When we think of ghosts, chances are we are going to imagine something ethereal and barely visible, a phantom-like creature that can pass through walls and knock books off shelves.
If we were to imagine a tale from an Edgar Allan Poe tale, in the 1800’s a strange phenomenon began to take place. Catelepsy; it’s a physical occurance that modern doctors believe is related to catatonic schizophrenia. This condition causes rigid muscles and gives the victim the appearance of death. In the 19th century, this ailment was not properly diagnosed and, as a result, many people were buried alive. Some managed to find their way out of their earthly tombs, once again giving rise to the belief that the dead can come back, not as wispy spirits, but rather as actual physical beings.
This viewpoint of spirits that come back from the dead, as wisps of smoke, didn’t become conventional until the Victorian Era. Before then, you didn’t have to go looking for the dead, they came looking for you and usually with a vengeance. They also didn’t come back as transparent pranksters, they came back n the flesh.
Now let me tell you the story of Constance Whitney, a woman who died in the 1800’s. She had been presumed dead while in a catatonic state. In an attempt to remove one of her rings while she lay in her casket, a man’s blade slipped and he cut off her finger. Constance sighed, woke up and for lack of a better term, “came back from the dead”, continuing her life above ground forseverall more years.
A similar story was set in Northern Ireland. It tells of grave robbers who dug up the remains of a rich woman, again like the other story, while trying to take one of the woman’s rings. This supposedly dead woman came back to life.
One version of the returning dead, as a physical being, was “revenant.” Stories during the middle ages in Great Britain and Western Europe tell of these creatures who return from the dead, usually for vengeance on friends of family. A written account from the 1190’s, one of William of Newburg’s, he tells of a man who feared his wife had been unfaithful and hides in the rafters to spy one her only to fall to his death accidentally. According to William, this is what happened:
“A Christian burial, indeed, he received, though unworthy of it; but it did not much benefit him; for issuing, by the handiwork of Satan, from his grave at night-time, and pursued by a pack of dogs with horrible barkings, he wandered through the courts and around the houses while all men made fast their doors, and did not dare to go abroad on any errand whaever from the beginning of the night until the sunrise, for fear of meeting and being beaten black and blue by this vagrant monster.”William of Newburg
If you were to go a few centuries back in time to the country of Romania, you will discover the people had a different way of seeing the dead. They believed there were benevolent and malevolent spirits. The benign spirits of dead ancestors were often welcomed into homes and offered a meal. This was something that couldn’t be done unless the spirit had visited in corporeal form. Over time this evolved into what we now call vampires or zombies.
In much of what we write today, the beliefs and traditions are what aid us in our telling of tales. Much like King Arthur or Merlin has done for centuries. You never know where your next short story or novel may come from, so celebrate all that came before.