It’s a well worn cliché that in the current age of advanced technology, science and mass communications that ghosts should really be a thing of the past. They are a throwaway, harkening back to a time when superstition ruled supreme and human-kind sought mystical means of controlling the world around them, a world they could little understand and feared. Ghosts, then, are an anachronism. But can we really dismiss ghosts and haunting as an out of place relic in the 21st century?
When it comes to ghosts, much of the rhetoric surrounding them is the question of whether or not they do exist. Whilst it is an important question, it seems to be one that is asked so often that we might have reached a point where we might now be going around in circles. There are other ways, perhaps, in which we might look at the nature of ghosts and hauntings in modern day society.
Take stock of the vast majority of ghost stories, and you will see that a large percentage of them hark back to things that have happened in the past. In fact, there are so many historic hauntings, that the discipline of psychical research has cooked up its very own theory especially for them, the stone tape theory. Anyone well versed in the science of ghosts and hauntings should be familiar with this. The idea is that any event tinged with violent and strong emotions gives out its own imprint, which the surrounding area will soak up, much in the same way as a video taping a TV show. Although these days, it’s probably more accurate to say mp3 being saved onto an ipod. Another term for the notion is residual energy. The walls are remembering, giving a completely new meaning to the phrase, ‘if these walls could talk’…
Nevertheless, how about we take this notion of residual energy or the stone tape and turn it on its head, and look at it from a sociological perspective, as a form of remembrance? Let’s take Scotland as an example. That is a place with a history so violent that it makes the famed vicious past of the American West look a little tame. The swaggering of cowboys, sheriffs, outlaws and what have you (and I admit I may be biased here, being a Scot) pales somewhat in comparison to the cultures of the Border Reivers and Highland Clans. For these groups, hacking off parts of your enemy and putting them to death in a variety of nasty ways, not to mention thieving and regular bloody battles, was a way of life. You name it, they would fall out over it. In fact, things got so violent in the Scottish Borders and Highlands, certain places became no go areas, and the monarchy decided it was time for these ways of life to change. How they went about it wasn’t pretty – the authorities more than matched the brutality of the clan chiefs – the Border Reivers were also organised in clans in the same way as their Highland Bretheren. Mixed into this melting pot are also the Scottish Wars of Independence, religious sectarianism and the harshness of everyday life.
Out of this history arises a large body of Scotland’s classic ghost stories. The length and breadth of the country features some ruined castle or battleground boasting a plethora of ghosts and sad hauntings that are linked back to the past. The towns and cities aren’t exempt either. Scotland is just one of many countries vying for the title of most haunted in all the world. It has the added bonus that it’s also tiny and it’s rather proud of its ghost lore. Ghosts are quite an important part of life for us here.
Over the years, the strong association between Scottish ghosts and violent history has struck me. This is where the sociology comes in. I believe the persistent endurance of historic ghosts in Scotland is a way in which the Scots remember their past. It’s certainly been my main source of learning my native history. Unlike America, state schools in Scotland don’t particularly go out of their way to teach kids national history. I think I got a cumulative total of one month of Scottish history whilst I was in high school. Otherwise it was a steady diet of the World Wars and German unification on repeat. Not that these are not important, but there is a whole realm of history that I missed. It’s still the same today. Had I not an obsession with ghosts since early adolescence, I probably would have bypassed Scotland’s rich and fascinating history altogether.
It’s not just me who sees this. Ghosts have provided a very useful tool for the tourist industry to engage with the past. Edinburgh has countless excellent ghost tours that take you back to the city’s ghastly past. Glasgow occasionally makes a foray into it, though more successful is author Geoff Holder’s work in a variety of books linking Clydeside ghosts with history. Much is made about the ghosts on the battlefields and ruined castles. None of this is disrespectful. In fact, it brings the history closer to home. The idea of a sad ghost lingering on after the event makes it clear to us nowadays just how important a certain battle or actions of an individual were in shaping the country. You can’t really understand how you live today without some understanding of what went on in the past. Scotland isn’t the only place that embraces its past this way. The impression I get from books, websites, magazines and TV is that America is the same. The ghosts of the Battle of Gettysburg seem to be an important aspect of the visitors site there. And the various historical societies preserving old prisons such as the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville, old houses such as San Diego’s Whaley House appear to emphasis their ghosts in relation to the past.
So it while may be correct to look at ghosts as relics of a bygone age, they can’t be dismissed as irrelevant through being out of time. A relic is a hint of something that we can’t quite forget. That’s what ghosts do, they make us remember. We can still argue until the cows come home if ghosts exist from a scientific viewpoint, but it’s important to keep in mind this vital social role they play.