Haunting Gone WrongOn October 30, 2019 by Elyse
These days, the newspapers—er, Twitter feeds—are filled with articles about lost jobs, dying industries and the changing face of the 21st-century economy. But amidst the handwringing over what’s been lost and who’s been left behind, one suffering population has been largely invisible: ghosts.
Recent centuries have not been kind to those whose primary job is haunting and causing mischief. It’s bad enough they have no union or special interest groups to advocate for them; they’re also hunted by ghostbusters and slandered by a host of paranormal reality TV shows.
In honor of Halloween, pause for a moment while unwrapping your—or your children’s—candy to learn about the desperate plight of ghosts trying to move beyond the grave to find their place in the modern, less scare-able world.
It’s an awful thing to destroy an illusion, but what chance has a ghost or a goblin or a boy or girl in the guise of either when Maj. Sylvester gathers all his precinct captains about him and tells them to keep their men busy on Halloween night?
. . . We ghosts used to have a fine time of it on Halloween. The police or constables or sheriffs or whatever it was that guarded the city used to be more considerate. If a shrouded spook threw a handful of flour in a person’s face or ran away with a gate or greased the street car track there wasn’t any trouble.
And then those ticktacks. What’s become of them, anyway? They used to be the best little playthings to make mean old maids scream or break up a spooning party in the back parlor between Mary and her best beau. But now! What chance have we, I want to know?
. . . Say, spookin’s getting’ to be bad business, isn’t it? All the graveyards are way out in the country, and they are not called graveyards any more, but just plain cemeteries. Cemeteries! Oof! Nothin’ spooky about that, is there, honest, now? What can you do in a plain cemetery, surrounded by a high wall?
. . . Remember how we put the grease all over old man Jones’ front steps and made him fall down and swear when he came out to go to the theater? Ha, ha, great fun, wasn’t it? And remember how we greased the tracks on the 14th street hill and the car slipped all the way down and hit a milk wagon at the bottom and turned it over? My, but wasn’t that motorman mad!
. . . Say, you. Wasn’t it bad enough to start that “safe-and-sane-Fourth” stuff and stop the kids from shooting off firecrackers? . . . But when it comes to knockin’ out Halloween, this ghost is going to protest. What’s the use of being a ghost anyway, if you don’t throw a scare into somebody now and then? The kids and I are getting’ mad.– The Evening Star, October 29, 1913
Culture has changed along with the economy, and today, it seems like every other movie stars a sexy vampire or another impossibly attractive otherworldly creature. Most of us are more afraid of running out of avocados than we are of the supernatural. Casper the Friendly Ghost might not have minded, but not all the undead made the transition from feared to fun so smoothly. When no one else would listen, these ghosts vented to the newspapers.
The Modern Ghost
The old-fashioned ghost was giddy and gay,
He lived in baronial halls;
His get-up was something appalling, they say
And the bravest Sir Knight he could frighten away
With his grisly form and funeral lay
Whenever he made his calls.
But sad is the lot of the ghost of to-day.
I never get even a show;
Though I scout through the night ‘till the morning is gray.
And dance on each telegraph post on the way.
And peep in at windows with grimaces gay,
I can’t scare a soul, don’t you know.
Ah! there once was a time, when they feared one and all,
A glimpse of my form and my face.
As I peered from a tomb or a tottering wall.
And crooked out my croon with a terrible bawl,
E’en the man in the moon with convulsions should fall,
When I put on my choicest grimace.
But now when I steal in the solemn midnight
To a nursery dim and dark,
With a sorrowful song by each crib, I alight,
And make horrible eyes at each infant in sight;
But the worst of it is that they never take fright;
For they look on it all as a lark.
A few days ago at a bank I dropped in
Found the president ready to skip;
He welcomed me with an affectionate grin,
Having just robbed the safe of available tin,
And everything else in the place worth a pin,
For his coming Canadian trip.
Did I frighten him? No! He said, “What a shame
That we couldn’t partners become;
You could flit with the boodle as quick as you came,
And leave the directors to shoulder the blame;
If you think you would care for a hand in the game,
You would clear quite a neat little sum.”
The time has gone by when a decent old spook
Found pleasure in roaming about;
In the days of my youth, how folks shivered and shook
If I gave them a grin or a good-natured look!
But how I am guyed in each juvenile book,
And losing my grip beyond doubt.
The ghost of the past could drive into a fit
A spinster of uncertain age;
But in these days they don’t mind my presence a bit,
And actually flirt with me when on the flit,
Or draw their chairs closer to where I may sit,
And wink at me, much to my rage.
IX.– The Cardiff Times, March 12, 1887
It may be quite true, as philosophers say,
That we live in a wonderful age;
But I know the ghost business has seen its best day,
So I think I’ll sell out, for it really don’t pay;
To the nearest museum I’ll hie me away
And exhibit myself in a cage!
Finally, we come to the tragic tale of Benjamin Binns, a ghost who, like his compatriots, came back from the dead only to find the world was not as he left it.
Keep your seat if you please, and don’t be afraid,
I am only a ghoast, a poor harmless shade;
I would not hurt any one here if I could,
And you couldn’t do me much harm if you would,
Knives will not stab me, shots through me fly,
But oh! the experiment please do not try;
It’s not for yself that I care not at all,
I’m afraid you might damage the wall
I’m the ghost of John James Christophe Benjamin Binns
I was cut down right in the midst of my sins
For my home is down below,
I’m let out for an hour or sow
When the cock begins to crow,
Farewell Benjamin Binns.
When I lived on this earth my wife often said–
If I should die first she’d never get wed;
To night I called on her, through key-holes crept,
If ghoast could shed tears I’m sure I’d have wept;
A man held my wife in a tender embrace.
She called him her hubhy, he’d take my place;
To make matters worse, and to crown all my woes,
The fellow wearing my best Sunday cloathes.
The gas was full on—she could not see me, but I was determined she should hear me. I said—“Hold! mortal peace of flesh.” She shrieked and held the mantel-piece. Then I in sepulchral tones said—
I’m the Ghost, &c.
I’ll try to forget my fals hearted wife,– Printed by W. Shepherd, 1880-1900
And give you a plan of my present life.
I get good engagements, with cash in advance
Attending the Spiritualist’s midnight seance.
I rap at the tables and kick up such scenes.
I ring clanging bells and bang tambourines,
If Maskeylyne says “Ghosts are hosh,” he is wrong,
For if he comes near me, he’ll smell spirits quite strong.
In the spirit of the season, if you see a ghost failing to frighten a small child or playing a trick with a ticktack this Halloween, be nice and give them a good scream—just like us, 21st-century specters need all the treats they can get!
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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.