Friday, 4 November 2016

FOLKLORE ON FRIDAY - Species of Spectres Part IV

Welcome back once again dear friends to our little series on all things ghostly, that is attempting to classify assorted spirits by the shape of the stories they inhabit. In previous episodes of this tentative guide we have seen how different ghosts may be defined by looking at who they were, and where and when they appear. Therefore this time we shall be completing the set of 'w' questions by asking what do they appear as. And this is perhaps the most fascinating question we have levelled at the canon of ghost related folklore so far, for according to the old tales, phantoms may manifest in many different forms. Rather than just the floating white sheets of popular culture or glowing transparent folks beloved of movies and the gogglebox, ghosts in folklore may take a wide variety of forms. Let's start with some of the most common varieties. 

Perhaps the largest, but also the most mundane, species of the spectre we can define by appearance are those ghosts that have a colour coding. For example, many folkloric female phantoms are named for the hues that they appear in, with dozens of stories telling of White Ladies or Grey Ladies, although varieties coming in blue, green and red are not unknown. And their male counterparts are often described by their spectral plumage too, with many reports of hauntings by Grey Men, Brown Monks and Blue Boys. Now given the often misty forms ghosts are said to manifest in, it is perhaps not surprising that so many phantoms are dubbed white or grey. However when examining assorted stories from folklore it does seem to be more the case that usually the spectres are coloured coded by the clothes they are wearing, rather than the make-up of their ectoplasm. But before we leave this category of Spectrum Spectres, it is worth nothing a little tale recounted by the folklorists Eric Maple and Lynn Myring in Haunted Houses, Ghosts & Spectres (Usborne 1979). They have a story of a ghost that literally faded in colour over time. For in the 18th century, an old house was alleged haunted by a lady in red. But in later years the ghost was reported as being a lady in pink, and then more recently as a lady in white. The last reports of the haunting were just the sound of her footsteps... 

And that brings us nicely to our next category - the Sonic Spooks - hauntings that are purely auditory. These ghosts are the opposite of what good children are supposed to be - never seen, only heard! Phantom footsteps are a very common form of this particular species of spectre - for example in an housing estate built in the 1970s in Sychdyn, near Mold, the sound of a woman walking is often heard at night, but no strolling lady is ever spotted. While at the wonderfully named Hall i' th' Wood Manor House near Bolton, there is an staircase which a phantom is frequently heard running down - who it is or why they are in such haste we do not know for they always remain invisible to mortal eyes...    

Also very common are tales of ghosts that make assorting knocking and banging sounds; indeed one of the best known technical terms for a spectre, 'poltergeist' simply means 'noisy ghost' in the original German. A famous Sonic Spectre of this type is the Phantom Drummer of Tedworth - in 1661, a magistrate named John Mompesson had the drum of vagrant named William Drury confiscated, and soon after his home was plagued at all hours by the phantom sound of a drum. Not only did these ghostly drums trouble the Mompesson household for many months but the phenomena escalated into a full blown poltergeist haunting with objects thrown and damaged. 

However not all rapping and tapping hauntings are necessarily the work of poltergeists, for strictly speaking the moving of objects is probably a better defining factor for a poltergeist infestation, and there are plenty of spooks who prefer to make a racket rather than show themselves. For example at the Suffolk Arms pub in Cheltenham, an unseen spook delights in making knocking sounds in the dark whenever anyone enters the cellar, while at a haunting at Hindley the invisible tenant had the habit of knocking on every door in the house, always finishing my rapping on the front door at 2.30 AM. 

Of course, there is another well-known variety of ghost that is famed for the noise it make - the infamous Banshee, a spirit famed for making an unearthly wailing. And according to legend, to hear the banshee's cry means that a death is coming soon. Now some stories do tell of this spirit actually appearing, sometimes as an old hag, sometimes as a young woman, and in similar fashion different legends ascribe different origins to the banshee, with some holding that this ill-omened female spirit is one of the fairy folk, while others claim she is a long dead ancestor of the family the banshee haunts. But the true defining characteristic of the banshee is its keening wail, with its maker usually remaining unseen. 

In the next part of our little exploration into the nature of all things spectral, we will be continuing to examine the shapes of ghosts appear in, and be discovering a wide variety of manifestations that perhaps many might wish remained unseen...

Bunworth Banshee, from "Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland",
 by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825

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