Monday, October 21, 2013

Stupid Questions About Ghosts (Stupid Questions)

It's almost Hallowe'en, that glorious time of year when we get the kids together, dress them up funny, take them out in the neighborhood, and complain that all the stores already have their Christmas decorations up!  And I am sitting here thinking about ghosts, not least because that beats thinking about raking the leaves in my yard or God Forbid! the fact that at some point I'm going to have to get ready and go to work.

I recently finished watching the entire first season of American Horror Story, which originally aired in 2011, so if you're keeping track, that is the part of our culture I have caught up to: 2011.  American Horror Story, as you may or may not know, in season 1 dealt with a house full of ghosts, and by house full I mean seriously the house was full of ghosts, they were all over the place.  There were the ghosts of a gay couple, the ghost of a high school kid who'd shot up his class Columbine style, the ghost of a college girl who had an affair with Bobby from The Practice back in Boston even though the show was set in Los Angeles, and probably 1 zillion more ghosts, I lost count.

And all that ghostery (ghostification?) got me thinking about what a ghost really is (supposed to be) and how they come to exist (hypothetically) and the rules of ghosts in horror movies and books and things.

American Horror Story had some definite rules for ghosts: They could only be seen if they wanted you to see them, for one thing. They could become physical and interact with the physical world, and could hurt each other, but could not be killed: if you killed a ghost, they just woke up immediately not killed.  They took the shape of whatever they were when they died -- which is great if you died as a teenager, say, who killed herself with pills, because you still looked pretty human and all, but not so great if someone shot off half your face.

But there were some mysteries, like the maid, who would appear to men as though she were young and sexy, but to women as though she were an old maid. (PUNS ALWAYS INTENDED):

But, towards the end [SPOILER ALERT FOR A SHOW YOU PROBABLY WON'T WATCH BECAUSE IT AIRED TWO YEARS AGO] Bobby From The Practice sees her as an old lady, too, once he begins to realize that the house is Chock Full O' Ghosts.

The house they all live in has some special quality that means that if you die in it, you are stuck there, forever, as a ghost -- at one point, a character tries to drag another character who is dying to the house for just that purpose -- but the explanation for why that is is dealt with in about two lines at the very end of the season, as a psychic walks through the house and lays out some facts that turn out to mean nothing whatsoever for the storyline and could have just been left out without really harming the story, as most people I think don't care very much why ghosts are stuck around a house, do they?

In every horror story involving ghosts, there's some sort of explanation for why the ghosts are there: In Poltergeist they were on an Indian burial ground, in The Conjuring there'd been some terrible witch woman living there, in that one movie starring Ethan Hawke they were there because people had been murdered in that house -- explanations almost always revolving around some sort of super-evil thing happening on that spot and trapping souls there.

(An explanation that was taken to extremes when a writer on Filmdrunk asked why there wouldn't be about a zillion ghosts at the sites of concentration camps, which is a superficially appealing argument that's easily dismissed: Practically speaking, I'm pretty sure you could not make a ghost movie about a concentration camp and still be allowed to exist in society.  Fictionally speaking, it's easy enough to say that the evil that traps the ghosts has to give the ghosts a reason to linger around, and the Holocaust did not cause mass ghost hauntings because the evil -- Nazi-ism -- was soon defeated and the state of Israel created, which could easily be seen as helping those Holocaust ghosts achieve eternal peace.)

Anyway, all that thinking about ghosts over the past few weeks as I watched the show -- which was excellent, and I really have no criticisms of it other than a minor quibble with the fact that they tried to make some of the ghosts too nice at the end -- got me thinking about ghosts, and when I think about stuff I come up with stupid questions about them, so here are:

Stupid Questions About Ghosts!

1.  What is a ghost, anyway?  If you do not believe in ghosts, as I do not, these might all seem like stupid questions, to you, but let's pretend that ghosts are real and try to decide what a ghost might be if ghosts were real.

In the first place, a ghost wasn't even a ghost until the 14th century: English had no word for ghost, and prior to the 14th century, ghosts were gasts, from a series of words that essentially meant angry, and the word was related to words used to describe Odin leading the Wild Hunt, which was a group of dead men or fairies or both stampeding across the sky on a deranged hunt: seeing the Wild Hunt led to war or cataclysm or merely the death of the person who saw it.

Ghosts weren't always bad -- at least not until the 14th century -- or even human: angels, demons, part of the Holy Trinity, all were described as ghosts until about 1400, when the word came to be applied to human spirits.

Ghosts were simply ghosts, then, for a few hundred years, until the word spook became popular in America in the 1800s, and spook is related to specter and, apparently, phantasm, which comes from the French word for fantasy, and it is just like France to not use everyone else's word for a ghost and have to come up with their own.  That's why France has made it illegal to use the word hashtag.  France has also outlawed such words as blog, weekend, and supermodel.

Pictured: not a ghost.

In French, she is a top-modele. Was that really worth the effort, France?

Then there's wraith, which is a word of unknown origin and was mostly used by the Scottish to denote either portents or aquatic spirits, until J.R.R. Tolkien came alone and named his creatures Ringwraiths and the rest of the world started to like the word and used it for ghosts.

Weirdest ghost of all? The fetch, which is the spirit of a still-living person.

2. Wait, what was that? A ghost of a living person?

Yeppers!  From Wikipedia:

The fetch is described as an exact, spectral double of a living human, whose appearance is regarded as ominous. As such, it is similar to the Germanic doppelgänger, and to some conceptions of the British wraith.[1][2] Francis Groseassociated the term with Northern England in his 1787 Provincial Glossary, but otherwise it seems to have been in popular use only in Ireland. A sighting of a fetch is generally taken as a portent of its exemplar's looming death, though John and Michael Banim report that if the double appears in the morning rather than the evening, it is instead a sign of a long life in store.

Weird, right? Moving on.

3.  Wait, so I could actually haunt myself?

Well, I suppose, although people don't agree on whether a fetch is actually a ghost of a person who is still walking around just fine, or an apparition of a person who is dying (or perhaps in a state of great mental or emotional turmoil) or if it's just the ghost of a vain person who is now dead, haunting the mirrors around you and sometimes creating duplicates of people who look into the mirrors and then sending those duplicates out into the world to do evil.

Anyway, moving on:

4.  Back up a bit: spirits haunting mirrors create clones of me to send out into the world?

Maybe. Maybe not.  According to this site that I skimmed hastily, fetches are simply manifestations of willpower sent out by people to do something or get information; while most of them are bad, some of them can be good -- but creating a fetch almost always (according again to that site) leads to the person seeing more fetches themselves, which seems like a bad idea.

Let's not get all hung up on fetches, though, as there are probably worse ghosts out there to discuss.

5.  Like what?  What could be worse than my own evil spirit created by my mind and sent out into the world to do bad things only to then result in my being more vulnerable to those same spirits sent out by others?

I'm glad you asked!  There are a lot of them.

Take lemures: shapeless angry vengeful spirits of dead gods of the underworld who roam the Earth.  You think your regular ghosts of dead relatives are bad: lemures were so bad that Ancient Rome set up three separate days in May on which to satiate these spirits: May 9, 11, and the 13th were set aside for the head of the household to get up and sprinkle black beans behind him to satisfy the lemures, who might not accept them.

St. Augustine wrote that the souls of dead men became these demons, demanding sacrifice so that they could go about and kill people.

But most experts agree that the worst of all is the little-known etheric revenant, a spirit that sucks the life and energy out of you.  Etheric revenants were vampires before vampires were cool: They were created by people who didn't want to let go of life and so when they died they refused to let their spirit separate from their etheric body.

You didn't even know you had all these bodies, did you? The etheric body is the lowest form of aura: it connects the physical body to the other, higher, spiritual bodies, and if you don't let go of your etheric body, you can linger on as a weird energy-sucking spirit that requires food and sustanance as well as preservation of the physical body.  Ancient embalming and burial mounds filled with food might have been used to allow people to become etheric revenants, and some of your experts speculate that the end of the practice of supporting these revenants is what led revenants to try more risky methods of getting food and energy -- by becoming what we now think of as vampires.

6. There are ghost experts? 

Yes.  You can get a degree in paranormal science from the Institute of Metaphysical Human Science,:

Despite the general critical opinion of paranormal research among the scientific community, paranormal science is perhaps among the noblest of callings because it directly impacts the human condition unlike any other field of study. Paranormal research has the potential to make life-changing discoveries about human existence, extraterrestrial life, and our place in the Cosmos. For example, proof of life after death and/or proof that we are not alone in the universe would be the greatest discoveries of all time and have immense meaning for our lives. Paranormal research involves nearly all metaphysical concepts.
The Paranormal Science Metaphysics Degree covers all aspects of paranormal research and parapsychology giving students a broad base of knowledge. This course also includes training in Ufology so students will learn all aspects of paranormal research. Students who wish to conduct paranormal research and investigations can choose from the specializations below. The curriculum for all specializations in this category is the same.
This specialization is excellent for students who desire to conduct paranormal research, start and lead a paranormal investigation team, write books on paranormal topics, present lectures and talks in the paranormal field, and more

Perhaps it is among the most noble of callings. Perhaps.  But before you scoff at getting that degree, which only takes 12 credits, ask yourself how your B.A. in English helped you in the job market.


Pat Dilloway said...

The Twilight Zone did an episode where a Nazi concentration camp guard goes back to a camp and is haunted by the spirits of the dead to the point that he's driven mad. Of course the "spirits" might have just been delusions of his own guilty conscience. The good thing back then was we didn't try to explain that kind of thing.

Briane P said...

So someone DID do that.

I think it would be an interesting story -- I just don't think people would necessarily embrace it.

Andrew Leon said...

Well, actually, studies show that people with degrees in English tend to be more successful than people with other kids of degrees. Across the board, that is.

Briane P said...


No offense intended. My own degree is in Political Science, and I use it not one little bit.

Andrew Leon said...

Oh, I didn't take any offense. I actually find the whole English degree thing kind of fascinating. I mean, an English degree doesn't do a thing for you directly unless you want to be an English teacher, in which case you have to get an education degree, unless you want to get a post-graduate degree in English. However, indirectly, several studies have shown that people with English degrees (due to the writing proficiency gained while earning it) do better in other fields than people with other degrees.

That bit of info allows me to stress how important reading and writing is to my students.

Andrew Leon said...

I sent you an email about Augurs. I want to make sure you know to be looking for it.