Mysterious America Reviews

The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts

The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts by Owen Davies was first published in England in 2007. A paperback was released in the United States in 2009. The Haunted is not a traditional or linear history. Davies looks at trends spanning several centuries, from the Reformation to the present day. By exploring these trends, he hopes to explain how and why England has become so “haunted.”

Debates over ghost belief reveal much about England’s social and intellectual history. Davies makes a compelling argument that being haunted by the dead is part of the human condition, at least for a significant portion of the population, as all attempts to eradicate ghost belief over the past 500 years have failed.

Davies divides his book into three parts: Experience (what did ghosts look like, where were they found, and how have people tried to find them?), Explanation (how have people made sense of ghost sightings?), and Representation (how have people sought to replicate or reproduce ghosts and ghostly phenomenon?). The Haunted runs the gamut of English (and some Continental) cultural and intellectual experience, but its organization opens these topics to the reader in an easy to digest format. Every chapter explains the key players, arguments, and trends, while offering plenty of primary examples.

Most studies of ghosts from 1700 on primarily rely on four authors who collected hundreds of accounts, but these accounts were collected from the middle and upper classes. They say little about the beliefs of rural and urban working classes, who made up the majority of the population. Davies scours a grab bag of sources to add these voices to the discussion, while never losing sight of the dominant intellectual trends.

Davies goes beyond a simple recounting of Spiritualism, the Society for Psychical Research, and other well-worn topics. He demonstrates how familiar arguments for and against the existence of ghosts were continually repurposed as ammunition in the intellectual and spiritual battles of the day. Meanwhile, ghosts continued to be a source of popular entertainment. Hoaxers overturned assumptions about who were society’s fearful, as servant girls turned the tables on their masters. On stage and in early film, slapstick comedy taught people to laugh at their fears and robbed the white sheet of its power to scare.

The cultural aspects of ghost belief are interesting enough, but where the author truly shines is in his discussion of technological trends. The few attempts I’ve read to explore technology and the paranormal have floundered. Davies finally gets it right. Chapter 7: Projecting Ghosts in particular describes how technology has evolved to allow us to more closely replicate ghosts, from “camera obscura,” mirrors, and smoke in the sixteenth century to cinematic portrayals in the twentieth. He mercifully avoids the current “gadget” fetish among self-described paranormal investigators.

During the late Medieval period, the Catholic Church taught that ghosts were the souls of the dead in Purgatory, a halfway point between earth and Heaven. Protestant theology officially rejected the idea of ghosts as a Catholic holdover and ignorant superstition. As a Protestant country, England should have rejected ghosts centuries ago. Instead, people feel more free to express their belief in ghosts than ever before. So continued ghost belief tells more about English tradition, culture, and psychology than religious persuasion.

Owen Davies is a professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire, United Kingdom. He has appeared as an authority on witchcraft and magic in television programs including People Detectives (BBC2, April 2001) and The Real Harry Potter (Channel 4, November 2001). He is the author of Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951, A People Bewitched: Witchcraft and Magic in Nineteenth-Century Somerset and Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History.

The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts by Owen Davies was published by Palgrave Macmillan (London, England) in 2007. The softcover edition is 299 pages but is no longer in print. Used copies are available on and other book resale websites.

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