Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750–1920

By McCorristine, Shane

From the publisher’s website: Spectres of the Self is a fascinating study of the rich cultures surrounding the experience of seeing ghosts in England from the Reformation to the twentieth century. Shane McCorristine examines a vast range of primary and secondary sources, showing how ghosts, apparitions, and hallucinations were imagined, experienced, and debated from the pages of fiction to the case reports of the Society for Psychical Research. By analysing a broad range of themes from telepathy and ghost-hunting to the notion of dreaming while awake and the question of why ghosts wore clothes, Dr McCorristine reveals the sheer variety of ideas of ghost seeing in English society and culture. He shows how the issue of ghosts remained dynamic despite the advance of science and secularism and argues that the ghost ultimately represented a spectre of the self, a symbol of the psychological hauntedness of modern experience.
 
 Incorporates literature, psychiatry and popular belief, presenting a variety of ideas about ghost-seeing • Compares contexts from Germany, France and America, providing an international understanding of the topic • Examines the culture of ghost-seeing rather than the validity of ghost-belief
 
Contents: Introduction; Part I. The Dreams of the Ghost-Seers: 1. The haunted mind, 1750–1850; 2. Seeing is believing?: Ghost-seeing and hallucinatory experience; Part II. A Science of the Soul: 3. Ghost-hunting in the Society for Psychical Research; 4. Phantasms of the living and the dead; 5. The concept of hallucination in late-Victorian psychology; Epilogue: towards 1920; Appendix; Bibliography.


Spectres of the Self. Cambridge University Press, July 2010. ISBN: 9780521747967 (p/b) ISBN: 9780521767989 (h/b)

Reviewed for the SPR by: Tom Ruffles


The history of the ghost is one of sad decline. Before the Reformation it had a place in the order of things which was relatively unproblematic, returning from Purgatory and interacting with the living to make requests, give advice, and generally carry on unfinished business. Ghosts had some substance to them, a purpose in death, but their successors acquired a certain diffidence. Modern ghosts are rootless and insubstantial (one might say bloodless), decentred from involvement with the living to that strange half-life in which we can never be sure whether they are ‘out there’ or ‘in here’.
 
Protestantism increased the distance between living and dead by discarding Purgatory, which made the origin of ghosts problematic. If it was unlikely that they would forsake Heaven to linger on earth, that left only one place from which they could originate, hence a tendency to identify ghost-seeing with evil spirits. Unfortunately for the new world view, scepticism about ghosts was not far removed from scepticism concerning the soul’s immortality, and could even constitute a bridgehead for atheism, but the obligation to interrogate the phenomenon more closely than hitherto laid the foundation for an evidence-based approach to ghosts.
 
The problem of the ghost’s status could be resolved by internalising the experience as an erroneous percept.  Hence the evolution of the idea of ghost-seeing as a form of dreaming while awake. Ghosts were no long objective beings but products of the mind, a by-product caused when it was not fully engaged with reality.  The inability to distinguish between objective and subjective allowed these “spectral illusions” to become incorporated into a medical model as pathological. The problem with pathologising ghost seeing, though, was that so many normal-seeming people appeared to experience them.  In the popular imagination they maintained their solidity, and this ambiguity has provided a rich source of inspiration for novelists dealing with the fantastic (in Todorovian terms) ever since.
 
As an example of this elusiveness, McCorristine notes the importance of Catherine Crowe’s 1848 The Night Side of Nature in the development of serious attempts to develop a framework for understanding ghosts, because of her insistence that they should be examined seriously as phenomena in themselves rather than as an outcropping of theological doctrine, while at the same time mixing fact and fiction. This “factionality trap”, in which the ghost account was never definitively assigned to one or the other, was already a problem in Crowe’s time.  McCorristine cites Daniel Defoe’s ‘A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs Veal’ as an example of a factional ghost story, and notes subsequent debates over whether Defoe believed (or even wrote) it, and whether it was designed merely as a marketing device. This problem of interpretation still challenges psychical researchers.
 
The ghost as objective entity was questioned by sceptical writers who asked how an incorporeal entity could wear clothes, an ability which suggested that ghosts were in fact products of the seer. How far such hallucinations corresponded to external reality was open to question. McCorristine shows how such a seemingly trivial issue of how ghosts were clothed became an important point in how they were assessed by critics, Spiritualists and, as usual somewhere in the middle, psychical researchers. Faced with a spectrum of opinion, the Society for Psychical Research fought hard to create a constituency for its findings that was “neither sceptical nor superstitious”, as Myers put it.
 
While ranging across over a century and a half, the bulk of the narrative deals with the early history of the SPR, and this period has been subjected to close reading. The work on thought-transference/telepathy is examined in depth because it was used as an underpinning mechanism for a variety of phenomena, including ghosts, in the attempt to achieve a “grand synthesis”. Such efforts are indicated clearly by the title of Frank Podmore’s 1909 book Telepathic Hallucinations: The New View of Ghosts. Part of Spectres of the Self is devoted to the accounts collected and categorised by the SPR in its ‘heroic’ phase between its inception and the beginning of the twentieth century. It was astonishingly productive not only in collecting material but also in seeking to incorporate it into a theoretical framework, ploughing a distinctive furrow and moving away from the Christian perspective which informed earlier narratives. It tried to draw that elusive boundary between fact and fiction, and provide criteria for handling the ‘evidential residue’.
 
The SPR’s efforts are situated in the context of changing attitudes towards religion and the hereafter, and developments in communications technology. By examining the critical response which followed the publication of Phantasms of the Living (1886), the SPR’s major achievement in this period, McCorristine is able to trace the fault lines dividing psychical researchers from the strengthening currents of academic psychology which considered such concepts to be pseudo-scientific. He then traces the shift in emphasis, after Edmund Gurney’s death two years later, from phantasms of the living to those of the dead, in order for Myers to accommodate his evolving thinking on human survival.
 
McCorristine seems pessimistic that this melee of competing views will ever be resolved, with advocates of rival positions concerning the aetiology of ghosts locked in perpetual combat, each unable to convince the other. The modern ghost hunter, weighed down with meters and recorders, will not welcome his characterisation of ghosts as a “soporific psychic reality”, and will take issue with the suggestion that labelling ghosts as projections of the subjective mind allows all shades of opinion, from sceptic to believer, to consider seeing a ghost as “real, truthful and authentic”. The ghost is not as easily disposed of as that.
 
The author has drawn on a wide range of sources and produced a useful analysis of a period of huge ferment in the ways ghosts were understood. Despite the subtitle indicating that the book is specifically about England, it actually ranges more widely, taking in Kant, Schopenhauer, debates in French psychiatry, and Prussian Christoph Freiderich Nicolai’s paper ‘A Memoir on the Appearance of Spectres or Phantoms Occasioned by Disease, with Psychological Remarks’, which is included as an appendix in the English translation which appeared in 1803.
 
Spectres of the Self provides a useful commentary on Owen Davies’s magnificent five-volume set Ghosts: A Social History. It has to be said that while crammed with useful insights into ghost culture in the modern period, it is often densely written and hard work to unpick. One minor annoyance from an SPR perspective is the acknowledgement to the Syndics of Cambridge University Library for permission to quote from the SPR’s archives when this permission is not in the Syndics’ gift. However, as a well-constructed example of the welcome burgeoning of academic literature dealing with historical aspects of psychical research, this book will assist anyone who puzzles seriously over ghosts and their veridicality.