Ghostlore of Wiltshire - At the Sign of the Black Cat
Ghostlore of Wiltshire

What is folklore?

Like many people, I am uncertain about ghosts.  They defy explanation, and just as you think you have one classified neatly as ‘folk tale’ or ‘genuine sighting’ some sighting or folk-tale element will come to light that overturns all your previous ideas.  Those who have seen ghosts are in no doubt of their existence; while those who have not seen ghosts often fiercely refuse to entertain any possibility of their existence.  But belief in ghosts is fairly widespread, and encounters with ghosts by all kinds of people are surprisingly common.  In spite of the failure of ghost-hunters to produce any convincing evidence of the existence of ghosts, I believe we must take them seriously and at least try to understand what they might be.

One of our problems is that we often use the word ‘ghost’ very loosely to indicate some kind of inexplicable event or phenomenon that we cannot classify according to our understanding of normality.  As a folklorist, I do this myself, for I accept the terminology used by the people recounting their experiences: if they believe they saw a ghost, then (for this is their ‘lore’) it was a ghost within the context of their narrative.  This leads us into the next problem: when is a ghost narrative a report of a genuine encounter, and when is it ‘just’ a folk tale?  The one seems to slide over into the other almost immediately, as we have seen, and when retold, especially by others, a genuine account acquires surprisingly quickly the features of a traditional ghost tale.

I believe that ‘ghosts’ exist on different levels and in different realities, ranging from existence in folk narrative alone through to well-attested objective reality.  Some exist in one or more of these realities at once: for example, a coach and horses exists in the reality of the tradition which says that it haunts a particular stretch of road, but when someone actually sees that coach and horses, it is very much real in the everyday sense for them.  Once they start to tell people about it, everyday reality weaves itself back into folk narrative, and the threads become ever more entangled.

Haunted Landscape
Holy wells
Wilts Folklore Database
Folklore home page
At the Sign of the Black Cat

So what are ghosts?  In spite of their elusiveness, it is possible to begin to identify types of ghost, and then to work out a helpful definition of ‘ghost’.  Ian  Wilson has done some particularly useful work in this area, which I found tied in and helped to clarify the conclusions that I had independently been reaching.  Here are some of the main types of phenomenon usually called ‘ghost’, followed by an example of each from Wiltshire's ghostlore (the buttons on the left link to each example): -

·        Poltergeists.  The ‘noisy ghosts’.  These are usually short-lived phenomena, which seem to arise from the unhappy, frustrated or rebellious energies of an adolescent.  They seem to be a form of expression of destructive teenage angst rather than a ghost as such.  Example: Drummer of Tidworth.

Ordinary noises around the house – water hammer in pipes, beams expanding and contracting, vibration from passing planes and lorries – can also cause very convincing poltergeist-type sounds.

·        The ‘passing caller’.  Wilson’s evocative term for the ghost of a person recently dead who returns to reassure their family or friends that all is well.  They may easily be visionary experiences generated by the mourning process. They do not haunt, but usually appear only once to each person involved.  Example: Father returns after death.

·        The ‘ghostly video recording’.  These are phenomena, usual visual, which are seen repeatedly, and seem frozen in time and place, unaware of the present day, walking on old floor levels etc.  They may be accompanied by, or be solely, animals or vehicles.  They seem to have been generated initially by some powerful outpouring of emotion – anger, distress, grief, and jealousy – as in the case of suicides or road traffic accidents.  Example: Death over Salisbury Plain.

·        The ‘traditional ghost’.  One that exists only within the context of a folk tale – a huge number of ghosts belong here or move into this category.  It has particular characteristics, e.g. clanks chains, or carries its head under its arm.  It may have developed once from a genuine ghost, which has since faded, leaving behind the folk memory in the form of a traditional tale.  It may have developed in response to a community’s need persuade people to avoid certain places, for their own safety, or to ensure privacy for illicit acts.  Example: Three ‘chops’.

·        The ‘manufactured ghost’.  One that has been seen or heard as a result of suggestion or hypnosis.  It is very real to the witness, but has been deliberately created by another human being.  Example: A Witch’s ghost

·        The outright fraud.  Someone simply and blatantly lies, for purposes of their own, e.g. as a joke, to add interest to their commercial property, to induce the Council to rehouse them, to attract attention to themselves, or perhaps to please and satisfy a persistent folklorist.  Example: Real or hoax?

·        The photographic ghost.  A ghost-like figure appearing spontaneously on a photograph.  Usually the photographer has noticed nothing while taking the picture.  The most famous example must be the hooded figure on the Tulip Staircase in the Queen’s House, National Maritime Museum,  Greenwich.  This has been pretty conclusively explained as a repeated image of someone in a white lab coat ascending the stairs during a single long exposure.  Example: A pair of  ghostly boots. 

·        The hallucination.  Also known as ‘psychological projections’, these are ‘images… from the unconscious mind which are projected by a person under stress or in a state of denial’.  Canon Dominic Walker, one of those in the Church of England who responds to reports of incidents of a ghostly nature, believes that the vast majority of reported ghosts can be explained as psychological projections.  They can affect groups of people as well as individuals.  Examples: Witch’s ghost.

·        The true ghost.  I believe that very few reported ‘ghosts’ fall into this category, yet this is the essential ghost, the conscious spirit that remains after death.  This is the ghost on which all other ghosts are based.  Based on his careful researches into several hauntings of this type,  Wilson tells us, “…ghosts are people, people who have died yet who still live on, tied to their old earthly existence in an unsatisfactory manner.  They need to be treated with all the sympathy and help we would accord to a living person who was in trouble.”  This means that we should not in our fear take refuge in the traditional (but brutal) defence of exorcism.  Ghosts of this kind respond remarkably well to prayers for their well-being and release.  If you ever encounter such a ghost, remember that they need requiems, not exorcism.  Example: Ghostly footsteps.

Adapted from The Haunted Landscape, Chapter 5



So What are Ghosts? 

Links to examples:-

Drummer of Tidworth
Father returns after death
Death over Salisbury Plain
Three 'chops'
A Witch's ghost
Real or hoax?
A pair of ghostly boots
Ghostly footsteps
















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