Common Sense About Ghosts

ONE can look at ghosts from either the religious, or the scientific, or the common-sense point of view.

John Wesley argued that, since it is a Christian’s duty to believe the Bible, and since if he believes the Bible he must believe that the Witch of Endor raised the ghost of Samuel at the request of King Saul, therefore there are ghosts.

The scientific view is that one cannot deny that ghosts exist in the same positive way that one denies, on zoölogical grounds, the existence of centaurs or mermaids. A great many people claim to have seen ghosts, and the duty of scientists is to interpret in scientific language, if possible, what they mean by this. The interpretation is difficult, partly because scientists no longer agree on the old distinction between subjective and objective experience, partly because ghosts are not good subjects for laboratory experiment. Sir Henry Head, the neurologist, told me some years ago that only a single type of ghost had so far proved amenable to scientific treatment. This was the talk glowering ghost that stands silent and immovable by one’s sickbed. He said that this ghost, which appears in Japanese prints as well as in clinical reports from European hospitals, corresponds with a particular kind of brain lesion and can be moved round with the bed. But he added that it was too much to hope that all ghosts could be simply explained as symptoms of a traumatic neurosis.

Far too much. The common-sense view is, I think, that one should accept ghosts very much as one accepts fire — a more common but equally mysterious phenomenon. What is fire? It is not really an element, not a principle of motion, not a living creature — not even a disease, though a house can catch it from its neighbors. It is an event rather than a thing or a creature. Ghosts, similarly, seem to be events rather than things or creatures — and nearly always disagreeable events.

I reckon among ghosts the nameless and disembodied hauntings of particular stretches of road, clearings in forests, bare hilltops. I have twice met with powerful examples of this phenomenon. The first occasion was in 1921 on a hilltop near Cwmbychan in North Wales, where there was an ancient British earthwork; the second, ten years later, in 1932, on the lonely coast road near Deya in the Spanish island of Majorca, where it is said there was once a temple of Diana. On each occasion it was dusk with a waxing moon and I felt that sudden inexplicable dread that makes the hair of one’s head rise like the fur of an angry cat and the legs run with no sense of effort, as if one were skating. Previously I had thought that when Shakespeare wrote about the haunted ship in The Tempest:

Not a soul But felt a fever of the mad, and played Some tricks of desperation. . . . Ferdinand With hair upstaring — then like reeds, not hair — . . . cried, ‘Hell is empty And all the devils are here!’

he was writing poetical nonsense. Now I knew he was giving a not exaggerated account of a disagreeable physical fact. The Greeks had a word for this sort of dread — ‘Panic,’meaning the fear that suddenly struck them in woods or on hills when the god Pan was about. I conclude that the spots where it is experienced have once been the scene of religious rites in which horror has been conjured up among the worshipers, and that the rocks and stones still occasionally sweat out that horror.

Haunted houses seem to enclose sharp individual horror centred in a particular room, or else a general feeling of misery, sorrow, boredom, or vice which pervades the whole building. Sensitive people can tell the difference between a happy house and an unhappy one as soon as they cross the threshold. But most of them would be ashamed to tell the house agent or caretaker: ‘I’d rather pay a thousand pounds than rent this place—it has an evil atmosphere.’ They say instead: ’I’m afraid, you know, that my husband would find that dressing room far too small, and there isn’t enough space for his books in the sitting room. And the garden is much too large for just two.'

The Chinese are a more practical nation. I am told that the house hunter there can usually choose between ‘a modest residence with a good fêng-shui (personal atmosphere)’ and ‘a palatial mansion with a bad fêng-shui’—both offered at the same price in dollars. If he is a man of virtue and industry with a large virtuous and industrious family, he may be wise to invest in the bad house and restore its original value by the irreproachable emanations of his household. A house near Braintree in Essex where I often stay, and which originally belonged to William Benlowes, sergeantat-law in the reign of Mary I, used to have an extremely bad fêng-shui, and had passed through a succession of unpleasant hands before my friends bought it. They have now reclaimed all but the spare bedroom, where there is something that wakes one up with a start nearly every night at a quarter to two — it was a quarter to four when I was there last because of Double Summer Time — the distinct presence of someone, it seems to be a woman, in great terror. This is evidently a ghost of long standing, because three years ago when the beams were scraped a small piece of parchment —which I have examined — was found in a bolt hole. It was a Latin prayer in Tudor handwriting, the conventional charm against evil spirits: O mitis Jesu, libera nos (Sweet Jesus, deliver us!).

Haunting of the disembodied sort is a matter of degree. Every house that has had a previous occupant is, in a sense, haunted. For my part I would rather live in an ordinary moated grange where a Gray Lady or Headless Monk walks regularly than in a house that has been used as a reformatory, a lunatic asylum, or a Victorian boarding school. The walls of such places are usually so soaked with miserable brooding that only fire could cleanse them.

Of houses in which I have stayed for a time, the two most unpleasant were the ancient stone-built house of Maesyneuadd, in the hills near Talsarnau in North Wales and a top flat in a modern block, built by a Belgian company, in the main street of Heliopolis, near Cairo.

At Maesyneuadd, when I was staying there with friends soon after the last war, uncomfortable things were continually happening. Doors opened and shut without a draught — quite stiff ones too. There were rappings on the walls of empty rooms, and one evening I saw a shade jump off a reading lamp in poltergeist fashion. There was a long tradition there of owners who had drunk themselves to death from boredom, and one had hanged himself in the garret. On New Year’s Eve of 1919-1920 we were all sitting round the fire in the drawing room, mulling claret. I was on the right of the semicircle and I put my tumbler to cool on the side table at the corner of the fireplace. When I reached for it again, two or three minutes later, it had been drained dry. Nobody had moved from the semicircle of chairs and nobody had come into the room. I don’t say that the ghost had drained it — but certainly I had not, and a horror descended on us that the warm wine and the pleasant smell of nutmeg and lemon peel could not disperse.

The Heliopolis flat was far worse. I rented it for a month in 1926 from an Assyrian widow, because it was the only vacant one in the town and I had to find temporary lodgings for my young family. It was full of gaudy furniture in bamboo and red plush and I remember a locked glass bookcase containing Hebrew books and a small French legal library. My Sudanese servants said at once that they didn’t like the place, and later complained that there were afreets (evil spirits) about. I told them that it was only for a month, so they did not give notice. The sense of evil grew thicker and thicker as the days passed. Soon the afreets were almost visible, coming as apparitions between waking and sleeping, and as little black creatures seen only from the corner of one’s eye, doing nasty things in the shadow of the sofa or bookcase. The most alarming phenomenon was the sudden whiff of burning that constantly spread through the flat even when there was no fire in the kitchen. The servants afterwards told us — I don’t know how truly — that the Assyrian husband had been burned to death in the flat some months before, and it had since been used as a disorderly house. But even this was not enough to account for the strength of our impressions. Perhaps someone had been monkeying about with black magic there; black magic is a means of reviving and focusing ancient evil, and anyone sufficiently idle, cruel, and curious can achieve horrible results without much difficulty. But since it was not worth while to attempt a reclamation of the flat, we cleared out after ten days and took rooms in a hotel.

On the whole, I consider ghosts an unimportant and far less mysterious phenomenon than many others — for example, poetry and love. People who manage their lives well leave only gracious emanations behind them. It is the wastrels, the bores, and the deliberately evil who give a place a bad name. The ghosts they leave behind should be sternly disregarded, as one disregards drunks who stop one in the street and begin a rambling hard-luck tale mixed with threats and hiccoughs. One should show neither sympathy, embarrassment, nor alarm.

Another sort of ghost, which since J. W. Dunne’s Experiment with Time has scientific as well as common-sense justification, is what may be called the ‘cosmic accident.’ In 1938 three friends and I rented a small château, La Chevrie, a few miles from Rennes, in Brittany. Five of the chimneys were full of bees; there were crickets behind the library fire, bats in the attics, rats in the cellar, but the fêng-shui was excellent. One day I found, in a box of rubbish, an ancient sheet of cooking recipes, and began deciphering and translating them. There was one for Blanc-Manger which began: ‘On the evening before, put two pieces of fish glue as big as your thumb (or else gelatine) to melt on the embers. The next morning bring it to the boil. Take one and a half quintons of sweet almonds and half a quinton of bitter almonds . . .’ Late that night I was crouching at the kitchen fire, blowing up the embers with the bellows to heat a coffeepot. I was thinking to myself: ‘Melt the fish glue on the embers . . . but I think gelatine would taste nicer . . . I wonder how much a quinton of almonds is . . .’

Suddenly a woman’s voice behind me called out sharply, ‘Marthel’

‘Oui, Madame,’ I answered automatically.

But of course no one was there. As I did not believe in the absolute reality of time I was not greatly surprised, I told myself afterwards: ‘It was cosmic coincidence. Somehow, by thinking about the fish glue and the embers and the almonds, I strayed into another region of time. Marthe’s mistress, seeing me squatting over the embers in the half-light with my back turned, naturally mistook me for Marthe. She must have got a shock when I stood up and she saw a tall, dark man in black corduroy trousers. In fact, probably I was her ghost, not she mine.’

Madame’s voice, by the way, did not sound in my outer ear, so to speak, but in my inner ear as voices do when one is just waking up.

I have only once seen a daylight ghost. That was in Béthune, in June 1915, when I was with the BEF. A soldier called Private Challoner had been in my company at Wrexham. I was serving with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. When he went out with a draft to join the First Battalion he shook my hand and said, ‘I’ll meet you again in France, sir.’ I was sent out myself a month or two later, but got posted to another regiment, the Welsh. One evening in June, while it was still light, my company mess, in billets at Béthune, were celebrating a safe return from Cuinchy trenches. We had fresh fish, new potatoes, green peas, asparagus, mutton chops, strawberries and cream, and three bottles of Pommard. While we were singing very noisily — a medley of church anthems and drinking songs — Challoner looked in at the open window, saluted, grinned, and passed on. There was no mistaking him or his cap-badge. No Royal Welch Fusiliers were billeted within miles of Béthune at the time. I jumped up and rushed to the window, but saw nothing except a fag end smoking on the pavement. Challoner had been killed at Festubert, a few miles away, in the futile May 16 offensive.

I don’t know how to account for this, but since Challoner’s battalion had been in Béthune shortly before his death, there may have been a slight cosmic accident, assisted by my memory of his last words to me and (if you insist) by three or four glasses of Pommard.