The Demise of Ghosts Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

The Puritans killed off the ghosts.

Marcus the Carcass
Marcus the Carcass, the kajmeister Halloween mascot.

Or, to say it more properly, Martin Luther and the Reformation Christians were the ones who turned the dead into the bloodcurdling beings that inhabit today’s stories. Halloween stories being an appropriate topic for today’s blog, I was reading about the history of horror, and I wondered how medieval societies felt about ghosts. When I read about the Dance of the Dead and the role of Martin Luther, it all sort of clicked into place.

In the medieval period, the dead were considered simply another age group. The blessed dead who were consecrated as saints became part of daily ritual life and were expected to intervene to support the community. Families offered commemorative prayers to their ancestors, whose names were written in “Books of Hours,” prayer books that guided daily devotion at home. —[Emphasis mine] from “How the Dead Danced with the Living in Medieval Society,”

Just Another Age Group

Prior to the Reformation, medieval societies had a more platonic relationship with the dead. Maybe not platonic–how about balanced? The dead represented ancestors who could be either blessed or just normal ol’ ghosts. Some spirits intended harm, like demons or tricksters, but not all of the walking dead were malicious. Hence, many medieval paintings, particularly murals, showed the dead dancing among the living. The dance was part of the transition of life as one aged and eventually crossed the line into that other state of being.

Danse Macabre mural
Danse Macabre in Talinn by Bernt Notke, sourced by

Celebrating Ghosts; Remembering our Loved Ones

For me, this helped explain why many non-European cultures have a more placid or integrated relationship with their ancestral ghosts.  The Chinese, for example, considered ghosts to be potentially helpful ancestors, nasty when provoked or angry, but possibly willing to give advice or aid if properly rewarded. In some African or Asian cultures, a ghost may be restless but benign unless provoked. Ghosts could also become spirit guides, helping the seeker on through an important spiritual journey.

Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, has also grown in popularity as globalization, and movies like Coco and The Book of Life have brought its core ideas into the mainstream. The three-day Dia de los Muertos festival transforms Halloween and  the All Saints’/All Souls’ Day celebrations into a remembrance of loved ones, like a Thanksgiving including dead family members.

Warriors Dia de los Muertos
Dia de Los Muertos with my beloved Golden State Warriors. Photo by kajmeister.

So why did the Europeans get so angsty about these spirits? Why did the thought of beloved Grandma Anna, peacefully whispering her pierogi secrets into my ears when I’m cooking, turn into the Headless Horseman?

No Indulgence for You!

Indulgences in 16th century Europe were the problem, specifically the selling of indulgences. Luther didn’t mind that people wanted to repent their sins or that, as death approached, they sought to remove the weight of their lifetime of misdeeds. People who performed good works or focused on prayer could ease their burden. But, by the time of the Middle Ages, the church was selling the pardons as Get Out of Hell Free cards. For instance, Pope Leo X in 1515 granted a plenary indulgence–excusing pretty much any type of sin–in order to reap cash to help finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Legend has it that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses up on the door of the churches in Wittenberg on October 31 because he knew that people would be in church the next few days venerating the saints and their ancestors on November 1st and 2nd.

The Protestant religions further extended the rejection of some of the Catholic traditions by eliminating the notion of Purgatory. That middle place betwixt heaven and hell was where you hung out as a spirit if you were not sufficiently bad to immediately be routed Down Below, but not good enough to pass the pearly gates. The Catholics would have you wander in Purgatory being cleansed or purified until you could earn your way up to heaven; the Protestants said nope, thumbs up or thumbs down when you die. Therefore, to the Lutherans and others, spirits could not be the dearly departed working on their Purgatory List. Ghosts, by definition, would have to be demons.

More Things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio…

Another essay, about Hamlet’s vision of his father’s ghost, describes it as the perfect melding of the Catholic and Protestant attitudes about ghosts. As Professor David Kastan of Yale points out, Hamlet was educated at the University of Wittenberg. Maybe he listened to Martin Luther, but maybe he didn’t pay enough attention. So was the ghost that appeared a demon or his father’s spirit?

What the Prince Hamlet does when he sees the ghost, he responds like a perfectly, well-trained, Wittenberg, Lutheran student. He says, you know, “Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned”; you know, are you an angel or are you a devil? “Bring with thee intents from heaven or blasts from hell”? And then he does this incredible thing. He says, “Thou com’st in such a questionable shape that I’ll call thee ‘Hamlet,’ ‘King,’ ‘Father,’ ‘Royal Dane.’” You know, somehow, “I know what I was taught, but here’s this thing that doesn’t make any sense, but, boy, it looks like daddy, and this is really unnerving.”–from

By the time the Puritans came over to the New World, they were quite adamant about ghosts. The Walking Dead were bad juju. Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow brought the whole notion to life as a hideous pumpkin-headed ghosts pursued poor, scholarly Ichabod Crane through the cemetery. The Disney version of this very American ghost story, where the horseman throws the pumpkin head at Ichabod (video below), still scares the bejeebus out of me.

Disney's Headless Horseman
Disney’s depiction of the Headless Horseman from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad

Just Call Me Scaredy-Pants

Other American writers of horror, suspense, and ghost stories followed, from Edgar Allen Poe to Henry James to Stephen King. Once the moviemakers latched onto the ideas, American directors were off to the races–inventing zombies, perfecting werewolves, and re-animating gothic classics like Frankenstein and Dracula. Nowadays, demonic characters like Jason or Freddy Krueger are practically household names.

I have to admit, I’m a terrible fraidy-cat when it comes to all the scary movies. I haven’t seen most of the genre, probably because I’m still thinking about that pumpkin head. And this, the most frightening image when I was a child: Dr. Seuss’ pants with no body.

Dr. Seuss' scary pants
Dr. Seuss’ What Was I Scared Of? Photo from The Hammering Heart.

In What Was I Scared Of? our narrator is initally creeped out by the weirdo pants that he keeps seeing. Eventually, the book ends with our narrator befriending the pants, but I never remember that part. Once I saw the drawing of those pants riding a bicycle, that was the end of ghost stories for me.  That was when I became a scaredy-pants.

Now I can blame Martin Luther.





2 Replies to “The Demise of Ghosts Has Been Greatly Exaggerated”

  1. “I have to admit, I’m a terrible fraidy-cat when it comes to all the scary movies. I haven’t seen most of the genre…” I’m with you. Can’t see the purpose myself. Life is scary enough.

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