Bedeviled, beleaguered, tortured, possessed, cursed, tormented, , plagued, ghoulish, macabre, blood curdling, eerie, jinxed, spooky, anguished, oppressed unearthly, otherworldly—all adjectives commonly associated with hauntings.
Recently, a curator at the British Museum revealed a 3,500-year-old tablet believed to contain the earliest known depiction of a ghost. The clay tablet is said to be part of a guide to exorcising ghosts. According to curator Irving Finkel, “When you examine it and hold it under a lamp, those figures leap out at you across time in the most startling way.” The text of the tablet gives detailed instructions on getting rid of pesky ghosts: the exorcist is to make figurines of a man and woman; prepare two vessels of beer; and at sunrise, speak ritual words calling on the Mesopotamian god Shamash, who was responsible for bring ghosts to the underworld. The final line of the text warns the reader to “not look behind you!”
In an article for World History Encyclopedia, Joshua J. Mark wrote that all ancient civilization held beliefs involving the survival of souls after bodily death. While these souls belonged to the realm of the dead, they might return to the living world due to improper funeral rites or unfinished business.
So the myth of evil hauntings was ripe at the beginning. In today’s world we have vampires, werewolves, and the walking dead to keep us awake at night and terrorize our dreams. Yet, in the writing of six books about haunted sites, I have never encountered a monovalent ghost or spirit. Nor, has anyone of the countless people I have interviewed expressed a genuine fear of their resident ghost. In the south, in particular, families embrace spirits of ancestors who linger on. Mary Louise Prudhomme, Director of Louisiana’s Folklife Program says, “Personally I find it [the possibility of returning spirits] comforting and it doesn’t scare me at all” Kathy Hall, former front desk manager at the “haunted” Cedar Grove Inn in Vicksburg proudly states, “Each of us who have been at Cedar Grove Inn for a while, John, Joe, myself, we all respect this house and we respect the ghosts.”
Donna White, a hostess at Merrehope in Meridian, Mississippi is related by marriage to the historic home’s teenage ghost, Eugenia Gary.
Donna admits an initial trepidation when first accepting a job at a site with multiple ghosts. “When I first worked here I would come in and announce: Okay, folks, this is a big house, and there is room enough for all of us. Get used to me. I am not going anywhere.” After years on the job, Donna has gotten on more familiar terms with her kindred spirit. “I arrive and say, ‘Good morning, Eugenia.’ At the end of the day it’s, ‘Goodbye, Eugenia. Take care of our home. See you next week.’”
Is a fear of ghosts and haunted sites ingrained in our culture, or can we now admit it is more a fear of the unknown? Only in rare cases do spirits have evil intent. If we open ourselves to the possibilities, acknowledge that those who came before us might leave some trace of their former selves behind, we can find comfort. We can learn their stories—their struggles and triumphs—and our lives will be richer for knowing them.