Since time immemorial humankind has been telling strange stories involving the supernatural and specifically ghosts. Folklore in every country in the world abounds with tales of spirits, spectres, hauntings and mysterious mystical encounters with ghosts. In the first century A.D., the great Roman author and statesman Pliny the Younger recorded one of the first notable ghost stories in his letters, which became famous for their vivid account of life during the heyday of the Roman Empire. Pliny reported that the spectre of an old man with a long beard, rattling chains, was haunting his house in Athens. The Bible is full of ghost stories, most notably The Holy Ghost which forms part of what Christians term The Holy Trinity. Pre dating The New Testament there is in the book of Samuel Ch.28 an account of Saul approaching ‘The Witch of Endor’ she called upon the spirit of Samuel who appeared and spoke of the fall of a mighty nation. Unfortunately for Saul it was his nation.
Literature is full of ghost stories and many great writers have included ghostly apparitions in their works. I have recently been helping my grandson Aaron with his GCSE studies and as part of his English course he has been reading three books, all of which contain elements of the supernatural and ghosts. The three books are (1) ‘Lord of The Flies’ by William Golding, in this book the author tells the story of a group of children, all male, being ‘shipwrecked’ on a remote island. The boys kill a wild pig and place its severed head on a stake, they call it ‘The Lord of The Flies’ the literal translation of the Greek word Beelzebub, a term used for the Judeo-Christian idea of Satan, is “lord of the flies,” and flies feast on dead animals and excrement. The boys sit round a camp fire discussing ghosts and the possible presence of a ‘Beast’ on the island. This spooky tale telling is a device used by the older boys to scare the younger ones into accepting their authority.
Another book in Aaron’s studies is (2) ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens. In this book there are numerous ghosts that come back to haunt the central character Scrooge who is a mean spirited curmudgeonly old miser. This ghost story for Christmas commences with the entrance of the spirit of Jacob Marley who comes to warn Scrooge that he is about to receive three visitations. Jacob’s ghost is dragging chains and bewailing his fate following a life of selfishness and greed. There is within this story a message of hope, as Scrooge is advised of the error his ways by the various spirits that show him his past, present and potential future, he ultimately becomes a reformed character. A Christmas Carol proved to be a serious success for Charles Dickens and over the years since its first publication in 1843 by the London publishers Chapman & Hall it has never been out of print and has been adapted for television and screen many times.
The third book in the GCSE studies is (3) ‘Macbeth’ by William Shakespeare. Possibly one of the most famous fictional ghosts in English Literature is the spirit of the King of Denmark in Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’. In Act 1. Hamlet counters the ghost of his father and is told by the spectre that he is doomed to walk the night until his sins are purged. The ghost goes on to recount the manner of his death by ‘murder most foul’. Shakespeare uses ghosts in a number of his plays, in ‘Richard III’ he has the king visited by spirits on the eve of the battle of Bosworth Field that warn him of traitors within his camp. It was, in Elizabethan times, quite usual for theatrical productions to include ghosts and scenes of the supernatural.
In ‘Macbeth’, which is without doubt Shakepeare’s bloodiest and most terrible tragedy. There are many references to ghosts, witchcraft and the supernatural. Indeed the play commences with the three weird women on a misty heath muttering incantations ‘When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning or in rain….when the hurly burly’s done, when the battles lost and won’ . The witches proceed to encounter Macbeth and Banquo making a number of predictions for them ‘Hail Macbeth Thane of Glamis’ ‘Hail Macbeth Thane of Cawdor’ ‘Hail Mabeth that shall be king hereafter’. Macbeth believes the predictions and proceeds to make them come true by murdering King Duncan. Then he has his fellow Thane Banquo killed as Macbeth is murdering not only his perceived enemies but sleep itself and he can no longer rest. During a feast given to celebrate his crowning as the King of Scotland the ghost of the now slain Banquo returns to haunt and torment Macbeth who alone can see the spirit. He shouts at the ghost ‘Avaunt and quit my sight! Let the earth hidethee! Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold. Thou hast no speculation in those eyes which thou dost glare with!
Shakespeare was clearly playing to the gallery with all this blood curdling supernatural sensationalism. ‘Macbeth’ is brimful of brimstone and darkness, we are even shown the three weird sisters casting spells round a cauldron ‘Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble’. It is a play of greed, ambition, evil and darkness. ‘Macbeth’ is possibly Shakespeare’s gloomiest play as all the central characters are self seeking murderous villains. Quite how Lady Macbeth comes to the conclusion that her husband is ‘too full of the milk of human kindness’ totally escapes me. Macbeth is throughout this play, from Act 1 where he beheads the General leading the invading Army, to the final act where he is killed attempting to slay McDuff, a crazed delusional psychopathic murderer.
It struck me as being rather odd that all the books set for the GCSE English course all contained references to ghosts and the supernatural. As the feature editor is this newspaper Psychic World I found reading these works most interesting, enjoyable and enlightening.