Ghost Writers; A Brief Overview. Peter Rogerson

From Magonia 11, 1982


Ghosts are making a belated academic comeback, with officially sponsored volumes by the Folklore Society (1) and the Society for Psychical Research (3), and a detailed social history (2). So I take this opportunity also to review some volumes which fell through my fingers first time round.

That academics and journalists are both fascinated by ghosts is good testimony to their continued presence in our minds. As Finucane shows, ghosts have a pedigree going back to Greek and Roman times, a point also made by W M S Russell in the Folklore Society symposium. Russell suggests that a culture’s perception of its ghosts depends on its funeral customs; people who bury the dead portray concrete ghosts – ‘raw head and bloody bones’. An excellent Icelandic example of this is provided by Hilda Ellis Davidson, in which the revenant comes from the grave to claim person after person to join the legion of ghosts, as in east European vampire legends. This is symbolic of plague and other epidemics claiming victim after victim. Those who burn the dead envisage smoky, hazy spirits who drift across consciousness.

Finucane traces the evolution of the ghost through various stages of Christian theology. In medieval Christianity, ghosts were far from the marginal entities they are today. They were integral parts of society, enforcing its codes, demanding that justice be done, that debts be paid, that remains be buried properly and that harmony prevail among surviving relatives. Fear of ghosts’ wrath enforced proper respect for the helpless aged. Ghosts could give evidence in court. Most importantly, they enforced the correct theological line, with graphic descriptions of purgatory, heaven and hell. Living and dead were part of an organic unity: Church Militant, Church Suffering and Church Triumphant. (R H Bowyer, in (1), p. 190)

The Reformation abolished purgatory and literally damned all ghosts to hell; spectres refusing to stay there were clearly demons. This theological doctrine clashed with traditional belief and posed the awful dilemma: ‘Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned?’ Hamlet’s ghost may well be reinforcing social mores, but in doing so it leads to demonic tragedy.

The religious persecutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries created a great crop of ghost stories. The trauma of the shattering of the old order created a vast number of ghostly monks; expressions of grief and guilt, and Civil War, tore the nation apart; the ghostly Roundheads and Cavaliers, crimes magnified by the legion of rival pamphleteers, haunted on. History’s wounds were unforgotten and unforgiven, held in thrall by generations of local gossip and tradition. It should be remembered that in the nineteenth century there were still districts where families voted Liberal or Conservative, depending on which side their ancestors had fought in the Civil War.

The Reformation had damned ghosts, partly because it was trying to escape tradition. A society which perceives the world in fairly stable terms might be able to come to terms with its ‘history’ walking around; a society seeing itself in dynamic terms needed to jettison history – it was now necessary to dispose of traditional customs, producing the tensions which also gave rise to increased witch belief. (8)

There were other effects of the Civil War. The farmers and artisans who joined the Parliamentary armies were exposed to the ferment of new ideas, questioning the whole basis of traditional society. Conversely, the gentry and aristocracy, repelled by ‘the mob’, withdrew physically and intellectually to an unprecedented degree. Both sections of society began to reject ghost stories and traditional religion, while the Anglican Church, re-established and protected by penal legislation, looked on in apathy.

In these conditions Puritans like Richard Baxter, who 60 years ago would have considered ghosts as damnable, now began to use them to conduct the campaign against the modern Sadducees. (cf. (9)) Though the intellectual and literate elite may have despised ghosts, the vast majority of their fellow countrymen probably continued to hold traditional beliefs.

These traditional beliefs were taken into the rapidly growing industrial towns by the masses coming in from the country. Finucane does not cover the ideas of the working classes during this period, but some background can be gleaned from studies by Thomas (10) and Hamson (11).

By the mid-nineteenth century the ghost shad receded into a dim figure on the margins of consciousness. The only message that it had to give was the message of survival itself. Ghosts receded from society. From Mackenzie (3) emerges a nice picture of the typical Victorian ghost. The Despard ghost was a widow in black – like the maiden aunt or the widowed sister an embarrassing add-ition to the family.

The anonymous Victorian ghost flitting through the house reflected the breakup of the traditional home held for generations. The Victorian family, drifting from one leased house to another, were strangers in their own residences. The servants often had far more intimate connection with the house than their masters; they were part of the local community and its repository of folk history. As Claire Russell points out in the Folklore Society symposium, ghosts are about the living. In the Victorian period houses tended to become haunted because the local community decided that some fundamental vio-lation of the social mores had occurred.

This could range from anything between murder and leaving the house vacant too long. In many cases, ghosts were the expression of the community’s hostility to new tenants, and the tenants’ alienation from their res-idence. Significantly, many modern haunted houses are council houses or rented properties.

Haunts were not the only ghosts: death-bed apparitions, crisis apparitions, fetches and warnings, testified to the uncertainties of Victorian life – the separation of rel-ations sent abroad to colonial fever spots, the rampant infant mortality. Many of the people who became the centre of crisis apparitions had broken social mores in some way. One suspects that many ‘old and dear friends’ from the colonies who appeared to married women, were lovers sent away in disgrace.

Finucane notes the rigid social distinctions that operated in Victorian psychical research: that the middle classes never lied, that servants were timid and unreliable, and that the ‘peasantry’ were unthinking brutes. This led to some embarrassing situations, as in the case of poor Judge Horby, who found he either had to admit to lying or to sleeping with his wife before they were married.

If the psychical researchers turned their backs on the peasantry and their beliefs, the folklorists put them on pedestals. Romantics, rejecting the industrial revolution, dreamed up a fairytale past of noble peasants in little thatched cottages in a green and pleasant land. Such folklorists as the Dane, Evart Tang Kristensen could take seriously any ghost. These included revolving fiery wheels, or the wagon with three wheels which had the power to paralyse other wagons on the road, like modern UFOs. The folklorists and romantics created a market for Gothic horror stories and gibbering spectres.

The traditional Victorian ghost story reflected a sense of the horror beneath the placid surface of everyday life. They were reminders of the thin veneer of Victorian rationalism. It is hardly surprising that, as Julia Briggs points out, the ghost story as an art form fell when that veneer was wiped away in the trenches.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the heyday of the ‘true’ ghost story lay in the period before the First World War. It is significant that more than half the accounts in Mackenzie’s book refer to the period before the War. If ghosts are products of the human imagination’s response to real or imaginary outrages, then how can they be generated by the truly unimaginable outrage?

The modern ghost may well be more extrovert than his Victorian predecessor. Randy spectres fondling young ladies in council houses are all right in the pages of the Sun or the National Voyeur, but are hardly the right sort of company for the SPR. Modern ghosts are often drained of terror completely. The once-grim messengers are now reduced to competition with space-invader machines as tourist attractions in pubs. No longer even dim messengers of survival, perhaps memories of a lost history.

The poltergeist is the truly contemporary ghost, in its element in the age of the vandal. The poltergeist becomes a symbol of the shattering of society’s rules, the voice of the voiceless. The horror of contemporary fiction is now the super polt, heavy with fantasies of omnipotent destructive power. The quiet, old-fashioned ghost, like the spectre of little Johnny Minty, as described by Mackenzie, weeping endlessly for his mother, may pull at our heart-strings; the polts, evoked by Gauld and Cornell (4) or Rogo (6) can still give us the horrors. The emotion evoked by an attack by a poltergeist is the same as that of an attack by burglars or vandals, one of violation. It is this sense of violation of the home as a bastion against the forces of the wilderness outside, the overthrow of the safe rational world of everyday reason and common sense.

It must be said that the pre-poltergeist worlds of many of the victims do not seem especially safe or rational. The family discussed by Playfair (5) were already under the attention of social workers, and other polt families have had pretty severe problems. It is hardly surprising that both ‘normal’ and ‘paranormal’ trickery take place together; they are perhaps different means of expressing the same crisis.

Gauld and Cornell also describe place-centred polts, places which seem to be hostile. The old term ‘boggart’ seems aptly to describe this centre which generates confused multiform hallucinations and strange noises. Once again, is it not to the neighbours and the local community that we should look for reasons why a place becomes labelled ‘off-limits’? The only ‘message’ here seems to be: ‘Fear, fear’; ‘Get out’; ‘Boggart off!’

Ghosts are on the retreat, their role as dispensers of justice replaced by a modern police, their power to communicate across distances replaced by the telephone and television. Perhaps they have now faded forever beyond the reach of psychical researchers; soon the vandals will drive the polts away. Yet if their disappearance marks the end of our capacity for outrage, then we are in deep trouble. Maybe the ghosts of Belsen, of Hiroshima and of Kampuchea should
 howl and gibber and cry out for vengeance.


1. ELLIS-DAVIDSON, Hilda R and RUSSELL, W M S (Editors), The Folklore of Ghosts. Cambridge, D S Brewer, for the Folklore Society, 1981.
2. FINUCANE, R C, Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts. London, Junction Books, 1982.
3. MACKENZIE, Andrew, Hauntings and Apparitions. London, Heinemann, for the Society for Psychical Research, 1982.
4. GAULD, Alan and CORNELL, A O, Poltergeists. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul,1979. E9.95
5. PLAYFAIR, Guy Lyon, This House is Haunted: An Enfield Poltergeist. London, Souvenir Press, 1979. E6.95.
6. ROGO, D Scott, The Poltergeist Experience. Penguin, 1979.
7. RHINE, Louisa, The Invisible Picture – A Studuy of Psychic Experiences
8. MACFARLANE, Alan. Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964
9. WALKER, D. P. The Decline of Hell, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964
10. THOMAS, Keith. Religion and the Decline of Magic. Penguin, 1973
11. HAMSON, J.F.C. The Second Coming; Popular Millenarianism 1780-1856. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
12. BRIGGS, Julia. Night Visitors; the Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story. Faber, 1977


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And the Dog Began to Howl. Peter Rogerson

 From Magonia 27, September 1987 

The other day a young man came into my office, seeking the history of his house: who had lived in it and especially who might have died. Was it just curiosity? No, There was ‘something wrong’ with the house, where the baby would not sleep and the dog had begun to howl. Maybe, he thought, it was haunted.

The same day a woman came in trying to discover what occupied the land where her house now stood before it was built. She gave no reason, but on previous occasions this type of query has been stimulated by fears of hauntings. At least once a month someone comes to me with this type of enquiry.

These incidents are from my experience as a local history librarian in a northern town. It is apparent to me that there exist many unreported ‘haunted houses’, and that a powerful factor in this is a fear of the unofficial ‘off-campus’ history of the house. A history of the organic round of birth, procreation and, especially, death, which is perceived by the house’s current occupier as being oppressive, palpable and threatening. In some senses the house, ‘the home’, is an extension of the individual’s body or personality; hence the trauma induced by burglaries. Similarly the house is seen as having been imprinted, one might almost say contaminated, by the previous occupants. The house has borne witness to their most intimate moments.To the new occupant – the ‘incomer’ – the haunted house has a ‘history’ or a ‘reputation’ in a personal, almost sexual, way. The house is not a ‘virgin’. It has been violated by the presence of other human activity, which may afflict and infect the incomer. The sorts of questions which are asked about the haunted house’s previous owners or tenants are the sorts of questions one might ask about one’s partner’s previous sexual partners.

The main terror inspired by these previous occupants is that they are dead, gone, finished; that they are not continuing the organic round elsewhere. They have become part of history, their lives cannot be experienced, only inferred.

One of the cornerstones of sceptical historical philosophy is that historical events cannot be directly known about; all we have access to are the written and structural documents left by past generations, from which history may be ‘reconstructed’. [1] This history vbecomes the formal history, the ‘campus history’, the history taught in schools, the network of kings and dates. Perhaps also a rather mare intimate history reconstructed from diaries, wills, reports, enquiries and the press.

But there is another history, the oral history of folk memory, ballads, songs, stories learned at mothers knee, passed on across generations – ‘off-campus’ history. Unlike the documents of campus history, this still has a power over the living, it can still be experienced. It is a kind of folklore, often at dramatic odds with the documentary history. It is a history which is a present reality, shaping the lives and experiences of its hearers. The ‘history’ of haunted houses, is very much an ‘off-campus, peoples’ history, a folklore of what should be true rather than documentary truth.

At the heart and core of much ghostlore is a belief that certain events taking place in a space or territory forever render that space an inappropriate location for the mundane activities of life. The events remove it from the realm of secular to sacred space.

The Herald of Free Enterprise - It belongs to history and too its victims all else are intruders

It now belongs to history, and to its victims all else are intruders.

To take an example: most people (this writer among them) would consider it highly inappropriate for the salvaged Channel Ferry The Herald of Free Enterprise ever to be used to carry passengers again. Its only morally coherent fate would be for it to be taken into deep. deep waters and scuttled. An analysis of the reasons for this feeling is difficult because a-rational, but would clearly centre on the sense of the Herald’s place as a catastrophic scar on the memories of the living. It now, like Abraham Lincoln, belongs to history, and to its victims all else are intruders.

Here then is another step towards the social history of the haunted house. In popular imagination it is a place where an event has happened which closes the life of the house and consecrates it to a particularmoment of history. This is principally because the community now sees that place as a monument to that event. Even if no documentary ‘campus’ history attaches itself to the building, the sense of moral coherence demands that such history be supplied. Having been consecrated to history, the price to be paid for its violation is for the violator to directly experience history.

Hence the sign of the haunted house is its invisible parallel life wherein history is recapitulated. [2] Furthermore this history is experienced often as wilderness/chaos. This equation between history and wilderness operates because of the pervasive power that history has on us – the lives of all readers of Magonia are conditioned by the fact that, e.g., the Allies won World War II and not the Axis. History is an irreducible fait accompli: a brute, unchanging fact of nature. It has immense power over us, but we have no power at all over it.That is not all, as Gould and Cornell point out. [3] In ‘real’ cases it is difficult to separate out poltergeists and hauntings. Note that in parapsychological folklore poltergeists are associated with the ‘awakening’ of the sexual energies of adolescents, hauntings with events taking place after death. Poltergeist disturbances are thus connected with the emergence of potentialities to create life (before the beginning), hauntings are connected with the fading away of what was once a life (after the end).

Polts and haunts thus mark the alpha and omega of the organic round; together they form a symbol for the creation and destruction of life. Sexuality, procreation, birth and death belong to the wilderness and they are barely contained within the structures of society. The shattering of the family home and property represents the incapacity of the family to tame the raw energies of creation and destruction.

Ghosts, haunts and polts then are the signs of the liminal zones between being and not being: the history of the haunted house is the history of repetitions of this organic round, or its dramatic severance. Amongst the commonest motifs is that of the friendly or, hostile house. The house appears to accept or reject the incomer, and the incomers sense of ease or unease is projected onto the house, aided and abetted by subtle clues from neighbours.

The theme of hostile houses suggests a confusion between people and places: the disturbed house is a metaphor for disturbed family dynamics. For example, one of Mackenzie’s female correspondents reported that her childhood had been made unhappy by a ‘hostile presence’ in her house, centred on a bedroom which made her “pale and thin unlike all the other children”, and which made her reluctant to return home from school. [4] These are typical symptoms of a victim of child abuse. This lady’s mother refused to discuss the incidents, saying her own childhood had been made unhappy by the psychic delvings of her mother.

In another case a woman claimed that a hostile presence nearly caused the breakup of her marriage: her husband laughing at her fears caused her to panic and fall down stairs on more than one occasion – giving hints of suppressed violence.

In a case from Birmingham in 1955, a poltergeist was blamed for the death of a month-old baby. Raps and whisperings were heard in the house, and a four-year-old child saw a ‘dog’ sitting on the baby’s face. [7,8]

At present no detailed studies exist which look at the haunted house from the ‘new parapsychological’ perspective. Osborne’s study of The Woman in Brown’ [5], or Fodor on ‘Ash Manor’ [6] being exceptions. Each such incident may be pregnant with meaning, for the experient, even the story may be selected because it deals with the incomer’s problems.

In the case of ‘The Woman in Brown’, the appearance of ‘the woman’ to the central percipient when a telephone rang, was traced through a network of past traumatic experiences, both real and fantisised, involving sudden death and blankets. In the Ash Manor case, the incidents revolved round a couple’s sexual conflicts.

In such cases ‘dead things which will not lie down’ from the percipient’s personal history, become connected with or projected onto the dynamic of the off-campus history of the territory where the events take place. The ‘objectivity’ and collective nature of such incidents derives from a collective fantasy producing traumas with much drama, the ‘ghost story’ of a property, may, on closer reflection, show some correspondence to the personal concerns of the living. Such stories often involve violation of profound taboos, domestic murder, suicide, infanticide and forbidden passions.

It is difficult to say of course, how many alleged poltergeists are covers for domestic violence. This break-down of traditional family mores leads to a reversal of the home and family as a bastion against the forces of outer chaos. The haunted house is transformed into a wild anti-home, a place to flee from in fear, instead of run to for security. The majority of haunted houses are not the property of the occupiers. The traditional Victorian haunted house was the short-lease house, where the servants come with the property. The archetypal modern haunted house is the council house. Such houses literally ‘belong to someone else’. They are perhaps more ‘used’, have more off-campus history than other, more settled, houses. There is a greater likelihood of a failure of bonding between the occupant and the house.

I have previously argued that the idea of the changeling arose as a mechanism to rationalise child abuse and the failure of parental bonding. The parents’ feelings of hatred, aggression and alienation are projected onto the child itself, turning it into a hostile alien presence. May not a similar mechanism exist for houses: the incomer’s sense of alienation from the house or community, and their failure to experience the house as ‘home sweet home’ are projected onto the house, now regarded. like the changeling child, as a hostile, threatening presence.It is also possible that a sizeable proportion of haunted houses are ‘first time’ homes, wherein young couples are experiencing the strains of marriage and adult responsibilities, and where the home is a source of worry rather than idealised domestic bliss. The problems of the ‘home’, in the sense of family life, becomes projected on the physical structure of the house. Alienation from the home becomes experience of the house as alien. 

The mediums and exorcists who visit such houses know what their clients want and need: a good costume melodrama, full of fire and passion and suffering, which like a TV soap, tells the audience “You think you’ve cot problems…!” Such stories contain stock situations which inform the community of expected norms.

There is a school of sociologists which argues that society needs criminals and deviants to denounce, in order to demonstrate its rules and solidify the community in upholding them. The haunted house is a marking-stone of the violation of community taboos, a scapegoat in brick and stone for all the dark and unworthy secrets of the community. Do the incomers then take upon themselves the traumas of the whole commuity? Do they become involuntary sin eaters?


  1.  MEILAND, Jack W. Scepticism and historical knowledge (Random House studies in philosophy) Random House, 1965.
  2.  The noises groans and bangings reported in haunted houses are remarkably reminiscent of those of a charivari or rough riding, In this traditional ritual the members of the community whose norms had been violated would parade outside the offender’s house banging pots, making groans and other noises, throwing pebbles at the windows, indeed generally behaving just like poltergeists, to make life unpleasane. The incomer had violated the taboo against entering space reserved for hauntings, Indeed, traditional lore connects hauntings with the violation of specific taboos, such as building houses over graveyards, playing with Ouija boards or dancing on graves, all of which violate the sanctity and separateness of history and the ancestors.
  3.  GAULD, Alan and CORNELL, A. D.  Poltergeists Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  4.  MACKENZIE, Andrew.  Seen and Unseen: Study of Presences, Apparitions and Other Paranormal Phenomena. Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1987.
  5.  OSBORNE, Edward, ‘The ‘Woman in Brown; an investigation of an apparition’, Journal of the SPR vol. xxxv, no, 655 (Nov-Dec, 1949), pp, 123-53.
  6.  FODOR, Nandor. The Haunted Mind: A Psychoanalyst Looks at the Supernatural, Helix Press, 1959.
  7.  MOSS, Peter. Ghosts Over Britain. Sphere 1979.
  8.  BRADDOCK, Joseph. Haunted Houses 1956 

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One Measures a Circle… Peter Rogerson


circleFrom Magonia 26, June 1987

Peter Rogerson examines the folklore of ‘Balls of Light’ (BOLS), and finds some remarkable connections with UFOs, poltergeists and witchcraft

In the Rio Grand area of the United States, Lights in the Sky (LITS) are well known amongst both whites and Indians as signs of high flying witches. As Pulitzer Prize winning Indian novelist N. Scott Momaday wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexicanof 24th September 1972:”There are witches at Lémy Pueblo, and when I lived there I knew them sure enough. One night I saw some curious lights away in the distance, small points of light moving erratically about at ground level, and I was told them they were witch lights. I thought nonsense, there are some boys running about with flashlights, that is all. And then one of the lights rose slowly and moved like a shooting star across the whole expanse of the sky. I shudder to think of it”

The community believed that witches could fly disguised as gourds, eggs, pumpkins and especially fireballs. People could be abducted by witches, teleported to distant locations. The Cochite describe such fireballs as measuring six to twelve inches in diameter, and consisting of a black centre with a surrounding surface of fiery red flames. Other pueblos believed similar things.Strange tales are told of these lights – two men travelling the road to Chama late one December night saw at about 1 o’clock in the morning a phantasmal light in the distance. At first they thought it might be a campfire of wood gatherers, but on drawing close they saw it change shape and make unearthly motions. Finally it soared upwards and shot across the horizon to the town of San Luis. When the men went to a nearby house to enquire about the strange phenomenon, the farmer claimed he was bewitched and the fireball was his tormentor.

Nicolo Marina of San Mateo saw a fireball descending into an arroyo and on going to investigate he discovered it had changed into a huge rat. As he chased it through tall grass it suddenly changed into a dog, gave a savage growl and disappeared among the willows.

Men named Juan were noted as witchfinders and capturers. An excellent way to capture witches was to draw a circle on the ground. One such man was Juan Chavez of Torré, who lived in the 1890′s. One day, riding from Torré to visit a friend in Casa Colorado, down an isolated stretch of road he perceived a large ball of fire leaping over the countryside in great bounds. Realising it was a transformed witch, he dismounted and drew a circle on the road. The flaming object then flew into the circle and vanished. Juan carried on with his journey. Returning along the same route the next day he found an old woman named Chata, a suspected witch, sitting on the road unable to move unless he held her hand.

The bewitchment that these fiery witches brought was the supernatural attack. A modern case of this sort occurred in 1966 at the Alfaneo Quintana home in El Llan, south of Taos. A barrage of rocks pelted the house during the late night hours, and some witnesses saw weird luminosities. The wife of a local J.P., Mrs Mascarenas described fireballs “about the size of a golf-ball, a strange blue gray colour, not at ail like a flashlight”. They bounded along higher than a man’s head, and disappeared into the trees further down the Santa Barbara road. No footprints were found, and bullets fired into the darkness had no effect. (1)

There are a number of stories connecting strange assaults and ghost-lights in the literature.

In July 1962 a series of strange flashes like neon tubes, which were seen whether the blinds were drawn or not, plagued the Howell home in Clayton, North Carolina. They were red or yellow, about the brilliance of a 200 watt bulb. Parapsychologist William Roll who investigated saw “three clear but not blinding flashes of Iight”. No prowler was found, and it a geared that the lights originate from inside the house. (2)

During the period October 9-14, 1966, poltergeist disturbances, including phantom stone-throwers, furniture overturning and increases in air pressure were reported from the Szlanfucht house in Osceola, St Joseph’s County, Indiana. At the same time strange lights were seen in the sky in the area.’ (3)

In March of the same year similar disturbances were reported at the Reeves home near Toledo, Oregon. The story began when 15-year-old Kathy Reeves and a friend were walking up Pioneer Road and saw a ruddy glow in the distance. As they got closer they saw it was “smoke boiling all around, making a dome shape as high as a room”. No fire was found in the field, however.

From then on the family was plagued with ‘crawling lights’. At one time someone fired at something outside, which retreated,then the inside of the house suddenly sparkled with a multitude of crawling lights. Mrs Reeves woke up, at two in the morning to see:

“my whole bedroom … a rosy glow so bright you could read a newspaper in it … I happened to turn towards the door leading into the living room and I saw this thing like a cloud just hanging there. It was water-melon coloured and you could see through it … It was just a kind  of hazy mass for a couple of seconds, and then it disappeared.”

A chemist friend, Max Taylor, camped out and saw two pulsating spots of light on opposite ends of the house, like a beam of light seen at the extremes. Presumably on the same night a deputy saw an orange light maneuvering, which disappeared after ninety seconds with a high-pitched whine. Strange walking stumps were also seen and marks found in fields. Others saw peculiar objects in the sky. (4)

The Gould farm at South Middleton (Mass.) was, in 1977/78 the scene of a complex series of events, including a landed UFO which left physical traces, a small helmeted being which appeared and disappeared, a faceless prowler, a vague case of cattle mutilation, and poltergeist disturbances. (5)

At Lowell, Michigan, three men of ‘dubious repute’ became paranoid over ‘kids’ in camouflage suits who had the unnerving habit of running on all fours. Gradually they became convinced that ‘they’ were climbing into their house, and fired at them. The men thought they had killed one of the intruders, but no body was found, and the trio were arrested by the police. At Shelbyville, Michigan, a young couple panicked, believing they were being besieged by prowlers or police, wearing SWAT suits showing green lights. There was also a prowler who broke in, who fled when pursued, and a red light like a lens moving up and down the window of a the house. (6)

There are many other cases which fall into this pattern – an isolated farm in Ohio besieged by two giant ‘ape-men’ and something like a hazy, box-like light, a light beam, flashes of light in a wood, and a red light flitting among the trees, as well as cases like Hopkinsville, and even the notorious Ripperstone Farm in Wales.

evansIt was not just in the Rio Grande that strange lights were associated with witchcraft. Similar beliefs were held by several African societies. During his field work amongst the Azande, Evans-Pritchard (left) saw, just once,

“…witchcraft on its paths. About midnight, before retiring, I took a spear and went for my usual nocturnal stroll. I was walking in the garden at the back of my hut, amongst banana trees, when I noticed a bright light passing at the back of my servant’s hut towards the homestead of a man called Tupoi. As this seemed worth investigation I followed its passage, until a grass screen obscured the view. I ran quickly through my hut to the other side in order to see where the light was going … but did not regain sight of it. I knew that only one man, a member of my household, had a lamp that bright, but he had not been out or used it”

Evans-Pritchard was told he had seen witchcraft which had caused the death of a man in Tupoi’s compound. (8)

Amongst the Basuto, witches were accused of turning into fireballs in order to harass houses, and the witches appeared as balls of fire amongst the treetops. Men could extinguish them by using the proper medicine. (9)

What can one make of this apparent connection between LITs, witchcraft and poltergeists? A good clue lies in the cases of ‘phantom attackers’. An historical case mentioned by Westrum offers perhaps the best insight. In 1692 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, an Ebenezer Bapson was plagued by ‘French-men and Indians’ who were repeatedly shot at for three weeks, defying all attempts to kill or capture them. Westrum comments: “the bold appearance of these phantoms, the general lack of concern about the gunfire, their seeming invulnerability when convincingly hit, and their skulking are all familiar elements in these stories.” (6)

The context of this story is dramatic. 1692 was the year of Salem, in the period when the security and very survival of New England was at stake. The Puritan experiment was threatened externally by the French and Indian depredations, which meant that no colonial border was safe; and the charter of 1691 enfranchised dissident Quakers
and Anglicans (10) The external and internal wildernesses were threatening the New World garden. The Indians and French were seen less as humans, than as demonic inhabitants of the howling wilderness (11) – a wilderness now perceived as “less a force to be mastered in accordance with divine plan than a menacing presence that threatened to encroach on their territories.” (10)

The same theme of habitat under siege from the wilderness is obvious. Perhaps the paradigm here is the famous film Assault on Precinct Thirteen in which the embattled inhabitants of an isolated urban police station are surrounded by semi-substantial urban terrorists and hoodlums, who remove the bodies of their dead, leaving little physical evidence.

The social, natural and supernatural wilderness is merged into a single vision of external chaos. The real life victims of such attacks appear to be those in geographical and/or socially marginal situations: inhabitants of the liminal zone on the physical and psychological frontiers of society, exposing themselves to the wilderness. The besiegers are today’s witches and demons, with all their traditional immunity to human weapons. By incorporating the wilderness into themselves they transcend the human condition: as part of the wilderness they are invulnerable to the puny efforts of human technology.

circleThe real life victims of such attacks appear to be those in geographical or socially marginal situations: inhabitants of the liminal zone on the physical and psychological frontiers of society

The central treason of witchcraft is the invitation of wilderness into the midst of habitat. It is not surprising that one of the afflicted at Salem reported that her spectral assailants included French-Canadians and Indians, and that the book which directed their diabolic mission was a Catholic devotional text written in French. (10)

Witchcraft accusations are generally believed to result from quarrels and tensions within the community; tensions which rupture the bounds of habitat, allowing in wilderness. To the Church, every act of sin or deviance placed the sinner in a liminal state, which made them an opening through which the external demonic forces could invade the community.So what can the equation BOLS = Witches mean? In a variety of cultures we have seen that BOLS are equated with the wild spirits of the distant wilderness, far beyond the frontiers of human habitation. They also symbolise the zone of the spiritual: in becoming a fireball the witch has achieved a final transcendence of the human condition.It might well be that if BOLs are associated with seismic activity or ball-lightning they would be even more appropriate as symbols of the wilderness, both perfectly demonstrating the fragility of human habitat, buffeted by the weather, split and shaken by the trembling earth.

A strict application of the psycho-socio-cultural hypothesis would make us hesitate about awarding any special status to modern ‘scientific’ theories making them immune from psycho-socio-cultural analysis. Such an analysis would argue that the modern folklore of earthquake lights, fault-lines and so on, contains profound symbolism. Fault-lines are symbolic liminal zones, gaps in reality where energies might enter.

Whether taken as fact or symbol, BOLs as earthquake lights, harbingers of wilderness, can also be interpreted as spirits of transcendence, reminders that reversion to, or coming of the wilderness is not just a degradation.



1. SIMMONDS, Marc. Witchcraft in the Southwest; Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande, Norland Press, 1974.
2. ROLL, William G, The Poltergeist, Star Books, 1976, (Chapter 6, Strange Lights in Clayton, North Carolina).
3. SMITH, J, ,The Case of the Messy Poltergeist’, Fate (UK), May 1967 p,42 ff.
4. LLOYD Dan, ‘Crawling Lights, a new development’, FSR vol, 13, no, 3, (May-June 1967) pp,29-30.
5. WEBB David F, ‘Humanoids at South Middleton’ FSR, vol, 27, no, 1, pp 23-28 and vol, 27, no, 2, pp. 8-12.
6. WESTRUM, Ron, ‘Phantom Attackers’, Fortean Times, no, 45, pp,54-58.
7. RICKARD, Bob ‘More Phantom Sieges’, Fortean Times no, 45, pp, 58-61.
8. EVANS-PRITCHARD, E. E. Witchcraft Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Clarendon Press, 1937.
9. PARRINDER, Geoffrey, Witchcraft, European and African, Faber 1963
10. WEISEMAN, Richard, Witchcraft, Magic and Religion in 17th Century Massachusetts, University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
11. DEMOS, John (Ed.) Remarkable Providence, Braziller, 1972.
12, ROGERSON, Peter. ‘Taken to the Limits’, Magonia 23, July 1986, pp. 3-12.