For several years, I’ve been on a fact-finding mission focused on the history of traditional Halloween “monsters” including their origins and evolution in folklore, literature, and pop culture.
Today, let’s take a look at GHOSTS!
A ghost is defined as an apparition of a dead person that is believed to appear or become manifest to the living. The general concept is is based on the idea that a person’s spirit exists separately from his or her body, and may continue to exist after that person dies rather than disappearing or moving on to another place (heaven, hell, afterlife, or otherwise). In fact, many traditional funeral rites and religious ceremonies for the dead were created to usher that spirit on rather than risk it returning to haunt the living.
Ghosts might possibly be the oldest and most widely believed in of all the traditional Halloween “monsters”. Almost every culture has stories of ghosts or sightings of spirits (also called an apparition, haunt, phantom, revenant, poltergeist, shade, specter, spirit, spook, and wraith). Beliefs in ghosts goes back to pre-literate cultures with relatively few variations. The general concept of a “ghost” is a spirit believed to haunt a specific place, object or person they were associated with in real life. Aside from apparition itself, traditional signs of haunting can include strange noises, lights, odors or breezes, and the displacement of objects.
A ghost is different from a religious or cultural concept called veneration of the dead (sometimes called ancestor worship). In that case, usually an actual spirit is not seen or witnessed. Veneration of the dead is based on love and respect for the deceased, and stems from the belief that the dead have a continued existence, and may possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living. Veneration of the dead, depending on the culture, may happen in relation to direct familial ancestors, or it can be directed at religious or cultural figures such as saints.
To people of the ancient world, in contrast to veneration of the dead which was about love and respect, a ghost was rarely good. In fact, most believed a ghost was a sure sign that something was terribly wrong and that spirit needed help to move on to the afterlife (whatever that was in that culture). According to Ancient History Encyclopedia, “this understanding was so prevalent that ghost stories can be found, with very similar themes, in the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, and India as well as regions of Mesoamerica and the Celtic lands of Ireland and Scotland.”
Ghosts have been recorded in written history for ages. They are mentioned in early Mesopotamian references, in Biblical references, in early Egyptian history, and so forth. According to the History Channel, in the first century A.D., Pliny the Younger recorded one of the first notable ghost stories in his letters about the specter of an old man with a long beard, rattling chains, who was haunting his house in Athens. Centuries later, in 856 A.D., the first recorded poltergeist–-a ghost that causes physical disturbances such as loud noises or objects falling or being thrown around–-was reported at a farmhouse in Germany. The poltergeist tormented the family living there by throwing stones and starting fires, among other things.
In classical literature, ghosts appear in Homer’s The Odyssey. They appear in Shakespearean plays like Hamlet and the Headless Horsemen in Sleepy Hollow. One of our most beloved Christmas stories–Dickens’s A Christmas Carol employs three famous ghosts. Ghosts appear, as well, in more modern stories, sometimes as the primary focus or sometimes as secondary characters. Think about Lord of the Rings, The Shining, The Haunting of Hill House, and even Harry Potter.
Fear of ghosts remains an integral aspect of the modern ghost story, Gothic horror, and other horror fiction dealing with the supernatural. Think about some of the most recent horror films involving specters of some sort–The Ring, The Others, Blair Witch. Most are terrifying. More than that, while many of the other traditional Halloween “monsters” have become sexier and heroic (vampires, wolf shifters, witches), ghosts, for the most part, remain a concept to fear. Even in newer interpretations, like the recent Netflix series, The Haunting of Bly Manor, while some of the ghosts were tragic figures, or beloved figures, or helpful figures, some were to be feared.
As far as Halloween is concerned… the tradition of dressing up started as a way to ward off evil. It’s not surprising that, given that ghosts are considered “bad” in most cultures, that they would end up on the traditional list of monsters. Even more so, maybe, because part of the history of Halloween is a belief that on that night, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred, allowing spirits to cross over.
Which brings me to a different aspect of ghosts and Halloween. According to the History channel, some historians believe that Halloween originally started as “a Celtic end-of-summer festival during which people felt especially close to deceased relatives and friends. For these friendly spirits, they set places at the dinner table, left treats on doorsteps and along the side of the road and lit candles to help loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.”
Having grown up in Texas, this version reminds me very much of Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead–“a Mexican holiday where families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink and celebration that is celebrated around the same dates as Halloween. The roots of the Day of the Dead, celebrated in contemporary Mexico and among those of Mexican heritage in the United States and around the world, go back some 3,000 years, to the rituals honoring the dead in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.”
Whatever your beliefs, and no matter how science officially debunks the existence of ghosts, I believe the apparitions will continue to permeate our cultures. It all comes down to one thing–we all die eventually. Fear but also hope for what that means will always be a part of the human question, and for that reason, ghost stories will always exist.
Looking for some hauntingly great ghost romances? Check these out…
- The Shadowheart Curse by Karilyn Bentley
- The Ghost & the Graveyard by Genevieve Jack
- The Entangled Series by Jill Sanders
- The Ghost Seer Series by Robin D. Owens
- The Ghost & Mrs. Muir by R.A. Dick
- Spellcasting with a Chance of Spirits by Mandy M. Roth
- A Ghost of a Chance by Abigail Owen
Interested in the history and evolution of other traditional Halloween “monsters” in folklore, literature, and pop culture? Check out my other posts…