Phantoms and frights:History professor talks ghosts

By Nikki Blankenship -

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth

Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep. — John Milton

Leaves are changing, and there’s a chill in the air. All are signs Halloween is here. Little ghosts and goblins prepare to trick-or-treat and maybe give a little scare. And, Shawnee State University (SSU) History Professor Mark Mirabello is ready to give a lesson that may cause some fear.

As part of SSU’s annual Halloween tradition, Mirabello gives a lecture that brings scary stories to life as he combines legends from texts and cultures throughout human history about all the things nightmares are made of. This year’s topic is ghosts and communication with the dead.

“Tonight we will discuss ghosts and specters,” Mirabello begins his lecture. “When studying the material, always remember Professor Erwin Rodhe’s warning that humans should never look directly at otherworldly beings or gods.

According to Mirabello, a ghost is a manifestation of the dead; however, originally, the word only meant a visitor or guest.

“We have never found a culture that does not believe in the existence of ghost, and ghost sightings still are common,” Mirabello explained. “It is said that England alone has 50,000 specters,with York being the most haunted city in Europe. Pluckley, in Kent, is England’s most haunted village.”

Mirabello explained that the origins of ghost can also be linked to the origins of gods and deities.

“Interestingly, the Greek word theos, which means god, derives from root word designating soul or spirit of the deceased, and the idea of god may have developed from the deified dead,” the professor stated. “In effect, ‘god’ may have begun as a ghost.”

Throughout the legends discussed by Mirabello are tales of ways that an individual can observe and even communicate with a ghost. These legends also describe various types of ghostly figures.

“Although most apparitions of the dead appear within one hour of death, some may be seen in this world for years,” Mirabello commented. “In the first case, the so-called ‘wraith’ or ‘crisis apparition, we usually know the person, and the ghost is trying to convey a message. This may be a farewell, words of support, information on the location of an important document, or evidence of a crime.

A second type, which is also called a haunting, occurs when a ghost is perceived and it’s actions are repetitive and may even seem purposeless.

“One noted wraith was the poet Dante (circa 1265 – 1321). After Dante’s death, thirteen cantos of his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, were missing. Presumed lost, Dante’s wraith allegedly appeared to his son and told him that the cantos were hidden in a wall. Dante’s son found the manuscript, covered in mildew, in the location described by the wraith,” stated Mirabello. “Regarding the second type of manifestation — the long-term haunting — they tend to conform to a pattern. The same sequence of events – such as a woman descending a stairwell – is seen repeatedly.”

Mirabello told of a family long-term haunting associated with Forde House, in England. “Here, according to the legend, a girl was forced into a nunnery so that she would not make an unsuitable marriage, but she escaped with her lover’s help. Her father, filled with wrath, hunted them down, killed the man, and then walled his own daughter alive in a wall in his home. Allegedly, there is still a ghost there today.”

A second example of such a haunting is the story of Gertrude of Orlamunde, the infamous “White Lady.” The story tells of a 14th Century mistress of a Hohenzollern prince, who gouged out her children’s eyes and murdered them when the prince refused to marry her. She later committed suicide in prison.

“When the specter of the “White Lady” is seen, disaster follows for the ancient Hohenzollern family,” explained from the legend. “Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859 – 1941), the last Hohenzollern leader of Germany, reputedly saw her on August 31, 1914.”

There are many theories throughout cultural studies that aim to explain the phenomenon of experiencing a ghost.

“Although every culture believes in ghosts, ideas about them differ,” stated Mirabello. “According to the ancient Mesopotamians — who created one of the first civilizations — when the flesh perishes, two entities remain: bones and ghost. Etemmu — an Akkadian word — means ‘ghost.’ The word does not mean a spirit or a soul because — according to Mesopotamian religion — living humans do not have one. If bones are not properly buried, the ghost haunts and walks in our world. The specter, in other words, is one of the restless deadhe Maricopa Indians of the American southwest, however, a ghost is just the shadow of a dead person.”

The Choctaw Indians, of North America, have another explanation, believing a specter is one of our souls that remains behind after death.

“The Choctaw say that we have two souls: the outside shadow, which always follows us, and the inside shadow, which at death goes to the otherworld. After death, the outside shadow stays here and becomes a grave ghost,” Mirabello said.

Another legend, that of the Ojibway Indians (Chippewa), on Parry Island in Canada, say that people have three parts: the body, the soul, and the shadow. According to the Ojibway, the body decays at death, while the soul journeys to the otherworld in west, and the shadow becomes the grave ghost.

“According to Paracelsus (1493 – 1541), the European Renaissance scholar, man has three components: the body, the soul, and a middle substance, betwixt the soul and the body. This middle substance hovers around the dead body. A kind of astral spirit or astral corpse, it consists of matter, but it takes longer to decompose than the body. It preserves the thoughts, desires, and imaginations that were impressed upon the mind at the time of death,” the professor told. “Thus, the murder victim’s astral spirit would convey the horror connected to his murder –especially if he died in an especially gruesome manner.”

Finally, Frederic W. H. Myer, a Victorian researcher and a founder of the Society for Psychical Research, believed that ghosts are “projections generated by the incoherent dreams of the dead.”

“In other words, some telepathic communication may exist between the spiritual and the material world, and when we see a ghost we may be seeing a dead person’s dream,” Mirabello explained. “The theory of Meyers would explain hauntings in which the same specter is seen doing the same thing repeatedly. In effect, we are seeing a dead person’s recurring nightmare.”

According to legends, there are various conditions that can aid in observing a ghost. And, not all observations are the same.

“Plato said that we can see ghosts because they were wicked people in life. Good souls are transparent, but evil souls are visible,” Mirabello commented. “Some people have seen semi-transparent apparitions, but they may be old specters that are fading away. Contrary to popular belief, ghosts appear to be three-dimensional, and they follow the laws of perspective and parallax. Although they sometimes seem to glide rather than walk, they will open doors and walk around furniture. Their movements will conform to the domestic geography of their past; however, so they may pass through our walls if those walls did not exist in their lifetimes.”

In a story originating in York, England, people can allegedly see Roman soldiers marching by that are visible from the waist up only, for the soldiers are marching on the old Roman road of Eboricum. That Roman road lies a few feet lower than the road level of modern York.

“Although ghosts resemble the living, Plutarch said the souls of the dead can be recognized by the absence of their shadow and their unblinking eyes,” said Mirabello. “Otherwise, however, the ghost has the appearance that he had at moment of death. Plato said that the soul retains the scars of its former existence.”

Mirabello added that nearly all ghosts are clothed, and naked ghosts are rare.

“Typically, the ghost wears the clothing that he wore in his final hours,” he said.

This concept even explains the seeing of ghosts in white sheets.

“Until the 19th century, the poor — who were buried without coffins — were inhumed in winding sheets or shrouds of linen, and they were otherwise naked,” Mirabello explained. “As a result, exceptionally old ghosts may appear in sheets or shrouds.”

Stories of ghostly, haunting objects are also not uncommon.

“There have been phantom ships, coaches, and cars, as Eugene Crowell points out in Spirit World: Its Inhabitants, Nature, and Philosophy, so that could explain the other inanimate objects associated with specters, such as their clothing and shoes,” Mirabello explained. “In other words, perhaps such objects are not as inanimate as we think.”

When seeking out a ghost, there are places that are more conductive than others.

“Everywhere in the world, disembodied spirits haunt crossroads,” Mirabello stated. “Not surprisingly, Hecate, the Greek goddess of ghosts and sorcery, often visited crossroads, especially where three roads come together.”

Ghosts are also drawn to empty houses. Mirabello explained that in earlier times, houses were not left vacant for more than two weeks because ghosts could infest the homes.

“In Europe, some old great houses have windowless rooms where, before modern psychology, wealthy families confined lunatics in the family. Such houses, especially when vacant, would be prime locations for hauntings,” he said. “A common belief is that the doorway is a gathering place for ghosts. Since the threshold belongs neither to the inside world nor then outside world, it is a supernaturally endowed space.”

Hauntings also tend to occur around water, such as a stream or a river, or a lake. When ghosts are seen in marshy places, they are sometimes called “will-o-the-wisps.”

“According to an old belief, found from Europe to aboriginal Australia, the dead cannot cross water — if they are compelled to attempt it, they will melt into thin air — so they gather on the shores adjacent to water,” Mirabello added. “Water, moreover, is a border between this world and the otherworld.Like a scrying mirror, it is portal between the living and dead. Specters are also found where there are unburied dead. Thus, the Smithsonian Institution in the United States, which contains the bones of at least 33,000 humans, should contain specters.”

Finally, ghosts will be found where crimes or atrocities have occurred. An act of violence impregnates the place where it is committed.

“For violence, consider the Coliseum in Rome. Covering six acres, with 48,440 square feet of arena space, at least 500,000 people died violent deaths there. That is approximately ten human deaths for every square foot of arena,” said Mirabello. “Another area soaked with human gore is the Tarawa Atoll, in the Pacific Ocean. The site of a savage battle in World War II that lasted 76 hours, at least 6,000 human lives were squandered in 300 acres of space (the size of the Pentagon and its parking lots).”

Just as places are better for seeing ghosts, certain times are also thought to be better than others.

“Night is preferred time for ghosts. According to the Eyrbyggja Saga, which describes a haunting infestation, ‘No one could stay outside in peace, once the sun had set.’ And one medieval ghost, when asked why he appeared at night, made this declaration: ‘As long as I cannot go to God, I remain in the night,’” Mirabello said. “Ghosts can be seen occasionally in the light of day, but all light, both natural and artificial, weakens them. According to the Poetic Edda, ‘these enemies’ called ghosts ‘are much more powerful at night than when the light of day dawns.’”

Mirabello added that according to Professor Claude Lecouteux, ghosts tend to manifest in winter, are most numerous around the winter solstice, when the nights are longest, and they become less common in spring, although they do not entirely disappear.

“The occurrence of bad weather is also important, and there seems to be a link between ghosts and storms,” he continued.

Though some stories tell of speaking to ghosts, according to Mirabello, Ghosts are usually mute, and one study found that only 14% of specters speak.

“When they do speak, it is in a hoarse tone and in a low voice,” he stated. “According to Francis Grose, an eighteenth-century antiquarian, ‘a ghost has not the power to speak until he has been first spoken to.’ And, once the specter speaks, it is dangerous to interrupt it or ask questions. According to the Japanese, the ghosts of old people are more reserved because they left the world with less resentment. Child ghosts, in contrast, are talkative. Always, when addressing a ghost, ask if there is anything that he wants.”

Mirabello explained that some ghosts can be dangerous and angry.

“Angry ghosts – dangerous ghosts — have a stagnant and unpleasant smell, so they are easily recognized. In contrast, beneficent entities have a pleasant smell,” Mirabello stated. “There are many dangerous ghosts — in Fiji, the most feared ghosts are ‘slain men, unchaste women, and women who died in childbed,’ but perhaps the most infamous dangerous specters are the crew of the fabled ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman. Reputedly sailing for eternity with a crew of dead souls (condemned for a terrible crime), the captain comes ashore every century to find a woman. According to legend, anyone who sees the Flying Dutchman will die a terrible death. An officer of HMS Bacchante allegedly saw the ship on July 11, 1881, and he described it as a phantom ship that glowed with a red light. Soon after, the officer fell from the mast to his death.”‎

Though some ghosts may be dangerous, there are stories of protection. According to these tales, to protect yourself from specters, never mention the dead by name until his body is decayed and his bones are clean. By naming the ghost, you summon it.

“Remember that it is dangerous to whistle in the dark. Whistling in the dark attracts spirits,” Mirabello added. “Also, never venture out alone. According to the aboriginal people of Australia, when a man is alone, a spirit, even of a loved one, may harm him, but a spirit will not molest people in a group. If you must venture into a haunted area, carry sharp or pointed objects, like knives or thorns. In many cultures, such things repel spirits. To be safe, travel with a dog, especially a spayed female. The writings of John Aubrey, a seventeenth-century writer, describe how in 1686 a man in Dorset, England purged a haunted house with a neutered female. If you see a specter, throw a handful of graveyard earth into his face. According to legend, this will make the ghost docile, and he will obey you. For added security, draw a circle on the ground around yourself. In many traditions, the ghost cannot break the circle.”

Mirabello added that ghosts can be contacted through necromancy or scrying; however, doing so may present a dangerous unwanted situation. Furthermore, he added that ghosts are historically known to be liars, so if you stumble upon an apparition this Halloween, be careful of the risks.

By Nikki Blankenship

Reach Nikki Blankenship at 750-353-3101 ext. 1931.

Reach Nikki Blankenship at 750-353-3101 ext. 1931.