Ghost is the term that is most commonly associated with the soul or spirit of a deceased person or animal. The ghosts can manifest themselves as an invisible presence, translucent appearance, or barely visible wispy shape. Other encounters with ghosts have been said to have had realistic almost lifelike representations. One interesting fact about the history of ghosts is that they’ve been present in nearly every known culture in some form. They are certain differences between the different cultures, but many underlying factors are the same.
The belief in manifestations of the spirits of the deceased predates even literate societies. Animism, a religious view that natural objects possess a spiritual essence (even inanimate objects), is an early case of the belief in a spirit and is associated with the belief in ghosts. Another pre-literate concept is the practice of ancestor worship. The idea behind ancestor worship is that those deceased members of a lineage have some form of continued existence and are possibly able to affect the lives of the living. Many of the religious practices of modern times were influenced by these concepts in attempts to appease the dead spirits. Funeral rites, exorcisms, ritual magic, and spiritualism have all been influenced by the idea that the soul exists after death and certain rituals must be performed to ensure peace.
The notion of ghosts seems to be universal throughout the world. The reasons for the soul remaining in some form are different, but the idea is basically the same: something is keeping the spirit in the plane. Funeral rites, death rituals, and proper burials are all intended to resolve any issues the spirit has, but those alone may not be enough. Some ghosts are said to remain as product of a tragic event where the person died suddenly with unresolved issues. Though there’s no scientific proof for this, it would explain the association of some ghosts with war times. “White ladies” were the product of this situation. A common theme for their death was said to be that they had lost or been betrayed by a husband or fiancé. Other deaths weren’t the result of a tragic or sudden event, but the ghosts have unresolved business, perhaps with a family member or acquaintance. In many traditional accounts, ghosts were thought to be those looking for vengeance or imprisoned on earth for their own wrong doings during life.
The places where ghosts are known to be seen are often called haunted. Most often these spirits are deceased who were formerly associated with the property; whether they had family there, were former residents themselves, or some other form of attachment to the location. Extremely tragic events such as murder, accidental death, or suicide may also be responsible for the spirits of the death being in a location. Ghosts have also been said to haunt locations such as ships, historical war sights, and especially graveyards. Many historical houses have garnered attention for supposedly being haunted. They have become the attraction of “ghost hunters” and others interested in ghosts or spirits. This has also prompted false ghost stories in some places that have an interesting history that is easy to spin tales around. The stories are made to attract tourism, but many of them have prompted a serious inquiry into the possibility of ghosts.
References to ghosts and spirituality extend through nearly every known culture. Ancient Egyptians mentioned ghosts in many of the early religions of the regions. According to them, ghosts were created at the time of death. The ghosts would inherit the memory and personality of the deceased person they spawned from. After this, they travel to the netherworld and exist in much the same way that the living do. To ease their transition into this new state, relatives were responsible for leaving food and drink offerings. If a family decided not to make these offerings, the ghost could inflict illness or other forms of misfortune on them and ghosts were often blamed for instances of illness. Their system of beliefs changed over time with regards to the afterlife and what it entailed, but there was a constant belief in existence after death and, in some time periods, even the idea of a second life. The modern concept of mummification and the possibility of a mummy waking if its rest is disturbed is part of the evolution of the ideas they held about ghosts. Many other ancient civilizations held a belief in ghosts as well.
In Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad describes ghost as vanishing “as a vapor, gibbering and whining into the earth.” This Greek interpretation of ghosts interacted very little with the living world, but they were periodically called upon for advice or to prophesy about future events. Many of them were described as vapor, but some were said to be more substantial even to the point of appearing as they had been before death. The Greek definition of ghosts shifted with time as well. By the 5th century ghosts were frightening beings. They were also able to directly able to affect the living by performing works for either good or evil. Their spirits were said to hover near the resting place of their corpse, making cemeteries a place to avoid for anyone living. Ceremonies were created to publicly mourn the dead and annual feast were held to honor and placate the spirits of those that had died. During the annual feast, the family’s ghosts were invited to join in the celebration, but after the celebration ended the ghosts were firmly invited to leave until that same time next year.
Ancient Romans believed in ghosts as well and thought that they could be used to exact revenge on an enemy by scratching a curse on a piece of lead or pottery and placing it into a grave. There are specific accounts of a ghost haunting a bath at Chaeronea. The ghost was a murdered man whose loud groans resulted in the town sealing up the building. Another account describes a house in Athens haunted by a ghost bound in chains. The hauntings were said to have ended once the ghost’s shackled skeleton was unearthed and properly buried. This was actually a recurring theme as noted by the Christian priest Constantius of Lyon who recorded several instances of improper burial being the cause for a haunting. It was also during the Roman era that there was one of the first recorded instances of disbelief in ghosts. Lucian of Samosata describes how Democritus “the learned man from Abdera in Thrace” resided in a tomb outside city gates to prove that cemeteries were not haunted by spirits. Apart from practical jokers, Lucian claimed that there were no other instances that he observed of ghosts.
During the middle ages ghosts fell either into the category of spirits of the dead or that of demons. The spirits of the dead returned for a specific purpose while demonic ghosts existed only to torment or tempt the living. According to their beliefs, the difference between these was very easy to discern. Simply demanding their purpose for being in the realm of the living in the name of Jesus Christ would reveal whether they were a ghost or a demon. The spirits of those that had died would state their purpose, but demons would be banished at the sound of the Holy Name. Most ghosts were considered to be souls in Purgatory, condemned for a period of time to atone for their sins. Some of these appeared to the living in order to ask for prayers to end their suffering. Others returned to urge that others confess their own sins before dying. In some cases these ghosts were much more substantial than in early accounts. Some tales included people having to physically wrestle with the ghosts to restrain them until a priest could be summoned to hear its confession. Other ghosts were immaterial and could move through walls or other solid features. Many of these were described as pale, foggy versions of their former selves and most of them were men. During the Middle Ages there were reports of entire ghost armies and individual knight battles with ghost knights who disappeared after combat. Haunted houses were also mentioned in some of the literature during this time period.
The European Renaissance era saw an increased interest in the arts of necromancy and many other occult practices, signifying a belief in the existence of souls in the afterlife. A popular belief stemming from this period was that ghosts must be released from their duty to their lover. If a fiancé or fiancée died before their marriage, the living partner would be haunted until they gained a formal release from their old partner. The ghosts could also be condemned to damnation if their lover did not release them from the responsibility of marriage. Another belief was signature during this period: that ghosts could be the result of excessive grieving by the living. The grieving would disturb the dead’s peaceful rest causing them to return. Folktales often featured a hero arranging for the proper burial of a dead man. A companion comes along for the hero shortly after who, after their quest is complete, reveals that he is the dead man that the hero had buried. These time period detail the well recorded western world’s history with ghosts, but other countries and cultures share belief in ghosts as well.
In India ghosts are called bhoot of bhut, and their origin is generally from restless existence that prevents them from moving on. Reasons for their restlessness vary from unsettled matters in life, violent death, or failure to perform the proper burial rites. Shaman spirit guides played roles in some areas. They would come in the night and decorate something on a person’s wall. If that person saw a spirit in the morning, they would become a spirit themselves. Ghosts were also prominent in many Polynesian cultures and had more interaction with the living. The area is rich in cultures so the beliefs are varied, but there was widespread belief that ghosts would either travel to the sky or to the underworld after death, but some stayed on earth. They could be responsible for a number of incidents involving the living.
Other Asian cultures share a rich history of belief in ghosts. Chinese beliefs are that one should stay away from ghosts as much as possible, but to respect them. In their culture ghosts can take many forms and are often harmful. Most of their beliefs are passed down from periods of ancestor worship which is incorporated into many of their belief systems. Modern Chinese believe in the possibility of contacting spirits of their ancestors through the use of a medium. These ancestors can offer help if the descendants have been respectful. There is also an annual ghost festival, a day on which the ghosts of ancestors come out from the lower realm. Japanese beliefs in ghosts are very similar to their Chinese neighbors. Thailand ghosts are part of popular culture in the country. Phraya Anuman Rajadhon, a Thai scholar, was the first to study the tradition of ghosts and came to the conclusion that they were passed down through oral tradition as there was no representation of them in paintings or drawings. Most of their contemporary ghosts are iconic folk beliefs that have been passed on through traditional stories. Their most feared ghost is Phi Tai Hong, or the ghost of someone who died a violent death. Their folklore also attributes sleep paralysis to ghosts. Tibetan cultures following Buddhism believe that ghosts occupy a distinct, but overlapping world to the human one. Humans may enter the ghost world after a period of uncertainty. Tibetans believe in a hungry ghost with a tiny throat but a very large stomach that can never be satisfied. The ghosts can be killed with a ritual dagger or caught in spirit traps and burned. The ghosts can also be exercised and there is a festival held each year for that purpose.
In more modern times ghosts have become the subject of literature and other popular forms of media. They are used as the theme of many horror movies and other works meant to create fear. There is still significant belief in the existence of ghosts throughout the world. Many classic literary pieces revolve around ghostly figures in some way, making them a staple in horror and thriller writing.