“I have cultivated my hysteria with pleasure and terror” – Charles Baudelaire
You’re going to die. What sucks about being human is that among all the critters great and small who subscribe to the instinctual directive of “not dying”, we alone are aware of death’s inevitability and relative unpredictability. It’s a wonder we get up in the morning, what with our fundamental existential dread, which psychotherapist Paul Hokemeyer described as “the terror we experience in our awareness that we are transient beings acting out life on a precarious stage”. Poor Paul probably doesn’t get invited to a lot of parties, but gosh darn it, he gets me. Luckily, we invented culture as a foil to biological reality. Clearly ultimate oblivion at any moment stresses us out, so to deal with our death anxiety we had to go and get civilized so we could promulgate things like religion to assuage our fears about mortality and inject some symbolic meaning into our lives that supersedes individual identity. Hence the ubiquity of belief in an afterlife. And you can tell me you don’t believe in an afterlife, but there are plenty of other cultural values that link to a kind of immortality (vague notions like “posterity” or national identity, for example). Why else would a nihilist write a book? Yeah, I’m looking at you Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. What you do in life matters, either for your job prospects in some hoary netherworld or that some greater part of you will ultimately outdistance your assigned meat sack. The efforts to deal with this psychological conflict (you’re sure to die, but you don’t want to die) are described by “terror management theory”, a term originally coined by social psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski.
Anthropologist Ernest Becker’s seminal book Denial of Death argues that our fear of absolute annihilation results in an awful lot of human actions taken precisely to avoid confronting the inevitability of death. This doesn’t mean we avoid death as a topic of discussion entirely, simply that we find it necessary to invest it with symbolic meaning. More basically, we tell ourselves ghost stories. Ghost stories are said to serve a lot of functions from guiding us through the forest of liminality, to simple morality plays to reinforce cultural norms, to inculcating a sense that justice will be served eventually, and answer questions about the past that haunt us, as well as the pure entertainment of a good scare. A savvy terror management theorist would say “no such luck, schmuck”, it’s all about “mortality salience” (psychological defense against experiential reminders of one’s own death) and self-esteem (as a proven death anxiety buffer). That’s why a ghost without a good narrative is deeply unsatisfying (see “Some Phantasms are just Phoning it in”).
We live in linear time, so narrative is how we structure personal and cultural identity from a sequence of events, real or imagined. Things happen for a reason. Society is the way it is for a reason. Ghost stories are essentially tragedies, that is, the kind of narrative intended to invoke catharsis surrounding terrible or sorrowful events, to contextualize those events and the players involved, and offer some sort of resolution. Why have humans been telling ghost narratives since we could speak? They remind us that oblivion is not the endgame, and help us manage the terror associated with our concern that it actually is.
This will come as a surprise to exactly no one, but one of my many guilty pleasures are the modern ghost-hunting reality shows (and to some degree the myriad of quasi-documentary style, popular TV shows on ghosts). Lately, I’ve noticed the visceral thrill of phantom prospectors when they investigate sites that are “really haunted”. By “really” I don’t mean that they offer incontrovertible proof of the afterlife, rather they offer a panoply of sordid histories that can feed the narratives of a plethora of ghosts. It’s like staring into the abyss, and the abyss runs a supermarket. Choose your own ghost adventure. Personal identity is a complex thing, and when you shake and stir it with a little death anxiety, there is no one size fits all. The more potential narratives available to construct one’s defense, the more likely they can be assuaged. This is not a modern phenomenon. Mythology and folklore are rife with examples where ghosts are conflated across time and space, allowing us to adapt our phantoms to our own identities. Such is the case of the Headless Nun of Watton Priory.
Watton Priory of East Riding of Yorkshire, England was around a long time, possibly founded as early as 720 A.D. after a miracle performed at a nunnery on the location by St. John of Beverley, during the re-introduction of Anglo-Saxon Christianity into Northumbria by King Oswald (who reunited the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira into Northumbria, and was later canonized). By the 9th Century, the Watton nunnery had been destroyed by invading Danes, but in William the Conqueror’s 1086 Domesday Book, there was at least a church and a priest on the site. In 1150, Constable of Chester Eustace fitz John (evidently in atonement for certain unspecified crimes he had committed), founded the priory at Watton (religious community of both monks and nuns based on the Cistercian Rule, headed by a prioress) of the Gilbertine Order. The Gilbertine Order was a relatively new invention, having only been founded in 1130 (and was dissolved in the 16th Century when Henry VIII claimed all monastic property as his own so he could fund a few wars), and the only completely English religious order.
St. Ailred of Rievaulx’s 12th Century De Sanctimoniali de Wattun records that Archbishop of York Henry Murdac entrusted an orphaned toddler named Elfleda to the care of the nuns of Watton. Elfleda was apparently not especially good raw material for the making of a medieval nun, described as a “merry, vivacious little creature”, and as she approached womanhood manifested a repugnance for convent life and light-heartedly ridiculed the sisters. Anybody who ever went to Catholic school can tell you that you don’t mess with the nuns.
Subsequently, Elfleda fell in love with one of the community’s handsome young lay brethren. When this was discovered, the nuns were none too happy and variously suggested that she be “burnt to death, that she should be walled up alive, that she should be flayed, that her flesh should be torn from her bones with red-hot pincers, that she should be roasted to death before a fire” (Ross, 1892, p184-185). It was a different time. Guess they didn’t have rulers. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and they decided just to beat her with rods, throw her in the dungeon, chain her to the floor, and feed her only bread and water. They then tracked down the object of her affections, horribly mutilated him, and forced her to watch. Since this is a tragedy, of course Elfleda was also pregnant. The now dead Archbishop Murdac was said to have miraculously visited Elfleda in prison and eventually spirited away the newborn. Nothing else is known about what happened to Elfleda, but the ghost of a headless nun was said to have been seen haunting the abbey for centuries after. As far as we know, Elfleda retained her head, but it makes for a story as old as time, does it not? Unfortunate orphan. Forbidden love. Gross injustice. Miracles. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! Lots to hook into and link to one’s own personal identity. But maybe you can’t relate to orphans or nuns. Luckily Watton Priory has another ghost to fill in, or possibly the same ghost with a different back story.
A little bit after the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, during the First English Civil War, the Parliamentarian Roundheads were knocking heads and executing people willy-nilly in the neighborhood of Watton. By this time Watton Priory was a private residence, occupied by the devout Catholic Lady of Watton, her Royalist husband, and her child. With her husband fighting for the King in Oxford, when rumors spread that the Puritan ruffians were on their way to plunder her estate, she gathered up her child and jewels and sequestered herself in a secret room. She was shortly discovered by the soldiers who dashed her child’s brains out against a wall and chopped her head off. Understandably, it is believed that the Lady forever after has haunted the room where she and her offspring were so barbarously treated.
There is a chamber wainscoted throughout with paneled oak, one of the panels forming a door, so accurately fitted that it cannot be distinguished from the other panels. It is opened by a secret spring, and communicates with a stone stair that goes down to the moat; it may be that the room was a hiding – place for the Jesuits or priests of the Catholic Church when they were so ruthlessly hunted down and barbarously executed in the Elizabethan and Jacobean reigns. The room is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a headless lady with an infant in her arms, who comes, or came thither formerly, to sleep nightly, the bed-clothes being found the following morning in a disordered state, as they would be after a person had been sleeping in them. If by chance any person had daring enough to occupy the room, the ghost would come, minus the head, dressed in blood-stained garments, with her infant in her arms, and would stand motionless at the foot of the bed for a while, and then vanish. A visitor on one occasion, who knew nothing of the legend, was put to sleep in the chamber, who in the morning stated that his slumbers had been disturbed by a spectral visitant, in the form of a lady with bloody raiment and an infant, and that her features bore a strange resemblance to those of a lady whose portrait hung in the room; from which it would appear that on that special occasion she had donned her head (Ross, 1892, p188-189).
Although the stories of the Watton apparitions are separated by more than 500 years, and the later version has the requisite beheadings, although none of the nunnery, the ghost is collectively known as “The Headless Nun of Watton”. “The belief of the learned is, however, that the apparition which haunts Watton is not that of the transgressing nun of the twelfth, but a brutally beheaded lady of the seventeenth, century. Mr. Ross opines that the story-tellers have confused the two traditions, and have treated them as one story, regarding the two heroines as identical. No one would appear to have seen the possibility of the old place being haunted by two ghosts—by rival apparitions!” (Ingram, 1886, p595). Clearly both these ladies have good reasons for getting their haunt on. Certain places just seem thick with ghosts. And for narrative purposes, as we try to manage our terror of death, the more unquiet dead, the merrier.
Our ghost stories are not just escapism. They are a means of digesting our existential horror at the imminence of death, but the narrative must resonate with our personal and cultural identity, or we wind up further freaking ourselves out. As John Updike once said, “A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens”.
Dyer, T. F. Thiselton (Thomas Firminger Thiselton), 1848-. The Ghost World. London: Ward & Downey, 1893.
Ingram, John Henry, 1842-1916. The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain. 3d ed. London: W.H. Allen & Co., 1886.
Middleton, Jessie Adelaide. The White Ghost Book. London: Cassell, 1916.
Ross, Frederick, 1816-1893. Legendary Yorkshire. Hull: W. Andrews & co., 1892.
Are we really the only critters aware of death or are we the only ones to obsess over it?
Good point. We’re often warned against anthropomorphizing, but we ought to be just as careful not to exaggerate human exceptionalism. I’d be willing to bet that awareness of death is fairly common in non-human animals. If empathy is any indicator, then judging by the reports of empathy in birds, rodents, and primates, it’s likely that animals understand that what happens to others can happen to them. In fact, wouldn’t it be a survival handicap if an animal were to somehow think that death is something that happens only to others? I don’t even think we can claim to have a monopoly on obsession.
I missed your writing! I learn so much and muse much more, i like that John Updike quote… I never said it makes me a good commenter!
Many thanks! I think I just needed a little break to adjust to the new pandemic lifestyle.
Definitely we need to take all the breaks we can during this time. I get tired of being afraid and worried… It’s like an insidious shadow figure in the corner…ghost if you will.
I’m not sanguine about Becker’s argument and terror management theory. I’m not saying that these views are devoid of merit, it’s just that I think they’re trying to pin too much on fear of death. Frankly, I’m not convinced that fear of death is universal (fear of missing out, maybe). I’m not sure that fear of death isn’t a conflation of a number of other fears (fear of separation, fear of pain, fear of the unknown, etc.) and it isn’t clear to me whether there is a shared relative ranking of fears that stands up cross-culturally.
Then there is the problem of explaining thrill seeking behavior and suicide. It takes some intellectual contortion to interpret these as evidence of denial of death and that fear of death is primary.
Be that as it may, I can’t quite manage to get any terror management help out of the Headless Nun story. All it seems to do is make things worse. If a belief in an afterlife is balm against the fear of death, how does it help to show me that death can go very wrong and result in my becoming an unhappy wraith? Is the message that, however horrible the circumstances of my death might be, I shouldn’t take it too seriously? I can tell you right now that horrible circumstances tend to make me lose focus.
Lastly, as a testament to the sinister nature of the universe note that Becker’s Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death was awarded posthumously.