Snarkology Halloween Hop: Victorian Ghosts and Hysteria

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Victorian Ghosts and Hysteria

When I was a kid, I spent hours reading ghost stories. Something about apparitions from beyond the grave fascinated me. Like many elementary school children in the South, I read Kathryn Tucker Windham’s series, most notably 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey, which, thanks to my overactive imagination, ensured that I didn’t go upstairs to go to the bathroom in the evenings without turning ALL the lights on. Yes, I liked the idea of ghosts. No, I didn’t want to meet one.

Pratt Hall at Huntingdon College (image credit: al.com article)

Thankfully I’d mostly gotten over my fear of ghosts by the time I went to Huntingdon College. If you’re familiar with the 13 Alabama Ghosts book, you will recognize the school as the site of the haunting mentioned in the eleventh chapter, or The Red Lady of Huntingdon College (hyperlinked to an al.com story about her). My sorority pledge room or storage room – I was never sure which – was supposedly the site of the tragedy, but we were always careful to never be up there alone or piss off Martha. I never saw, heard, or felt her, which was probably good with my aforementioned imagination. You see, the mind is a tricky thing. The Victorians knew this well.

While researching my current work, the third book in my Aether Psychics series, which will be called Aether Spirit, I found a fascinating book called The Birth of Neurosis:  Myth, Malady, and the Victorians by physician and medical historian George Drinka. It was written in the early 1980s and is long out of print, but thanks to my local library, I was able to get my hands on a copy quickly. It details the history of mental health in the Victorian era outside of Freud. Yes, there were others working in psychology, which was really psychiatry since they were all medical doctors at the time. The cultural context for mental illness is fascinating and can be seen in Victorian ghost stories if you know where to look.

First let’s talk about how death was handled in Victorian times. Typically people died at home, not removed from their relatives in hospitals, and it was common across the lifespan. Women frequently died in childbirth and children before they reached adulthood. If you think about it, signs of death and mourning were everywhere, whether they were people in mourning clothing, the peals of church bells, or elaborate funerals and processions. Rules about mourning were also part of the many Victorian social regulations. Is it any wonder that ghost stories became a popular genre with well-known authors such as Charles Dickens (of course), Arthur Conan Doyle, and Henry James contributing to it? It was actually a great genre for female authors, too.

So how do ghosts and mental illness intersect? What happened beyond the grave and “madness” were two areas the Victorians didn’t have much control over or knowledge about, but about which they were fascinated. They’d made some progress with regard to nerves but still didn’t know exactly how they worked and regarded the nervous system, particularly that of women, as fragile and easily overwhelmed by the growing chaos of “modern” life or other disturbances. Would such overwhelmed nervous systems be more inclined to see things that weren’t there and mistake them for spirits? We recall Ebenezer Scrooge’s accusation that Marley’s ghost is a bit of undigested beef.

According to The Birth of Neurosis, one theory about psychological problems was called the Degenerate Theory, in which successive generations succumbed to worse forms of mental illness until the final progeny died either in prison or mental institutions. So, rather than being a cause for anxiety for individuals and their immediate family only, psychological issues could potentially mean the dying out of an entire family, and this concern permeates the ghost story literature of the era. For example, in the first story in Michael Sims’ entertaining compilation Phantom Coach: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Ghost Stories, from which I draw my examples, the narrator says,

“…I thought I could make out that Miss Furnivall was crazy, from their odd ways about her, and I was afraid lest something of the same kind (which might be in the family, you know) hung over my darling.”

Real paper books!

She’s talking about her “darling” charge, a little girl named Rosemund, and the child’s great aunt, who is guilty over some events of many years previously. The story is The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Mental illness had symptoms similar to the sensations experienced by those who encountered ghosts. Recall that Arthur Conan Doyle was a trained physician. In his story The Captain of the Pole Star, the captain asks the narrator, the ship’s doctor, about the symptoms of madness. The narrator replies, “Pains in the head, noises in the ear, flashes before the eyes, delusions…” The captain has also been seeing a ghost and is going mad from grief. Or is he? The doctor has to sort it out.

The emotional experiences that attract ghosts in stories also drove people mad, for example, guilt, witnessing violent death, and suggestion through frightening tales. These are evident in The Phantom Coach story by Amelia B. Edwards and Henry James’ Sir Edmund Orme. Also, the narrator in Charles Dickens’ lesser known story The Trial for Murder is at a point in his life when he’s feeling burned out by his job and dissatisfied with his situation when he starts seeing a ghost. Although they didn’t call it burnout, Victorian physicians treated men and women who were “neurasthenic” due to overwhelm from the demands of life.

Victorian ghost stories are entertaining in their own right, but knowing how the society viewed psychological illness adds an interesting dimension to the tales.

I will never forget 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. What is one ghost story that still haunts you? See what I did there? Tell me your favorite ghost story for a chance to win a $10 Amazon gift card. Novels, short stories, and movies are all fair game. Please leave your email address in the comment box itself so I can easily contact the winner. And don’t forget to enter for a chance to win one of the main blog tour prizes.

57 Comments

  1. My favorite ghost story will always be Ghost Story by Peter Straub. It was one of the very first horror books that I read when I was a kid. I have it on my bookshelf in my bedroom as I type this. I've had to replace it over the years from being read so much. This is my third copy! I still have the original, though. It's put up so there will be no more damage to it.

  2. I think my favorite story from when I was growing up is the Brown Mountain Lights. Brown Mountain is a low ridge in Burke County, NC that, during dry, crisp evenings in the autumn, is host to a genuine and baffling mystery. When conditions are right, mysterious glowing orbs can be seen to rise up off the mountain, hover and wobble about fifteen feet up in the air, and then disappear. There's no denying that the lights are real. They have been observed by countless witnesses and photographed on many occasions. But what they are is still unknown.

    The Brown Mountain Lights have been observed for centuries, and multiple legends have arisen around the phenomenon. The Cherokee were aware of the lights, and according to some accounts claimed that the lights were the souls of Cherokee women searching for their men who had died in a great battle between the Cherokee and the Catawba that took place on Brown Mountain. Another legend says that the lights are the the ghostly echoes of lights that appeared during a search for a murdered woman in the 19th century.

  3. I think the name is 13 ghosts,where the family is trapped in the glass house thats fully automated. The juggernaut and others were really creepy. I would have never went into that basement!

  4. The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill is my very favorite ghost story. I love ghost stories and this one is well-written and very creepy, getting into the mind and playing nasty little tricks. (Is someone sitting there, in that chair in the dark? Can you see him? No, it was just a coat on the chair. Or was it?)

  5. My favorite ghost story is not associated with Halloween, but with Christmas, Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' – any version of it, but most of all the book, which is one of the first things I read in English. It is rather odd that he has a condemned soul doing an act of charity, but other than that is has certainly proven to be a winner.

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