A Point by Point History of Ghosts


Ghosts have been identified for thousands of years. Over that time, our beliefs and opinions of them have changed dramatically. This is not so much a result of ghosts changing their behaviour, in general, but of our ideas of their motivations. Our interpretations of ghosts are affected by our religious beliefs, cultural mores, literary influences, and more recently, media effects. Until the 19th Century, most ghost reports were made by religious figures, then intellectuals. Not until the end of the 1800s did the common man’s perceptions become paramount. The following is a summation of the changing factors regarding ghosts in bullet form, taken from one of my classes in Parapsychology that I teach. This is the most efficient way and less arduous way to gain the information than a horribly text heavy blog post. Many of this was taken from the excellent book, Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation, by R,C, Finucane, 1996, perhaps the best book on ghosts ever written. Though it is loaded with detail, that never interferes with its readability.


  • Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey set standard for ghosts

  • They were passive, harmless creatures

  • Living ignored them for the most part

  • Ghosts seen as impotent, irrelevant, unless needed for advice or information

  • Witch of Endor called upon the ghost of Samuel in the Old Testament

  • Ghosts could only be called within 12 months of death

  • If ghosts appeared, usually they were concerned about proper burial rites

  • Rare stories of vindictive ghosts



  • Many beliefs of pagan times carried on for a time into the early Christian era

  • Eventually assimilation and accommodation gave way to a more combative stance which ultimately led to the Witch Craze

  • St. Augustine led the charge after a life pf pagan hedonism

  • Ghosts got a makeover to bring them more in line with Christian theology

  • The concept of purgatory was ‘invented’; from the Judaic concept of Sheol

  • Augustine said the souls of the dead ‘lived’ in a special place (undefined) and inassessable to us

  • However, our prayers could help the dead, even if we couldn’t see them or they us. (Augustine)

  • The concept of Demonology was largely unformed at this juncture

  • However, the idea of postmortem retribution was born (created) by Christian writers

  • In Later Christianity, battles with paganism ebbed and Celtic/Germanic influences spread

  • Communication with the dead increased and became mainstream

  • Death Warnings became more common, but concern about burial rites remained strong

  • Purgatory became enshrined and thus the assessability of souls from there

  • Ghost stories were concern with ‘establishing and emphasizing Christian teachings’


  • The optimism of the early middle ages (with a celebration of death) gave way to pessimism and a fear of death

  • The Black Death, major famines, internal church disputes and warfare all contributed to this

  • Demonology became a staple of church teachings and fire and brimstone replaced a glorious afterlife

  • Good and bad deaths, alleviation of souls in purgatory, and common communication between the dead and living

  • Some debate as to whether ghosts occurred in dreams or a result of a vision

  • Ghosts were concerned with warning people about confession, last rites and absolution

  • Attoning for sins was another major theme by Christian writers

  • Seven and thirty days became the usual time-period for visitations, with none after 12 months when decomposition is complete

  • The dead could return from hell to warn the living

  • The dead could also come back to ask forgiveness and prayers

  • The dead of hell would come back bearing marks of their suffering

  • These ghosts looked like paler, sadder versions of themselves

  • No physical contact between living and dead

  • Most ghosts were male, 75%, with 75% of percipients being male as well

  • Most receivers of ghostly visitations were religious figures


  • The Catholic Church became under attack by the Protestant Reformation and secularism

  • Protestants believed that the dead were illusions, demons, or angels (no purgatory for the dead to come from)

  • Catholics believed that the dead were returning souls

  • Reports of knockings and poltergeists become less rare, but won’t become common until the 18th Century

  • Shakespeare formalizes belief in ghosts and their visitations to the living

  • This leads to a revamping of literary ghosts of the Roman times. From observers to participants.


  • Religion was divided to various camps of the Right, Left and Center.

  • These camps each had strong views on visitations of the dead.

  • Ghosts became weapons in ecclesiastic wars

  • Mainly though, ghosts became a weapon of all religions to combat the rise of atheism

  • The ghost who appears to give evidence in his murder makes his first appearance in the literature

  • Provision for heirs or announcing an impending death also main reasons for visitations

  • Poltergeists ‘proved’ the existence of demonic forces

  • Death pacts came into vogue

  • Most ghosts were known to their viewers

  • They are normal in appearance, voice and behaviour, open doors, even knock.

  • Main distinction of 17th Century ghosts were their freedom from purgatory


  • Many of the mundane reasons for visitations continued into the 18th Century

  • First, brief, belief in the Devil reanimating corpses

  • These reanimated/manipulated corpses resemble Eastern European Vampire tales

  • These tales merged with Vampires and faded away

  • Poltergeists became common

  • Science developed and an understanding of Nature and God was felt to be in one’s grasp

  • Arguments about ghosts changed to debates about miracles and violations against the laws of nature

  • Ghosts appeared less to the upper classes at this time, though an increase in belief in spiritual forces increased

  • In the lower classes however, ghosts remained popular and were reported often

  • First folktale collections were started


  • Science was the dominant darling of the upper classes and intellectual thought

  • The Industrial Revolution changed the lives and living conditions of most people

  • This led to a yearning for the ‘lost innocence’ of earlier years

  • Reason gave way to a resurgence of romanticism

  • Fears of premature burial replaced ghost visitations as important indicators of death beliefs

  • Gothic horror stories became very popular and affected beliefs of ghosts and their behaviour

  • The idea of an energy force, first coalesced around Mesmerism, was born

  • Spiritualism was officially born by the Canadian Fox sisters in Hydesville, NY

  • Seances became very popular, with most mediums and guests being women

  • The SPR and ASPR were founded in the late 1800s

  • The scientific investigation into the afterlife culminated with Census of Hallucinations and Phantasms of the Living

  • Commoners were encouraged to write with their stories for the first time

  • In the early 19th Century, ghosts carried on with mundane tasks, but by the late 19th Century, their visitations seemed to have little or no reason (reflecting the general populace’s experiences with ghosts) T

  • Moment of Death visitations became more common and occurred in silence

  • Dull stories abound, but this reflects an increase in ordinary occurrences being lumped into ‘hauntings’

  • Ghosts tend to wear black, and prefer a specific venue

  • The new religion of Spiritualism began to fight with Christianity

  • Victorian ghosts were insubstantial, often accompanied by a dull luminescence, vague, clothed in black or gray and melancholy. Most are unknown to their viewers and do not appear to tell of buried treasure, murders , revenge or legacies.


  • Spiritualism flourishes and then collapses after the First World War

  • Science and a changing culture killed it

  • Ghosts and their behaviour in the early 20th Century little changed from 19th Century

  • With the advent of the Internet and dawn of the 21st Century, interest in ghosts reaches a fever pitch

  • Many more insignificant events are lumped into tales of hauntings




  • The internet made access and distribution of information on ghosts easily available to anyone who wanted or needed to understand more about ghosts.
  • Unfortunately, the internet soon was corrupted by negative forces and facts and truth became subsumed by opinion and philosophy.
  • The rise of the DIY movement was eagerly embraced by those who wanted to obtain facts on ghosts with first hand experience on demand. No longer were experts needed, any old plumber could become a celebrity with absolutley no training in the tools necessary to understand and interpret hauntings.
  • The rise of the paranormal reality TV show, still a dominant factor 20 years hence, has skewered beliefs of ghosts and changed their nature and behaviours. Gone are the apparitional ghosts, now we have unintelligible murmurings recorded on audio devices and the presence of cold spots in obviously drafty old buildings to ‘prove’ ghosts exist and are present at any particular location chosen by any ignorant amateur.
  • The creation of ghosts as a business model has rendered useless the collection of ‘haunted’ sites since truth is shrouded in generally fun exaggeration of ambiguous sensory input for the sake of customers and the bottom line.
  • Ghost tours, as well as history tours, now are tainted by entertainment and monetary gain rather than careful documentation and dissemination of actual hauntings and folktales.
  • The once respectable field of research into ghosts by respected, highly intelligent and scholarly people has been reduced to fools crawling into dirty old basements or attics and screaming for the ghosts to appear or talk to them. On camera of course. These shows don’t even bother to pretend it is reality that the viewer is seeing, and having worked int he TV business and had a ghost series myself, I can assure you it is all FAKE.

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