It is indeed a tough job to precisely classify ghosts. There are lots of different types of ghost, which behave in lots of different ways. The variety of reported hauntings spells trouble for theories about where ghosts come from, because any theory that claims to be able to ‘explain’ ghosts also has to explain a mass of contradictory ‘ghost facts’. For instance, one may believe that ghosts are only spiritual forces that influence mind to induce hallucination or vision of ghosts. Then what about Poltergeists that are able to generate noise and move things?
In general, a ghost is a spirit, apparition, or presence of something or someone that isn’t really there. Ghosts have been reported by every culture throughout history. The stereotypical ghost is the spirit of a dead person that appears as a transparent mage, but there are many other types of ghost – they don’t have to be of people (they don’t even have to be dead). Ghosts typically, but not always, haunt a specific location or person.
Given such wide variety, we attempt to define several general types of ghosts as shown below. This classification is limited only to those pertaining to dead, and ordinary level of spirits often intertwining with human beings. That means, it does not include a full domain of spirits such as deity, fairy, angel, devil, demon, goblin, or goddess etc.
- Human ghosts
- The unquiet dead
- Re-enactment ghosts
- Cyclic ghosts
- Ghosts of the living
- Crisis apparitions
- Inhuman ghosts
- Creepy critters
- Planes, trains, and ghost ships
The unquiet dead
The most usual theory is that ghosts are the souls of the departed, trapped on Earth for some reason. This theory explains why ghosts might appear, and also why they disappear when laid, but it doesn’t explain ghosts of the living, ghosts of inanimate objects, or ‘boring’ ghosts that seem to have no purpose.
Here we have one example of classic ghost. One of the earliest and famous ghost stories is the tale of Athenodorus, as told by Roman writer Pliny the Younger (61-113CE). According to Pliny, there was a house in Athens haunted by the spectre of an old man in rags, who would moan and rattle his chains. This terrible apparition frightened off all potential tenants until a visiting philosopher, named Athenodorus, decided to spend the night. A few hours after dark, Athenodorus duly heard the clanking of chains and saw the ghost. He followed it to a spot in the courtyard – digging the next day revealed a human skeleton in chains. The bones were given a proper burial, and the ghost was never seen again.
Pliny’s classic tale illustrates many of the elements of the stereotypical ghost. The typical ghost is the spirit of a dead person, which appears as a pale or transparent version of its living self. Usually the apparition is wearing clothes and if it interacts with living people at all it does so in a limited way (it may not be able to speak, or it may only be able to repeat a few words).
Often a ghost seems to have a motive in appearing – to get the living to perform whatever ritual or process is necessary to let the ghost rest in peace. This is known as ‘laying a ghost’. In Pliny’s tale, the ghost’s original body was not properly buried, so its spirit was condemned to haunt the night. This motif is found in ghost stories as far back as the ancient Assyrians and Egyptians, and as for afield as Asia and Europe.
Not all ghosts act with a purpose. In fact many of them seem oblivious to the real world or living people, and display no form of intelligence or consciousness. An example of this sort is the ghost that re-enacts a sequence of actions when it appears, passing through walls and closed doors and sometimes appearing to stand above or below the level of the floor.
Re-enactment ghosts are thought to be following a route they took in life. They are usually linked to violent or traumatic events – battles, murders, executions, accidents or suicides.
A famous example is the Treasurer’s House in York, England. Witnesses have described troops of Roman soldiers in full armour marching through the cellars of this historic building. Crucially, the soldiers appeared to be knee-deep in the cellar floor – at the level of an original Roman road through the area.
One popular theory to this is called the Stone Tape theory. Many ghosts seem to be linked to traumatic or significant events, and this has led to the theory that people and events can somehow leave an impression on their surroundings, as if they were recorded in the stones of a house – hence the ‘stone tape’ theory. Hauntings are replays of these recordings. This theory explains why some ghosts seem not to be conscious, e.g. re-enactment ghosts; but not ones that interact with the living, or ones that are seen away from where they lived and died.
Many ghosts are said to appear ‘cyclically’ on significant anniversaries, these are known as ‘cyclic ghosts’. Famous examples include Catherine Howard, one of Henry VIII’s wives, who is supposed to be seen running screaming through the halls of Hampton Court Palace on the anniversary of her sentencing to death.
Respected psychical researcher and author Ian Wilson regards such claims with skepticism, pointing out that if ghosts really did reappear that predictably a ghost hunter’s job would be extremely easy. Another problem is that the calendar was changed in Europe in 1582 (1752 in England), with the loss of 11 days, so that if Howard really does appear she will effectively be 11 days late.
Ghosts of the living
Crisis apparitions: Ghosts of the living usually involve people who are experiencing or approaching a crisis. Hence they are known as crisis apparitions. Typically a friend or relative , possibly many miles away, will see the person, who may look quite real and appear in an unremarkable fashion (e.g. popping in to say hi). Later they discover that their friend died or experienced a crisis at the same time or very shortly afterwards, and couldn’t have been anywhere near where they were sighted. Crisis apparitions do not fit into most theories about ghosts; the people are still alive, they are far away and they don’t seem to have much purpose.
However, many people argue that crisis apparitions are actually telepathic projections of some sort, in which sudden physical crisis boots psi power for a moment.
Doppelgangers: Another type of living ghosts is a double; an apparition that looks exactly like the witness. These ghosts are known by their German name ‘doppelganger’. The appearance of a doppelganger can often be a bad omen, but not always.
Many people argue that doppelgangers, like crises apparitions, are actually telepathic projections, not ghosts. There is also a rare medical condition, known as autoscopy, that causes people to hallucinate a transparent mirror image of themselves.
In Celtric lore, a doppelganger is known as a ‘fetch’. In Iceland they are known as Fylgja, and in Norway as Vardoger. These Scandinavian doubles announce someone’s arrival by appearing a few minutes before the actual person.
One major problem for the theory that ghosts are spirits or personalities that survived death is that there are many reports of the ghosts of animals and even inanimate objects (mainly vehicles).
Belief in animal spirits is common in hunting cultures. Hunters sometimes perform elaborated ceremonies after killing an animal so that its spirit will not be vengeful. In arctic Siberia, for instance, hunters hold a festival in honor of each whale they kill, so that its ghost will not frighten off other whales.
Ghost dogs are a common feature of western folklore, especially large black dogs with glowing eyes, known as barguests, devil dogs, gyrtrash, or shuck-hounds. Barguests are usually thought to be bad omens, but can be helpful, protecting travellers in lonely places.
Planes, trains, and ghost ships
Probably the best known ghost vehicle is the Flying Dutchman. This legendary vessel is said to be a 17-centuary sailing ship crewed by dead men, whose caption is doomed to sail the world forever as punishment for his sins. Many sailors have reported encounters with the ship, which is usually described as glowing red or ghostly pale.
The most convincing type of haunting, the poltergeist, may not be caused by a ghost at all. The word poltergeist is the German term for ‘noisy ghost’, and is the name given to a type of haunting in which the ghost, if there is one, is invisible, manifesting itself through a variety of physical phenomena.
Common symptoms of a poltergeist haunting or infestation include: objects being moved or thrown about; banging, rapping and knocking; small fires that start mysteriously; appliances going haywire; inexplicable wet patches; and foul smells. Generally poltergeists are more of a nuisance than a danger, although in at least one case: the infamous Bell Witch of Tennessee, which tormented the Bell family between 1817 and 1821, and eventually poisoned John Bell, the head of the family, a man has been killed.
The other distinguishing feature of a poltergeist haunting is that it tends to be centred on one person, and often follows that person if he or she attempts to move house, for instance. The focus of a poltergeist haunting is known as the ‘epicentre’. Epicentres are most commonly children or adolescents.
All in the mind
The things that happen in a poltergeist infestation are very similar to the phenomena produced by psychokinetics and their close relations the physical mediums. This, and the fact that an epicentre is usually involved, have led many people to argue that poltergeists are not ghosts at all, but instances of psychokinetic powers that are not under conscious control, technically known as ‘recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis’ (RSPK), produced by the epicentre. One of the theories behind RSPK is that puberty triggers the sudden development of uncontrolled mental powers.
Poltergeists provide convincing evidence that something unusual is really happening, whether it is supernatural or paranormal, for two reasons. Polergeist hauntings follow the same pattern in most cases, wherever and whenever they occur. This undermines the cultural source explanation, and suggests a genuinely supernatural or paranormal phenomenon. Secondly, investigators have exposed many poltergeist hauntings as hoaxes, in many other cases they have observed inexplicable phenomena at first-hand.
The skeptical viewpoint
The skeptical explanation is that ghost sightings are the result of a complex mix of sensory confusion, faulty memory, cultural influence, and exaggerated or false reporting. In other words, ghosts exist only in the mind. Skeptics claim that their theory is the only one that accounts for the whole range of ‘ghost facts’, and that the huge variety of ghost reports results from the individual and cultural variety of the witnesses. But the skeptics can’t explain the hard core of reports of ghosts experienced by more than one witness, or cases where ghosts know things that living people do not.