Alas, Poor Ghost! Traditions of Belief in Story and Discourse

Alas, Poor Ghost! Traditions of Belief in Story and Discourse

Alas, Poor Ghost! Traditions of Belief in Story and Discourse

Alas, Poor Ghost! Traditions of Belief in Story and Discourse


In the rational modern world, belief in the supernatural seemingly has been consigned to the worlds of entertainment and fantasy. Yet belief in other worldly phenomena, from poltergeists to telepathy, remains strong, as Gillian Bennett's research shows. Especially common is belief in continuing contact with, or the continuing presence of, dead family members. Bennett interviewed women in Manchester, England, asking them questions about ghosts and other aspects of the supernatural. (Her discussion of how her research methods and interview techniques evolved is in itself valuable.) She first published the results of the study in the well-received Traditions of Belief: Women and the Supernatural, which has been widely used in folklore and women's studies courses. "Alas, Poor Ghost!" extensively revises and expands that work. In addition to a fuller presentation and analysis of the original field research and other added material, the author, assisted by Kate Bennett, a gerontological psychologist, presents and discusses new research with a group of women in Leicester, England. Bennett is interested in more than measuring the extent of belief in other worldly manifestations. Her work explores the relationship between narrative and belief. She anticipated that her questions would elicit from her interviewees not just yes or no replies but stories about their experiences that confirmed or denied notions of the supernatural. The more controversial the subject matter, the more likely individuals were to tell stories, especially if their answers to questions of belief were positive. These were most commonly individualized narratives of personal experience, but they contained many of the traditional motifs and other content, including belief in the supernatural, of legends. Bennett calls them memorates and discusses the cultural processes, including ideas of what is a "proper" experience of the supernatural and a "proper" telling of the story, that make them communal as well as individual. These memorates provide direct and vivid examples of what the storytellers actually believe and disbelieve. In a final section, Bennett places her work in historical context through a discussion of case studies in the history of supernatural belief.


Hamlet: Alas, poor ghost!

Ghost: Pity me not/But lend thy serious
hearing/To what I shall unfold

Hamlet, act 1, scene 5


By successive stages folklorists have moved away from the idea that folklore is a body of old-fashioned leftovers from some shadowy pagan past which still survives among some special group called the “folk.” They recognize too that, like every other body of knowledge from physics to philosophy, folklore may be true or it may be false, so they no longer subscribe to the popular definition that equates folklore with old wives’ tales. Nevertheless, serious scholars remain very wary about studying supernatural folklore, so there is little opportunity to revise popular stereotypes or counteract educated prejudice.

Where it is not campaigned against by religious groups or sneered at by rationalists, the supernatural is often trivialized by the mechanisms of commerce. It has been taken over by TV, films, and ghost hunters in such a big way that shows and books can almost provide a classification system for popular notions about ghosts. So we find, for example, that ghosts may be allowed to exist on what we might call the “Scooby Doo” level, where they are either tameable or friendly or turn out to be frauds and fakes. They are also allowed existence on the “Haunted Inns of England” level, where they are regarded as tourist attractions, a specialty of the house, synthetic (and profitable) thrills. Alternatively, they may appear in “Stephen King” mode, where they are allowed to be threatening, but only to those deliberately seeking to be (safely and temporarily) threatened. So the supernatural has been officially demoted to the nursery, commercial, or fantasy worlds.

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