My Halloween Post at the Register: Moar Ghosts!

cbI never get tired of talking about ancient belief in ghosts and apparitions. We’ve reduced ghosts to the trivial or the easily dismissable, from Casper to cranks to dopes on the Discovery channel bumping into each other in grainy green night vision footage.

Ghosts stories, however, are not merely told in all cultures: they’re quite prominent. There’s a very simple reason for that: the ghost story points to the afterlife, and we want to know what lies beyond that dark veil that separates the living from the dead.

I’ve written about Augustine and Evodius before, but recent reading has deepened my appreciated for their exchange and changed my perspective a bit.

Here’s the beginning:

If I asked you to describe what happens to the soul after death, how would you do it? How would you explain it to someone who asked?

We know what we believe. At the point of death, the soul is subject to the particular judgment, and either is ushered into the divine presence or damned for all eternity. Those who die in their sins, but not in mortal sin, undergo a purgation: a cleansing to make the soul worthy to enter the courts of the Lord. Since Augustine, we’ve understood this as a process with a temporal element, despite our understanding of a God who transcends time. It allows us to grasp the ungraspable and imagine the soul after death as embarking upon a journey, helped along by our prayers, alms, and devotions.

But what is it like, practically? Anything we use–vision, light, pleasure, notions of place, etc–rely on material to make them function, which why we understand them metaphorically. That wasn’t the case among many early Christians. In giving alms, many believed they wereliterally transferring treasure to heaven. In book four of his endlessly fascinating Dialogues, St. Gregory the Great describes a vision of the afterlife in which a mansion made of gold bricks awaits a rich man who gave away his money.

The problem of the fate of the soul exercised the mind of Augustine, but he was content to draw a veil over much of it and acknowledge that we simply cannot know all the details of how a soul leaves the body at the point of death and enters into eternity. But the fate of the soul was of immense and pressing interest to his flock and his correspondents. He was besieged with questions about it from people who wanted to know if their actions, customs, and rituals were effective in protecting the soul after death and seeing it safely to heaven.

Read the rest.

The Strange Phenomena of Phantom Eye Syndrome and Sleep Paralysis

eyeA survey of 239 patients who had eyes surgically removed has turned up an interesting phenomenon. Some 60% of them report phantom images from their missing eyes.

We’re familiar with phantom limbs: tingling and other sensations from limbs that are no longer there. Phantom Eye Syndrome (PES) is not new, but a recent study of patients who lost one eye to uveal melanoma is the most thorough to date, and the results provide an interesting window into the way we process visual perception.

Some patients just had things you might expect, like “eye” pain and tingling. Others actually saw things with eyes they no longer had:

Patients with visual symptoms most often saw simple shapes and colors. But some people reported more distinct images, “for example, resembling wallpaper, a kaleidoscope, or fireworks, or even specific scenes and people,” the authors write.

Then there were the ghosts.

Some people said they had seen strangers haunting their fields of vision, as in these survey responses:

phantom-eye-phantoms1I think it’s a fascinating footnote to my consideration of the psychological, scientific, and religious roots of reports of ghostly phenomenon. People nod sagely when phantom limb syndrome is mentioned, but the truth is that we really don’t know exactly how it works, and we have even less of a clue about phantom eye syndrome.

Obviously, the neural pathways that carry information continue to carry something even when one end of the path is lost. Visual receptors remain even when the eye is gone.

Where are the eyes getting the data to send to the brain as an image? No clue.

On a somewhat related topic is the subject of sleep paralysis, which often is accompanied by visions of a dark figure. When a healthy person is in deep REM, the body is paralyzed except for eye movement and autonomous systems such as respiration. This is what usually keeps people from acting out what they dream.

One theory of sleep paralysis is that a person cycles out of deep REM in the “wrong” order, leaving the individual in a partly waking state while still paralyzed.

That’s all well and good, but what about the dark man reported by many, many people who suffer from this? (Some estimates suggests about 6% of the population experiences it at some point.) The reports are remarkably consistent. Many of them clearly identify a Grim Reaper-like figure by their beds. Indeed, when I shared this post to Facebook, a sober, sane, intelligent friend said it happened to her.

The Fortean researcher and debunker Mark Chorvinsky (he proved, to my satisfaction at least, that make-up legend John Cambers was behind the Patterson bigfoot footage) collected countless eyewitness reports of “reaper sightings,” and was surprised by how consistent and inexplicable they were.

He died before he could publish.

I’m Haunting the National Catholic Register

I wrote a new article drawing on some of the research I published here:

Do you believe in ghosts?

You may be surprised to find out which Church Fathers and doctors did and which didn’t.

What’s clear is that, whether or not many Americans believe in ghosts, many clearly want to. Television and film are crowded with stories about ghosts and the supernatural. “Ghost hunter” reality-TV shows proliferate, producing no evidence to prove the reality of ghosts beyond a lot of grainy, green night-vision footage of people acting scared of the dark. Almost everyone has heard someone tell of an encounter that he or she cannot explain.

People want to believe in ghosts for a simple reason: It provides proof of the immortality of the human soul and the possibility of life after death.

The Christian doesn’t require this kind of anecdotal proof, but from the very earliest days of the faith, the Church has wrestled with the idea that the souls of the dead can make themselves known to the living.

Check thou it out.

A Compilation of My Dark and Ghostly Posts

My first writing was in the horror genre, contributing to publications like The Horror Show and Cemetery Dance, and writing entries for the encyclopedia Supernatural Fiction Writers. I even worked for George A. Romero’s Laurel Entertainment film and TV production company for a little while. I think there’s value in exploring dark themes, fear, and even revulsion in art. The medievals certainly thought so, or they wouldn’t have produced so much of it.

I had fun with this month’s two series: Dark Country and Ghosts in the Church.

I’m not going to link all the individual Dark Country posts individually, but you can find all all them here, from “Eli Renfro” to “The Man Comes Around.”

I’d been thinking about ghosts for a while now, and wondering where they fit in the theology and life of the church. I didn’t get as much written as I’d hoped because we had a family medical crisis while I was working on it, but 10,000 words is plenty for now. A shorter article will be published by the National Catholic Register.

Here are all the posts in the Ghosts in the Church series:

Ghosts in the Bible

Ghostly Visions in the Early Church

Tertullian’s Deceiving Devils

Three posts on St. Augustine’s detailed consideration of ghosts:

St. Martin and the Thief’s Ghost

St. Gregory the Great’s Bath-house Ghost

St. Thomas Aquinas Believed in Ghosts (True fact)

Do You Believe in Ghosts? (In which I answer the question: “Sorta, sometimes”)

I’ve also written quite a bit about Satan and ancient burial customs. And Boris Karloff. And MR James.

Have a happy Halloween.

Frankenstein color (220 x 265)

Do You Believe in Ghosts?

It’s time to tackle the question I’ve avoided in this series.

Do I believe in ghosts?Brown_lady

I am a Fortean as well as a Christian. I allow for the possibility of the strange, improbable, and anomalous in the world. I also enthusiastically embrace a supernatural worldview which includes daily miracles, the power of prayer, the eternal soul, the resurrection of the dead, and angels and demons fighting an epic battle for the salvation of each one of us.

I believe the world is much more interesting and unexplainable than science allows. I believe many in the “skeptical” community are simply narrow-minded zealots with a militant kind of scientistic religion. I think CSICOP is little more than a collection of dogmatic twits and James Randi is a nasty old fool. Self-described skeptics have a tendency to wave away any and all eyewitness testimony, assuming all witnesses are liars or deluded if their testimony does not reinforce the materialistic mechanism of the skeptical religion.

The folks at Fortean Times—for which I’ve written in the past—are my kind of people: curious and open-minded, but not credulous. They’re interested in the strange corners of the world that don’t fit the dominant narrative. In contrast to the arrogance of skeptics, they’re refreshingly humble in the face of this mysterious and magnificent world.

This does not, however, mean I’m a credulous person who grasps at strange happenings and accepts them uncritically. I do not believe in alien abduction, the Loch Ness monster, or that UFO guy on the history channel.


I’m agnostic on lake monsters and giant hominids like bigfoot, but tend more to doubt than belief. We haven’t even come close to cataloging all the creatures of world, but I think after all this time, there would be better evidence that dinosaurs are in a Scottish lake or giant primates are traipsing around the Pacific Northwest. As someone inclined to view things anthropologically, I’m more interested in the belief in bigfoot than in his reality.

I think there may be a sixth sense that is beyond traditional perception, and that there’s probably nothing “supernatural” about it. It’s may just be a higher form of perception that we don’t yet understand, the way certain animals predict earthquakes. I do not, however, believe people can predict the future, unless gifted by God with a vision or charism of prophecy.

I believe it’s possible to traffic with evil spirits to the great destruction of the individual. It is not possible to a be a Christian and deny demons or demonic possession.

But as for ghosts?

Well, I don’t disbelieve in ghosts.

Or, to quote MR James, “I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.”

There is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest people have experienced sightings of the dead. I wholly accept that. My problem is with how we define “ghosts” and the nature of the vision. With Augustine, I suspect that most ghostly encounters are produced in the mediating imagination between the corporeal and the intellectual vision.

I allow that this vision can be influenced by outside supernatural agencies, but the fundamental question of Augustine—if the soul is immaterial, how are we seeing it?—remains a challenge. I think this point can be overcome by suggesting some external influence on the imagination of the witness, but it remains a question the medievals didn’t really put to rest, even while they were largely accepting of ghostly sightings.

I certainly believe God can allow for anything, including for the miraculous ability of the dead to appear to the living, through His, angelic, or demonic agency.

More problematic is the nature of the ordinary restless dead. The medievals accepted them because they could be fit into a larger theology of purgatory, and I’m willing to accept that as well. I certainly don’t think everyone who claims to have experienced a ghost is lying or deluded, though some certainly are. I think psychology rather than the supernatural is the best explanation in most cases, but others are genuinely supernatural.

So, my position is somewhere between Augustine and Thomas: I allow for the possibility, but have problems with some of the details.

Like Augustine, however, I can’t just leave it at that, especially not after a month of pelting you with ghost stories. And so I’ll share two of my own experiences with you.

The first comes from when I was very young, and is actually one of my earliest—and certainly most vivid—memories. I can still summon it as clearly as if it happened yesterday.

My grandfather, William Carhart

My grandfather, William Carhart

My grandfather died in my home when I was about two. I do not remember him, and only know him from pictures.

From a young age, I slept in a room shared with my brother. My bed was in front of a door which was kept open a bit, with a light left on in the hall. I was maybe four or five, and in bed, when I saw an old and wrinkled hand come through that sliver of door, grasp it, and slowly push it open. There in the doorway stood my grandfather. I came unglued, screamed, and ran through him to my parents’ bedroom. He vanished.

I suspect that I was more asleep than awake in this encounter, but dream or vision, it’s never left me. Make of it what you will.

The other story comes from when I was a teen, working in my home church, St. Agnes, in Clark, New Jersey.

I locked up every night around nine before going home. This was usually done in semi-dark, and was always a somewhat unsettling experience. An empty church at night in the dark has a peculiar power to it, which is why, again, I’m not sure I trust my own senses.

I was locking the side doors when an elderly lady came in to pray, walking with a four-footed cane in her right hand. She had on a hat and tweed coat. I can see her now as clearly as I can see the dog sleeping next to me as I write this.

I didn’t want to bother her, so I finished locking the side doors and waited for her at the front, leaving only one door unlocked for her to get out.

Time passed, and I decided I would have to move her along so I could get home. I went back to the sanctuary, and the church was empty.

There was no other way out except past me.

I searched for that old lady for a while, even looking under pews in case she fainted. She was just gone.

Thus, I can’t really discount the possibility of ghosts. I think I may have seen a couple myself.

So, yes, I think I may believe in ghosts, sometimes.

Do you?

The complete series can be found here.

St. Thomas Aquinas Believed in Ghosts

St. Thomas Aquinas at Prayer

St. Thomas Aquinas at Prayer

We’re coming up fast on Halloween, so I want to jump ahead a bit to see what St. Thomas Aquinas has to say about ghosts. The section is found in the Summa Theologica, Supplementum Tertiæ Partis: Question 69. Matters concerning the resurrection, and first of the place where souls are after death, Article 3. Whether the souls who are in heaven or hell are able to go from there?

St. Thomas knows his answer will be pushing a bit against The Master, Augustine, and so he addresses Augustine’s argument about Monica (quoted toward the end of this post) in his first Objection/Reply:

Augustine, as may be gathered from what he says afterwards, is speaking according to the common course of nature. And yet it does not follow, although the dead be able to appear to the living as they will, that they appear as often as when living in the flesh: because when they are separated from the flesh, they are either wholly conformed to the divine will, so that they may do nothing but what they see to be agreeable with the Divine disposition, or else they are so overwhelmed by their punishments that their grief for their unhappiness surpasses their desire to appear to others.

With due respect to St. Thomas, this does not address the Augustinian argument in its fullness. (This section of the Summa was compiled from other writings, after his death, by Fra Rainaldo da Piperno, and therefore its weaknesses should not be attributed to Thomas.) Augustine isn’t talking about frequency of apparitions, but about the mere possibility of them. Augustine freely admits that God may allow his angels or saints to appear in the world for His Own purposes, but his argument is more subtle and complex, and he seems to allow this possibility somewhat begrudgingly and anecdotally.

Thomas, on the other hand, is reflecting a more developed medieval sense of ghosts who may indeed have an active role in the world, as permitted by God for the His glory or the betterment of man.

There are some weaknesses in Thomas’s argument. He makes his case that only the saints and damned may be seen upon the earth without appearing much concern by the main question that vexed Augustine: how are they seen, with what vision, and what kind of bodies are seen if the soul is immaterial?

Thomas accepts, with Augustine, that some ghosts aren’t seen with corporeal vision, but declines to develop the idea:

Thus sometimes even the living appear to others and tell them many things in their sleep; and yet it is clear that they are not present, as Augustine proves from many instances.

Thomas also makes recourse to St. Gregory the Great’s Dialogues in his argument, but fails note that the most famous ghost story in that book is of neither saint nor damned, but merely a restless spirit looking for release.

Curiously, he relies upon St. Jerome rather than Augustine for his sed contra, quoting Jerome against Vigilantius:

For thou sayest that the souls of the apostles and martyrs have taken up their abode either in Abraham’s bosom or in the place of refreshment, or under the altar of God, and that they are unable to visit their graves when they will. Wouldst thou then lay down the law for God? Wouldst thou put the apostles in chains, imprison them until the day of judgment, and forbid them to be with their lord, them of whom it is written: They follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth? And if the Lamb is everywhere, therefore we must believe that those also who are with Him are everywhere.

Since the devil and the demons wander throughout the whole world, and are everywhere present with wondrous speed, why should the martyrs, after shedding their blood be imprisoned and unable to go forth?

Thomas adds firmly: “Therefore it is absurd to say that the souls of the departed do not leave their abode.”

Again, this is further than Augustine is willing to go, but reflects the more developed medieval attitudes, which allowed a place for ghosts. This paralleled the more advanced considerations of purgatory in the middle ages, and allowed for souls in purgatory to visit the living through a semi-permeable membrane between living and dead.

It’s not that purgatory was “invented” in the middle ages. (Even Jacques le Goff admits the belief is found in the Early Church.) It’s that beginning in the 12th century, we have a more elaborate theology and visionary experience of purgatory which leads it to a more central place in the life of the church. With this, we see an expansion of the ghostly literature as it becomes a kind of adjunct to the literature of purgatory.

If we are to believe the Vita of Thomas by his fellow Dominican Bernard Gui (and there’s no reason not to), Thomas himself had ghostly encounters. One was with his sister, requesting prayers for her soul in purgatory, and then again when she had been freed from purgatory. The other was with Brother Romanus, who visited Thomas to announce his own death, sojourn in purgatory, and subsequent passage to eternal life.

There’s some discomfort in this, because while many ecclesial writers eject great clouds of qualifications about ghosts only being able to do the will of God, the literature reflects a more messy reality of saints, demons, and ordinary folk. The restless spirit in purgatory was already becoming a staple around the time of Thomas, and these tales, though often given a Christianizing veneer, often had deeper roots in ghostly, often pagan, folklore.

By the time of Thomas, much of Augustine’s nuance and qualification was, for all practical purposes, discarded. The unquiet dead were a social reality and weren’t going to be banished by pure theology, so they were gradually folded into the life of the church, albeit on the margins and never “officially.”

In all my reading on the subject (and although I don’t pretend it’s anything close to comprehensive, it’s pretty extensive) I have not yet come across an official magisterial statement on ghosts. The Church, of course, allows great latitude for the actions of saints doing the will of God, but as for the power of the ordinary unquiet dead—neither blessed nor damned—to visit the living, she appears to remain silent. If someone is aware of something I’ve missed on that front, I’d love to hear about it.

More ghost posts can be found here.

To conclude, here is the full article by Thomas:

There are two ways of understanding a person to leave hell or heaven.

First, that he goes from thence simply, so that heaven or hell be no longer his place: and in this way no one who is finally consigned to hell or heaven can go from thence, as we shall state further on (71, 5, ad 5).

Secondly, they may be understood to go forth for a time: and here we must distinguish what befits them according to the order of nature, and what according to the order of Divine providence; for as Augustine says (De Cura pro Mort. xvi): “Human affairs have their limits other than have the wonders of the Divine power, nature’s works differ from those which are done miraculously.”

Consequently, according to the natural course, the separated souls consigned to their respective abodes are utterly cut off from communication with the living. For according to the course of nature men living in mortal bodies are not immediately united to separate substances, since their entire knowledge arises from the senses: nor would it be fitting for them to leave their abode for any purpose other than to take part in the affairs of the living.

Nevertheless, according to the disposition of Divine providence separated souls sometimes come forth from their abode and appear to men, as Augustine, in the book quoted above, relates of the martyr Felix who appeared visibly to the people of Nola when they were besieged by the barbarians.

It is also credible that this may occur sometimes to the damned, and that for man’s instruction and intimidation they be permitted to appear to the living; or again in order to seek our suffrages, as to those who are detained in purgatory, as evidenced by many instances related in the fourth book of the Dialogues.

There is, however, this difference between the saints and the damned, that the saints can appear when they will to the living, but not the damned; for even as the saints while living in the flesh are able by the gifts of gratuitous grace to heal and work wonders, which can only be done miraculously by the Divine power, and cannot be done by those who lack this gift, so it is not unfitting for the souls of the saints to be endowed with a power in virtue of their glory, so that they are able to appear wondrously to the living, when they will: while others are unable to do so unless they be sometimes permitted.


Great Documentary About M.R. James From “Sherlock” Star/Creator

Writer/actor Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who, Sherlock, League of Gentlemen) writes and hosts this fine documentary on the greatest ghost story writer of them all: medievalist and Biblical scholar Montague Rhodes James. Special treats include locations from James stories (such as St Bertrand de Comminges, stuffed crocodile and all), a passing shot of a tombstone for “Mrs Mothersole” from his childhood home, some fantastic medieval illumination, and more. I have to give credit to Gatiss (who is himself gay) for exploring James’ sexuality while declining to impose modern ideas of homosexuality. (James is best described as wholly asexual.)

If I could be any character in literature, it would be a medieval scholar in an MR James story, without the madness and death part, of course. Regular readers of this blog will notice I share most of my own obsessions with the great old master, right up to the PG Wodehouse.

Any man who quotes Wodehouse on his deathbed is all kinds of all right.

As a special treat, he is Gatiss’s new adaptation of The Tractate Middoth, followed by classic adaptations of Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad.

St. Gregory the Great’s Bath-house Ghost

Okay, one more story from a Church Father before the weekend. This is one of the more famous tales, and it comes from Pope St. Gregory the Great’s marvelously entertaining grab bag of useful stuff, the Dialogues.

This is an example of the way the Church used ghost stories to prove the benefit of the mass and the reality of purgatory. Enjoy, and have a pleasant weekend free of spectres and spooks.

Bishop Felix…said that he had been told of such a case by a saintly priest who was still living two years ago in the diocese of Centum Cellae as pastor of the Church of St. John in Tauriana. This priest used to bathe in the hot springs of Tauriana whenever his health required. One day, as he entered the baths, he found a stranger there who showed himself most helpful in every way possible, by unlatching his shoes, taking care of his clothes, and furnishing him towels after the hot bath.

The Mass of St Gregory, by Robert Campin, 15th century

The Mass of St Gregory, by Robert Campin, 15th century

After several experiences of this kind, to priest said the himself: ‘It would not do for me to appear ungrateful to this man who is so devoted in his kind services to me. I must reward him in some way.’ So one day he took along two crown-shaped loaves of bread to give him.

When he arrived at the place, the man was already waiting for him and rendered the same services he had before. After the bath, when the priest was again fully dressed and ready to leave, he offered the man the present of bread, asking him kindly to accept it as a blessing, for it was offered a token of charity.

But the man sighed mournfully and said, ‘Why do you give it to me, Father? That bread is holy and I cannot eat it. I who stand before you was once the owner of this place. It is because of my sins that I was sent back here as a servant. If you wish to do something for me, then offer this bread to almighty God, and so make intercession for me, a sinner. When you come back and do not find me here, you will know that your prayers have been heard.’

With these words he disappeared, thus showing that he was a spirit disguised as a man. The priest spent the entire week in prayer and tearful supplications, offering Mass for him daily. When he returned to the bath, the man was no longer to be found. This incident points out the great benefits souls derive from the Sacrifice of the Mass. Because of these benefits the dead ask us, the living, to have Masses offered for them, and even show us by signs that it was through the Mass that they were pardoned.

St. Martin and the Thief’s Ghost

The main role of ghosts in the literature of the early church was to display the power of the saints. While Augustine was still alive, Sulpitius Severus wrote The Life of St. Martin, in which we find the following tale of Martin confronting and vanquishing the evil ghost of a thief who was being worshiped by mistake:

Not far from the town and very close to the monastery was a place [a village called Calitonnum] which enjoyed a certain sanctity because of the mistaken opinion that martyrs were buried there. Even an altar was maintained, erected there by former bishops.

Reliquary for the head of St. Martin

Reliquary for the head of St. Martin

But Martin was disinclined to believe what was uncertain. He kept asking those who were older, priests and clerics alike, to reveal the name of the martyr and the date of his martyrdom. He felt, he said, considerable scruple in the matter, since nothing certain had been handed down by any reliable report from his predecessors. He himself abstained from visiting the place for a while: he neither disparaged the cult, since his own position was uncertain, nor granted the populace the support of his authority, lest he fortify a superstition.

One day, taking a few of the brothers with him, he went to the place. He stood upon the tomb itself and prayed to the Lord to reveal who was buried there and what his merits were.

He then turned to the left and saw standing near him a grim, unclean spirit. He ordered him to speak out his name and his deserts. The spirit announced his name and confessed his criminal life: formerly a brigand, he had been executed for his crimes and was receiving veneration through the mistaken opinion of the populace; he had nothing in common with the martyrs—heavenly glory was their portion; punishment, his.

Strange wonder: those who were with Martin heard the voice, yet saw no one.

Martin then recounted what he had seen and ordered the altar which had been in that place to be removed. Thus he freed the people from the error of that superstition.

Augustine’s view of ghostly visions—both waking and oneiric—dominated discourse from the 4th century until about the 10th. The unseen world was divided between God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, angels and saints on the one side and Satan and demons on the other. Between the unseen and material worlds, there was little place for intermediary spirits or ghosts except for those doing work for God or the Devil.

Gradually, however, this bright line between this world and the next began to fade. Hagiography continued to depict saints vanquishing demons and evil spirits, and the niceties that vexed St. Augustine’s subtle mind were gradually cast aside. His concerns about the barrier between the living the dead, the nature of a being that could be perceived after death, the type of vision the witness used to see them: none of these could withstand the vigorous European culture that would see a flowering of creative forces in the Carolingian Renaissance.