This book examines the social history of ghosts from the medieval period to the present. Belief in them has been manipulated for political and religious purposes, generated social panics and scandals, been a perennial source of literary inspiration ...
and learned investigation. Underpinning Davies' approach is the awareness that for all the intellectual and scientific advances of the last five centuries the belief in ghosts continues to be vibrant and socially relevant. Understanding the history of ghosts helps explain why we continue to feel haunted by the people of the past.
I found this book to be a bit disappointing at first. The first few chapters on how ghosts appear, and where they haunt had something lacking. I think I had trouble with the organisational structure to this section. They weren't chronological, andI found this book to be a bit disappointing at first. The first few chapters on how ghosts appear, and where they haunt had something lacking. I think I had trouble with the organisational structure to this section. They weren't chronological, and stories from broadsheets, the times, penny dreadful etc. were all mixed in together. There were a lot of interesting stories but there seemed to be very little analysis and no social history at all. They were interesting stories, but I didn't feel like I was learning anything.
The next section was about the intellectual history of ghosts, again here there wasn't much I'd not read in many other books on the topic, and the usual outline of the arguments for and against ghosts in theology was given. He did add the dimension of "neoplatonic" thought, which while new, didn't really strike me as something that most people were aware of. Again I felt like the social history was really missing. Rather the focus seemed to be on elite intellectual thought.
The last section however, finally got around to some social history and, to me, was the strongest section of the book. The last section looked at people pretending to be ghosts and fictional representations of ghosts. It covered people dressing up as ghosts, ghosts on stage, magic lanterns and phantasmagorias. I thought this was the most interesting and unique section of the book.
I can definitely recommend this as a nice academic study of ghosts from the 17th century on. However, it is much less of a social or cultural history than it claims. It could also have benefited from a bibliography. While a lot of the sources he quoted were fairly standard, it would have been nicer to have been able to find the more obscure texts more easily.
Parts that stood out for me, were the mention of children’s bones that were on display at the Cheshire Cheese pub in Fleet street (one of my favourite pubs) proving the existence of a 17th century ghost (63). A really odd bit which seemed to have a Freudian theory that blamed the belief in ghosts on bad relationships between parents and children, and the increased belief in ghosts in the 20th century on the fact that women worked(!) (162). There was an interesting discussion on servant girls in the 19th century becoming victims of hauntings, this was compared with spirit possession and witchcraft for the same powerless group in earlier centuries (177). Whether or not they believed in these hauntings, or were simply trying to trick gullible masters it made for an interesting change of agency and power within the household (186). ...Continua Nascondi