The Ghost: A Cultural History
Thomas Rowlandson, after G.M. Woodward, “Terrour or Fright” (1800), hand-colored etching (courtesy the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)

In this season when many a Marley’s ghost is shuffling across community theater productions of A Christmas Carol, draped in his rattling chains, you may wonder: How did ghosts come to figure so centrally in this popular holiday tale? In The Ghost: A Cultural History, recently released by Tate Publishing, author Susan Owens begins not with the specters of Halloween or some drafty Victorian haunted house, but with this scene where Scrooge is visited by his former partner.

Cover of The Ghost: A Cultural History (courtesy Tate Publishing)

Charles Dickens described Jacob Marley as “transparent,” and laden with “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel”; otherwise he had “the same face” and garb. Ghosts in the late 18th century and into the 19th century became translucent in part due to new optical shows (like phantasmagoria) and lantern-slides that projected luminous images, as well as the increased use of watercolors in art. “When Dickens made Marley’s ghost see-through in A Christmas Carol, he was drawing on a convention that had only relatively recently been established,” she writes.

The Ghost is a chronological exploration of such developments in phantoms, centered on British culture. Owens is formerly a curator of paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and she explains that as she began to research ghosts in art and literature, she found written records dating back to the eighth century. For instance, a 1310 psalter she discovered in the British Library illustrated a fable where a party of three kings encounter three decomposing corpses; the dead warn that their grotesque state will be the future of the kings, no matter their royal state. Although these memento mori figures are not ghosts in the way we now imagine them, they’re examples of the departed manifesting to convey a message to the living. As Owens found, “ghosts are mirrors of the time.” She writes:

They reflect our preoccupations, moving with the tide of cultural trends and matching the mood of each age. They were, most definitely, not always the insubstantial presences we tend to think of today. While a modern ghost might materialise, drift gently towards a door and disperse, in the medieval period it was more likely to break the door down and beat you to death with the broken planks.

The English Reformation had a radical influence on ghosts, as it eliminated the concept of purgatory, and instated an idea of souls immediately going to heaven or hell. Before this decision, ghosts were often believed to be wandering souls from purgatory. Clergyman Robert Wisdom in 1543 affirmed the new stance by stating: “sowles departed do not come again and play boo peape with us.”

Susanna Duncombe (née Highmore), “The Ghost Scene” from The Castle of Otranto (1764–83), graphite, ink and watercolor (courtesy Tate)

Yet, as just about every old creaky home or atmospheric graveyard has its tales of returning souls, it’s fair to say that Protestantism in England did not eliminate ghosts. Still English ghosts could not, under the new doctrine, be the purgatorial dead. “They became subject to a new degree of scrutiny — or, to put it another way, because ghosts did not officially exist, they had to be invented,” Owens writes. Shakespeare’s post-Reformation Hamlet with its wraith of the titular character’s father could either be interpreted in the old soul belief, or in a newer one that it was a spirit, perhaps an evil one. Hamlet calls out to it:

Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee “Hamlet,”
“King,” “Father,” “royal Dane.” O, answer me!

Owens continues by examining the undyed linen used as grave clothes that inspired the image of a ghost in a white sheet, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the 18th and 19th centuries when ghosts in gothic novels and Romantic painting achieved a renewed popularity. While the “graveyard school” in the mid-18th century had hauntings in its literature that asked the reader to remember death, Romantics considered them as reminders of a hidden part of our souls. Pre-Raphaelites such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti later used the phantasmagoric for heightened drama in their paintings and writing. In the 19th century, William Blake depicted visions of imposing ghosts that reflected intense psychological states of exuberance or despair; while in the mid-20th century, artist Paul Nash illustrated ghosts and “mansions of the dead” in moodily hued paintings that evoked the “ghost-personages” of the British landscape. Meanwhile, the invention of photography in the 1830s led to “spirit” photographs, a phenomenon influenced by the rise of Spiritualism in the United States and England, whose practitioners believed that spirits were all around us and ready to communicate.

The Ghost touches on some contemporary art like Rachel Whiteread’s use of negative space in her sculptures, or Mark Wallinger’s “Ghost,” a negative photographic image of George Stubbs’s “Whistlejacket” (1762) horse (with a unicorn horn on its head). One of the most recent examples is the 2016 staged haunting by artist Jeremy Deller and Rufus Norris, the director of the National Theatre, where around 1,000 men dressed in World War I uniforms mingled with commuters around the UK, on the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

“The National Theatre has said that the work was partly inspired by accounts of people seeing their dead loved ones’ ghosts both during and after the war,” Owens states, adding for “a few hours that day, the Great War’s ghosts were made visible.” The fear of and fascination with ghosts endures, because they express these two things that are central to our humanity: an anxiety about our inevitable deaths, and a desire to believe in something beyond this mortal coil.

William Hogarth, “Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism: A Medley” (1762), etching and engraving (courtesy the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)
Bertie Greatheed, “Alfonso Appeared in the Centre of the Ruins,” illustration for The Castle of Otranto (1796), pen, ink, and watercolor (courtesy the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)
Playbill advertising Paul de Philipsthal’s “Phantasmagoria” show at the Lyceum Theatre in the Strand, London (1801), woodcut and letterpress (courtesy the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)
James Gillray, “Duke William’s Ghost” (1799), hand-colored etching (courtesy the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)
Anonymous, “Boswell and the Ghost of Samuel Johnson” (1803), stipple engraving with etching (courtesy the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Faust: Margaret in the Church” (1848), pen and ink (courtesy Tate)
Frederick Hudson, “Georgiana Houghton, Tommy Guppy and a Spirit” (1872), albumen silver print (courtesy the College of Psychic Studies, London)
Pages from The Ghost: A Cultural History (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from The Ghost: A Cultural History (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)

The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens is out now from Tate Publishing, distributed by Abrams Books.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...