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What can we learn from ghosts?

By on October 31, 2016


It’s nearing the end of the 1850s, and construction workers are bustling to finish building University College. Among them are stonemasons Paul Diabolos and Ivan Reznikoff. Diabolos is waif-like and ambivalent, while Reznikoff is hulking and surly. Diabolos finds Reznikoff’s face so monstrous that he carves a gargoyle in his image next to a chimney near Croft Chapter House.

Diabolos carries on an affair with a woman named Susie, who is betrothed to Reznikoff. Reznikoff learns of this and confronts Diabolos on a deserted worksite on campus. Brimming with anger, Reznikoff grabs an axe and chases Diabolos through the skeletal University College, avoiding stray construction material and crumbling stones. On the third floor of University College, Diabolos hides. Once he hears Reznikoff lumber up the stairs, he jumps from his hiding spot and stabs Reznikoff with a dagger, killing him.

Diabolos throws Reznikoff’s corpse down the stairwell, where it is concealed for over three decades. The body isn’t discovered until 1890 when a fire destroys part of University College. Reznikoff’s body is eventually buried in the University College quadrangle, but his spirit still wanders the halls of University College.

At least, that’s how the story goes.

The story of Reznikoff and Diabolos has been told for decades and is passed on today through campus ghost tours or upper years looking to scare incoming students. The tradition of telling ghost stories, of course, extends beyond U of T. Ghosts have demanded our attention since the beginnings of human civilization.

Ghost stories were a prominent part of ancient societies as far back as Mesopotamia, and they still play a part in many modern cultures. Ghosts are a ubiquitous source of intrigue for believers and casual skeptics across the world across history. Whether we believe in them or not, we’ve kept ghosts alive through speculation and merely listening to them

Why we care 

A great number of us care about ghosts, whether we admit it or not. A recent poll, conducted by the Angus Reid Institute in August of this year, revealed that approximately 30 per cent of Canadians believe in ghosts.

Personal beliefs aside, popular ghost-hunting television shows like Ghost Adventures, and the large demand for ghost tours around Toronto show that people have a fascination with ghosts. The University of Toronto History Society started their own Halloween Campus Ghost Tour and it garnered so much interest that they had to ticket the event.

John Robert Columbo, author of  Ghost Stories of Canada, calls Toronto the “scariest city in Canada” in a 2008 interview with the Toronto Star. According to Colombo, Toronto has the largest number of reported ghost stories in Canada.

Matthew James Didier is the founder of the Toronto Ghosts & Hauntings Research Society (TGHRS), a research group dedicated to investigating local ghosts from an “agonistic” angle. TGHRS focuses on historical accounts, folklore, eyewitness accounts, and scientific investigations of local “ghostly” events.

Didier notes that all sorts of different people have reached out to TGHRS, including people he wouldn’t expect. Some of his clients are reluctant to admit any belief in the paranormal for fear of what it personally and professionally reveals about them. These people wrestle for logical explanations, or ask for Didier’s rationalization of what could have caused their experiences.

But why do they care? Why not just write off these experiences as coincidences, or a trick of the light?

“One could discuss the reminder of our existential being, concerns about whether or not spiritual beliefs (or non-beliefs) need to be re-examined, or concerns because some beliefs state that anything seemingly beyond comprehension is somehow evil or bad, so the concern is almost about safety,” says Didier.

Richard Fiennes-Clinton is the creator of Muddy York Walking Tours, which run ghost tours at UTSG. As he makes his way through U of T’s most haunted sites, Fiennes-Clinton sometimes wonders if the ghosts he talks about really exist, if they’re listening to their stories being passed on. However, he adds that he enjoys not knowing for sure if ghosts exist.

“It’s almost as if something would be lost if the category of ghosts were another subject that we could clinically prove or disprove, one way or another. I think that a great part of the thrill is definitely in the not knowing, and I will always look forward to holding on to the mystery,” says Fiennes-Clinton.

Fiennes-Clinton says this curiosity about the unknown is probably what draws others to ghost stories as well. “I would say that everyone wonders about the mysteries and life and death to some extent, and the chance to learn of what might come next is probably alluring to many people,” he explains. “People are drawn to explore things that they don’t know the answer to.”

Anastasia Liu is the founder of the U of T History Society’s Campus Ghost Tour, where she is a tour guide, researcher, and organizer. Liu, similarly to Fiennes-Clinton, finds the opportunity for speculation is what draws people to ghost stories. She uses the story of Robertson Davies as an example.

Davies was the founding master of Massey College at U of T. He loved to tell ghost stories at the College’s yearly Christmas parties, and even joked that he would one day come back to haunt Massey College himself.

Ever since his death in 1995, students and faculty have reported strange sightings and noises from inside the halls of Massey College; tales of Davies haunting still linger today. Liu points out that Davies’ life might not be as widely discussed today, if stories about his haunting did not exist.

Davies coming back as a ghost leads to questioning: why is Davies still haunting Massey College? Is there an afterlife afterall? The ghost story invites us to wonder.

Justin Stein, a doctoral candidate at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, says that “the idea that consciousness or other forms of human energies can survive bodily death” cannot, in a sense, be disproved.

Like Fiennes-Clinton and Liu, Stein thinks the unknown — the inability to know for sure if you will live on after death — is something that most people are interested in naturally.

Humans are often afraid of the unfamiliar and the unexpected, especially when it comes to something as inevitable, yet unpredictable, as death. According to recent statistics from September 2016, necrophobia is the second most common phobia in the United States, with almost 70 per cent of the population reporting a fear of death. In the previously mentioned Angus Reid Institute poll, approximately 77 per cent of Canadians believe that “certain things that happen on Earth cannot be explained by science.”

Ghosts create a narrative of what happens after death and offer an answer to questions about life after death that science can’t explain. It makes sense, then, that a large part of society cares about them.

Why has the ghost story persisted?

The image of a listless, ghostly woman with long, disheveled black hair draped in a white robe may be familiar. She will usually have her arms outstretched, hands limp, sometimes with eerie flames lapping around her. In Japanese folklore, she’s known as a yūrei, a spirit that haunts certain places or people until her unfinished business is resolved.

The first yūrei stories were told in the 1750s, and they’re still an important part of Japanese culture today. Versions of the yūrei also appear in horror movies like The Grudge and The Ring.

Other legends, like werewolves and vampires, sparked public hysteria in early societies but are now viewed as nothing more than fictional characters. In Europe during the mid-1600s, supposed werewolves were arrested, tried, and sometimes executed.

When tuberculosis broke out in New England in the early 1800s, people were afraid corpses would reanimate to suck the life out of the living, much like vampires. To protect themselves, people dug up graves and beheaded corpses if they seemed too life-like.

Unlike with ghosts, few people in modern Western society speculate about the existence of werewolves or vampires anymore. Stories about such creatures usually only appear around Halloween, whereas ghost stories seem almost omnipresent. But why have ghost stories persisted? Why do we keep coming back to them?

Marlene Goldman is an English professor at U of T and the author of DisPossession: Haunting in Canadian Fiction, a book exploring the overwhelming occurrence of ghosts and themes of haunting and possession in Canadian fiction.

In DisPossession, Goldman focuses on ghost stories resulting from the unresolved clash between Aboriginal peoples and settling invaders. Those ghost stories focus on immigrant or diasporic experiences, “the alienation of the female body,” and why ghost stories seem to be predominantly explored by women writers.

“I think some of the stories I was told are absolutely unforgettable. Ghost stories carry an emotional charge that other stories potentially can’t carry, like romance, or comedy, even tragedy,” says Goldman. “[Ghost stories are] potent vehicles for carrying individual, cultural, and sometimes national information. I look at them as, sort of, a machine to carry information.”

Goldman also says you can look at ghosts as “figures from the past” with something to say to future generations. According to her, ghosts stop us in our tracks: we have to freeze and listen to what they have to tell us.

“Ghosts can really [present] moral instruction when we least want to hear about it,” says Goldman. “[Ghost stories] might be horrifying because we don’t want to listen to what they have to say, or we feel guilty about ignoring certain things — that would probably pertain in the case of settler-invader ghost stories — but I think they’re omnipresent and will continue to play a role in the way we tell stories.”

Liu personally tells ghost stories for her love of history and her interest in immortalizing those who would otherwise be forgotten. But she thinks people first started telling ghost stories out of “hope and fear.”

“Telling ghost stories encourages the belief in ghosts — the hopeful belief that after someone died, they can still be with you. This sort of comfort can certainly help in the grieving process,” says Liu. “For the same reason, these stories can be told to elicit fear: be a good person, for if you wronged someone, they’ll be back for you, or if someone wronged you, you can come back for them.”

“I believe ghosts represent hope in its darkest, most desperate form which I think is beautiful and immensely interesting,” she says.

Room for speculation could also fuel our fascination with the ghost story.

“Once, I attended a panel of horror authors who unanimously agreed that they enjoy writing the genre because of its room for speculation,” Liu explains. “No one knows what ghosts are really like or if they even exist so the storyteller can really unleash their creativity with ghost fiction, especially because ghost stories are like mysteries.”

A reflection of society 

Ghost stories are sometimes a product of their time. In the nineteenth century, according to research mentioned in a BBC article written by Hephzibah Anderson, 70 per cent of British and American ghost stories published in magazines were penned by women. Oftentimes, they allowed women to express thoughts and break traditional gender roles in a restrictive society.

The ghosts themselves also reflected women’s role in society. Like women in the nineteenth century, ghosts were outcasts. They could observe everything, yet could not participate in many sectors of society.

“Assuming ghosts aren’t real, the psychological basis for hallucinating these familiar faces is… interesting to investigate,” says Liu. “[The psychological basis] could be guilt, it could be hope, it could even just be hallucinations. Therefore, I find the people who have seen ghosts of people they know just as interesting as their stories.”

An article by Kira Cochrane for The Guardian investigates the popularity of ghost stories in the Victorian era. It reports that various commercial, economic, technological, and scientific changes in society could have contributed to society’s fascination with ghosts. In the nineteenth century, people started to believe that ghosts were inside of you, which strongly relates to the later psychological theories of Sigmund Freud.

The introduction of the telegraph and the use of Morse code also instilled the idea that spirits could communicate from beyond the grave, just as people could now communicate from miles away. The common use of gas lamps, which produced carbon monoxide, could have caused hallucinations that people mistook for ghostly encounters.

As for our present day society, Fiennes-Clinton says that our persistent fascination with ghosts could be because ghosts are often mirrors of ourselves.

“In most ghost stories, the ghosts themselves are passionate, driven people,” says Fiennes-Clinton. “They are driven by unresolved passion, by revenge, or guilt, or unfinished business, or the need to resolve something that they never got the chance to work out in life. Ghosts may represent the dead but they cling to life and are desperate to interact with the world of the living.”

“Regardless of whether or not [ghosts are] real in the same sense that the physical world is real, they certainly exist on the level of social meaning,” says Stein. “I’m comfortable somewhat assigning agency to spirits regardless of whether we can verify their existence through scientific means.”

Rather than worry about whether ghosts are real or not, Goldman urges readers to think about what the “most powerful ghost stories of our time” are, and what they have to tell us about our present fears and desires.

“What’s going on in our culture that we’re really wrestling with certain kinds of horror stories, or ghost stories?” asks Goldman. “[I invite] readers to really begin to think about what these have to say about our culture in particular.”