myths & monsters: on ghosts

“Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea…. We are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.” —Ghosts by Ibsen.

They come in many shapes and sizes, but one thing is certain: ghosts are a phenomenon that persists across all cultures. It is perhaps human nature to need ghosts, to think that there is some chance of life after death. But whether or not you believe in them, it cannot be denied that ghosts are interesting.

Research for my horror serial DarkSight led me to some rather bizarre websites dedicated to the supernatural, some informative, some leaning towards scaremongering. And each offered their own interpretation of what a ghost is, and of the different types of ghosts. It is — to my surprise — a subject that’s a lot harder to get to grips with than I first thought.

What is the difference between a ghost, a spirit, and a shade? A spook, a wraith, and a spectre? An apparition, and an revenant? The terminology is almost as intangible as its subject. What follows is my attempt at a short reference list, the results of my wanderings.

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Spirits

The difference between spirits and ghosts is a fine one, and my interpretation is that it depends roughly on the location of the soul (afterlife vs. physical world), as well as on the intentions (good or evil).

When distinguished from ghosts, spirits for the most part seem to have a positive reputation, and are seen as guiding figures who have no grudge with the living, and who have probably gone “into the light”. Some believe that spirits have free rein to cross back and forth between the afterlife and the physical world, and that they return to watch over us — guardian angels are a good example.

Whether spirits have a physical manifestation seems open to debate. A study of the translations of the Bible suggest that ghosts are physical manifestations, whilst spirits are perhaps closer to the soul, something “spiritual”.

My view is that spirits are generally non-threatening, and spend the majority of their time in the afterlife, although some may cross back now and then. By this definition, shades would be spirits, seeing as shades are the souls of the dead in the afterlife — although they do not (or cannot?) cross back to the physical world.

Alternatively, others use spirit to refer to non-human beings, such as demons, who have a will of their own and have never been alive in the human sense — that is, they didn’t die and become a spirit, as they have always been one. In these situations, the word “spirit” can take on a more negative connotation. Examples of spirits in this sense would be boggarts and banshees.

Ghosts

This is the term most often used when talking about the presence of a deceased person. While ‘ghost’ is a relatively generic term and can be used to refer to any presence — whether good or evil — it seems to be that there is a tendency towards the negative interpretation of ghosts. In either case, ghosts generally share one thing in common: they spend the majority of their time in the physical world with us.

More often than not, ghosts are seen as souls who have not passed on into the afterlife, and are stuck in the physical world for one reason or another, generally related to unfinished business. As such, ghosts are often unpleasant beings, as they’re trying to get our attention all the time! While they may not be out to get us, they have their own reasons for being in our physical plane, and not because they want to help us.

In any case, it is almost undisputed that ghosts can have a physical manifestation, although what exactly is not clear. Some say ghosts appear as transparent human figures, others say ghosts are globes or streaks of light, others still that ghosts look just as real and solid as you or me. It is a topic I’d like to delve into a little deeper at some point.

When it comes to physically visible ghosts, there a number of synonyms, such as the word spook, which to me sounds a little quaint and not at all scary! Ghostly appearing figures may also be called apparitions, and phantoms are types of apparitions. Phantoms, though, tend to be apparitions from a specific time period (ye olde days) and are often seen wearing period costume. Yet another synonym is wraith — as with phantom, the word also has a suggestion of a particular type of apparition; in this case, wraiths are the ghosts of the recently deceased.

The Uncategorized

The ghost/spirit divide I’ve outlined above is a pretty helpful one to keep track of things, but as usual there are some creatures who refuse to be pigeon-holed.

Some define ghouls as a type of ghost, but the interpretations are mixed (hence the distinction) — ghouls can also be evil demons of inhuman appearance (and therefore, spirits). In both cases, ghouls are decidedly evil.

Similar to ghouls are revenants, who are souls that have returned from the dead to haunt the living. This may be in ghost form, or other sources suggest that revenants take on a physical zombie-like body, which would warrant the third category of “undead”. Whether they are ghosts or undead, revenants have evil intentions.

Another creature hard to classify is the poltergeist. From the etymology, I was tempted to lump him in with the other ghosts. However, few sources stated explicitly that poltergeists were the returned souls of the dead, making me hesitant to classify them as ghosts. Instead, a number of sites claimed that poltergeists are simply malevolent spirits.

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The folklore is all a little confusing, and hard to keep track of, but hey! I’m not complaining. All of this is food for my writerly brain, so do chip in if you have any further information — I’m far from being an expert on the paranormal!

This is ghost buster Anna, over and out.

Some resources: The Shadowlands; Ghost Study; Daily Bible Study.

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About A.M. Harte

A.M. Harte writes twisted speculative fiction, such as the post-apocalyptic Above Ground and the zombie love anthology Hungry For You. She is excellent at missing deadlines, has long forgotten what ‘free time’ means, and is utterly addicted to chocolate.
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One Response to myths & monsters: on ghosts

  1. Pingback: Yes, I have been writing but on another blog : Mark Vincent LaPolla

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