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Ghost Quotations

December 25, 2018

I don’t much like ghost stories or anything scary; I’m against necromancy, you know. So my family’s annual holiday writing assignment on the theme of “ghosts” had me stumped, this year. What could I say? I decided to go with my usual Mrs.-Who-from-A Wrinkle in Time approach to a topic and think about how what I’ve read has formed my idea of what ghosts are, what they mean, and why people think about them.CgQKbl8UUAAkiIY

Do you remember the Dr. Seuss story about the pale green pants with nobody inside them? I think that image was one of the earliest ideas I had about ghosts, along with this four-line verse:
“Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away.”
Hughes Mearns

As I got older, I thought about why ghosts would want to haunt the living. I hadn’t yet read any of Richard Siken’s poetry, but he has one answer:
“What is a ghost?
Something dead
that seems to be alive.
Something dead
that doesn’t know it’s dead.”

To not know you’re dead. That’s a scary thought and a theme in ghost stories, I believe, the ghost who repeats an action over and over, often the action performed right before or at the moment of its death.

I don’t believe in ghosts. But I do believe that, as Hamlet says, “there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So I’d probably be agreeing with the Cowardly Lion if I were in his shoes when he declares
“I do believe in spooks! I do believe in spooks! I do, I do, I do, I do!” The Wizard of Oz

I most assuredly believe that there are some kinds of thoughts that happen only in darkness. Othello kills Desdemona after a long dark night of the soul, just before dawn. The characters in the TV show How I Met Your Mother know that “nothing good happens after 2 am.” Lewis Carroll says
“And as to being in a fright,
Allow me to remark
That Ghosts have just as good a right
In every way, to fear the light,
As Men to fear the dark.”

I’ve read that midnight used to be the most fearsome time of night but now we’ve shifted that to 3 am. Certainly that correlates with my reality. There are some thoughts that only come into my brain when I’m awake at 3 am.
“’Twas now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards groan, and graves give up their dead,
And many a mischievous, enfranchised sprite
Had long since burst his bonds of stone or lead,
And hurried off, with schoolboy-like delight,
To play his pranks near some poor wretch’s bed,
Sleeping, perhaps serenely as a porpoise,
Nor dreaming of this fiendish Habeas Corpus.”
Thomas Ingoldsby, “The Ghost,” 1837

In a simpler time, when midnight was the “witching hour,” people thought they would be safe from ghosts in a holy place, or while praying. I don’t have the consolation of religion to hide me from scary thoughts, or a wooden cross to hold up against the appearance of an unholy creature.
“The moon is hidden behind a cloud…
On the leaves is a sound of falling rain…
No other sounds than these I hear;
The hour of midnight must be near…
So many ghosts, and forms of fright,
Have started from their graves to-night,
They have driven sleep from mine eyes away:
I will go down to the chapel and pray.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Neighbouring Nunnery”

Even though I’m not conscious of passing on superstitions to my children, they’ve managed to read or hear about ones like holding your breath while you pass a graveyard.
“Ye who, passing graves by night,
Glance not to the left nor right,
Lest a spirit should arise,
Cold and white, to freeze your eyes…”
James Russell Lowell, “The Ghost-Seer”

And yet there are people who visit graveyards because it helps them feel close to the spirit of one who lies buried there.
“The garment he wore, as a covering,
While he lived on the earth plane, here,
With love and reverence was laid away,
As you grieved at his earthly bier.
He is freed, my dear friend, from all sorrow,
From all disappointments and pain;
And he wants you to know that he’s living
And comes to you, time and again.
You cannot see him, as yet, it is true,
Nor hear the voice that was so dear;
But cannot you feel his presence, so close,
And know that your loved one is near?!”
Gertrude Tooley Buckingham, “To One In Sorrow”

Imaginative people think about the history of the places they pass through, and that must include people who died in that place. It’s hard for me not to think about this in European castles, Southern plantations, and midwestern retirement homes.
“Those forms we fancy shadows, those strange lights
That flash on dank morasses, the quick wind
That smites us by the roadside—are the Night’s
Innumerable children. Unconfined
By shroud or coffin, disembodied souls,
Uneasy spirits, steal into the air
From festering graveyards when the curfew tolls
At the day’s death…
And wheresoever murders have been done,
In stately palaces or lonesome woods,
Where’er a soul has sold itself and lost
Its high inheritance, there, hovering, broods
Some sad, invisible, accurséd Ghost!”
Thomas Bailey Aldrich

When such fancies take me too far down the road towards believing in some kind of psychological reality for ghosts, I take the extraordinary step of looking for some non-fiction ideas about what ghosts are:
“It’s possible that the reason I’ve never experienced a ghostly presence is that my temporal lobes aren’t wired for it. It could well be that the main difference between skeptics (Susan Blackmore notwithstanding) and believers is the neural structure they were born with. But the question still remains: Are these people whose EMF-influenced brains alert them to “presences” picking up something real that the rest of us can’t pick up, or are they hallucinating? Here again, we must end with the Big Shrug, a statue of which is being erected on the lawn outside my office.” Mary Roach, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

But I think that a shrug is not the usual response for a person who is in a house alone at night:
“A house is never still in darkness to those who listen intently; there is a whispering in distant chambers, an unearthly hand presses the snib of the window, the latch rises. Ghosts were created when the first man woke in the night.” J.M. Barrie, The Little Minister

It’s a rare person who has never woken up in the middle of the night and felt scared of an imaginary presence:
“Everything is worse…if you think something is looking at you.” Shirley Jackson

So even for skeptics, I think that it is true that
“With regard to ghosts, while we have never believed in them, we have always been afraid of them.” Don Marquis, Archyology: The Long Lost Tales of Archy and Mehitabel

Of course, it might be possible to be too rational about whether there is such a thing as ghosts. Rules about how long a ghost can last, for instance (in Supernatural, the writers once tried to explain why there are no ghosts older than the Victorian era in America). Or rules about how many ghosts there must be at this point in history:48373835_284509912269256_3653620475596111872_n
“Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.” Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Especially funny are the rules about what ghosts must look like:
“Oh, very good,’ interrupted Snape, his lip curling. ‘Yes, it is easy to see that nearly six years of magical education have not been wasted on you, Potter. ‘Ghosts are transparent.” J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The excesses of 19th-century ghost stories now appear overwrought and almost comical to our 21st-century sensibilities. Not having grown up in a house with siblings who died and a graveyard in the front yard, I think many modern readers find Heathcliff’s soul-wrenching despair at being unable to see Cathy’s ghost a little bit over-the-top:
“The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always — take any form — drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

Nor do we think of seeking out ghosts for intellectual stimulation, like Percy Shelley:
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Through many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”

A credulous boy like Huck Finn, who does believe in spooks, seems young and ignorant to most modern readers:
“The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me. Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that’s on its mind and can’t make itself understood, and so can’t rest easy in its grave and has to go about that way every night grieving.” Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

We react to Huck’s superstition like we react to Jem’s and Scout’s when they tell Dill about the danger of ghostly breath-sucking “hot steams”
“‘A Hot Steam’s somebody who can’t get to heaven, just wallows around on lonesome roads an’ if you walk through him, when you die you’ll be one too, an’ you’ll go around at night suckin’ people’s breath—’
‘How can you keep from passing through one ?’
‘You can’t,’ said Jem. ‘Sometimes they stretch all the way across the road, but if you hafta go through one you say, “Angel- bright, life-in-death; get off the road, don’t suck my breath.” That keeps ‘em from wrapping around you—’”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

The danger posed by a ghost is always hard to assess. Sometimes they seem not to pose any danger at all but to be like something half-remembered or half-seen, a flicker out of the corner of the eye or a whiff of something that might be familiar but can’t quite be identified. Sometimes a faint whiff can even be reassuring, if there are good memories associated with it:
“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.” Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Or a flicker can seem like part of a dream:
“The dream was haunting me: standing behind me, present and yet invisible, like the back of my head, simultaneously there and not there.” Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Like a dream, the idea of a ghost can be hard to get rid of:
“A shadow is hard to seize by the throat and dash to the ground.” Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

And as with other kinds of unwelcome visitors–maybe a cockroach that flies suddenly at you or a spider that disappears down a crack right beside where you’re sitting–part of the scariness of ghosts is their unpredictability. Even those who claim to be able to summon spirits usually don’t claim to be able to summon a particular one or make him stay for longer than he likes:
“I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?”
Henry IV, Part I

Why a dead soul would appear to one person rather than another is also unpredictable:
“I have heard (but not believ’d) the spirits of the dead
May walk again: if such thing be, thy mother
Appeared to me last night; for ne’er was dream
So like a waking.”
The Winter’s Tale

When your defenses are down, when you’re half-asleep or grieving, is when the idea of ghosts can take hold, as it does with Hamlet. Grieving the death of his father might be what makes him see his father’s ghost:283219-7193454d18bf333177960a2b1c7139c0
“What may this mean.
That thou, dead corse, again, in complete steel,
Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon.
Making night hideous ; and we, fools of nature,
So horridly to shake our disposition,
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say, why is this?”

For loved ones and children, we often pretend to know more about the spirit world than is actually possible, reassuring them about where and when a ghost is likely to appear in terms of why now is not that place or time:
“For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger;
At whose approach, ghosts, wandering here and there,
Troop home to churchyards: damned spirits all,
That in crossways and floods have burial,
Already to their wormy beds are gone.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

When we think about mortality, we often think about our place in history, and maybe about those we have wronged, as if we might meet them again and have to atone for the sins we’ve committed:
“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth….
[W]hat can we bequeath,
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?…
[N]othing can we call our own, but death…
[L]et us sit upon the ground,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:—
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war;
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos’d…”
Richard the Second

So to escape our own guilt and fear, in addition to reassuring others, we try to limit the number of places that we suppose that ghosts are most likely to be found:
“Some places speak distinctly. Certain dark gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck.” Robert Louis Stevenson

Sometimes, when we can’t escape our guilt, we eliminate the fear that comes from uncertainty by just giving in and expecting to live with ghosts all the time:
“Nobody but a Southerner knows the wrenching rinsing sadness of the cities of the North. Knowing all about genie-souls and living in haunted places like Shiloh and the Wilderness and Vicksburg and Atlanta where the ghosts of heroes walk abroad by day and are more real than people, he knows a ghost when he sees one, and no sooner does he step off the train in New York or Chicago or San Francisco than he feels the genie-soul perched on his shoulder.” Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Or we try to eliminate the fear of uncertainty by fitting ghosts into our picture of how the whole universe works:
“No? You don’t think so?” Svidrigaïlov went on, looking at him deliberately. “But what do you say to this argument (help me with it): ghosts are as it were shreds and fragments of other worlds, the beginning of them. A man in health has, of course, no reason to see them, because he is above all a man of this earth and is bound for the sake of completeness and order to live only in this life. But as soon as one is ill, as soon as the normal earthly order of the organism is broken, one begins to realise the possibility of another world; and the more seriously ill one is, the closer becomes one’s contact with that other world, so that as soon as the man dies he steps straight into that world. I thought of that long ago. If you believe in a future life, you could believe in that, too.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

We suppress our fear by imagining that what haunts us is already familiar, as if ghosts are merely regrets:
“Of all ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst.” Arthur Conan Doyle The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Or we manage our expectations by imagining that a ghost is a pale shadow and that when we hold it up next to the vivid and actual living being, maybe we’ll see what we have been missing and can fill in the blanks:
“Then one night he saw her, looked at her. She spoke suddenly and savagely of marriage. It was without preamble or warning. It had never been mentioned between them. He had not even ever thought of it, thought the word. He had accepted it because most of the faculty were married. But to him it was not men and women in sanctified and living physical intimacy, but a dead state carried over into and existing still among the living like two shadows chained together with the shadow of a chain. He was used to that; he had grown up with a ghost. Then one evening she talked suddenly, savagely. When he found out at last what she meant by escape from her present life, he felt no surprise. He was too innocent.” William Faulkner, Light in August

If ghosts are comprised of what we imagine, then you and I can spend from now until the day we die describing what we think a ghost is like and never come to any agreement.

We want to know what comes next, but there’s only one way to find out for sure:
“I look for ghosts; but none will force
Their way to me. ‘Tis falsely said
That there was ever intercourse
Between the living and the dead.”
William Wordsworth, “Affliction of Margaret”

So we speculate and hold up our own stories to compare to the stories of others:
“Oh, of course they’re not show ghosts—a collector wouldn’t think anything of them…Don’t let me raise your hopes…their one merit is their numerical strength: the exceptional fact of their being two. But, as against this, I’m bound to admit that at any moment I could probably have exorcised them both by asking my doctor for a prescription, or my oculist for a pair of spectacles. Only, as I never could make up my mind whether to go to the doctor or the oculist—whether I was afflicted by an optical or a digestive delusion—I left them to pursue their interesting double life…. As far as I knew I was simply bored…” Edith Wharton, “The Eyes,” Tales of Men and Ghosts

If we’re skeptics, we think others credulous:
“It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.” James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

Some of us believe we’re too modern to believe in such things as ghosts:
“Our forefathers looked upon nature with more reverence and horror, before the world was enlightened by learning and philosophy, and loved to astonish themselves with the apprehensions of witchcraft, prodigies, charms, and inchantments. There was not a village in England that had not a ghost in it, the church-yards were all haunted, every large common had a circle of fairies belonging to it, and there was scarce a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit. “ Joseph Addison, The Spectator, Volume the Sixth, No. 419

And then there are those who classify ghost stories with fairy tales and traditions like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, stories only for children:
“[T]here were several young girls… sitting about the fire… telling stories of Spirits and Apparitions…. I seated my self by the candle that stood on a table at one end of the room; and… heard several dreadful stories of Ghosts as pale as ashes that had stood at the feet of a bed, or walked over a church-yard by moon-light; and of others that had been conjured into the Red-Sea, for disturbing people’s rest, and drawing their Curtains at midnight…. I took notice in particular of a little boy, who was so attentive to every story, that I am mistaken if he ventures to go to bed by himself this twelve-month. Indeed they talked so long, that the Imaginations of the whole assembly were manifestly crazed…. I took the Candle in my hand, and went up into my chamber, not without wondering at this unaccountable weakness in reasonable creatures, that they should love to astonish and terrifie one another. Were I a Father, I should take a particular care to preserve my children from these little horrors of imagination, which they are apt to contract when they are young, and are not able to shake off when they are in years.” Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 12

Contemporary rationalists try to explain away ghost stories by assigning them some kind of psychological reality:
“There are such things as ghosts. People everywhere have always known that. And we believe in them every bit as much as Homer did. Only now, we call them by different names. Memory. The unconscious.” Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Sometimes these rationalists use the idea of ghosts as a kind of metaphor:
“It’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts … maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts … these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed … They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped … High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.” Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

The idea of psychological reality for ghosts means that there’s nothing in the world to be scared of except what we ourselves create inside our own heads:
“In one aspect, yes, I believe in ghosts, but we create them. We haunt ourselves.” Laurie Halse Anderson, Wintergirls

Even authors who make a living telling stories about the supernatural occasionally fall into the camp of those who believe that ghosts are merely manifestations created by our own brains:
“It was haunted; but real hauntings have nothing to do with ghosts finally; they have to do with the menace of memory.” Anne Rice, The Queen of the Damned

And we can explain even the way previous generations believed in ghosts by looking backwards with our theory of the psychological reality of ghosts:
“We’re all ghosts. We all carry, inside us, people who came before us.” Liam Callanan, The Cloud Atlas

It makes us feel more like we’re in control of our own destinies to see ourselves as haunted by the ghosts of the past as we surge forward into the future:
“It’s not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that walks in us. It’s all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can’t get rid of them.” Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts

Setting the table for Christmas dinner with my grandmother’s set of dishes and my parents’ crystal goblets makes me think of those who are gone. Hanging my mother’s birds and pears on our Christmas tree and putting up the stockings with the names she knitted in for my children is touching something she touched, not so many years ago. Imagine still living in the same house where you grew up, maybe one that had been in your family for generations:
“For who can wonder that man should feel a vague belief in tales of disembodied spirits wandering through those places which they once dearly affected, when he himself, scarcely less separated from his old world than they, is for ever lingering upon past emotions and bygone times, and hovering, the ghost of his former self, about the places and people that warmed his heart of old?” Charles Dickens, Master Humphrey’s Clock

In the end, we each have to decide if we believe in ghosts:
“Ideas, like ghosts (according to the common notion of ghosts), must be spoken to a little before they will explain themselves…” Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son

And then we live for the rest of our lives testing that belief:zz2a9459eb
“Why do you doubt your senses?” asked the Ghost.
“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them — a slight disorder of the stomach. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are. Humbug, I tell you — humbug!” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

We laugh at the disbelief of Scrooge, because we know the ghosts are coming to visit him whether he believes in them or not.

And that is, of course, the scariest thing of all, that there really might be more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of, no matter how much we’ve thought and written about what haunts us and why.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 25, 2018 1:19 am

    Just don’t ghost me.

  2. December 25, 2018 6:16 pm

    This is quite the anthology of spooky lore. So many ways to look at a ghost (way more than 13)…you’ve given me much to think about!

    Who says there were no ghosts in America before the Victorian era? I should think there would have been tales before that, though I can’t bring any to mind (I’m not a big ghost story reader myself).

    • December 25, 2018 7:54 pm

      Oh, there are plenty of tales. The Supernatural writers were playing around with the idea that after a certain number of years (around 100 I think), ghosts disintegrated or something.

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