Phantasma, Spooks and Apparitions

Belief in ghosts is very common throughout the world and pervasive in many cultures. The general idea of a ghost, is that it is a deceased human, who seems to live on in the world in an incorporeal, spirit form. In English the word ghost, comes from the Old English gást, while the word spirit, is derived from the Latin spiritus, meaning "breath" or "blast".

It is likely that the belief in ghosts goes back far into history, to times when Animism was the religious world view. In this view of the world, natural physical entities like animals and plants were thought to possess a spiritual essence. It is also possible that ancestor veneration, which is evident in some Eastern cultures, and in Native American traditions, may be another factor relevant to the belief in ghosts.

A Ghost groupCredit: Flickr temporalata

English Culture Ghosts

Other words for ghosts borrowed from other languages are Spectre, which comes from the Latin spectrum and phantom which initially came from the Greek phantasma by way of French. The term poltergeist of course is German meaning "noisy ghost," and Wraith, a word used much in Tolkien's, The Lord of the Rings is appropriated from a Scottish dialect.

During the Middle Ages there was widespread belief in ghosts, people and indeed the dominant Catholic Church, believed that spirits remained earthbound if they had something to complete in the earthly sphere. Other reasons for being earth-bound were, if a person committed suicide, or were blasphemers. Demons however, hung about to make trouble and would disappear if the name of Jesus was spoken.

The belief in ghosts was indeed so strong during the Middle Ages, that students at the University of Cambridge were banned from going to the nearby Wandlebury Fort on the summer solstice, as it was believed that ghost knights would appear to fight violent battles.

Ghostly KnightCredit: Flickr Goosemouse

During the Victorian period, belief in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena, became a crazy obsession among many. Séances were conducted in an attempt to contact ghosts, Ouija boards were wobbled and spirit writing was believed to occur when the ghost wrote through a live person. The Victorian spirit craze was fuelled by the Fox sisters from New York, who claimed to be communicating with ghosts by means of "rappings". Later one of the sisters, Margret revealed the whole thing was a hoax.

In the 1900s, 50 Berkeley Square, in Mayfair, Central London, became known as "The Most Haunted House in London". Once the home of British Prime Minister George Canning, the story goes that a young woman committed suicide there and her spirit haunts the attic room. The spirit is said to take the form of a brown mist, or sometimes a white figure.

In 1879, Mayfair magazine reported that a maid who lived in the attic room went mad and had to be transported to an asylum the next day, where she died. A nobleman took up the challenge the day she was found mad, to stay the night in the room and was found dead the next day. The coroner pronounced him dead by fright.

In the United Kingdom, a well known ghost is the Drummer of Tedworth, who supposedly haunted John Mompesson, from the town of Tedworth (now called Tidworth, in Wiltshire). Mompesson brought a lawsuit against a local drummer, accusing him of extorting money by false pretences. Mompesson won the case against the drummer and his drum was confiscated. After this time Mompesson's house was plagued by nocturnal drumming noises.

Theodor von Holst, Bertalda, Assailed by Spirits, c.1830Credit: wikipedia

The legendary ghost of Bloody Mary can be conjured to reveal the future. She appears in a mirror when you call her name multiple times. She may appear, it is claimed, as a witch or corpse covered in blood.

 A 2005 Gallup poll, found that about 32 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, and such beliefs have had a huge increase since the 1990s. Many ghost stories in the United States, relate to the Civil War and many tales particularly, center around The Battle of Gettysburg. Some people have even claimed to observe ghost battles.

In Vermont the ghost of Emily, is believed to haunt a covered bridge in Stowe.  Emily it is said, can only be seen at midnight. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an old Steel Corporation mill is haunted by a wild woman ghost dubbed Slag Pile Annie.......or so it is said.

The Living DeadCredit: Flickr psyberartist

Abraham Lincoln's Ghost, is said to have haunted the White House since his death. Eleanor Roosevelt claimed that she often felt his presence and her dog Fala, would sometimes bark at what she felt was Lincoln's ghost. In 1942, when Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands was staying at the White House, she answered a knock at her bedroom door. She was greeted by Lincoln in frock coat and top hat. She fainted.

In Canada the Headless Nun is believed to haunt French Fort Cove in Nordin, New Brunswick.

 European Ghosts

The festival of Samhain was held at the beginning of winter in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The Welsh and the Cornish and the Celts of Brittany, held similar festivals at the same time. Samhain and the festival of Beltane held in May, were believed to be a period when the "door" to the Otherworld opened,  and various creäture like beings, the wee folk and souls of the dead, could pass into our world. People would often wear costumes and disguises to confuse and ward of any malignant spirits. This is also the origin of Halloween.

During the Middle Ages across Europe, stories began to circulate about revenants, which were believed to be visible corpse like ghosts, who would return from the dead, to menace the living. These revenants are usually miscreants, who were blamed for spreading disease. The revenants would be then tracked, their graves opened, decapitated and their heart cut out. Such an event happened only a little over 100 years ago in Rhode Island, New England, USA.

Night GraveCredit: Flickr markhillary

In Scandinavian folklore a revenant or ghost who appeared in corporeal form is called a Gjenganger. Such beings would return it was believed, for reasons like: having committed suicide, being murdered, or perhaps murdering others. The tradition of a violent gjenganger, can be traced back to the age of the Vikings.

The strigoi are usually Romanian spirits, who rise out of their graves, although some are also live people with special powers. Some strigoi are able to transform into animal form, or become invisible. Stories of strigoi go back to the oral traditions of the Dacians who lived  around the Carpathian Mountains and east of there to the Black Sea. Today this area is Romania and Moldova.

The idea of vampires goes back 1000s of years. The Mesopotamians, Hebrews, Ancient Greeks, and Romans had stories of such malevolent beings. However what we tend to think of as vampires, arose in the late 17th and 18th centuries in Eastern Europe, from folklore. Such stories were embellished such novels like John Polidori's 1819 novella The Vampyre.

In 1721 in East Prussia there was an alleged outbreak of vampire attacks. And another case involved Peter Plogojowitz, who died at age 62, but then returned from the dead to ask his son for food. The son was found dead the next day.

The Greeks believed in the vrykolakas, who would return from the dead due to leading a sacrilegious life, or from being buried on unconsecrated ground. Some also ate sheep which had been bitten by a werewolf. Vrykolakas did not decay, but often stayed "fresh and gorged with new blood". In 1718 a French traveller named Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, witnessed the exhumation and "slaying" of a suspected vrykolakas, on the island of Mykonos.

vrykolakasCredit: Flickr soulstealer uk

South and Southeast Asian Ghosts

On the Indian subcontinent bhoots are ghost like supernatural creatures, who like European ghosts, are generally restless and disturbed spirits. A vetala is a corpse inhabiting spirit in  Hindu folklore, who can cause people to go insane, kill young children, cause miscarriages and yet also protect a village. Pishachas however, have swarthy complexions with bulging veins and popping red eyes. They can possess people and alter their thoughts, causing madness. They also have their own language.

In places like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, ghost myths have been influenced by animism, Hindu-Buddhist cosmology, and Muslim influences. There are many words for ghosts in these cultures, but hantu is a common term. There are many types of hantu ghosts. One interesting example is Hantu Jarang Gigi, who are  ape-men who roam about the southern rainforests of Malaysia, and who have very widely spaced teeth. Another is Hantu Tinggi, who is as tall as the tree-tops, with legs which are indistinguishable from tree trunks.

The jinn are spirits mentioned in the Quran, who are said to inhabit a netherworld; they are said to be made of "scorching fire" without smoke. The word Jinn essentially means "hidden from sight" in Arabic. Many stories about Jinn can be found in the book of Arabic folktales  One Thousand and One Nights, also called the Arabian Nights.

SpiritCredit: Flickr Rudolf Getel

Another sought of ghost is a bajang which can change shape from a sneering human like form and appear as a wildcat. If someone in the family is unwell, especially an infant, the Bajang will be blamed. A lang suir is the ghost of a woman who died while giving birth, to a stillborn child. The dead child will become a pontianak. There are many other Malay ghosts, but the last I will mention is the toyol, the spirit of a dead fetus.


Belief in ghosts is very closely linked to the practice of ancestor worship, which is still evident in China today. Even Confucius said "Respect ghosts and gods, but keep away from them."

In China the Hungry Ghost Festival, occurs on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month. This is the ghost month, when all the spirits and ghosts emerge from the spirit realm. At this time, extravagant meals will be cooked and empty seats at the table, will be reserved for the dead. Incense will be burned, as the living pay homage to their dead ancestors.


Belief in ghosts in common in Mexican culture, and these ghosts seem to be a mix of beliefs derived from Maya and Aztec culture, combined with Christianity. The Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday which can be traced back to its indigenous pagan culture. During the celebrations,families often decorate graves with flowers, which they believe will attract the souls of the dead family members.

One popular ghost is "La Llorona" or "The Crying Woman". This ghost legend, which is common throughout Spanish-speaking lands, involves a woman called La Llorona who drowned her children so that she would be free, to be with the man she desired. He rejected her, and she killed herself. After death she was doomed to wander earth for all eternity.

La LloronaCredit: wikipedia

Maori culture

In the Maori culture of New Zealand, ghosts of long dead ancestors may warn of danger. Kikokiko are evil ghosts, who cause people to go mad, possessing their bodies. Taniwha are beings that live in deep parts of rivers, inside dark caves, or in dangerous parts of the ocean. Taniwha act as guardians and warn of danger, but they must be allayed with certain offerings;  a green twig or a sweet potato, as you happen to pass their dangerous abode.

“Be hole, be dust, be dream, be wind/Be night, be dark, be wish, be mind,/Now slip, now slide, now move unseen,/Above, beneath, betwixt, between.”
  Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

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