Timbered Walls a Sanctuary Makes

Ghosts, not as omnipotent as we thought apparently.

Lee Brown Coye
                           A Haunted House by Lee Brown Coye

A while back I was listening to Amanda Vickery’s BBC Radio series, A History Of Private Life when in the second episode she delivered a rather interesting aside. (I’d offer you a link but the series is no longer available on the BBC iPlayer.) While talking about the tradition of houses being a barrier against witches, wizards, demons, and other terrors of the night she mentioned that the ability of ghosts to walk through walls is a modern conceit. According to Amanda Vickery traditionally the denizens of the supernatural world could no more ignore the barrier of a stout wall than the those of us living in the physical.

Not surprisingly my ears perked right up at this claim. My assumption was that the ability to pass through solid objects has always been a basic supernatural right. Any talk to the contrary interested me greatly as it suggested I had been operating on a false assumption all these years.

Given my impression that Amanda Vickery is somebody who does her homework and that A History Of Private Life is a well researched series I don’t want to dismiss this claim out of hand. Still, I’m not willing to accept her claim without giving it some thought. However, something to keep in mind before I go any further is that Amanda Vickery was talking specifically about England, or at most the UK so folktales from elsewhere can’t be taken into account as that wouldn’t be fair to her claim.

The the first point to make then is that ghosts are a quite different category of the supernatural to witches, wizards, demons and frequently operate under different rules. This definitely muddies the waters of debate quite a bit. For example many traditional tales of haunting involve the ghost being located within the walls of a building which at first glance would seem to knock Vickery’s claim right on the head. Not necessarily though if we assume (for the sake of argument) that a ghost comes into being in whatever place had greatest significance for the individual when they breathed their last. By that logic a ghost might first appear either inside or out but is trapped on the side of the wall it finds itself on. Since uncertain memory suggests to me that in traditional ghost stories it was not entirely clear whether ghosts did pass through walls or simply approach some physical barrier and disappear right before it (often in order to indicate a hidden object that needed to be found before the ghost could rest) rather than actually pass through the wall this seems a distinct possibility.

On the other hand uncertain memory also suggests that traditional tales usually imply that ghosts are limited in their ability to roam anyway which makes the entire question of stout walls being a barrier rather irrelevant. Witches wizards, and demons being alive (arguable in the case of demons I know, but at least they’re something other than dead) are free agents who can travel the countryside. That being so folklore requires some means to limit their ability otherwise they become invincible which wouldn’t do at all. So tradition dictates witches wizards, and demons can’t just kick in your nice stout door and have their way with you at will. This same logic explains why in folktales vampires have to be invited inside before they can enter your house for a biting good time. If vampires could simply flutter through any open window on whim it would be fangs for the memories as far as the human race was concerned. A haunted house on the other hand is a limited threat because the majority of traditional ghost stories do imply the ghost is more or less fixed in one place. I’ve encountered more than one such tale in the protagonist is told not to go to a certain place at a certain time because the ghost is a danger and of course they can’t resist going to that place at that time only to be found dead the next morning. By this logic then the only way a ghost becomes a serious threat is putting yourself in harms way. Ghosts should not be a serious threat unless a rich relative demands in their will that you spend the night in a haunted house before inheriting their fortune.

Anyway, what the above suggests to me is that if ghosts traditionally could not pass through solid objects it was because they had no need to. This in turn means that on one hand Amanda Vickery is very likely correct in her claim but on the other hand she’s probably only correct because there was no reason for them to do so rather than because ghosts were specifically barred from passing through walls.

However, this is not necessarily the end of the matter because while the majority of ghosts don’t appear to be free-range there are some which are allowed surprisingly large territories. The Wild Hunt for example is sometimes depicted as being composed of the dead and as far as I know the Hunt can pretty much go where it likes. This only counts in folktales where the Wild Hunt is described as spectral rather than Fey Folk as fairies are entirely different piece of folklore with an entirely different set of rules (and Amanda Vickery never defined their house entering status, mostly I suspect because I don’t recall a folktale in which one of the Fey Folk wanted to enter a human abode).

Another example would be the many tales of headless horsemen and other vengeful ghosts haunting ancient roads. In these stories the ghost is always difficult to escape because they aren’t confined to a specific area once they materialise (though their initial appearance does seem to be limited to a specific place). In which case it would make sense for folklore to balance this ability for such ghosts to roam widely by placing the same limitation upon them as stopped witches, wizards, and demons from forcing their way into the family home.

So I’m inclined to agree with Amanda Vickery but with the qualifier that her comment is only relevant to a minority of ghosts.

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