This year’s Halloween has passed, but for many the interest in things that go bump in the night is alive and well. From classic ghost stories told around a campfire to the slew of recent ghost hunting TV shows, ghosts have been the most prevalent otherworldly beings around for years. Luckily for those of us who love a good ghost story, Lisa Morton has written the ultimate guide on the shadowy superstars of the supernatural realm.
The book takes an in-depth look at the legendary entity, beginning with the basic question: What exactly is a ghost? As Morton discloses, the word “ghost“ goes beyond a flitting white sheet or darting glimpse of a deceased loved one. Ghosts can take much darker forms such as the banshee-like “shades“ of Homer’s Odyssey who drank sheep’s blood, or the phantom hounds known as “Gabble Ratchets“, which the Irish believed were the spirits of unbaptized children.
While not everyone believes in ghosts, every part of the world has people who do. Morton takes an extensive look at the way apparitions are perceived in different cultures. While they are often viewed as insubstantial and eerie in the West, the spiritual realm is regarded as more intimidating and often vengeful in other parts of the world. In the East, ghosts are often thought of as malevolent as is the world into which they pass after this one. Taoist priests regularly prepare documents and burn “ghost money“ for the souls of the departed so that they are able to pass through the underworld and reincarnate more quickly and with less suffering.
On the 15th night of the seventh lunar month, the Chinese hold the Hungry Ghost Festival. During the celebration, families offer food to the souls of their deceased loved ones in order to appease them and keep them from turning vindictive. The Japanese celebrate a similar holiday known as “Obon”, in which they leave food and candles in windows for wandering souls. These festivals are similar to Halloween in the West, but more on par with Dia de los Muertos in Mexico, which Morton analyzes thoroughly. During Dia de los Muertos — which incorporates aspects of the Catholic traditions of All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day along with aspects of the Aztec’s Feast of the Dead — food, drink, flowers, photographs, and colorful calaveras are offered to the souls of loved ones who have passed on.
Mexico is also the home to one of the world’s most famous ghosts: la Llorona. Morton explores the different versions of the tale and also writes about Incan guardian ghosts and the pabid spirits of Brazil. Additionally, she explores the ghosts and legends of Africa along with the mythology of Australia’s aboriginal “Dreamtime”, the origin of voodoo, Jamaican duppy-ghosts, and the particularly strange bhut ghosts of India who are believed to be able to enter and exit the body through a yawn or a sneeze.
In the new millennium, ghosts are big business in both television and film. There are countless TV shows that concentrate on haunted houses and ghost hunting such as Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures. Movies like Ghost Busters, Poltergeist, and The Amityville Horror have fascinated the viewing public for years and racked up millions of dollars in profits.
Ghosts, however; have not haunted only the entertainment business. They have been stirring our imaginations for centuries. Morton points out that our obsession with ghosts can be traced all the way back to Mesopotamia. Throughout the book, she unearths the many fascinating beliefs various cultures have held over the course of history about ghosts and what happens to us after we die. From ancient Native American tribal beliefs to present day ghost-hunting equipment, Morton examines it all.
The book is peppered with several interesting and surprising anecdotes, including the relationships some famous people had with ghosts. Who would have guessed that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini liked to go to séances together? Or that Thomas Edison at one point tried to invent a device that would allow him to communicate with ghosts? Or that Carl Jung, a believer in ghosts, had an encounter with a playful doorbell-ringing ghost?
In addition to the relationship between ghosts and humans, Morton also devotes some of the book to the relationship ghosts have with different places around the world. The Tower of London, Lily Dale, New York (the mecca to Spiritualism — a religion founded on the belief of ghosts), Poveglia Italy, and the Suicide Forest of Japan are a few of the places Morton writes about as she uncovers these landmarks’ haunted histories as well as the rise of ghost tourism.
Morton is the author of The Halloween Encyclopedia, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, and novels with names like The Devil’s Birthday and Netherworld. She’s also a six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award. It’s no wonder she wrote a book on ghosts. Despite her obvious love of the subject matter, Morton is able to keep her tone balanced as she educates her readers about the difference between a revenent and a wraith, how poltergeists have been studied, and how our fear of ghosts began.
The book is peppered with attention-grabbing photographs and paintings. Famous ghost photography, art, and stills from films are sprinkled throughout the book, which is small enough to travel with, but good-looking and substantial enough to make a nice coffee table book. Attractive, educational, and captivating, Ghosts: A Haunted History is sure to hold the attention of ghost enthusiasts and skeptics alike.