Libris Monstrum #30: Ghosts
We made it! Here we are at the half-way point of the second series of the Libris Monstrum. After today, the next 10 entries will be our revisit series where I go back to the most recent 10 topics and add more to them. Sometimes it will be more real-world lore, sometimes it will tackle D&D versions, and other times it will tackle various franchise versions of the topic. For now, though, we are tackling a pretty broad topic and I will do my best to condense some important info. Today we take on our 20th monster: ghosts.
Spirits of the Dead
There is SO much to cover when we talk about ghosts. Before we dive in I just want to discuss what on earth a ghost is and what I mean by ghosts. It will be good to have this perspective as a reference for how I try to utilize the word and topic moving forward. Ghosts are the spirits of the dead. Even this could have varied meanings, but when I think of a ghost , I imagine a spirit that is transparent, ethereal. It is the remains of someone who once was. Not the physical remains but something beyond that, something metaphysical. I hesitate to use the word soul, simply because it does not need to be applied to ghosts, especially in modern times. When I think of ghost, I think of any number of specter which represents the mentality and / or emotion of the person that entity may have been in life. Sometimes, this is a soul trapped in the material world or even just a part of one, an echo and link to the full soul of that entity (where ever it may be). While older myths involve spirits with certain powers and abilities, newer myths tend to classify ghosts as “what” they are and those definitions may vary. They might be echos of what was here and not even entities in their own right. They might be souls, trapped due to some evil or emotional experience. They could even be entities created through emotions like rage. To call a poltergeist a soul implies a level of certainty of these things, but who knows? My point is the ghost is a metaphysical thing that ranges from fingerprint to entity spawned from death and, as such, I will use the term ghost whenever I am meaning to encapsulate the entire concept moving forward.
Now that we have the general concept out there, if not perfect, let’s talk about some common beliefs about ghosts. First off, the idea of a ghost, spirit, or soul is one of the most widespread beliefs people have. Regardless of what we think of them and how we feel about their presence, almost all major beliefs share some form of their existence and they have a number of common traits. While their appearance may vary there is a certain ethereal quality to ghosts. Some appear and disappear, some are transparent, and some are mere whispers and scents. Regardless, ghosts transcend the physical world we know and are not a part of it in the same way we are. Often ghosts are linked to something. This is commonly a location or an object, which the ghost is said to haunt or even possess. Sometimes it might even be a person. Whatever it is, a ghost which is associated with something will only be found with that thing as if it were a part of the ghost. Not only that, but there is regular belief that things can draw out a ghost. While not attached to, say, a favorite hairbrush, just such an item might be used to aid in the communication with such a ghost. Today, for ghost hunters, this is known as a trigger object.
Among the common factors about ghosts of all types is the fact that they cannot actually be disproved. As much weird evidence and strange recordings we might have, we don’t (yet?) have a way to prove that ghosts exist. Now let’s ignore the philosophical dive into the idea that the same could be said about everything, but the fact is that there is no physical evidence and, more than that, there is nothing predictable, repeatable, and observable about ghosts. At least not to the degree of, say, gravity (which is also just math applied to us watching things fall). Of course, there is also no evidence against them either. One of the biggest things about science, that many forget or assume scientists forget, is that nothing is proven. It is only supported by greater amounts of evidence until something is found that negates it. Luckily for ghost hunters, there is no way to prove ghosts don’t exist either. Even discovering we lived in a matrix-style simulation and proving everything we know to be false would not be enough to prove that ghosts couldn’t exist!
Here is a commonality that must be discussed on its own. The thing about ghosts, in virtually any form, is that they are an undesirable thing. These are things that exist in a limbo of two states that are accepted and it is unnatural for them to remain between these states. The first state is the one we are most acquainted with because we are part of it for all we can be aware of: life. Here we are writing blogs and reading them, breathing, eating, dancing, etc. The other state is the afterlife and the concepts around that are varied enough to hold their own series of articles, whole blogs, and numerous documentaries. That being said, the afterlife (or at least an afterlife) is as common to belief systems as ghosts are. In a way they have to be, because there would be no ghosts without the possibility of an afterlife, because that is what a ghost is: someone who has not moved fully from life to afterlife after dying. Some form of them remains behind and the entity that was once a person is now stuck as a ghost.
Why is this undesirable? Well, for most cultures there is a reason to be in the afterlife. It might be a purpose, the will of the gods, or simply the balance of the world. Regardless, the soul is a thing that is meant to move somewhere when the body is finished. As a ghost, it cannot do that. As such ghosts are bad things and it is often the form of stories to aid a spirit in finishing its journey. In the most extreme cases, these must be forced to move on or destroyed. What I find interesting, however, is that despite this thought being the general feeling about ghosts and first one that my mind goes to when thinking of most ghosts there are the odd exceptions. The most prominent one I can think of is exemplified by the concept of asking our ancestors. Whether we look for a sign or hope to speak directly, are we not calling ghosts to us for answers? Don’t get me wrong, it is a technicality and these things involve rituals thriving of technicality, but things are so diverse and the words (ghost, soul, spirit, specter) so used it is remarkable we don’t get confused and have a broad, basic concept about these things.
I seem to be able to go on and on about ghosts. It is a topic I have been interested in for a very long time, and there is such depth to it. For now we will stick with this run down of ghosts, but next time I plan on delving into specifics. Poltergeists, white ladies, and more. I will try to be as comprehensive as I can, but there will be much to do. Don’t worry though, in addition to the revisit, this October’s Game Master’s Dictionary is a series on spirits!