“It is curious to think that what to one of us means so much to another is without any signiﬁcation. We do not see each other’s ghosts, nor do we recognize their shadowy presence. The writing on our walls is not so written that all who run may read” – Ella Fuller Maitland
Most anthropologists, if they’re not delirious from their latest bout with malaria contracted in some god-forsaken place where they did their graduate fieldwork, concur that our belief in ghosts stems from the ancient, and nearly ubiquitous cross-cultural concept that there is a person inside the person, that is a “breath” or spirit that animates us and makes us the well-rounded, charming creatures we are, rather than simply reflexive bio-mechanical aggregates of carbon with a bad attitude. Thus, it’s not hard to think of ghosts as essentially people without physical bodies. This merely reflects our vanity related to being all flesh and blood and nervous system, without which our keen sense of fashion and Fitbits are completely useless. Once you accept the notion that some kind of anima invigorates our skin and bones, there’s no reason we couldn’t reverse the logic and say that people are just ghosts that happen to have physical bodies. Of course, this reversal has profound existential implications, suggesting that mortal life is merely a larval stage of something greater, that with a little applied moxy perhaps we can achieve some sort of psychic gestalt about the nature of the universe, and providing an explanation for all manner of apparitions of both the living and the dead. While philosophically relevant, personally I think we are ignoring the utility this would have for house-hunting. Consider the Victorian tale of Mrs. Butler.
It seems that in 1891 a certain Mrs. Butler, who lived in Ireland with her husband, dreamed of finding herself in a very beautiful house, furnished with all imaginable comforts. The dream made a deep impression on her mind, and the following night she again dreamed of the same house and of going over it. And so for many nights in succession, until in the family circle she and her house of dreams became the subject of gentle raillery. In 1892 the Butlers decided to leave Ireland and take up their residence in England. They went to London and procured from various agencies lists of country houses. Having heard of a house in Hampshire, they went out to see it. At the gate-keeper’s lodge Mrs. Butler exclaimed, “This is the gate-house of my dream!” And when they reached the house she affirmed the house to be that of her dreams. The woman in charge proceeded to show the premises, and Mrs. Butler said she recognized all the details, except a certain door, which it turned out had been added to the place within six months. The estate being for sale at a very low price, the Butlers suddenly decided to buy it (Lombroso, 1909, p279-281).
Anybody who’s ever tried to buy a nice domicile for themselves knows what a pain in the ass the endless round of open houses, rejected bids, failed escrows, pushy real estate agents, dodgy lenders, unpermitted outbuildings and the angst of wondering whether you just bought a money-sucking monster amounts to. Oh, the countless wasted weekends. If only one could attend to their daily lives, and assign the mind-numbing process of winnowing down the candidates to one’s ghost. As it turns out, this was Mrs. Butler’s strategy.
When it was bought and paid for, the price had been so extraordinarily small, that they could not help a misgiving that there must be something wrong with the place. So they went to the agent of the people who had sold it and said, ‘Well, now the purchase is made and the deeds are signed, will you mind telling us why the price asked was so small?’ The agent had started violently when they came in, but recovered himself. Then he said to Mrs. Butler, ‘Yes, it is quite true the matter is quite settled, so there can be no harm in telling now. The fact is that the house has had a great reputation for being haunted; but you, madam, need be under no apprehensions, for you are yourself the ghost!’ On the nights when Mrs. Butler had dreamt she was at her house, she—her ‘astral body’—had been seen there (Hare, 1896, p364-367).
Parapsychologists and theologians need to get to work on finding ways to marshal the services of our personal ghosts. I mean, the unemployment figures among the undead are staggering, after all. I imagine they’re much better at plumbing inspections than your average mortal. And nobody knows bad wiring like a spectral apparition. The again, maybe all our ghosts sightings are truly haunted house hunts, a purpose to which the guilty dead find themselves uniquely suited and ultimately redeemed by, for as Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, “What we call real estate – the solid ground to build a house on – is the broad foundation on which nearly all the guilt of this world rests”.
Hare, Augustus J. C. 1834-1903. The Story of My Life. London: G. Allen, 1896.
Lombroso, Cesare, 1835-1909. After Death–What?: Spiritistic Phenomena And Their Interpretation. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1909.