“Contentment is, after all, simply refined indolence” – Thomas Chandler Haliburton
There’s something about a class “A” full-bodied apparition that sets the ghostbuster’s heart a-flutter. It’s like an exorcist hearing, “Your mother’s in here with us, Karras”. You make a personal connection. It won’t improve your dating life, but it’s nice to know that sometimes when you stare into the abyss, the abyss will invite you to her lunch table. The abyss is usually such a “mean girl”. When your anomalous entity shows up decked out in period costume, at historically appropriate locations, with a litany of unfinished business, what you’ve got there is a solid narrative, good for compelling novels or reality television shows.
Bear with me while I follow a tortured chain of logic. Disturbing events without an explanation are relegated to the ghetto of “folklore”, cautionary tales nested in a narrative that suggest if you want to decrease your odds of being haunted, eaten, or dismembered you should probably stay out of the dark forest, preemptively stake potential vampires, carry dog biscuits in case of werewolf attack, and generally be nice to people while they are still alive as they tend to get surly when they’re dead. Rather than simply stating these obvious facts, we wrap them in a memorable story (heck, even when we state them outright, we spice it up with a burning bush and a set of fancy stone tablets). This is because we need a way to measure our relative risk.
Alert communications researchers maintain that narrative is how we facilitate personalization of risk, that is to say, “how likely am I to face this situation, and what are my optimal responses?” or more instrumentally, particularly when the threat is ambiguous, how like the protagonist of this little drama am I? This is why I always leave a trail of breadcrumbs in the woods. There’s a protocol to not being cooked by a witch and making it home. If you want to party with communications researchers, you’d say it like Jiyeon So and Lijiang Shen in their 2016 Communications Research journal article, “Personalization of Risk Through Convergence of Self- and Character-Risk: Narrative Effects on Social Distance and Self-Character Risk Perception Gap”, helpfully summarizing the results of an experiment as “reduction of perceived social distance to an at-risk character resulted in a convergence of perceived self- and character-risk”, which probably should have been the title. I mean, why make us wait? In short, the more social correspondence between you and the character in a narrative, the more you internalize the potential threat to yourself. This is why we demand so much from our phantoms and things that go bump in the night.
And what we demand is a recognizable form, cues to the time these critters hail from, and answers to annoying questions like why they have returned from the hoary netherworld or emerged from some wacky dimension to darken our doorstep. One can’t just throw some basic, floating geometric shape at a protagonist and expect everyone to get the message, whatever that message might be. That would just be heaping the anomalous on the anomaly, a pugnacious grist for the metaphysical mill. So of course, it’s happened.
Edmund Lenthal Swifte (1777-1875) was a mild-mannered lawyer and poet (younger son of Theophilus Swifte of Herefordshire and a thereby a relative of Jonathan Swift) who scored a position as the Keeper of the British Crown Jewels in the Tower of London from 1814-1852. Good work if you can get it. The Tower of London is no slouch when it comes to the production of fearsome phantoms, and even some rather odd ones. I’m thinking of the infamous ghost bear that frightened a poor guard to death. Don’t tell me you weren’t. Yet Edmund Swifte had perhaps the strangest encounter reported in that the entire episode seems to be completely devoid of explanation or meaning. In October 1817, he was having supper in the sitting-room of the Jewel House at the Tower with his wife, her sister, and his little boy. His personal narrative of the subsequent events appeared in the 1860 edition of Notes and Queries (a journal started in 1849 and still in publication today, for “literary men, artists, antiquaries, genealogists.” Its motto was once “When found, make a note of”).
I had offered a glass of wine and water to my wife, when, on putting it to her lips, she exclaimed, “Good God! What is that?” I looked up, and saw a cylindrical figure like a glass tube, seemingly about the thickness of my arm, and hovering between the ceiling and the table; its contents appeared to be a dense fluid, white and pale azure. This lasted about two minutes, when it began to move before my sister-in-law; then, following the oblong side of the table, before my son and myself, passing behind my wife, it paused for a moment over her right shoulder. Instantly crouching down, and with both hands covering her shoulder, she shrieked out, “Oh Christ! It has seized me!” (Dyer, 1893, p314-315).
That’s pretty much it, but what a doozy of an anomaly among anomalies. Or as Walter George Bell described it when detailing the event amongst other ghost encounters the Tower of London, “I fear, it is somewhat ridiculous; sadly falling short of what one has a right to expect a ghost should be in such a place as The Tower. They seem to plead, gibbering, for apology” (Bell, 1920, p60). Faced with the horror of ambiguity and an assault upon his wife from a phantom solid, Edmund sprang into action.
I caught up my chair, struck at the wainscot behind her, rushed up-stairs to the other children’s room, and told the terrified nurse what I had seen. Meanwhile, the other domestics had hurried into the parlour, where their mistress recounted to them the scene, even as I was detailing it above stairs (Timbs, 1868, p19-20).
As there seemed to be some nefarious intent involved, Swifte did not hesitate to consult his priest the next day, and was faced with a rather bland skepticism.
When I the next morning related the night’s horror to our chaplain, after the service in the Tower church, he asked me, might not one person have his natural senses deceived? And if one, why might not two? My answer was, if two, why not two thousand? An argument which would reduce history, secular or sacred, to a fable…Our chaplain suggested the possibilities of some foolery having been intromitted at my windows, and proposed the visit of a scientific friend, who minutely inspected the parlour, and made the closest investigation, but could not in any way solve the mystery (Ingram, 1884, p154-155).
As to the possibility that some optical illusion projected from the outside had manifested in the sitting room, Swifte noted, “The room was — as it still is— irregularly shaped, having three doors and two windows, which last are cut nearly nine feet deep into the outer wall; between these is a chimney-piece projecting far into the room, and (then) surmounted with a large oil-picture. On the night in question, the doors were all closed, heavy and dark cloth curtains were let down over the windows, and the only light in the room was that of two candles on the table. (Timbs, 1868, p19-20). Even though no projection into the room was possible, the honorable Swifte still felt compelled to note that tricksters had been afoot in the Tower at an earlier date.
I am bound to add that shortly before this strange event some young lady residents in the Tower had been, I know not wherefore, suspected of making phantasmagorical experiments at their windows, which, be it observed, had no command whatever on any windows in my dwelling. An additional sentry was accordingly posted so as to overlook any such attempt (Lee, 1875, p106).
Swifte was well known as an honest and forthright gentleman, and although the events occurred forty-three years before he put pen to paper, he assured readers that these were not the tall tales of an aging pensioner.
Forty-three years have passed, and its impression is as vividly before me as on the moment of its occurrence. Anecdotage, said Wilkes, is an old man’s dotage, and at eighty-three I may be suspected of lapsing into omissions or exaggerations; but there are yet survivors who can testify that I have not at any time either amplified or abridged my ghostly experiences (Swifte, 1860, p192).
Admittedly, once one decides to take the road less travelled when it comes to anomalies, comfortable things start to fall apart. All the paranormal theories and skeptical explanations of those things that strike terror into our hearts run aground on the shoals of pure nonsensicality. Yet there is something comforting in the anomaly that truly “flips the bird” to explanation or existential meaning. It suggests that the impossibilities are endless. As Ernest Lehman said, “After all, the wool of a black sheep is just as warm.”
Bell, Walter George, 1867-1942. Unknown London. Third edition. London: John Lane, 1920.
Dyer, T. F. Thiselton (Thomas Firminger Thiselton), 1848-. The Ghost World. London: Ward & Downey, 1893.
Harper, Charles G. (Charles George), 1863-1943. Haunted Houses: Tales of the Supernatural, With Some Account of Hereditary Curses And Family Legends. London: Chapman & Hall, ltd., 1907.
Ingram, John Henry, 1842-1916. The Haunted Homes And Family Traditions of Great Britain. London: W.H. Allen & co., 1884.
Lee, Frederick George, 1832-1902. The Other World; Or, Glimpses of the Supernatural: Being Facts, Records And Traditions Relating to Dreams, Omens, Miraculous Occurrences, Apparitions, Wraiths, Warnings, Second-sight, Witchcraft, Necromancy, Etc. London: H. S. King and co., 1875.
Swifte, E.L. “Ghost in The Tower”. Notes And Queries Ser. 2, Volume 10. London [etc.]: Oxford University Press [etc.], 1860.
Timbs, John, 1801-1875. The Romance of London: Historic Sketches, Remarkable Duels, Notorious Highwaymen, Rogueries, Crimes, And Punishments, And Love And Marriage. London: Frederick Warne, 1868