GHOST-STORIES UNVEILED, article in Chamber's Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts 1878
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In former times, ghost-stories constituted much of the fireside talk; the weird tale was told of how a spectre clothed in appropriate white was seen to appear, and in due course to vanish; and the hearers, duly impressed with the apparent truth of a tale, for which no natural reason was vouchsafed, became themselves in a measure forced to believe. Science and common-sense are, however, now robbing these absurd stories of much of their glamour, by explaining in a simple straightforward way what by many has hitherto been held to be supernatural and therefore unaccountable. With these remarks we proceed to offer a few instances of explained ghost-stories kindly supplied to us by a contributor. He says:
What I am going to do is simply to give some instances in which what might have made a capital ghost-story, proved to be nothing of the kind, and to draw from thence the inference that all such stories could, if only we were acquainted with all the facts, be accounted for by natural causes.
I have myself been sorely puzzled to account for what I have seen. On one occasion I was passing by a cemetery on my way to a distant part of my parish. The night was dark and foggy; and as I walked along the road close to the iron fence, I perceived within the inclosure, apparently but a few yards off, a body of dim light that seemed to come up from the ground. Now my impressions were all in favour of ghosts, and if my judgment also had been equally in favour, I should have had a ghost-story to tell about that place. But I was determined to seek an explanation of the phenomenon; so I went up to the railings and looked hard at the light, but could make nothing of it. At the same time I became conscious of a dull sound proceeding from the ground where it stood. I could not understand it; and there I stood peering in until my ears suddenly gave me a clue to the mystery, for I fancied I detected the thud of a mattock. And such it was. The sexton was working against time to dig for a large vault, and the mysterious light was nothing more or less than that of his lantern, some feet below the surface, which threw up into the foggy air a volume of strange misty brightness. But really it made a very creditable ghost.
Another adventure I had was more laughable, but not less perplexing at the time. The night was very dark indeed; and as I took a sudden turn in the road, I saw a feebly illuminated figure moving slowly some distance in advance and in the same direction with myself. My first impression was that some one was going to try to frighten me; so I grasped my stick, intending, as boys say, to whack in to the culprit. But as I drew nearer, the figure stopped; and in a moment or two the illumination became somewhat brighter. I got close up to it, prepared to strike, but for the life of me could not tell what it was. I passed it close, and looked round into it, and found it was an old woman going home from a day's washing. She had on, poor soul, a very attenuated cloak, through which the light of the lantern she was carrying feebly penetrated, and when she had stopped to snuff the candle with her fingers, the light of course burned brighter. She was very deaf, and had not heard my footsteps; so that when I spoke I frightened her, I fear, more than she had frightened me.
Talking of not hearing footsteps in the dark. I remember once alarming a neighbour most unintentionally; and had he not discovered the true cause, he might to this day have had a tale of mystery to unfold upon the subject I was walking briskly home one night with a map—mounted with rings for hanging it to a wall—under my arm and goloshes on my feet The rings kept up a sort of clicking noise as I went, while the goloshes caused me to glide along the damp lane with the noiselessness of a cat. But I never thought of either circumstance till afterwards. Hearing footsteps in front, I fancied it might be my neighbour, it being about his time for coming home, so I pushed on. But the quicker I went the farther off he seemed. I went faster still, but still I came not up with him; until, determined to overtake him, I set off running at a brisk pace and only reached him as he was passing into his gate, having, beyond the possibility of doubt, made a run for it himself. Whether he took the clicking of the rings, unaccompanied by the sound of footsteps, for the clicking of a pistol or the mysterious rattle of a fancied ghost, I cannot say; but this is certain, that if he had only stopped or even not run away, he would have found out the cause of what was undoubtedly a curious accompaniment on a dark night.
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A gentleman living in a country-house which I had once inhabited, wrote to ask me whether during my residence there I had ever heard any reports of its being 'haunted.' He did not believe in such things himself, he said, but he always liked when he heard of anything of the kind, to investigate the matter as far as possible. It was a very sensible thing to do; and I was able to give him a satisfactory explanation. It was news to me that the house had this evil reputation; but when I heard of it, it immediately occurred to my mind how it was to be accounted for. It so happened that a certain mischievous female member of my family had, towards the latter part of my stay in that house, been guilty of the cruelty of terrifying the servants almost out of their wits. She appeared one night in their room covered over with a sheet, which sheet was raised high over her head by means of a stick, to the end of which was fastened a bull's-eye lantern—a ghost of commanding stature and terrific gaze. It is very wrong to play such tricks, as the consequences might be serious to some weak minds. In this case, however, no harm was done, except that the servants were unalterably settled in the persuasion that they had seen a ghost, and that they had, as a matter of course, inoculated the village with their own firm belief that the house was haunted.
Little things are apt to be magnified, and the simplest things frequently become mysterious, in the stillness and darkness of the night. When living in London, I was one night aroused by my sister coming into my room to tell me that some one was trying to break into the house by the front-door: I looked out of the window, but could see no one, though a low jarring noise could be heard. The statutory procession was formed. First came I, holding a poker warily, and looking anxiously for a human head; then came a servant, who had first given the alarm, lifting aloft a candle to aid me in the search; and last of all came my sister, bold as a lion, though pale as death. As we slowly descended thus in battle-array, I could distinctly hear the fitful jarring sound from the region of the street-door; but I declare I could not in the least make out the cause of it until I had got quite up to the door, and then the mystery was solved. One of the family had come home late, fastened the door as he thought, put up the chain, and gone to bed. But the door had not been fastened; the bolts though shot, had not been sent home, and so the door kept swinging backwards and forwards in the gentle night-breeze as far as the chain would let it. Had the house been reputed 'haunted,' it would have suggested a ghost, just as anything strange will suggest one where the mind is suitably impressed with the idea of the thing. Thus a relative of mine used to relate how frightened he had been when a boy in coming down the stairs of an old tower of ghostly fame, at the top of which he and other boys had been amusing themselves until the shades of evening surprised them. It was his fate to bring up the rear, and he no doubt felt in consequence his exposure to the enemy in black, and sure enough he heard a hollow step behind him keeping step exactly after him; when he hurried, that hurried; when he paused at some difficulty in the descent, that paused also; but when at length he emerged from the darkness with a final rush, no ghost came out after him. But he recollected that he had got a bag of gingerbread nuts in the hinder pocket of his long great-coat; and the flapping of that in the stairs was the mysterious sound that had so alarmed him.
It may be said that instances like these, in which what seemed at first mysterious and ghostlike was perfectly accounted for by natural causes, can never, how many soever they be, disprove the reality of far more remarkable appearances which are vouched for on the most respectable testimony, and which have never been accounted for on any theory, apparently explainable. Still, their reality as mysteries depends on the credibility of the testimony in their favour, and a complete knowledge of all the circumstances. All I maintain is, that the frequent and, in my own experience, the invariable explanation of things of this sort (that at first looked unaccountable) by natural causes, sets us in the right direction for inquiry, and affords presumptive evidence that all such things might, if only we knew all the facts, be similarly explained. It must be remembered, moreover, that while it is true that far more marvellous ghost-stories than those I have related have been solemnly placed on record, it is equally true on the other hand that the operation of purely natural causes can furnish explanations far more subtle and complete than those which sufficed to dissipate all my ghosts. The phenomena of Nature in all their varieties of combination can never be fully known; while as regards the credibility of witnesses, we want to know not only that their veracity is unimpeachable, but also that their judgment is sound, their health, both bodily and mental, not abnormal. I remember a friend telling me with the most evident sincerity that he felt sure he should succeed in some enterprise he had begun because he had just seen seven ducks waddling one after the other. He was an excitable man, just then in highly nervous condition; and if he had said he had seen seven ghosts instead of seven ducks, I should have believed him, but set the ghosts down to mental aberration.
What condition the witnesses were in who saw the following 'well-accredited' feat of a ghost, I will not venture to determine. The story is related hy an enthusiastic believer in and even admirer of ghosts of every sort and kind, and the ghost and witnesses are all phlegmatic Germans. 'One night as Kezer lay in his bed, and the servant was standing near the glass door in conversation with him, to his utter amazement he saw a jug of beer which stood on a table in a room at some distance from him, slowly lifted to a height of about three feet, and the contents poured into a glass that was standing there also, until the latter was half full. The jug was then gently replaced, and the glass lifted and emptied, as by some one drinking; whilst the servant exclaimed in terrified surprise: "Look, it swallows!" The glass was quietly replaced, and not a drop of beer was to be found on the floor.'
No doubt there was not; and let us hope the ghost was all the better for having taken only the half-glass. But what scrutinising of the witnesses we should require before believing such nonsense as this! What, we repeat, must have been their condition!
Even without anything abnormal or diseased, there unquestionably are mysteries of our nature which we cannot fathom, and which perhaps we had better not try to comprehend, but which when brought to notice by accident or design, might seem preternatural. Thus the power of what is called 'second-sight,' of which remarkable instances have been given by persons not likely to be deceived, is not really, as some have supposed, a preternatural gift, but may be accounted tor simply as an extraordinary faculty possessed by some, under certain conditions, of reading what is in the mind of another when brought in contact voluntarily and for that very purpose with the person who has the gift. There are, in like manner, many remarkable faculties naturally possessed by people as part of their peculiar constitution which, if only we were aware of the fact, would explain many a circumstance that bears on the face of it the stamp of mystery. I have a friend who cannot sleep unless his head is turned towards the north. The first time he slept in my house his bed was against a south wall, but he was not aware of it In the morning he told me he could not sleep until he had placed the bolster and pillow where his feet had been; and so the clothes were found arranged, to the great amusement of the housemaid.
The inference I draw then is: that the true explanation of all ghost-stories, however marvellous, is to be found in natural causes, in a knowledge of all the facts and circumstances of each particular case. These explanations will sometimes, as in the instances I have given, lie on the surface; sometimes they will lie more deeply within the mysteries of our complex nature and the surroundings, and have to be studied and searched out; and sometimes they may be so deep down as to be quite beyond the reach of either our powers or opportunities of investigation, though doubtless still perfectly natural. But when we consider how credulous human nature is in regard to mysteries that have no higher authority than that of men, and that are only morbid and unwholesome in their tendencies; and when, moreover, we take into account how almost unlimited are the resources in nature for the explanation of what at first seemed supernatural, it appears to me to be decidedly better, safer, manlier, more rational, and at the same time more respectful towards what is truly supernatural, to relegate all ghost-stories without exception and without hesitation to the domain of wonders that have a purely earthly origin.
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