scientific Studies

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What Is It About The English & Their Obsession With Ghosts?

Posted by Guest Columnist - David Mitchell on Sunday, October 17, 2010 Under: General Scribings

What is it about the English and their obsession with ghosts?

I thought all cultures had the same number of ghosts – by which I mean none – but similar levels of delusion about them. Apparently not
 
The English obsession with the weather is well documented. By which I mean "prolifically", although I'm sure many of the documents are excellent. And now I'm adding this modest document to all that documentary evidence. (I don't mean actual documentaries, just documents.
 
A documentary given as evidence would presumably be known as documentaryary evidence. Although, come to think of it, there's bound to be at least one documentary about that subject and, if there isn't, damn it, I'll make one so that the English obsession with the weather can be as well documentaried as it is documented.)

I saw it documented again just a few days ago. The document in question was a newspaper which had devoted a whole page of itself to the scoop that the previous day, last Sunday, had been unseasonably sunny. Most of the page was taken up with a photograph of a man cycling along a sunny promenade, three snaps of the same two children paddling and, topically, an advertisement for a mining company. (I can almost hear the marketing meeting: "I know it sounds counterintuitive but awareness of mining as a career hasn't been at this level since Orgreave!")

The actual text focused on the amazing fact that there had been "periods of bright sunshine and temperatures well above October averages". This kind of reporting massively overestimates how often the temperature is bang on mean. It's like an idiotic bit of cricket analysis I once heard. As a batsman's average came up on screen, the presenter read it out and added: "That's the number of runs he normally scores." No it isn't.

On an average day, temperatures are usually above or below the seasonal average. It would be an extremely odd year – or rather a bizarrely un-odd, an exceptionally normal year, an outlier on the graph of average departure from average – if temperatures were exactly to track seasonal averages for 12 months.

In some ways it was an ambitious piece, hoping perhaps that a little unseasonable sunshine could spark the sort of eruption of public interest and citizen photography that we saw during last winter's snows and at times of widespread flooding. The trouble is, the sight of gentle sunlight shining through falling leaves doesn't grab the attention like a snowman in the shape of a Dalek or a cat floating down the road in an upturned tumble-drier. I wish I could direct you to a URL where you could see the article but unfortunately it's behind a paywall, exemplary as it is of the sort of journalism that, as Andrew Marr pointed out last week, the blogosphere simply cannot provide.

A less well documented English obsession, in fact one of which I've only recently become aware, is our fascination with ghosts. I thought all cultures had the same number of ghosts – by which I mean none – but similar levels of delusion about them. Apparently not: it's estimated that English authors have written 70% of all published ghost stories and a 2003 Ipsos poll found that 38% of Britons believe in ghosts. That's the same as the percentage who, according to a Eurobarometer poll in 2005, believe in God.

That quintessential Englishman Sherlock Holmes, played here by Basil Rathbone, fortunately, managed to solve his cases without resorting to the conclusion that everything was done by ghosts.

As focuses for belief go, I've always considered God to be more mainstream than ghosts, but it seems not. I know lots of people who believe in God and I charitably choose to assume that most of them don't believe in ghosts. This suggests that there are other people who believe in ghosts and don't believe in God.

That sounds like a grim philosophy: no heaven, no hell, just an eternity of haunting. But maybe the God and ghost believers are basically the same people, making God a sort of head ghost, or ghostherd. Is that what the Holy Ghost is then? I thought it was a bird, maybe with a green sprig in its mouth? Or is that something to do with Noah?

What I'm about to say may be heresy to some, and not just the 38% of you who believe in ghosts: I don't think all this English ghost literature is very good. I admit that I'm basing my view entirely on half a collection of stories by MR James, but he is supposed to be the doyen of the genre. I found them big on atmospheric build-up but not so hot on intriguing denouement – the solution was always ghosts. A collection of ghost stories is like an anthology of whodunits entitled: "Tales in which the butler did it". There's not much skill in setting up an apparently inexplicable and terrifying series of events if you know you can tie up all the loose ends with something supernatural. It's like an episode of Jonathan Creek in which the killer escaped the locked room by using actual magic.

But perhaps, for ghost believers, the explanation "Ghosts did it" isn't unsatisfying but a salutary warning of the social effects of haunting – it's art with a message. I suppose I should be grateful that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle devised Sherlock Holmes's rule of thumb: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," before he was fully in the grip of spiritualism. Otherwise, every story might have ended with the line: "Unless, Watson, it was all done by ghosts."

The reason for this English obsession, according to Dr Shane McCorristine, a research fellow at Cambridge, is the Reformation. It abolished the idea of purgatory, and therefore anything perceived to be a ghostly apparition couldn't be a helpful soul whiling away the centuries in heaven's waiting room but must instead be a damned spectre, and consequently much more fun. Ghouls quickly caught on with the ghoulish. Meanwhile sceptics such as me must take solace in dinosaurs and the entertaining thought that, while there's no such thing as ghosts, at least there used to be such a thing as monsters.

For the English, ghosts seem to occupy a liminal zone between fiction and religion, between the fun and the sincere, the dressed-up-as and the believed-in. At Halloween they get lumped together with vampires and werewolves, entities that hardly anyone really believes exist. Ghost costumes abound but no one goes trick or treating dressed as Jesus. But then, with our weather, you need more substantial head covering than a crown of thorns. Best go with the sheet and you can put your cagoule on underneath.

In : General Scribings 


Tags: david mitchell sherlock homes ghosts culture halloween english 
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