Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
An Illustrated History of Ghosts, by Adam Allsuch Boardman, is an entertaining encyclopedia of all things related to spirits and hauntings. The pages are filled mostly by illustrations with text at the top, or by specific, smaller images. The illustrations that accompany the text are a bit playful, and a non-credulous tone is set early on. “For every mysterious bump and apparition glimpsed, there begins a potential ghost sighting,” a line from the introduction reads.
In fact, two whole pages in the introduction are allotted to skeptical inquiry. Given the format and subject, this is a generous amount. This offers a concise list of possibilities that can be considered when addressing a possible haunting. Aside from the “obvious” usual suspects like optical illusions, noisy plumbing, and hoaxes, Illustrated History of Ghosts digs deeper into the skeptical toolbox by including sleep paralysis, confirmation bias, and the P-word, pareidolia.
The bulk of Illustrated History of Ghosts is information about ghosts and hauntings from what the author calls premodernity through the 21sth century. The first image is an Illustration of the “oldest picture of a ghost,” from a Babylonian tablet dated 1,500 BCE. Ancient ghosts from non-western cultures, like the Asian Hantu and the Caribbean/West African Duppy, are presented. Descriptions of celebrations like the Chinese Zhangyuan Festival and the Mexican Dia de los Muertos are noted. Of course, the Celtic festival of Samhain, which evolved into the modern Halloween, is not left out.
The section on the 19th century shows the growth of otherworldly movements such as spiritualism and theosophy. This time also gave rise to new forms of spirit communication through mediums and talking boards, the most famous example of which is the Ouija, and the formation of groups like the Ghost Club and the Society for Psychical Research, which actually continues today.
The 20th century section of Illustrated History of Ghosts covers the busting of séance scams by the most famous magician of all, Harry Houdini, and the advent of ghost-hunting is given a bit of attention as well. The description of the enduring practice is described in what could easily be the outline for the script on any modern ghost-hunting show. There are descriptions of the evolution of haunted houses, with references from Borley Rectory (the supposed most haunted house in England) to modern simulated hauntings, in which admittance is paid to have actors in costume provide jump scares.
The remaining sections indicate how modern media helped with the spread of old and new stories of ghosts and hauntings. Two great examples are the Satanic Panic of the 1970s an ’80s, and the Amityville haunting. A list of ghosts in media is shown that includes Macbeth, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Sadako from The Ring. A possessed objects list includes a phone booth, a “Berzerk” video game, and Florida’s own Robert the Doll. A page is dedicated to the modern idea that ghosts are actually visitors from other dimensions. Of course, this has some overlap with those who hold the believe that we’re being visited by extraterrestrials.
The information presented in An Illustrated History of Ghosts is concise and well-rounded. The book provides a taste of the subject matter that should inspire an appetite for more. It’s also just a fun read. Illustrated History of Ghosts ends with a glossary and a list of books and movies for further reading and viewing. The list is quite thin, but if curiosity is piqued by this volume, there’s no shortage of materials to be found.
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