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HAUNTINGS (from “to haunt,” Fr. hanter, of uncertain origin, but possibly from Lat. ambitare, ambire, to go about, frequent), the supposed manifestations of existence by spirits of the dead in houses or places familiar to them in life. The savage practice of tying up the corpse before burying it is clearly intended to prevent the dead from “walking”; and cremation, whether in savage lands or in classical times, may have originally had the same motive. The “spirit” manifests himself, as a rule, either in his bodily form, as when he lived, or in the shape of some animal, or by disturbing noises, as in the case of the poltergeist (q.v.). Classical examples occur in Plautus (Mostellaria), Lucian (Philopseudes), Pliny, Suetonius, St Augustine, St Gregory, Plutarch and elsewhere, while Lucretius has his theory of apparitions of the dead. He does not deny the fact; he explains it by “films” diffused from the living body and persisting in the atmosphere.
A somewhat similar hypothesis, to account for certain alleged phenomena, was invented by Mr Edmund Gurney. Some visionary appearances in haunted houses do not suggest the idea of an ambulatory spirit, but rather of the photograph of a past event, impressed we know not how on we know not what. In this theory there is no room for the agency of spirits of the dead. The belief in hauntings was naturally persistent through the middle ages, and example and theory abound in the Loca infesta (Cologne, 1598) of Petrus Thyraeus, S.J.; Wierius (c. 1560), in De praestigiis daemonum, is in the same tale. According to Thyraeus, hauntings appeal to the senses of sight, hearing and touch. The auditory phenomena are mainly thumping noises, sounds of footsteps, laughing and moaning. Rackets in general are caused by lares domestici (“brownies”) or the Poltergeist. In the tactile way ghosts push the living; “I have been thrice pushed by an invisible power,” writes the Rev. Samuel Wesley, in 1717, in his narrative of the disturbances at his rectory at Epworth. Once he was pushed against the corner of his desk in the study; once up against the door of the matted chamber; and thirdly, “against the right-hand side of the frame of my study door, as I was going in.” We have thus Protestant corroboration of the statement of the learned Jesuit.
Thyraeus raises the question, Are the experiences hallucinatory? Did Mr Wesley (to take his case) receive a mere hallucinatory set of pushes? Was the hair of a friend of the writer’s, who occupied a haunted house, only pulled in a subjective way? Thyraeus remarks that, in cases of noisy phenomena, not all persons present hear them; and, rather curiously, Mr Wesley records the same experience; he sometimes did not hear sounds that seemed violently loud to his wife and family, who were with him at prayers. Thyraeus says that, as collective hallucinations of sight are rare—all present not usually seeing the apparition—so audible phenomena are not always experienced by all persons present. In such cases, he thinks that the sights and sounds have no external cause, he regards the sights and sounds as delusions—caused by spirits. This is a difficult question. He mentions that we hear all the furniture being tossed about (as Sir Walter and Lady Scott heard it at Abbotsford; see Lockhart’s Life, v. 311-315). Yet, on inspection, we find all the furniture in its proper place. There is abundant evidence to experience of this phenomenon, which remains as inexplicable as it was in the days of Thyraeus. When the sounds are heard, has the atmosphere vibrated, or has the impression only been made on “the inner ear”? In reply, Mr. Procter, who for sixteen years (1831-1847) endured the unexplained disturbances at Willington Mill, avers that the material objects on which the knocks appeared to be struck did certainly vibrate (see Poltergeist). Is then the felt vibration part of the hallucination?
As for visual phenomena, “ghosts,” Thyraeus does not regard them as space-filling entities, but as hallucinations imposed by spirits on the human senses; the spirit, in each case, not being necessarily the soul of the dead man or woman whom the phantasm represents.
In the matter of alleged hauntings, the symptoms, the phenomena, to-day, are exactly the same as those recorded by Thyraeus. The belief in them is so far a living thing that it greatly lowers the letting value of a house when it is reported to be haunted. (An action for libelling a house as haunted was reported in the London newspapers of the 7th of March 1907). It is true that ancient family legends of haunts are gloried in by the inheritors of stately homes in England, or castles in Scotland, and to discredit the traditional ghost—in the days of Sir Walter Scott—was to come within measurable distance of a duel. But the time-honoured phantasms of old houses usually survive only in the memory of “the oldest aunt telling the saddest tale.” Their historical basis can no more endure criticism than does the family portrait of Queen Mary,—signed by Medina about 1750-1770, and described by the family as “given to our ancestor by the Queen herself.” After many years’ experience of a baronial dwelling credited with seven distinct and separate phantasms, not one of which was ever seen by hosts, guests or domestics, scepticism as regards traditional ghosts is excusable. Legend reports that they punctually appear on the anniversaries of their misfortunes, but no evidence of such punctuality has been produced.
The Society for Psychical Research has investigated hundreds of cases of the alleged haunting of houses, and the reports are in the archives of the society. But, as the mere rumour of a haunt greatly lowers the value of a house, it is seldom possible to publish the names of the witnesses, and hardly ever permitted to publish the name of the house. From the point of view of science this is unfortunate (see Proceedings S.P.R. vol. viii. pp. 311-332 and Proceedings of 1882-1883, 1883-1884). As far as inquiry had any results, they were to the following effect. The spectres were of the most shy and fugitive kind, seen now by one person, now by another, crossing a room, walking along a corridor, and entering chambers in which, on inspection, they were not found. There was almost never any story to account for the appearances, as in magazine ghost-stories, and, if story there were, it lacked evidence. Recognitions of known dead persons were infrequent; occasionally there was recognition of a portrait in the house. The apparitions spoke in only one or two recorded cases, and, as a rule, seemed to have no motive for appearing. 68 The “ghost” resembles nothing so much as a somnambulist, or the dream-walk of one living person made visible, telepathically, to another living person. Almost the only sign of consciousness given by the appearances is their shyness; on being spoken to or approached they generally vanish. Not infrequently they are taken, at first sight, for living human beings. In darkness they are often luminous, otherwise they would be invisible! Unexplained noises often, but not always, occur in houses where these phenomena are perceived. Evidence is only good, approximately, when a series of persons, in the same house, behold the same appearance, without being aware that it has previously been seen by others. Naturally it is almost impossible to prove this ignorance.
When inquirers believe that the appearances are due to the agency of spirits of the dead, they usually suppose the method to be a telepathic impact on the mind of the living by some “mere automatic projection from a consciousness which has its centre elsewhere” (Myers, Proceedings S.P.R. vol. xv. p. 64). Myers, in Human Personality, fell back on “palaeolithic psychology,” and a theory of a phantasmogenetic agency producing a phantasm which had some actual relation to space. But space forbids us to give examples of modern experiences in haunted houses, endured by persons sane, healthy and well educated. The cases, abundantly offered in Proceedings S.P.R., suggest that certain localities, more than others, are “centres of permanent possibilities of being hallucinated in a manner more or less uniform.” The causes of this fact (if causes there be, beyond a casual hallucination or illusion of A, which, when reported, begets by suggestion, or, when not reported, by telepathy, hallucinations in B, C, D and E), remain unknown (Proceedings S.P.R. vol. viii. p. 133 et seq.). Mr Podmore proposed this hypothesis of causation, which was not accepted by Myers; he thought that the theory laid too heavy a burden on telepathy and suggestion. Neither cause, nor any other cause of similar results, ever affects members of the S.P.R. who may be sent to dwell in haunted houses. They have no weird experiences, except when they are visionaries who see phantoms wherever they go.