In Search of Ghosts

3 out of 5 stars
In Search of Ghosts
Ian Wilson (London: Headline, 1995).

Book cover, showing a sinister female figure in white.Well-written, substantial, and packed full of cases, what first leapt out at me from this book was its bravery in stripping away certain kinds of experiences in order to define what a ‘true’ ghost is. Unusually, Wilson will have nothing to do with poltergeists and crisis apparitions; in his view, a true ghost haunts, and the nature of haunting is very much the focus of this study. After a single chapter on each, poltergeists (because they seem to originate from the living) and crisis apparitions (because they appear anywhere, and generally only once) are quietly laid aside.

Every writer has their personal quirks. Wilson’s seem to include issues of status and identity. He will not present a case without soon mentioning what the witness does for a living (preferably an architect, psychiatrist or bishop), what titles and qualifications he or she has collected, and how big their house is. For instance, Roy Jenkins becomes ‘the former Roy Jenkins, now Lord Jenkins of Hillhead’, and even plain old Mrs. Dobbs is not spared the soubriquet of ‘humble cleaning lady’ (p. 64).

Wilson is charged with the need to know who people are, ‘since… any ghost book in which the names and locations have been changed might as well be a work of fiction’ (p. ix). Consequently, most of the cases in the book are attributed to named witnesses and specific places and dates. To me, this seemed admirable at first, until a case linked to the suicide of a young man (p. 69).

Wilson not only provides the full name of the man, and a version of events leading to his suicide, but also attributes the phenomena experienced on the site to him, so that: ‘we confront a ghost who, though he may have expressed himself only by sounds, emerges as a person with whose plight we can identify’ (p. 93).

Evidently, Wilson regards this as a compassionate stance, but, given that alternative explanations for the phenomena surely are possible, is it reasonable to identify strange noises in a house as the post-mortem intentions of an actual person? I wonder how the victim’s family and friends would receive the idea that after his death he remained in some kind of ‘plight’?

Wilson opens the book with an intriguing ghostly experience of his own, during which his impulse to pray for the ghost seemed to enable it to depart (p. 4). As the book proceeds, the impression grows that Wilson’s personal experience has very much coloured his attitude toward ghosts in general.

Much as he likes to firmly identify people in this life, Wilson seems drawn to assume that survival of that same identity beyond life is the best explanation for ghostly phenomena. Next, he marshals the anecdotal evidence at his disposal to advance the notion that rituals or prayers should be used where possible to relieve the condition of ghosts.

For him, the way that ghosts respond to prayer suggests: ‘something sentient, something capable of understanding the words and sentiments behind them. In other words, a human mind, a mind continuing on beyond death’ (p. 239). But what Wilson does not explain is, assuming that the ghost understands, why does prayer seem to work so much more powerfully for people who are dead? Is it not more likely (given Wilson’s own spontaneous need to pray whilst in the presence of a ghost) that the effect of prayer says less about the dead and more about the living?

This is a substantial book, and is brave in its attempt to get back to the old-school notion of the ghost as an ex-person in distress. But the evidence on offer never reaches the velocity required to escape from what seem the author’s personal preoccupations.