Review: Roger Clarke on ‘A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Searching for Proof’
The 2012 book that offers a comprehensive yet welcoming history of the evolution of ghosts, A Natural History of Ghosts, saw Roger Clarke pose several questions which have baffled humankind; What explains the sighting of ghosts? What do the haunted see? What proof is there?
Clarke left no stone unturned as he traversed a number of different ghost stories, outlining major hauntings such as the Borley Rectory and the sightings of everyone from Harry Houdini to Adolf Hitler. These stories are condensed into a gripping, engaging 310 pages, 500 years of ghostly narratives are introduced to the average reader.
Clarke opened the talk with a reading, choosing the opening of the book as he felt it summarised the text well:
Each chapter of the book attacks this natural history of ghosts in a chronological manner, discussing the evolving attitudes towards the supernatural, while dedicating some chapters to case studies, such as Borley and Cock Lane.
One of the emerging themes in Clarke’s book is the everchanging descriptions of ghosts, and how different societies had different concepts on what a ‘ghost’ should look like. One example would be the conventional ‘English’ ghosts, with various accounts describing them as ‘chain-less’ and ‘free’, or more modern concepts of hauntings being predominantly in women.
When asked if there were any particular conditions that coincide with an increase in supernatural belief, Clarke reflected on a question he posed years earlier: “Did belief in ghosts coincide with economic downturn?”. To him, this was a plausible idea, highlighting the anxiety that comes with financial turmoil and the general fear that comes as a result of them more susceptible to claims of hauntings.
When the relationship between women and ghosts came to light, Clarke discussed gender inequalities which tarred this history of ghosts. Such examples include the Society of Psychical Research refusing the accounts of the working class, especially women, as they were deemed unreliable.
This led to discussions of more modern practices around ghosts, especially ‘ghost-hunting/finding’, and the trophy element that often comes with the hunt. Many TV shows have taken on this approach, as well as museums which pride themselves on acquiring ‘haunted’ items. Even this sense of ‘fear’ which comes to mind when reflecting on ghosts is a more modern concept, with such examples as The Exorcist promoting their dangerous nature. In fact, the story which inspired The Exorcist revolved around a young boy, not a girl, highlighting yet another misrepresentation which has inspired popular belief.
The relationship between ghosts and women was expanded on throughout the event, especially when reflecting on the Victorian era. The role of mediums, which was often taken on by women, posed the idea of women grasping at power in the spiritual world, as a result of their lack of power in contemporary Britain. Female mediums were often investigated by male sceptics, adopting techniques such as tying them up, prodding and poking as they felt their role as mediums was challenging of religious belief, similar to what we saw in the Salem Witch Trials. Clarke suggested this male dominance was often a result of sexual power and exploration which emerged in the Victorian period.
Of course, something that one would expect to be involved in ghost-sightings is the inherent use of sight, but many examples have shown the use of other sensory techniques to engage with the supernatural. The most common method of interactions with ghosts is sound, with footsteps or swishing sounds inspiring many accounts in the Victorian period. Smell has also popped into the narrative, with tobacco smoke, horses and even the smell of bakeries being noted.
Towards the end of the talk, Roger did a reading of the story of Mary Ricketts, a woman who had interacted with ghosts and desired to hide their presence from her children, somewhat shifting the common narrative that most ghost stories are told from the perspective of children:
Roger dedicated a portion of his talk to answering questions from the live YouTube audience.
Q: Roger, what do you think about our collective relationship to ghosts in the 21st Century? We all have the capacity to ‘capture’ them via smartphones, what messages are they sending through modern tech?
A: There’s a couple of lockdown ghost videos that have been made using Zoom! There are a couple of Japanese films that are based around exposing yourself to ghosts by watching videos online. As far as technology goes there was even a reference in my book to someone who was doing a spell-check on Microsoft Word and received suggested changes such as: “I’m buried in the cellar”. Even in the 70s we had cases of people receiving phone numbers from girls, and discovering that it wasn’t her phone number, but her number plot in the local cemetery.
It pains me that I can’t translate every single morsel of wisdom that was shared during this event, so if you do have the time it’s free to view on YouTube. Of course, for those wanting to watch events live in the future, you can do so by registering on our events page here.
Roger Clarke is best known as a film-writer for the Independent and Sight & Sound. He was the youngest person ever to join the Society for Psychical Research in the 1980s and at the age of fifteen Roald Dahl asked his agent to take him on as a client; subsequently his ghost stories were published in the Pan & Fontana series of horror books. A published poet, his libretto for The Man with the Footsoles of Wind was performed at the Almeida Theatre.
Rachel Hewitt is a Lecturer in Creative Writing, Director of NCLA at Newcastle University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Thomas Moorcroft, the author of this article, is a third year English Literature and History student, currently on placement with the NCLA.