. They suggest that it may be possible for images of people, animals or vehicles to be created by the psychoactive mind of a person drawing on some kind of 'life force'. That is to say, an actual, physical presence can be created by the power of the grieving mind.
Of course, there will always be those who refuse to believe that ghosts exist at all. Unfortunately, until definitive evidence is found to the contrary, this has to be counted as a possibility.
Different Types of Ghost
For the sake of this article let us assume that ghosts do exist. We've all seen the stereotypical image of a white sheet with two holes for eyes making a 'Wooooooh!' noise. The sheet doesn't really do ghosts justice though, because in actual fact they are a lot more diverse...
Ghosts of People
Some places are said to have been haunted for years, even centuries, by ghosts of people. Castles, old houses and pubs around the world have legends about 'the White Lady' or 'the Green Lady' and various other ladies in interesting colours. It has been suggested that it is the same lady doing the rounds in each place. Other popular ghosts of dead people include nuns, monks, nobles, royals, headless horsemen, anyone who committed suicide, anyone who was murdered and Abraham Lincoln.
The form of a person is sometimes said to appear to a loved one at the time of death. If a soldier is killed in action, for example, then his ghost may appear to his wife, thousands of miles away, as he dies. Sometimes these ghosts will even pass on a message of some kind to the loved one. Ghosts of this type are rarely seen more than once.
Similar to the type above, although not exactly the same, are doppelgangers. These are apparitions of people who are still alive. Often they are seen by the person that they are an apparition of, and seeing your doppelganger is supposed to be a very bad omen. Doppelgangers are also rarely seen more than once.
Ghosts of Animals
Of all ghost animals in Europe the best known is probably the phantom hound. These ghosts are not considered to be of dead dogs but rather some type of demon. They are almost always large and black but there are many diverse variations. Phantom hounds are most often sighted near crossroads, stiles and churchyards. They are said to be an omen of misfortune or even death.
The ghost of a huge wild horse called the White Devil is said to haunt the deserts of the United States. When it was alive it supposedly protected a herd of wild horses by trampling to death anyone who came near them. Another apparition of the American prairies is the mysterious herd of phantom cattle which stampede across the Texas sky, accompanied by ghostly screaming.
Ghosts of Vehicles
Ghostly cars are probably the rarest of all forms of phantom transport, probably because they haven't really been around for very long. The few ghost cars that have been reported are most likely to have been part of some tragic road accident. Sightings of their ghostly predecessor, the horse and carriage, are much more common.
Phantom trains are a very common form of ghost vehicle. Often they appear at the site of a rail disaster, as with the Tay Rail Bridge in Scotland. In 1879 the bridge collapsed in a terrible storm and a train that had been heading along the line plunged into the river below. There were no survivors. Since then several people have claimed to have seen a spectral train travel across the repaired bridge and vanish near the middle. Phantom trains don't always appear because of rail accidents though. The ghost of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train, for example, which passes along the route it took in reality, is often seen complete with a skeletal band on one of the wagons. It has yet to be established what tune they are playing.
Most ghostly planes are apparitions of aircraft from the world wars. They generally appear over Britain, France and Germany, for obvious reasons. As we have seen, ghosts are often created as a result of some disaster or tragedy and there could have been few planes during the wars that were not mercilessly shot out of the sky. The materialisation of these phantom aircraft are not usually triggered by anything specific but violent storms have been known to set off a few.
There is one form of transport that has been in existence far longer than all the vehicles mentioned here. That form of transport is the ship and, as you might expect, the number of ghostly vessels that roam the seas reflects the length of time they have been around for. Examples include the Flying Dutchman, an 18th Century Dutch ship whose captain supposedly incurred the wrath of the devil and the Lady Luvibond, a British ship which was steered onto a sandbank by an insane crewman, killing everyone on board.
Not all supernatural disturbances are caused by something visible to the naked eye. Poltergeists are invisible spirits which supposedly hurl objects around, make loud noises and generally cause mayhem. It is thought that they may be caused by subconscious tension, particularly from adolescents, and that they are a telekinetic way of releasing this tension.
Although poltergeists are probably the best known of all 'unseen phenomena' there are others. Cold spots, for example, are said to occur in some places that are haunted and focus on very small areas indeed. The temperature in these cold spots can often be several degrees lower than in the surrounding air, apparently without any obvious explanation. There was a cold spot at the top of the landing at Borley Rectory, said to be the most haunted house in England.
Protection against Ghosts
Most people see ghosts as a malevolent and often downright frightening phenomenon, which goes a long way to explaining why there are so many 'protections' against them. Here are a few of the more interesting ones.
Purveyors of the Christian faith have developed a whole range of protections against spooks. Holding up a crucifix, making the sign of the cross with your fingers and praying are some methods of warding off a ghost, or at least keeping yourself from being harmed by them.
For particularly unpleasant and extreme cases of haunting Christians recommend exorcism. This involves a priest conducting a ritual involving prayer and the use of holy water within the haunted area to try and drive out the spirit. Very few exorcisms now occur in the western world.
Some European Methods
Throughout Europe, a popular belief at one time was that placing a large boulder over a grave would stop any restless spirit that may reside inside from escaping. If a large boulder was unavailable then a large pile of smaller rocks would be used instead. Passers by were encouraged to add to the pile in order to stop the spirit from following them home.
Burying a body at a crossroads was also supposed to be a useful method of avoiding a haunting. The reasoning behind this was that a restless soul would be confused by the variety of possible routes and so be unable to leave its resting place. A lot of criminals were hung from trees next to crossroads for the same reason.
The simplest of all methods for warding off ghosts is apparently to light candles, because ghosts don't like the light. Of course these days we have electric lights, which would probably perform the same function.
Experiments with Animals
Experiments with animals in supposedly haunted rooms have shown that cats respond best to a mysterious presence. Dogs and snakes also respond, but to a lesser degree. For some reason rats do not seem to react to ghosts at all. Of course, having a cat that will spit and hiss at your resident poltergeist is not a form of protection as such, but at least they'll let you know there's one there.
Ghosts of the World
The whole of the globe is littered with tales of ghostly occurrences and things that go bump in the night. Here is a small selection of multi-ethnic spectres, with a few yarns told by our own Researchers.
Littlecote Manor in Berkshire is very famous for its ghosts. Many, many years ago a Lady in the Manor had an illegitimate child, which was instantly murdered in the bedroom fireplace. The room is now seriously haunted by the heartbroken lady and blood stained clothing appears in the fireplace. It is disturbing enough to put people off staying there.
Near where I live is Chedworth Roman Villa. Locals who live nearby will tell you of the screams of young boys which have been heard many times. Occasionally, when the young boys crawled under the flooring to heat the fires for the Roman's heating systems, they were accidentally burnt alive - hence the screams. The people who are in charge of running the villa are extremely reluctant to talk about it because they do not want the historically important site to become better known for its ghosts, but no-one will ever go down to the villa after dark.
Barely a mile away from the villa is a very large house called Compton Cassey - it is famously haunted by a number of (unfriendly) spirits and has been exorcised many times. The house is built over an old Roman villa and over the years there have been many sightings of a Roman legion marching over the nearby hillside - you can only see the Romans from the waist up as apparently the earth is at a different level now. However, the Romans have only ever been sighted by people coming back from the pub - there is yet to be a sighting by someone on the way to the pub!
The town of Durham, England is arguably one of the most haunted places in the country. It has a fair range of Grey Ladies and several others to boot.
Whether or not the Kelpie is a ghost is open to debate, but the fact is that it is one of Scotland's most dangerous spirits. It traditionally takes the form of a wild horse or a beautiful woman and offers to carry travellers across the lochs. However, its intentions are by no means noble, for when the Kelpie and its passenger reach the middle of the loch the poor soul will be drowned, but the Kelpie can apparently not cross running streams. The creature now known throughout the world as the Loch Ness Monster was for a long period of history believed to be a Kelpie.
Glaamis is a part of Scotland with a rich supernatural history, particularly where its local castle is concerned:
We were in the chapel [of Glaamis Castle], and the guide was talking about the ceiling - its all painted in frescoes. I felt a tingling on my shoulder and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Then she told us about this woman who was burned at the stake for being a witch, within the castle. She appears in the back corner of the chapel, and it's funny - nobody on the tour sits in that corner.
There are other ghosts at Glammis too. Like the Earl of Strathmore who was drunk and wanted to play cards on a Sunday. Of course in those days nobody would play cards on the Sabbath, so he ran up and down the halls trying to convince someone to play with him. The devil showed up, they played for his soul and he lost, of course. So he's condemned to run up and down the halls screaming.
There's also a room that's bricked off. It was tested in the 1800s. They hung sheets out of all the windows, and there was one window with no sheet. There are two theories for this; one is that the heir apparent to the throne was born crazy, and they walled him up to keep it from the public. The other is that a vampire was bricked in, and of course, that's not the proper way to kill a vampire.
When mountaineers reach the top of the greatest peaks they are sometimes startled to see what appears to be a large, shadowy apparition floating in the sky. These were called Brocken, a name given by the people of Germany who first spoke of them. No doubt these apparitions scared the woolly socks of the poor fellows in days of yore but recently it has become known that they are in fact the mountaineer's own shadows on the clouds, caused by unusual sunlight effects.
One Dutch legend speaks of a phantom boat that ferries the souls of the dead from The Netherlands to the island of Britain. This tale was supposed to account for why the UK has so many ghosts compared with the rest of Europe.
In Denmark, the preferred hangouts for spooks seem to be old mansions, especially those built between 1600 - 1700. These mansions each have a ghost called the White Lady or the Grey Lady, who wanders the hallways dressed in, predictably, white or grey. It is not known what caused most of them but one is supposedly the ghost of a woman who was bricked into a wall in the house and left to die. This type of ghost is also very common in Estonia.
Banks Islands, Pacific Ocean
The natives of the Banks Islands believe that certain stones contain spirits called 'eating ghosts', and that if a person's shadow falls across such a stone then his soul will be sucked into it and he will die.
Native American Indians have a tradition whereby they hold ceremonies in honour of the ghosts of animals that they have killed for food. These ceremonies supposedly help to ensure successful hunting. Whale hunters in Siberia, Russia also have similar traditions.
Mad Anthony's Ghost is the North American spectre of a famous general from the American Revolution.
There are lots of stories out of Nova Scotia, Canada about ghostly animals. There are stories of large and small dogs wandering around houses, through rooms and up and down stairs. There's a story of a large horse seeming to strike down a fence, and in daylight it can be seen that there is no damage done.
Near where I lived for a year, in an area called Fox Point, there is supposed to be a headless pig that crosses the road just at the top of a hill. To the left of the road is a tiny beach where three survivors of a shipwreck and several bodies came ashore, so there may be a connection.
There's a ghost wolf that walks the railway tracks between Black Point and Hubbards, same general area. The story I heard behind that one, was about some men gambling in Black Point. One of them was accused of cheating and was shot. The wolf is supposed to be his ghost. A friend of mine claims to have seen that one.
Links to Ghostly Sites
If this entry has tickled your interest in the world of the supernatural then Shadow's Ghostly Gathering would be an excellent place for you to stop off at next. It has what it claims are true accounts of peoples' ghostly experiences as well as some interesting photographs and much more besides.