Alas Poor Ghost

Alas Poor Ghost

Gillian Bennett
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Alas Poor Ghost
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-87421-356-0
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)
    Gillian Bennett

    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...

  4. Chapter 1 Belief and Disbelief
    (pp. 9-38)

    It is common nowadays to think that belief in the operation of supernatural forces is declining in the developed world. Historians and psychologists have hastened to assure us that “for the most part, the dead have little status or power in modern society” (Blauner 1966, 390), that “the social function of belief in ghosts is obviously much diminished and so is their extent” (Thomas 1971, 605), and that “ever since [the] age of enlightenment, percipients in … much of Western Europe, have attributed to the dead an ever-diminishing social role” (Finucane 1982, 222). Such statements betray a concept of history...

  5. Chapter 2 Contact with the Dead
    (pp. 39-76)

    In this chapter, I turn from an examination of the competing cultures of belief and disbelief to focus primarily on the believers’ discourse. I want to discuss three related concepts—life after death, visitations, and ghosts—as represented in the memorates the Manchester women shared with me.

    Memorates are very good guides to living traditions. They are less influenced by the stereotypes of literature and popular culture than legends and more likely to reflect concepts current in the narrator’s home community. Through them, we can see not only how culture shapes individual experience, but also how individuals shape the cultural...

  6. Chapter 3 Witnesses, Bereavement, and the Sense of Presence
    (pp. 77-114)
    Kate Bennett

    In the previous chapter we saw that the Manchester women believed dead family members might witness their distress and come to their rescue in times of crisis. Occasionally the witness would approach the foot of the bed at night; more often they were experienced as being “with” them or “beside” them in their daily life. Problems and prayers could be directed to them. They might be “sensed,” heard, smelt, seen; very occasionally they might even touch or be touched by the percipient (see appendix 5).

    There were eight stories, however, which have not been discussed so far, in which the...

  7. Chapter 4 From Private Experience to Public Performance Supernatural Experience as Narrative
    (pp. 115-138)

    The women whose stories appear in this book relied very extensively on narratives to put over their point of view and evaluate their experiences. The framework of the Leicester study was overtly narrative, but the women in the Manchester study were never directly asked to tell a story. They were simply invited to express an opinion about serious issues such as life after death, contacts between the living and the dead, the possibility of receiving forewarnings of critical life events, and so on. Nevertheless, they did tell stories—208 altogether, 150 of which were strictly relevant to the subjects under...

  8. Chapter 5 “Alas, Poor Ghost!” Case Studies in the History of Ghosts and Visitations
    (pp. 139-172)

    As Pierre Le Loyer wrote in the sixteenth century, the supernatural “is the topic that people most readily discuss and on which they linger the longest because of the abundance of the examples, the subject being fine and pleasing and the discussion the least tedious that can be found” (quoted by John Dover Wilson in his introduction to Lavater [1572] 1929). All the stories so far have been oral ones told in the context of interviews and conversations and taken to be representative of the beliefs of many people living today.

    However, popular folklore and beliefs have from time to...

  9. Appendix 1 Collecting the Data
    (pp. 173-182)
  10. Appendix 2 Transcribing Spoken Texts
    (pp. 183-188)
  11. Appendix 3 The Manchester Respondents
    (pp. 189-192)
  12. Appendix 4 Linguistic Clues to Belief and Disbelief
    (pp. 193-194)
  13. Appendix 5 Word Lists Showing Story Patterns in Memorates
    (pp. 195-198)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 199-206)
  15. References Cited
    (pp. 207-220)
  16. Index
    (pp. 221-223)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 224-224)