I’ve tended to shy away from ghosts within my landscape/folklore/archaeology research (with the obvious exception of the ‘haunting’ of Jacob Seley, which can be found here). This is not through lack of interest, more due to the fact that it is a pretty emotive subject.
Unlike tales of pixies, giants, and demons, the belief in ghosts (or lack of it) is not something that can always be approached objectivity, and in many cases belief, or the need to believe, in the existence of ghosts are tied up in personal experiences of loss and bereavement. By questioning validity takes away the needed link to a love one. Equally, by following up on stories could reflect back to a real person and/or tragic event.
Though the collection and mapping of folkloric stories across the South West of England I came across a number of visual places in the landscape held stories relating to ghostly occurrences (and I’m not referring to ‘sightings’ of famous and historical figures), but I’ve always been avoided further analysis of them. I think the reason comes from a personal observation of the danger of forgetting the people in the stories told (and I’m changing/omitting the names and location deliberately in this next paragraph).
A number of years ago there was an investigation of a haunting of a house next to a relative of mine.
Their new neighbours were experiencing supposedly ghostly interactions with the former occupant of the house who had passed away about 6 months before.
They described in detail the appearance and mannerisms, and suggested the activities were strongest in particular locations that reflected the habits of the person when alive.
A team of investigators arrived, and subsequently published the account in a book on regional ghost stories.
Consequently, and perhaps inevitably, despite changing the name, the details listed relating to the location and suggested haunter were such that a family member of the ‘ghost’ ended up finding out and recognising their loved one. Obviously, to find a relative is supposed to be haunting your childhood home is not something I think anyone wishes to know.
So, as I think a semiconscious result of this, I’ve deliberately avoided working in this area, and edged around the ghost stories in my database. That is until recently. Maybe my reputation as “the girl who talks about fairies” means that I appear more approachable, but I have been asked to undertake archaeological and landscape investigations a number of supposedly haunted buildings or places.
I’ve not been asked to prove or disprove the existence of ghosts, let me make that clear, nor am I undertaking any ‘ghost hunting’ of my own (I’ll leave that to those with the specialism and the fancy equipment!). But through documentary and map evidence, and clues in the landscape I have tried to piece together the background to a location, and suggest a reason for the story to occur and be tied in a place. In one case I was asked to research the siting of a school, and from a landscape perspective overlaying the modern building on to old maps, and discussing what is now a built up area before the urban spread, was fascinating. For another, I actually had a name to work with, and finding reference to it in the archives in the right place did come as a bit of a suprise!
That said, it could be argued it merely a straightforward piece of landscape research; being pragmatic by nature, it’s certainly the best way to approach it, and how I conducted it. But I’m conscious of the ethical issues relating to something that could uncover real people, and real tragedies, misremembered and the context lost and forgotten. After all, as Prof. Tolkien wrote “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth…”
I’m continuing to look into the stories as a little distration from my normal day job and research, but fully aware of the veritable minefield of issues that come from it. Maybe I’m being over cautious, but I’m probably going to stick with pixies and petrification myths in the long term. After all, the likelihood of upsetting someone by investing fairy activities is much less likely than that of a tale of hauntings.