The transformation of All Hallow's Eve from an often somber, quiet, pagan festival to a kitsch explosion of tacky ghosts and pop culture horror, I think represents an interesting shift in our perception not only of what we are afraid of but what fear is.
For several years I worked as a ghost tour guide under the streets of Edinburgh, I worked for some wonderful fascinating places and some fabulously tacky horror-fests. I met ghost hunters, Wicca witches, farting dogs and an almost unending stream of ordinary people with personal stories to tell of dark figures, moving objects and slamming doors.
I also got to learn a little about the history of some of the ghost stories in Edinburgh. Stories of ghosts that date as far back as the 17th Century when the streets were said to be haunted by the victims of the plague. Now in this period people spoke with genuine reverential fear of ghosts. Because a ghost represented something other than it does today. Ghosts represented the dark side of the afterlife. In a Christian community that fundamentally believed in heaven (and possibly also hell), ghosts represented a chilling possibility of death gone wrong, dangerous, pitiable spirits trapped between worlds, crying out for help or possible able to drag you down with them.
Today however, in a predominantly secular world, I think something has changed.
The people that came on these tours were almost entirely preoccupied with one thing – were these dark rooms haunted? The spectre of spectres haunted these journeys. Frequently people would come up to me afterwards and ask me if others had seen dark figures following the tour, or they would tell me of other ghosts – I learnt of violent deaths and foggy apparitions from Belfast to New Orleans. Almost all said they were afraid while on the tour. I would disagree.
What the people on my tours experienced was nervous excitement - a tingly, bubbling anticipation. There was nothing sombre about their fear. Like Halloween revelers this was a fear to be savoured, to be enjoyed. When they came to me afterwards they didn’t want comfort, they wanted confirmation. Reassurance that what they really had felt what they so desperately longed to feel. They wanted to know that it wasn’t just their imagination – that something, not God but some spirit of the afterlife had reached out and touched them.
Like the Victorian spiritualists gripping for dear life to the hope of something impossible and magical in an era of reason and science, in our godless world ghosts are no longer a fear but a hope.