1902 Encyclopedia > Apparitions


APPARITIONS, in the ordinary acceptation of the word, can scarcely be better defined than in the term used by Defoe: "They are the invisible inhabitants of the unknown world, affecting human shapes or other shapes, and showing themselves visibly to us." In this definition no account is taken of "spectral illusions, involuntarily generated by means, of which figures or forms, not present to the actual sense, are nevertheless depicted with a vividness and intensity sufficient to create a temporary belief of their reality." Theories of apparitions generally deal with these hallucinations, and no doubt they are the foundation of many of the stories of superstition, but they scarcely suffice to account for the universality of the belief in the possible appearance of disembodied spirits. These figures, kind or threatening, are probably the first objects that meet the vision of primitive men, when they begin to reflect on the unseen powers around them, and "to explore these coasts which our geographers cannot describe." Ghosts are almost the first guess of the savage, almost the last infirmity of the civilized imagination; on these forms, shadowy and unsubstantial as they are, solid superstructures of ritual and morality have been based, and apparitions, with the consequences of the belief in them, have a literature and a history of their own.

In the first place, the belief has had an immense effect on the religious and moral development of our race. Though it is as yet impossible to analyse to its first elements the confused mass of fear and custom which makes up the faith of savages, there can be little doubt that their religion, with the later and refined heathenism of Greece and Rome, sprang in part from the propitiation of the spirits of ancestors. Again, it would no longer be true to say, as Scott did forty years ago, that "the increasing civilization of all well-constituted countries has blotted out the belief in apparitions." The visionaries who found their religion on a pretended intercourse with the dead, and who consider the highest function of their clergy to be "the serving if tables"- tables that rap and move-may be counted in America by millions. Many causes have combined to bring about this return to what a short time ago seemed a forlorn superstition. First, there was that reaction against the somewhat commonplace skepticism of the last century which took in literature the form of Romanticism and of the Gothic revival, and brought back in a poetical shape the fairies and specters of mediaeval fancy. Again, the lofty morality and pure life of Swedenborg (1688-1771) won a hearing for his extraordinary visions, and minds influences by him were ready to welcome further additions to the marvelous. He declared that "the spirit of man is a form; and added that it had been "given to him to converse with almost all the dead whom he had known in the life of the body." Last of all came what is called spiritualism, inspired by an impatient revolt against the supposed tendencies and conclusions of modern science. Inquirers who live in constant fear that science is trying to demonstrate the truth of materialism, and to rob them of their dearest hope, that of a future life in the society of their departed friends, turn eagerly to what they think ocular evidence of another existence. There is scarcely any literature, not even the records of trials for witchcraft, that is more sad and ludicrous than the accounts of "spiritual séances," with the persistence of the bereaved in seeking a sign. The attempt of the Alexandrian Platonists to substitute the visions of trances for the conclusions of intellect has been called the despair of reason; and modern spiritualism when it is not a drawing-room amusement, is too often a moment in the despair of faith.

The belief in apparitions, we have said, has its history, a history contained in ancient laws and literature, in the customs and superstitions of savages, and in the fireside ghost-stories of our own-homes. By a comparison of all these we shall try, first, to show how the notion of the existence of spirits and of the possibility of their appearance arose; next to trace several of the shapes in which it is most powerful and general; lastly, to point out how modern theories and marvels are connected with primitive and savage ideas, and we shall probably arrive at the conclusion that there is either some substratum of unexplained facts, or that the human imagination is subject to laws which have not been sufficiently investigated.

Primitive Beliefs

It would be rash to say, with Herbert Spencer, that the propitiation of the spirits of ancestors is the first germ of all religion, and it would be premature to deny that there may be races which have no conception of the existence of the spirit after death. But it is safe to assert that there are very few savage peoples who do not believe that their dead ancestors appear to them in dreams, and in what they think the clearer vision of trances, and how do not prove their belief by sacrifice of food, by prayers for help, by hymns, and by offerings made to show love or deprecate anger. The wide-spread graves of extinct races, with the weapons and vessels buried along with the dead, demonstrate that these nameless and vanished hordes also held that the life of the dead persists, with its old needs and desires. The literature of cultivated peoples shows clearly that the Greeks and Romans held the same opinion, and practiced no very different rites. It would be tedious and superfluous to state all the facts so carefully collected by Mr. Tylor in his Primitive Culture. Enough to say then when the Athenians condemned the generals who neglected to bury the men who fell at Arginusae, when Odysseus built a tomb in deference to the threat of the dead Elpenor- "lest I become a curse to thee, sent by the gods"- they acted from the same motive as the Australian "black fellow" who holds that his deceased tribesman, if left uninterred, will haunt him as an ingna, or mischievous spirit. If we wanted to state the savage theory of apparitions, we could scarcely do it better than in the world of Apuyleius- "The human soul, after it has quitted the body, is called Lemur, that which undertakes the guardianship of the family is called Lar; those which wander without fixed homes are named Larvae." The Lemurs then, we may say, are with us still as churchyard ghosts; the Lar , after becoming the venerated hero of Grecian religion, has departed with the advance of Christianity. An able account of the Greek worship of the dead will be found in La cite Antique, by M. Fustel de Coulanges.

Taking it for proved that the credence in the apparitions and the power of the dead is a fact as good as universal in the beginning of thought, we must ask, How was the notion arrived at? Discarding for the moment the possibility that it was founded on actual apparitions, we observe several causes which might, indeed which must, have given rise to it. The savage, like the child, is full of questionings, and his reasoning are, so to say, perfectly rational. His hypotheses colligate and explain the facts, as far as he knows them. One of the earliest mysteries to him is the mystery of death-how is he to explain the sudden and eternal stillness of the warriors slain in battle? Now the savage philosopher knows of another state, namely, sleep, in which he seems as quiets as the dead, but is really active in dreams. Has he then two selves? The problem is that which Hartley Coleridge resolved when a child – "There is a dream Hartley, a shadow Hartley, a picture Hartley, a hold-me-fast Hartley." "When I sleep," then the savage may conclude, "one of my selves leaves the other to rest, and goes about its business. And in death, also, one self flies away, but it will not return-it is homeless, hungry, wandering. Above all, it is a very strange thing, and, as strange, to be feared." A priori reasoning goes as far as this, and then confirmatory facts support the hypothesis. In dreams he meets the dead warrior, and some of his friends have the same experience. And there is one of the tribe, the diviner or shaman, whose opinion they revere in these matters. He is thus described by a Zulu convert-"When he is awake he sees things which he would not see if he were not in a trance." He knows how to produce trances by fasting, by inhaling the smoke of herbs, and by the use of strange oils. He sees things before they happen, and tells how, when awake, he beheld the slain warrior, and promised to appease his hunger with sacrifice of cattle. There can scarcely be any other conclusion from these facts, as far as they are known to the savage, except that the dead yet live, and appear to the living, and keep their old passions and their old wants.

Now this belief in apparitions, thus stated, is capable of much development. The favourite ancestral spirit of the strongest tribe will tend to absorb the lion’s share of sacrifice and hymns, and to become such a hero as Theseus was to the Athenians. Many other influence produce a still higher religion, a circle of Olympian gods, a philosophic and intellectual monotheism. The family of the seer will perhaps become a sacred caste, like the Eumolpidae at Athens. An early civilization is formed, with its philosophers, holding in secret a monotheism of their own with its city population pleased by stately temples and hieratic splendours, but we must remember that all this time the pagani, the rural people of the hills and the coast, come very little under the influence of philosophy or of ritual. They still retain the old dread of the ghosts of the departed, and still people the woods and wells with wandering spirits. As slaves and nurses they enter the cultivated families, their old wives fables impress the awakening imagination of childhood, and the earliest of all forms of belief in the supernatural finds its way back into the circle of culture. At last there comes a time of decadence, when the abstract notion of deity seems too vague and distant, when the Olympian gods are no longer credible, and philosophy falls back in despair on the traditional ghosts of the nursery and of the Oriental slaves. Thus Neo-Platonism reinstated apparitions as demons, angels, powers; and thus Henry More and Joseph Glanvil combated the skepticism of the seventeenth century with stories of haunted houses, and of the mysterious drummer of Tedworth.

If this theory of the origin of the belief in apparitions be correct, it tends to explain what certainly is a difficulty-the identity of ghost stories in all lands and times, the conservatism of that great majority, the dead. For the further we go back in the history of civilization, as in the works of nature, the simpler, the more identical, the more widely diffused are all its productions. The earliest implements for lighting fires, the earliest weapons, are not more alike than the earliest guesses of speculation and the earliest efforts of fancy. These oldest fancies dream of apparitions of the dead, and are preserved below the level of advancing culture, and insinuated into the ideas of the cultivated classes by the classes which are unprogressive, unaffected on the whole by religious or social changes. It is for this reason that magical rites are everywhere the same, as M. Maury has observed-that the Scotch witch had the same spells as the kaffir witch, that Balzac’s description of a Parisian sorceress in Le cousin Pons might serve as an account of a Finnish wise-woman. It is not strange that superstition and ignorance should always tell the same baseless tale if they have always treasured and still repeat the earliest and crudest fancies of the race. Nothing shows more clearly the purity of ancient culture than the absence of superstition in the Greek as compared with out Teutonic classics.

Supposing the origin of the belief in apparition, and its identity in different peoples, to be thus accounted for it remains to ask if the surviving forms of the creed can be traced back to a primitive source. In entering the cloud-land of folk-lore it is impossible to advance too cautiously. This is a realm where nothing is fixed and definite; where all is vague, floating, confused. He who would call up and try the spirits here must not place himself within too narrow a magic, circle, but extend his view as far as possible to the beliefs of the most alien and distant races. The apparitions of popular superstition fall into classes which always tend to be merged in each other, but which are not so indistinct that they cannot be considered apart.


No form is better known than the belief in fairies. All over Europe fireside tradition tells of women who haunt lonely places, where they are seen to dance, to spin, to comb their long hair. They cause inexplicable nervous disease-epilepsy and St. Vitus’s dance; they have a kingdom underground, wither they allure their lovers; they appear with fatal gifts at children’s birth; they steal the children of mortals away, and leave changelings of their own. Our fathers dreaded them as the good folk, in Tweeddale and Ettrickdale; the Highlanders call them the folk of peace; in Greece they are nereids; in Servia, wilis; in Bretagne, korrigans; in Russia, rusalkas. They ought, if our hypothesis is correct, to be traceable to the lower spirits who is pagan times informed woods and wastes, and dwelt by the hearth; who had no temples to be overthrow or changed into Christian churches. The forests sheltered them when the fane of Jupiter fell, and the house of Theseus became the church of St George. The women concealed the hearth-spirit, as Rachel did Laban’s gods, in the furniture of their houses. Rude and rustic people kept up the traditional belief, and the scant offering by the haunted well that the Highlanders of Perthshire still do not care to withhold. The capitularies of Liutbrand forbade such sacrifices; a series of councils repeated the prohibition. The result of these ecclesiastical allusions to "the lesser people of the skies" is that we can trace the French fees back to the fata of classical mythology. Fees in old French is faes; faes is the fadoe of Gervase of Tilbury in his Otia Imperialia (1220); fadoe is a corruption of fata, who are named with bonoe, les bonnes dames (the good ladies) among the superstitions of the Gauls. Such is the pedigree of the fees, as traced by M. Maury in his interesting tract, Les Fees du Moyen Age. Further information, to show the identity of the superstition, will be found in Scott’s essay in the Border Minstrelsy, in Bernhard von Schmidt’s Peasant Life in Modern Greece, in Pashley’s Travels in Greece, in Ralston’s Folk-Songs of Russia, and in the Barzaz Breiz of the Marquis de la Villemarque. Now turn to Kaffir superstition. Dr. Callaway, in the Religious System if the Amazalu, p. 226, writes thus:- "It may be worth while to note the curious coincidence of thought among the Amazalu regarding the amatongo or abapansi (ancestral spirits), and that of the scotch or Irish regarding the fairies or ‘good people.’ For instance, the ‘good people’ of the Irish have ascribed to them, in many respects, the same motives and actions as the amatongo. They call the living to join them, that is, by death; they cause diseases which common doctors cannot understand nor cure. The common people call them their friends or people, which is equivalent to the term, abakubo, given to the ancestral spirits. In the funeral procession of ‘the good people’ are recognized the forms of those who have just died, as Umkatshana, in the Zulu tale, saw his relations among the ancestral spirits. So also in the Highland tales. A boy who had been carried away by the fairies, on his return home speaks of them as ‘our folks,’ which is equivalent to abakwe tu, applied to the ancestral spirits. The fairies are also called ancestors. ‘The red Book of Clanranald is said not to have been dug up, but found on the moss,’ says Mr. Campbell in the Tales of the West Highlands; ‘it seemed as if the ancestors sent it.’" All these coincidences cease to be strange if we suppose that the Celtic people retain as subordinate and childish traditions the primitive beliefs which make the religion of the Kaffir.


It would be easy to trace the belief in brownies (lubber spirits, who tend the house), to the lar, or hearth spirit of the ancients. The domovoy, or Russian brownie, "lives behind the stove; but he, or the spirits of the dead ancestors whom he represents, were held to be in even more direct relation with the fire on the hearth. In some district tradition expressly refers to the spirits of the dead the functions which are generally attributed to the domovoy; and they are supposed to keep careful watch over the house of a descendant who honours them and provides them with due offerings. In some families a portion of the supper is always set aside for the domovoy; for if he is neglected he waxes wroth, and knocks the tables and benches about at night." This is the account of Mr. Ralston, which tallies with the Scotch stories of brownies, as with those of the Lithuanian kanka, the finnish paara, the French lutin, and the humble Northumbrian bogie, who "fitted" with the farmer when he removed his furniture. All these are lares; and the ghastly superstition of the vampire, still prevalent in Greece as once in Scotland, may be traced to the unsatisfied ingna, or malevolent spectre of the Asutralian savage, the tii of Polynesia, the upir of Russian folk-lore.

Second Sight

We now come to almost the most universally credited class of apparitions -- namely, the subjective visions, coinciding with real facts and events occurring at a distance, beheld by persons possessing the Celtic taishitaraugh, or gift of second-sight. The second-sight is described by a believer as "a singular faculty of seeing an otherwise invisible object, without any previous means used by the person that beholds if for that end." The name of second-sight is the Scotch one under which the reputed phenomena excited the curiosity of Dr. Johnson, and "made him wish to have some instances of that faculty well authenticated." In Scott’s opinion, "if force of evidence could authorize us to believe facts inconsistent with the general laws of nature, enough might be produced in favour of the existence of the second sight." All history, all tradition, abounds in instance. A well-known anecdote tells how St. Ambrose fell into a comatose state while celebrating the mass at Milan, and on his recovery declared that he had been present at St. martin’s funeral at Tours, where, indeed, reports from tours afterwards declared that he had been seen. A similar experience of Swedenborg’s (who described at Gottenburg a fire which was actually raging at Stockholm) is reported by Kant. The wide distribution of the belief is shown by the fact that Mr. Mason Browne’s exploring party on the Coppermine River was met by Indians, sent by their medicine man, who predicted the coming of the party, just as a seer in the Hebrides described even the livery of Dr. Johnson’s servant before his arrival. In a remote age and country we find Njal, the hero of the Njal’s saga, credited with forspan, or the gift of beholding such shadowy apparitions of future events- a power carefully distinguished from ordinary clear-sighted wisdom. Returning to savage life, a complete account of the morbid nature and of the initiation of a diviner is given from the mouths of Kaffir converts in Dr. Callaway’s Religion of the Amazulu. A peculiar organization, a habit of haunting the desert, and of fasting, combine to produce the inyanga, or second-sighted man; what Reichenbach calls der densitiv Mensch, and franker Zulus " a soft-headsed one." This part of the subject may be concluded with a quotation from the Odyssey, showing the similarity of these prophetic and warning apparitions in the islands of western Greece and of western Scotland. Theoclymenus speaks to the doomed wooers at their latest feast – "Ah, wretched men, what ails you? Your knees, and faces, and heads are swathed in night, and a wailing sound has arisen, and all cheeks are weith with tears, and the walls and the fair spaces of the ceiling do trip with blood, and the porch is full of ghosts, and the court is filled with shadows-the shadows of men bound hellwards-and the sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist has overspread the world." Compare Martin in his Description of the Western Isles – "When a shroud is perceived about one, it is a prognostick of death. The time is judged according to the height of it about the person; for if it is seen about the middle, death is not to be expected for the space of a year; and as it is frequently seen to ascend higher towards the head, death is concluded to be at hand within a few days or hours, as daily experience confirms." These modern and ancient instances scarcely serve to increase "the force of evidence" that Scott speaks of, but rather to prove that the superstition is a fragment of the most primitive speculations on the facts of trance and coma.

Apparitions in Witchcraft

The apparitions which play a part in all the records of trials for witchcraft admit of some explanation, though scarcely an adequate one, in known laws of human nature. It is easy enough to understand how in primitive times the diviner who beheld spirits was also believed to be able to command them to do his bidding and to injure his enemies. The belief persisted under the civilization of ancient Rome, and Apuleius tells a very impressive story of how the apparition of "a woman of hideous aspect, marked by guilt and extreme sorrow, whose haggard face was sallow as boxwood," was evoked by a witch to slay her foe. No instance of the survival of savage superstitions is stranger than the fact that men like Henry More and Glanvil, Bodin, the great French publicist, Sir Thomas Browne, and Wesley, could still maintain that disease and death might be caused by such malevolent apparitions. We can only say in their defence that the amount of concurrent evidence and confession, corresponding as it did with the prohibition of witchcraft in the Bible, constrained them to share the cruel superstition of their age. Nor its it impossible to assign causes, besides the inadequate one of conscious imposture, for the confessions of the unhappy creatures accused of witchcraft. First we must try to conceive how entirely and implicitly the faith of the middle ages accepted the existence of an omnipresent army of evil spirits. The world was the battlefield of devils and angels, and there was a constant tendency in men’s minds to Manichaeanism, to crediting the devil with frequent victories. Perhaps no single work enables the modern reader so vividly to imagine this state of terror, this agony of patients who believed that they were in conflict visible powers of evil, as the autobiography of Guibert de Nogent, the contemporary historian of the first crusade. He has left, in the character of his mother, a most gracious picture of womanly piety, and yet this excellent lady supposed herself to be the nightly prey of Satan, whom she saw in tangible form. Then we must remember that the church everywhere declared that mortals could enter into compact with the fiends; and recalling how subject the middle ages were to imaginary epidemics, fevers of terror and fanaticism, it is not so hard to see how both accusers and accused believed the truth of their charges and confessions. In such an epidemic every one’s fancy is inflamed, and people are found to accuse themselves, as they still do when a mysterious murder has excited the morbid brains of foolish persons. At these times we may almost reverse the French proverb, and say qui s’accuses s’excuse. Dreadful tortures, too, such as "the most severe and cruel pain of the boots," and "that most strange torment called in Scottish a turkas" (i.e. pincers), want of sleep, and hunger, often made confession and death preferable to life in such misery. But these considerations do not explain away the obvious belief and remorse of many victims, nor account for the similarity in detail of all the confessions.

For the better understanding of these points we may briefly trace the ordinary course of a witch epidemic, as we gather it from the reports in Pitcairn’s Criminal Trials in Scotland, from the Salem witchcraft trials recorded by Cotton Mather (1692), and from such process as that against Urbain Grandier at Loudun (1632-34), as well as the stories collected by Glanvil in his sadducismus triumphatus. Generally it happened that some nervous patient, like the girls who used to meet and make what spiritualists now call a circle, in Parris’s house at Salem, or the novices who accused Urbain Grandier, or the daughter of Richard Hill of Stoke-Trister in 1664, or Adam Clark of Prestonpans (1607), suffered from some hysterical complaint. In the case of Mistress Hill this malady took the form of stigmata or sudden prickings and swellings of the hands, like those of Louise Lateau, the Blegian ecstatic, whose name has recently become notorious. Living in a Protestant land, Mistress Hill, like all the other patients, referred her sufferings to the machinations of a witch, just as the Australian savage now supposes his ailment to be caused by magic. In the cases we have named, as in most others, the witch was said to appear in visible form, or to send "the devil in likeness of ane blak man efter ane feirfull manner," and so to torment the sufferer. The witch was then charged, examined, tortured, if necessary, in the witch’s bridle or otherwise, and as a rule confessed, implicating many of her neighbours. The confessions were frequently recanted, like those made under torture by the Templars. They generally ran to the effect that the accused, in a despairing moment, "making heavy fair dule with herself," like poor Bessie Dunlop, who was "convict and brynnt" in 1576, met an apparition. It might be the ghost of Thom Reid who fell at Pinkie fight, or it might be the devil, as in most confessions, or the king of elf-land, but he always offered wealth and happiness in return for the soul of his victim. The bargain was closed, and the witch was taken at night to some spot, often a church, where she met a great number of her neighbours. Here she was made to swear fealty to Satan, who sometimes took the form of a buck in France, or of "a deer or roe" in Scotland. The same revolting ceremonies and travesties if the church service followed as were attributed to the Templars, and the worshippers received power to do evil, raise storms, bewitch cattle, and so on, after which there ensued a licentious revel. Sometimes the witches would fall into trances when under examination, and declare on waking that they had been spiritually present at the joys of the Sabbat. Their victims, when confronted with them, frequently became subject to convulsions, and were aware of their presence though walls and doors were between them. Both these facts point to the presence of the phenomena of hypnotism or mesmerism, and the abnormal state produced by concentrated attention and abeyance of the will. The ceremonies of this pretended Sabbat can be accounted for if we suppose that the Scotch peasants, like those of France, retained the traditions of those vast nocturnal gatherings, with their revival of pagan rights, their mockery of the church, their unnatural licentiousness, in which the popular misery of the 14th century found relief and expression. An account of these orgies is given in M. Michelet’s book La Sorciere. He does not appear to have consulted the records of the Scottish trials for witchcraft, which makes the very close resemblance between the Scottish and French confessions even more striking.

In attempting to explain this resemblance, as well as the multitude of well-attested apparitions which the annals of witchcraft report, we have to remember the following facts. The manner of producing these abnormal nervous states, in which the patient is impressed exactly as if he heard and saw what he is commanded to hear and see, has always been familiar to peoples in a low state of civilization. The witchcraft trials attribute to diabolical influence phenomena which we may now see performed on willing patients by strolling professors of mesmerism and magnetism. The constantly reviving interest in these phenomena, which to-day takes the shape of matter for gossip, in the middle ages swelled into a frenzy of fear and of excited imagination. The church encouraged this fear by its doctrines, and did little to check it by its exorcisms. All classes believed that the power which produces hypnotism could be hurtfully exercised, and all classes attempted the impossible crime of slaying by magic. The rural population retained the memory of pagan orgies, of the worship of heathen gods, now declared to be devils; they also retained the harmless tradition of the fairy world, and when tortured into confession they reproduced with convincing identity, fragments of folk-lore. Isobel Gowdie was burned in Nairn in 1662 for telling tales which would nowadays make her invaluable to the collector of Marchen or nursery stories (Pitcairn, iii. 603). Survivals of belief out of an uncivilized stage of progress, attested by the facts of nervous disease, heightened by fear and imagination, interpreted by unscientific theology, go far to constitute the familiar apparitions of witchcraft. It ought to be added that modern believers in spiritualism claim the witches as martyrs of their own faith, and recognize in their reported performances, especially in their power of floating in the air, anticipations of their own puerile miracles.


The species of apparitions we have discussed may all be traced to the traditions of the non-progressive classes, and connected with the earliest ideas about the supernatural. But the spirits which are most familiar to us, the specters of ghost stories and fireside tales, rest their claims to existence on the evidence of the eyes and ears of people we meet every day. True, the evidence is of the hearsay class; it is almost as rare to find a witness who has seen a ghost as to encounter a person who does not know some one who has had this experience. As a rule, the deceased friend is said to have appeared at the moment or about the time of his death to an acquaintance at a distance. The belief is now more widely spread and more firmly held among the educated classes than it has been for centuries, and the arguments on both sides are worth consideration. The skeptics do not deny that people have been subjectively affected, in the same way as they would have been if the dead friend had been objectively present. But they bring forward several well-authenticated instances to prove that some people have been subject to illusory appearances, of which they could only test the reality by the attempt to handle them. Perhaps the best known case is that of Nicolai, a Berlin bookseller (1790), who repeater his own hallucinations to the academy of Berlin. "They were generally phantasms of his friends and acquaintances; or, in other words, copies of his past impressions and per captions, so renovated and verified as to create an illusion of reality." Another example is the case of a Mrs. A., attested by Sir David Brewster in his Natural Magic, and repeated by Professor Huxley in his Elementary Physiology. Mrs. A.’s illusions were often grotesque and terrible, and she could not always connect them with any past impression. Different philosophical explanations are given of these cases of disordered vision. Dr. Hibbert, in his Philosophy of apparitions, conceives that the organs of sense are the actual medium through which past feelings are renovated; or, in other words, that when, from strong mental excitement, ideas have become as vivid as past impressions, or even more so, this intensity is induced by, or rather productive of, an absolute affection of those particular parts of the organic structure on which sensations depend, in the same way precisely as the salivary glands are known to be occasionally as much excited by the idea of some favourite food as if the said body itself were actually present, stimulating the papilloe of the fauces. It would have been more simple if dr. Hibbert had said that imagination, in some states, reacts upon the organ of sense and renovates past feelings or sensations, the natural antecedents or necessary concomitants of certain perceptions, with a intensity sufficient to create an illusion of reality.

A further explanation is given by Sir David Brewster, who has remarked as a physical fact that, "when the eye is not exposed to the impressions of external objects, or when it is insensible to these objects in consequence of being engrossed with its own operations, any object of mental contemplation, which has either been called up by the memory or created by the imagination, will be seen as distinctly as if it had been formed from the vision of a real object. In examining these mental impressions," he adds, "I have found that they follow the motions of the eye-ball exactly like the spectral impressions of luminous objects, and that they resemble them also in their apparent immobility when the eye-ball is displaced by an external force. If this result shall be found generally true by others, it will follow that the objects of mental contemplation may be seen as distinctly as external objects, and will occupy the same local position in the axis of vision as if they had been formed by the agency of light." This goes to the very root of the theory of apparitions, all the phenomena of which seem to depend upon the relative intensities of the two classes of impressions, and upon the manner of their accidental combination. In perfect health the mind not only possesses a control over its powers, but the impressions of external is consequently checked, except in sleep, when its operations are relatively more feeble and faint. But in the unhealthy state of the mind, when its attention is partly withdrawn from the contemplation of external objects, the impressions of its own creation, or rather reproduction, will either overpower external objects, or combine themselves with the impressions of them, and thus generate illusions which in the one case appear alone, while in the other they are seen projected among those external objects to which the eye-ball is directed, in the manner explained by Dr. Brewster. To these physical causes of subjective apparitions, the forces of the imagination, of long desire, of strained attention, are supposed to contribute their influence.

"Enthusiastic feelings of an impressive and solemn nature," says Sir Walter Scott, "occur both in private and public life, which seem to add ocular testimony to an intercourse betwixt earth and the world beyond it. For example, the son who has been lately deprived of his father feels a sudden crisis approach, in which he is anxious to have recourse to his sagacious advice-or a bereaved husband earnestly desires again to behold the form of which the grave has deprived him for ever-or, to use a darker yet very common instance, the wretched man who has dipped his hand in his fellow creature’s blood, is haunted by the apprehension that the phantom of the slain stands by the bedside of his murderer. In all or any of these cases who shall doubt that imagination, favoured by circumstances, has power to summon up to the organ of sight spectres which only exist in the mind of those by whom their apparition seems to be witnessed? If we add that such a vision may take place in the course of one of those lively dreams in which the patient, except in respect to the single subject of one strong impression, is or seems sensible of the real particulars of the scene around him, a state of slumber which often occurs-if he is so far conscious, for example, as to know that he is lying on his own bed, and surrounded by his own familiar furniture, at the time when the supposed apparition us manifested, it becomes almost in vain to argue with the visionary against the reality of his dream, since the spectre, though itself fanciful, is inserted amidst so many circumstances which he feels must be true beyond the reach of doubt or question. That which is undeniably certain becomes in a manner a warrant for the reality of the appearance to which doubt would have been otherwise attached. And if any event, such as the death of the person dreamt of, chances to take place, so as to correspond with the nature and the time of the apparition, the coincidence, though one which must be frequent, since our dreams usually refer to the accomplishment of that which haunts our minds when awake, and often presage the most probable events, seems perfect, and the chain of circumstances touching the evidence may not unreasonably be considered as complete."

Now this is the point-namely, the possibility of frequent coincidence-where the advocates of the reality of apparitions join issue with the skeptics. They do not deny that some people have been subject to hallucinations. They say with De Foe, "we have, we believe, as true a notion of the power of imagination as we ought to have. We believe that we form as many apparitions in our fancies as we behold with our eyes, and a great many more. But it does not follow form thence that there are no such things in nature." It is when apparitions of men dying are seen at a distance from the place of their death, or when different witnesses, at different times, behold the same apparition in a certain place, that the explanation of mere fancy or subjective illusion becomes hard to accept. It is unfair of Scott to say that the coincidence between death and distant apparition in dream or waking vision is one which "must frequently happen." Mankind has agreed with Dr. Johnson to consider the event not fortuitous. Nothing is explained, if the multitude of such stories are supported by evidence, by speaking of a coincidence. As Joab says in Voltaire’s play, c’est la le miracle. Again, to convert Nicolau’s visions into genuine apparitions, or to make Mrs. A what Professor Huxley calls a mine of ghost stories, what they saw should have been also seen by others, or should have been followed by some significant event. To give an example of a genuine ghost story as contrasted with a hallucination:-- It happened to a lady, a distant relative of the writer, to waken one morning in Edinburgh, and see, as she thought, her father standing by her side. He was dressed in his full uniform as a general in the East India Company’s army, and seemed to her to press his hand on his side with a look of pain, and then to disappear. The lady mentioned what she supposed she had seen to the clergyman with whom she was residing. He took a note of the date of the occurrence, which happened in a time, as was supposed, of profound peace. The next news from India brought tidings of the mutiny, and that the lady’s father had gone out it full uniform to address his native troops, and had been shot down by them. Now granting, for the sake of argument, that the evidence for this story is sufficient, believers in apparitions would be justified in saying that a coincidence so odd must have some unexplained cause. Two explanations of appearances of this kind suggest themselves to the savage and the scientific spiritualist respectively. The former believes that all real objects have their shadowy doubles in the next world; the weapons buried with the dead chief send their doubles to join him in the happy bunting-grounds. The latter holds that the seer is subjectively affected in the manner desired by the person whose apparition he beholds, who naturally assumes some familiar raiment, "his habit as he lived." To take another example. The writer once met, as he b! elieved, a well-known and learned member of an English university who was really dying at a place more than a hundred miles distant from that in which he was seen. Supposing, for the sake of argument, that the writer did not mistake some other individual for the extremely noticeable person whom he seemed to see, the coincidence between the subjective impression and the death of the learned professor is, to say the least, curious. Pursuing this line of thought, the whole question becomes one of evidence. Does the number of well-attested coincidences between the time of death and the moment of apparition exceed the limits that the laws of chance allow? Till people who have seen such specters can give up the habit of adorning their stories with fanciful additions, and can make up their minds to attest them with their names, the balance of argument is on the side of the skeptics. These reasoners seem, however, to lay too much stress on the effect of "expectant attention." It is not as a rule the anxious mourner who beholds the spectre of the beloved dead. No sorrow is more common than the affliction of Margaret as described by Wordsworth:--

‘Tis falsely said
that there was ever intercourse
betwixt the living and the dead,
for surely then I should have sight
of him I wait for day and night
with love and longings infinite."

It may be added that hallucinations, or whatever we are to call the impression of beholding objects of supernatural horror, are not confined to the human race. A remarkable example of superstitious horror shown by a dog, at the moment of a supposed apparition to his owner, is given in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, vol. lxiv., pp. 186-187. In the same way, during the mysterious disturbances at the house of the Wesleys, "the mastiff was more afraid than any of the children." Popular superstition has used this belief. When the dogs howl, in the Danish ballad, or in its Provencal counterpart, the cruel stepmother is afraid of the apparition of the dead mother, and treats the children kindly. In the same way, when Athene, in the Odyssey, appears to Odysseus, Telemachus cannot see her, but the dogs crouch and whine in fear. The case of Balaam’s ass is sufficiently well known.


The latest and the most important development of the belief in apparition is that known as spiritualism. The believers in a religion based on pretended communications from the dead are numbered in America by millions. Their opponents say that their faith and practice help to fill the lunatic asylums, to which they easily reply that theirs is not the only creed that gives occasion to religious madness. Men of sense and experience are numbered in their ranks, and even in England it would be easy to name persons of eminence in art and literature, and some branches of science, who are puzzled by the phenomena they suppose themselves to have witnessed. Thus the late Augustus de Morgan writes in the preface of from Matter to Spirit- "I am perfectly convinced, in a manner which should make unbelief impossible, that I have seen things called spiritual which cannot be taken by a rational being to be capable of explanation by imposture, coincidence, or mistake."

Modern spiritualism arose from one of the commonest superstitions in the world-the belief in haunted houses. What the Germans call the Polterqeist (the noisy spirit that raps and throws about furniture) is not peculiar to any country. We find it in Japan (see Tales of Old Japan), in Russia, in Egypt. Pliny tells of the haunted house of Athenodorus, the philosopher, in Athens. In Iceland the ghost of the dead thrall Glam raps on the roofs in the Gretti’s saga; and "the Dyaks, Singhalese, and Siamese agree with the Esths as to such routing and rapping being caused by spirits." Such disturbances, accompanied with apparitions, haunted the house inhabited by Mrs Ricketts, a sister of earl St Vincent. Scott says in reference to this case that "no one has seen an authentic account from the earl:" but his sister’s report has recently been published (see the gentleman’s Magazine for May 1872). Every one has heard of the rappings in the house of the elder Wesley. Glanvil, in his Sadducismus triumphatus, has left well-authenticated reports of many cases, notably that of the drummer of Tedworth. The house of Mr Mompesson of Tedworth, in 1651, was disturbed by continual noises-furniture moving of its own accord, raps that could be guided by raps given by the spectators. Precisely the same phenomena occurred in the house of a Mr. Fox, in West New York, in 1847-48. it was discovered by his daughter, Miss Kale Fox, a child of nine years old, that the raps replied to hers. An alpha bet was then brought, the raps spelled out words by knocking when certain letters were pointed to, and modern spiritualism was born. It has again and again attracted notice in England; medium after medium has crossed the Atlantic; impostures have been exposed and defended; and opinion continues to be divided on the subject. The views of a believer, though not a fanatical one, may be quoted from Mr. Dale Owen’s book, the Debatable Land:--

"1. There exists in the presence of certain sensitives of highly nervous organization a mysterious force, capable of moving ponderable bodies, and which exhibits intelligence. Temporary formations, material in structure and cognizable by the senses, are produced by the same influence-for example, hands which grasp with living power.

"2. This force and the resulting phenomena are developed in a greater or less degree according to the conditions of the sensitive, and in a measure by atmospherical conditions.

"3. The intelligence which governs this force is independent of and external to, the minds of the investigator and of the medium. For example, questions unknown to either (sic), and in language unknown to either, are duly answered.

"4. The origin of these phenomena is an open question."

Now, as a rule, these phenomena are exhibited in the presence of "sensitives," who are paid for exercising their profession, and who prefer to do so in a dark room. Men of science who have attended these exhibitions have not always met with interesting results, and the conclusions at which some of them have arrived may be stated thus: -

1. As a rule, nothing worth notice has occurred at séances where competent observers have been present. Spiritualists reply that the spiritual kingdom can only be entered after long and patient attendance at many séances, and that the presence of the sceptic destroys the force of the spiritual influences.

2. When strange phenomena have been witnessed, they have often been traced to conscious imposture and legerdemain. Believers answer with sorrow that imposture is only too common on the part of mediums diffident of their powers; but the aim of science ought to be to detect the realities that co-exist with the imposture.

3. Where conscious imposture does not come in, unconscious cerebration and unconscious muscular action, supervening on a state of expectant attention, are just as deceitful. That the mediums are in a morbid condition is proved by the feeling of a cold air passing over the hands, like the aura epileptica. Unconscious muscular action may be defined as the involuntary response made by the muscles to ideas with which the mind may be possessed when the directing power of the mind is in abeyance. The response given by rapping on the part of the agitated furniture is due to unconscious cerebration-that is, to ideational changes taking place in the cerebrum-of which we may be at the time unconscious through a want of receptivity on the part of the sensorium. The answer given, though not present in conscious thought, may exist in latent thought, and that latent thought may stimulate muscular action towards producing the unconsciously-desired result. In their reply, spiritualists depend on evidence which science hesitates to accept. They say that they have seen such phenomena as no consciously exerted muscular power could produce, and heard replies that did not exist even in their latent consciousness. Hence they insist on the presence of "a new force."

4. The received spiritualist theory belongs to the philosophy of savages. A savage looking on at a spiritual séance in London would be perfectly at home in the proceedings. It is answered that the savage’s evidence and belief is an undersigned coincidence of great confirmatory strength.

5. The reported doings and sayings of the spirits are trivial, irreverent, useless, and shocking. Spiritualists reply, with Swedenborg, that death works no immediate change in character or knowledge, and agree with Plato, in the Phoedo, that the lowest and idlest souls are precisely the most likely to revisit earth. But with perseverance they look for better things.

We must leave the question sub judice. No one can be surprised that men of science hold back from devoting valuable time to the investigation of phenomena associated with darkened rooms, hysterics, and confessed imposture. On the other hand, believers will insist on crediting their eyes and ears, and being influenced by hopes and love and fears. Apparition must be allowed to be an exception to the general ordinance – a disturbing influence in the healthy tide of things. It is more probable that the ordinary laws of nature will hold their sway than that a revolution is about to be effected in all human and divine relations. This is what spiritualists expect, and their attitude has its interest for the student of Man. Perhaps the principal lesson to be gained from the study of the theories of apparitions is that human nature remains essentially the same, beneath the shifting surface of creeds and customs.(1) (A. L.)

(1) The most eminent defender of modern spiritualism, Mr Alfred Wallace, reports a novel kind of apparition in the Fortnightly Review for May 1874. It seems that a young lady medium has the power of sending a semblance of herself into one room, while she is bound hand and foot in another. The pleasing peculiarity of this apparition is that it is no mere shadow, like the mother of Odysseus, whom he could not embrace in Hades. Mr Crookes, a Fellow of the Royal Society, has inspected it with a phosphorus lamp, and clasped it in his arms within the medium's sight. In M. Gautier's romance Spirite, the lover was not permitted to touch his airy mistress. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

The above article was written by Andrew Lang, M.A., LL.D., Hon. Fellow of Merton College, Oxford; author of Oxford, Helen of Troy, Custom and Myth, Myth, Ritual and Religion, Pickle the Spy, The Book of Dreams and Ghosts, The Making of Religion, The Companions of Pickle, A History of Scotland from the Roman Occupation, Prince Charles Edward, Magic and Religion, The Mystery of Mary Stewart, etc.; part author of translations of the Odyssey and the Iliad.

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