Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead & Cultural Transformation

How have apparitions of the dead appeared in Western culture over the centuries? How has that appearance changed? Why has that appearance changed? These are the questions Ronald C. Finucane, late Distinguished Professor of History at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Michigan, tackles in his book Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Formation.

The answers he finds may surprise you. Finucane, who died in 2009, was a Medieval historian with a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He was also a Fellow at the Royal Historical Society and author of five books.

Most academics would probably dismiss a study like this, since they do not consider the supernatural to be a “serious subject,” or at least, not one to be taken seriously. Finucane, however, argued that ghosts are a fundamental part of Western culture, and should be open to academic study.

As Finucane explained, “Even though ghosts or apparitions may exist only in the minds of their percipients, the fact of that existence is a social and historical reality: the phenomena represent man’s inner universe just as his art and poetry do.”

Beginning in the Classical Era of Greece and Rome and ending in the twentieth century, Finucane carefully dissected the cultural phenomenon of ghosts. Not surprisingly, he found that ghosts have changed over the millennia. Their appearance, their purpose, and their mode of communication with the living have all undergone important transformations.

For instance, in ancient Greece, the spirits of the dead were seen as passive and fleeting. Only in the Classical Era did they emerge from the underworld to torment the living. In the later Middle Ages, ghosts were everywhere—walking among the living like any other member of society. The danse macabre portrayed death as a daily companion and the ultimate social equalizer. In the early modern world, ghosts appeared as disembodied limbs to interfere in the daily life of their living relatives. And, finally, in our time, they have taken on a more vaporous and indifferent quality.

Finucane noted that in the Victorian era ghosts seemed to have no purpose whatsoever. “Most Victorian ghosts were perceived as having nothing to say about buried treasure, murders, revenge, legacies, and most participants evidently felt no need to provide a resolution to this puzzle,” he wrote.

If there is a weak point in this book, it is the author’s assertion that ghosts haven’t changed much since Victorian times. He insists that contemporary ghosts are also purposeless, remote, and usually of anonymous origins. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Crisis apparitions, in which family members are seen shortly before or after their deaths, are among the most common ghost sightings today. Furthermore, ghosts are often said to return to “ease the anxiety of a loved one” or to remind eyewitnesses of a tragic incident. They may not be pointing out buried treasure, but these appearances are just as purposeful.

The idea that the appearance of the dead is tied to human cultural experience is an important one. It just might be the answer to the age old question of why ghosts wear clothes, or why ghosts used to be burdened by chains. Most importantly, it suggests ghosts are intimately tied to the human experience.

Ghosts have been with us since ancient times, and cultural archeology shows us they are a fundamental part of our inner world. Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Formation by Ronald C. Finucane convincingly lays out this argument and provides ample evidence to back it up. It is a must read for anyone interested in the study of ghosts.

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