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Ghosts Happen

Apparitions of the dead and spectral manifestations
Grégory Delaplace
Traduction de Dominic Horsefall
Cet article est une traduction de :
Les fantômes sont des choses qui arrivent


What is it that happens when the dead appear, when ghosts manifest? Beyond the variety of contexts, eras and approaches presented here, this volume considers ghosts not only as things that are believed in (or not), but also – and above all – as things that happen, as events. By the institutions they set in motion, the doubts they stir, or the solutions they inspire, these events generate solidarity, rekindle old conflicts, and define the borders of communities; in short, they force the living to recompose their world anew. Documenting an apparition invites us not only to ask what appears – that is, the forms that ghosts may take around the world – but also what it is that the apparitions themselves make appear; what is made visible as a result of a ghost’s manifestation.

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1It was a strange affair that brought Garry Allighan to the door of 132 Teesdale Street in early February 1938, in the working-class district of Bethnal Green, East London. The Evening Standard journalist had come to report on strange phenomena that had recently occurred at this address: for a while now, several times a day, barely human cries had been heard coming from the house, followed by the sound of smashing furniture. Despite having been locked shut, the doors to the upstairs bedrooms were found wide open, the furniture disturbed, chairs knocked over. Yet, as strange as they seemed, there was for the residents and their neighbours a ring of familiarity to these happenings – which is precisely what concerned them. The cries resembled those of Mrs Davis – a former resident dead five months now – during one of her epileptic fits, accompanied by the crash of furniture she would knock over in her attempts to steady herself.

  • 1 Nandor Fodor would return to 132 Teesdale Street on eight separate occasions, and publish nine rep (...)

2The journalist heard the scream himself while talking to the residents on the ground floor: “an eerie cry, like that of a woman in pain”, he wrote that same night (Evening Standard, 5th February 1938). Everyone rushed upstairs, where no one was supposed to have been at that moment, to find the door wide open, bedsheets on the grounds, furniture upside-down. The gripping article in which Allighan described his experience was most likely the reason for the crowds gathered at the premises the next day – and every day after for a week – to witness the strange events for themselves. It was certainly what led Doctor Nandor Fodor, renowned investigator for the International Institute for Psychical Research, to pay his own visit and interview the family, to determine whether these manifestations were indeed the result of paranormal phenomena, or just some base human trickery. Fodor questioned the two families residing in the house repeatedly and at length over the two weeks that followed his first visit: the Davises, who occupied the ground and first floors; and the Harrisons who occupied the second. George Davis, bereaved since September, lived there with his two unwed children, Grace and Sydney (five others had already left the family home); while Mrs Harrison had moved in with her husband and young child some time earlier to take care of Mrs Davis, who had been infirm for many years.1

3As he talked to the two families, and in particular to Grace and Mrs Harrison, who seemed the most affected by the events, Fodor learned that these phenomena had in fact been going on for some time; they had started immediately after Mrs Davis’ burial, and increased significantly since November. Furthermore, the cries and overturned furniture were not the only incidents reported: a series of repeated knocks – “like Morse code”, Fodor wrote in his first report – coming through the ceiling and walls at various times during the day; cold draughts passing inexplicably through rooms; people feeling an oppressive weight on their chests in the early hours of the morning; the smell of formalin or Bovril, Mrs Davis’ favourite drink, suddenly filling the air before dissipating. More disturbing still, both Grace and Mrs Harrison each claimed separately to have seen the misty form of a hand coming through the doorframe on the ground floor, as well as a figure recognisably that of Mrs Davis. On another occasion, as several people were gathered in the sitting room, a portrait of the dead woman on the wall began to slowly slide towards the piano, before suddenly flinging itself across the room to land in an armchair. And finally, objects were constantly being displaced, notably pin cushions, usually kept under a glass cover, but often mysteriously found on a table top just a few feet away; while the trinkets that adorned a chest of drawers would routinely appear on another surface nearby.

4From the start of his enquiry, Nandor Fodor’s suspicions fell on Mrs Harrison; her accounts seemed contradictory and did little to convince him; she would sometimes disappear just as the manifestations would occur, leading him to believe that she was behind them all. Mr Davis thought the same, suspecting her of having orchestrated the whole affair for a motive as yet unclear; though he would revise this opinion after his own encounter with some apparitions a few days after the initial interviews. The investigator also changed his mind over the course of his visits and the discoveries they brought. Relations between Mrs Davis and Mrs Harrison were far from good: the husband of the former seemed to spend too much time with the latter, and there were also rumours that Mrs Harrison owed the Davises money. A medium contacted by Mrs Harrison in November later revealed to Fodor that she had warned her client of Mrs Davis’ hostility towards her. This was confirmed a few weeks later when a misty figure that she recognised as the old invalid appeared before her, telling her in no uncertain terms to “Go!” In the end, however, it was theft, and not unpaid debts, that Mrs Harrison was accused of; when some of Mrs Davis’ jewels and money went missing, she – and not the dead woman’s senility in her final years – was blamed.

5There was thus no doubt for Nandor Fodor, nor indeed for the other members of the family, that Mrs Harrison was behind these occurrences (which people started to refer to as “the ghost of Bethnal Green”). But was she directly responsible? Had she pulled it all together herself from scratch? Or was she merely the indirect cause, in light of Mrs Davis’ resentment that prevented the deceased from leaving this world? Perhaps a little of both? The question, to some extent, was moot; ultimately, she was the cause of the problem and thus the key to its resolution – she had to go. And go she did, some time later in February; after which the phenomena ceased. But for the psychical sciences, the extent to which the ghost of Bethnal Green was a paranormal phenomenon remained to be determined; which Nandor Fodor was never able to do, concluding rather lamely that there was undoubtedly “a genuine phenomena (sic) behind it” (“I refuse to believe all that has happened in the house could be due to imagination alone, neither could it have been a hoax”), but that the final incidents were “due to overwrought nerves” (City & East London Observer, 19th February 1938).

6One might be tempted to view this story, and the other accounts of apparitions in this issue of Terrain, as an invitation to explore the nature of belief in ghosts, in England and elsewhere. We might draw on the experiences reported, and what those involved had to say about them, to describe various beliefs in regard to the hereafter, and to analyse the conditions in which the dead may be expected to return, and the measures taken to accommodate or dispatch them. One might be surprised at the intensity of such beliefs in inter-war London, deemed worthy of an attempt at scientific classification. It should be noted, however, that establishing precisely what the witnesses to this event believed is not so simple: Fodor was not alone in leaning first towards trickery, then a “genuine” phenomenon, before concluding that it was, to a greater or lesser extent, a matter of hallucination; Mr Davis, and other besides, changed their minds too. We might then view these accounts as a basis from which to trace variations in the intensity of belief, by marking the succession of moments when one person doubts while others believe; or when everyone appears committed to a shared truth; or, conversely, when this collective adherence seems to crumble altogether.

7And yet, to reduce these events to signs of collective or individual attitudes regarding certain representations on the lives of the dead and the hereafter – that is, to reduce the scope of these apparitions to the question of belief in ghosts alone – is to ignore some part of what is happening: the fact, precisely, that something is happening; that the Davises, the Harrisons, the psychical investigators, the neighbours, the crowds coming every night to witness these phenomena, are all part of a series of events that affect them and have a consequential bearing on their lives. Someone being forced out of her home, for example; but beyond that a radical reconfiguration of the relationships between all these people as well, and just as radical a re-evaluation of the composition of the world – or at least the house – that they inhabit.

8This is the angle from which this issue of Terrain will explore the singular, ephemeral, and yet imperious entities that ghosts consititute: as events, as occurrences of the dead appearing. Despite the variety of settings (Europe, India, the Altai, Vietnam), eras, and approaches taken, all of these articles have one thing in common: a conception of ghosts not only as things that are believed in (or not), but also – and above all – as things that happen.

When anything could be

9Of course, the compilation of a given population’s “beliefs”, or even the cross-cultural study of a particular “belief”, is in any case problematic as an anthropological project; this is not a new idea – so much so that it even seems a bit passé now. In fact, at least since Rodney Needham’s famous essay (1972), which already proposed to ban it altogether from ethnographic descriptions, most authors have drawn on this notion to question its comparative value in anthropology (cf. Pouillon 1993). Does everyone believe in the same way? And is the distinction between belief and knowledge universal? Can we infer an attitude of belief from the practices that appear to demonstrate it? It has now become common practice when dealing with this concept to engage in a reflexive about-turn and question the value of “believing in belief” (Fruteau de Laclos & Grellard 2017), or under which conditions one should continue to do so nonetheless, albeit with a pinch of salt (Lenclud 1990: 13). Yet, with surprising (in)consistency, the same authors that seek to distance themselves from this notion always seem to resort back to it in the end, as if it were a necessary and inexorable evil of the discipline.

10Belief does seem particularly unavoidable when it comes to ghosts. These paradoxical beings, whose presence seems so evident to the witnesses of their manifestations, and yet so dubious to those who come to hear about them, tend to lead us back to this notion. Even attempts made by the witnesses themselves to reformulate the issue in different terms are taken by anthropologists as a prompt to re-examine belief from a new perspective. For example, where Madame du Deffand, 18th-century woman of letters and salonnière, declared “I do not believe in ghosts, but I do fear them”, Jean Bazin (1991) reads “I believe in them a little, in a certain way, because I fear them”. Rather than rejecting the relevance of the notion of belief to better understand du Deffand’s relationship with the dead that visit her, he chooses to complexify it to perpetuate it at all costs, despite the protestations of the protagonist herself. Madame du Deffand may not believe in the existence of ghosts, he ventures, but the noises that she hears do nonetheless place her in a “state of belief” that makes her interpret each new creak as a sign of a spectral presence. Thus, the author concludes, one need not subscribe to a particular cosmology to see the world as if ghosts did exist; in other words, to quote Jeanne Favret-Saada (2009) on the subject of Nicolas Sarkozy and the Voodoo dolls made in his image that he went to great pains to have banned, “we always believe more than we believe we do”. One might easily imagine Sarkozy paraphrasing Madame du Deffand during the proceedings that he brought against the publisher behind the dolls (and won): “I do not believe in Voodoo magic, but it hurts!” In fact, not believing has never prevented someone from being “affected”, as shown by Jeanne Favret-Saada herself, in a context in which she has no difficulty in abandoning the notion altogether (2015: 145). Belief is evidently a spectre that anthropology struggles to exorcise; casting it out the door of ethnographic description, only to invite it back in through the window of anthropological reason.

11In this issue of Terrain, belief will feature neither as a starting point, nor as a broader context of analysis. The aim here is not to determine who believes what, or how. Let it be clear from the outset, dear reader: the following articles will leave you no wiser as to whether, or how much, the Altai, European scientists, the Inuit, medieval Italians, the Vietnamese, or the inhabitants of the Channel Islands believe in ghosts. In a way, to return to Madame du Deffand’s affirmation, it is not a matter of asking what she means when she says that she does not believe, but rather what she means when she says that she is afraid. This means understanding what happened to her to make her afraid, what measures she took to protect herself, and what took place in the ensuing nights. In other words, we must allow an ethnographic description to unfurl that precisely details the way in which ghosts appear, and the consequences that this may have on the lives of those “caught” (cf. Favret-Saada 2015: 54) in the event.

12For a ghostly apparition does indeed constitute an “event”, in the sense ascribed to the term by Alban Bensa and Éric Fassin (2002) in a previous issue of Terrain on the subject. As the report of the phenomena of February 1938 in Bethnal Green seems to demonstrate, an apparition is not simply an unexpected encounter with varyingly identifiable entities; rather the perceptive and affective experiences of the residents of the house, their neighbours, and to a lesser extent the investigators, represent a “rupture of intelligibility” (Bensa & Fassin 2002: 8) that defies any immediate explication. When bedroom doors are inexplicably flung open, when inhuman cries are heard coming from supposedly empty rooms, or when objects are systematically moved around, witnesses are torn from a reality that they thought to understand and jolted into a whole new world for which they must re-adjust their perceptions. The situations in question do not represent a common change in register – from the mundane to the fantastic, the incredible, or the magical – so much as a “gulf of meaning”, and an urgent, haphazard and more or less coherent deployment of “words and signs” (2002: 14) to fill the breach. This situation, like those described by the authors in this current issue, can be characterised by a before and after, in-between which, truly, anything could be.

13In these moments, the witnesses, as well as those drawn into the proliferation of enquiries conducted to make sense of what is happening, no longer seem to truly know what the world is made of; they find themselves suddenly faced with a trial, a test after which nothing will be like it was before. By adapting the concept of a “metapragmatic moment” proposed by Luc Boltanski (2008: 24 sqq.) to describe those situations where what was once self-evident must now be requalified, we might say that apparitions – of the dead in particular – are always to a greater or lesser extent meta-ontological moments; moments, in other words, in which the composition of the world is no longer a given, in which reality ruptures and falls apart, and demands re-evaluation. Even in contexts where the existence of ghosts appears better established, or more commonly accepted – as in Iceland, where Christophe Pons’ interlocuters are consistently amazed by his amazement at these things: “there are dead people in houses like there are bowls of fruit!” (cited by Pons 2002; 128) – apparitions are just as much atburður, or “events”, that demarcate a before and after in the lives of the families to whom the dead appear (Pons 1998). Evidence of their existence does little to alleviate the disruption caused by their appearance: here, as elsewhere, they force the living to recompose their world; to confront the possibility that certain invisible entities may exist; but also to redefine their relationship to certain places and certain people. Furthermore, the witnesses to the apparitions described in this issue do not seek an explanation for their new situation so much as a solution: be it banishing the guilty party (in Bethnal Green), exorcising the ghost (in medieval Italy), adopting it (in Vietnam), nurturing its memory (in the Channel Islands), or carefully avoiding it (in the Altai). The articles in this volume document the substance of these apparitions, the storm of recompositions they provoke, and the variety of solutions that they inspire.

What apparitions cause to appear

14The clear anthropological interest in these processes of recomposition stems precisely from how they make certain things appear, which until then the witnesses and their contemporaries had not quite been able to perceive or put into words. The apparitions make things appear, as demonstrated perfectly by Élisabeth Claverie (2003) in her study of the manifestations of the Virgin Mary in Medjugorje, Herzegovina in the early 1980s: the apparition of the Virgin allowed things “to be uttered that should have been left unsaid”, and “which until then had not been said” (Claverie 2002: 43, see also Despret 2015: 66). With every new challenge brought by the different groups who find themselves confronted with this apparition – and with each other because of it – certain factional interests begin to manifest. The Communist party, the village community, the Church, the Franciscans, the Serbs, the Croats… The Virgin appears in the middle of it all, at the very scene of massacres both past and future.

15Ghosts create their own micro-political consequences, which, as the event of their apparition grows and spreads, reveal the wider socioreligious fault lines below the surface. This is evident in the case of the ghost of Susan Leakey that shook 17th-century Britain, as described in a little book by Peter Marshall (2007) written in the style of a crime novel. Like in Medjugorje, it is barely noticeable at first, it is “insignificance itself” (Claverie 2002: 43): the ghost of a widow, Susan Leakey, appears to her descendants in a little coastal village in Somerset. And yet this village is linked to Ireland through trade routes, and thus finds itself at the heart of religious tensions between Catholics and Reformists, and between more or less dogmatic variants of Protestantism. The widow is, moreover, the mother-in-law of a bishop in exile in Ireland, hanged following a series of dramatic incidents, whose witnesses see themselves move between different worlds that the apparition itself helps to define. The ghost of Susan Leakey is more than just some private affair, more than the sudden and localised manifestation of an old widow’s spectre. It constitutes a “window open onto a lost landscape of meaning” (2007:16); “the world of the Leakeys” (2007: 9), visible to all who wish to follow the ghost through the series of events that its manifestation unleashes.

16Heonik Kwon’s now famous work on ghosts from the Vietnam War undoubtedly provides the best illustration of what happens when ghosts appear, and the possibilities that arise from such an event. In his contribution to this issue, Heonik Kwon describes the principles along which cosmic diplomacy is organised in Cam Re, a village located at the front line of the conflicts that engulfed this country during what the Vietnamese call “the American War”. The villagers of Cam Re live among ghosts: those of American soldiers of course, but also those of the French from the preceding conflict; notably, there are those young “ontological refugees” (Kwon 2008: 16), young Vietnamese from the north and the south come to die far from their homes and “in the street”, that is, without a grave. These are the “invisible neighbours” that appear regularly to the villagers, a reminder of the latent presence of a painful history to those that would forget it too soon. And yet these apparitions are more than just a visible manifestation of this nation’s traumatic past – and the blood on which it is founded; they also open up the possibility of a common future. Indeed, the families of Cam Re know full well that looking after one’s own ancestors alone is not enough to live on good terms with the dead; the hospitality that each family demonstrates towards the orphaned ghosts around them can sometimes lead to their being fully adopted into the family circle (Kwon 2008: 109 sqq.). The hope – or rather trust – that the adoption of strangers into one’s own home will be extended to one’s own dead over there lays the ground for a national reconciliation, one that the living would have been unlikely to reach on their own.

17Ghosts, by definition, seem capable of making visible in the present the presence of a past that will not pass. For what is a ghost if not a “radical untimeliness”, a “disjointure in the very presence of the present”, to quote Derrida (2012: 25)? Indeed, in a certain, mainly Anglo-Saxon, anthropological literature, ghosts have been seen as signs pertaining to latent memories of “critical events” (Das 1995), “of stances where radical dislocation disrupts the smooth transition of memory to future generations” (Carsten 2008: 23-24). Yet the “ghosts of memory” that Janet Carsten proposes to study in her book of the same name are not always manifestations of the dead in the strictest sense. They can also refer to underlying presences, obsessive thoughts, heartrending absences and feelings of emptiness, whose ethnographic description allows us to study in particular what violence or “excessive” loss do to memory, and the way in which these events can cause relationships to be torn apart or put back together.

18The case studies in this volume, however, consider ghosts in very literal terms: as manifestations of the dead. Following the historical or social contexts that ghosts point us towards (so to speak) may come at the expense of ethnographic attention to the circumstances and materiality of their apparition. So, rather than choose between the event of an apparition and the critical event to which it refers so irresistibly, this issue of Terrain endeavours to keep both factors in mind, by showing how ghosts unleash collective pasts from the moment of their manifestation. Besides, these apparitions are never just a matter of the past and memory: as Heonik Kwon’s article demonstrates, they also raise the question of the conditions for a potential shared future (see also Derrida 1993). Laura Bear’s online article provides another example of this: shipyard labourers on the Hooghly River in Bengal work among the memories of the terrible accidents that have occurred at various points along the assembly line; certain posts are known to be particularly dangerous, and so particularly haunted. Puja rituals are thus carried out to keep away these undesirable presences come to disrupt a production process that brooks no delay, not even death. This is precisely what the ghosts of the Hooghly River shipyards make appear (I would have liked to say “embody” if this did not seem so paradoxical): the irrevocable need for something other than production, for an alternative to life, for a halt to growth – ghosts are what happens when we think we can do away with death.

The return of the dead

19In fact, in viewing ghosts as things that happen, we should not forget that we are dealing here with “the return of the dead”, to borrow the title of the issue of Études rurales edited by Daniel Fabre in 1987. What is specific to apparitions of the dead in contrast to those of the Virgin Mary, or the extra-terrestrial phenomena recently theorised by Arnaud Esquerre (2016)? Most likely there is no single answer to this question, and each reader may find their own drawing on the case studies in this volume, coupled with their own experiences. Meanwhile, the accounts analysed by Jean-Claude Schmitt (1999) in his famous book on ghosts during the Middle Ages, like those compiled by Fabre (1987), suggest that the dead often appear in order to demand something. Broadly speaking, it would seem that the apparition of the dead is linked to a certain form of obligation, more so than in the case of the Virgin or extra-terrestrials. The dead hold a power over the living, they make us do things, and we in turn find an extension of our own existence in the responsibility we feel to “accomplish” them (Despret 2015: 89); this is “the imponderable weight” (Kohn 2013: 191 sqq.) that they place upon us. They gather crowds in Bethnal Green, demand offerings on Vietnamese altars, enforce the execution of wills and the payment of debts in medieval Italy, draw young people into the bunkers of the Atlantic Wall, and push inventors, like Edison, to dream up new methods of communication through which to make contact with them. Indeed, the dead did not wait for the living – anthropologists or otherwise – to take them seriously in order to exist; it is the living, more or less everywhere (not just among the Gypsies, Williams 2003), who hope to be taken seriously by their dead.

20Yet, in the following case studies, the fact that the dead who appear are human, and not some other type of being, is not a given: the precise nature of the “ghost of Bethnal Green”, for example, is far less clearly defined for the witnesses than the accounts of their experiences (recorded and consolidated after the event) would lead us to believe. Some of footsteps heard by the Davises and the Harrisons are thought to be too heavy for a woman, while some of the misty figures that appear seem more like a man with a moustache – possibly the ghost of a worker who fell to his death from scaffolding some years earlier – than an infirm old woman. Once more, anything could be; and theories abound. For a while, Mr Davis even entertained the notion that it might be an elf, claiming to have seen through the bedroom door “something like a Teddy Bear, about 2 feet high, pink white face, reddish coat, brownish feet” that “looked like an animal” (Fodor, 1st report). Meanwhile, Emmanuel de Vienne (2015) describes a very similar scene, in an altogether different context: in the forest with his Trumai comrades in the Amazonian Xingu, they heard noises said to be characteristic of the presence of a “spirit” (denetsak). Could this be a “beast”; or someone who had recently disappeared now wandering – dead or alive? – the surrounding area; or a forest spirit identified from the noise made by its large ears being knocked against tree trunks? The proliferation of hypotheses and ontological theories is matched only by the fear shared by these companions of misfortune. Here, and elsewhere, the dead do not always allow themselves to be seen as such straight away, through unmistakably recognisable apparitions: what our case studies describe here are, on the contrary, the at times numerous and even contradictory processes of enquiry by which certain people and things are called upon to qualify that which cannot immediately be qualified.

21In this way, Gilly Carr describes the efforts made by the inhabitants of the Channel Islands to authenticate and identify the apparitions of German soldiers that continue to haunt the underground corridors of the bunkers along their shores. Representatives of the Church make occasional attempts to exorcise them, but to little effect according to the local population, who generally prefer to call on the services of mediums better able to make contact with these entities and tell their forgotten stories. Each one of these little ghost stories contributes to the greater history of the islands, for which the German occupation undoubtedly constituted a “critical event”. Rather than try to forget this past, the post-war generations are working to nurture it, each in a different way to those before: while older generations carry out spooky re-enactments of the bunkers as they were, with a host of mannequins, uniforms and flags, the younger ones seek actual contact with the ghosts of a past that they have known only indirectly through the accounts of their elders.

22Elsewhere, some eras are marked by profoundly and radically re-evaluating the conditions under which an apparition can be recognised as the return of a deceased being: this was the case in Britain and America at the turn of the 20th century, when certain scientific societies, like the Society for Psychical Research, sought to hone machines and experiments that would allow the dead to manifest under conditions more suited to scientific objectivity, as described in Philippe Baudouin’s article. Baudouin shows how the female body finds itself at the centre of a misunderstanding: whereas female mediums considered themselves pioneers in the discovery of a world that men (for once) lacked the means to explore alone, male scientists saw them as mere psychical measuring instruments, all the more reliable for being passive observers guided by the expert hand of men of science – all the more objective, in other words, for being objectified.

23Meanwhile, Nancy Caciola describes another shift in the processes used to qualify apparitions: in 14th-century rural Italy, the Catholic Church sought to convince the people that the dead could not in fact return. And if this was true, then the possessed individuals crying out to all and sundry that they had returned from the dead with unfinished business must be caught in the spell of some demons in disguise. It proved difficult, however, to keep the people from responding to the demands of the dead made to them from beyond the grave; thus, it was not uncommon for the clergy to take a pragmatic approach, accepting some of the (more reasonable) requests made by these agents, about whom no one could be quite certain whether they were demons or the actual dead come back to the world of the living. The authority of the deceased seems to carry some weight, despite certain categorical ontological decisions made in their regard a priori. While the dead did not wait to be taken seriously in order to exist, neither did they worry themselves much about the institutions that sought to disestablish them (cf. Despret 2015: 16).

The matter of the invisible

24This issue of Terrain has chosen to explore the sensory dimension of ghosts: what is it that happens when the dead appear? The ghosts in question here do not manifest through simple signs that anyone, depending on their temperament or their decision to “enter into belief” (Bazin 2008 [1991]: 393), could choose to engage with or not. Rather they grab the living square by the collar, leaving them little choice but to pay attention, to be affected. This is shown clearly in Ludek Broz’s reports from the Altai region, in southern Siberia. An encounter with the dead – and going so far as to share food with them, as happened to the poor Azamat – is a point of no return: ghosts inexorably draw the witnesses of their apparitions into a radical and irreversible alterity. Short of completely shifting one’s cosmological moorings, by seeking the protection of the Christian God for example, one cannot help but slide towards their world. This, argues Broz, can also go for the ethnographer studying them: after all, does the attempt to fully grasp the existence of the dead not undermine the anthropological project, shifting it towards a radical alterity from which any detached observation becomes impossible? How far should we allow ourselves to be led beyond (or beneath) ethnography by these ghosts, towards an anthropology that would seek to “move along with” them, letting ourselves be “transformed” along the way (Ingold 2013). What might we lose in doing so? From Siberia, where a self becomes fundamentally changed; to archeological conferences where researchers dare to ponder what kind of remains their manifestations may constitute; to the intellectual salons of late 19th-century Europe, where scientists thought to contradict the laws of physics with their occult machines – ghosts undoubtedly have a destabilising effect.

  • 2 Vincent Durand-Dastès and Marie Laureillard (2017) offer a similar perspective in their impressive (...)

25Paul Sorrentino’s story of a family in Vietnam that comes into contact with a missing young boy through one of his possessed sisters clearly demonstrates that apparitions of the dead, whether spontaneous or orchestrated, often occur outside the framework built to accommodate them, as well as those mandated to speak in their name. This moving account details the words, attitudes, and the entire micro-economy of interactions by which the invisible suddenly takes a material form. In fact, words are not the only means to describe or summon the invisible. In his contribution, Jean-Claude Schmitt sets out the various graphic devices used by medieval illuminators to depict their ghosts: besides the white sheet so ingrained in today’s popular imagination, contemporary manuscripts feature empty spaces (absences intended to depict presences), as well as figures made of flesh and bone, distinguishable from the living by some incongruous detail alone. The work of the artists explored by Thomas Golsenne can be viewed as an extension of that of the monks, while exploiting the possibilities afforded by modern-day telecommunications to render invisible presences. As Jeffrey Sconce (2002) showed in his “haunted” history of the media, every attempt at long-distance communication made in this world has been accompanied (if not preceded) by an attempt to do the same with the world beyond. Julien Rousseau, meanwhile, uses the example of the hungry ghosts of Thai Buddhist cosmogony, the Phi Pret, to show how ghosts inspire different forms of depiction (painting and sculpture), combining different classes of graphic tradition (from Buddhist iconography to contemporary art), while stirring up political controversy in the process.2

26Inuit writer Markoosie Patsauq’s short story, translated by Pierre Déléage, illustrates the predominant role of narration in reproducing experiences of ghostly apparitions: the strength of the tale of the “brave man” lies in its detailed description of the sensations through which the character gradually becomes aware of what he is dealing with. Stones that move while remaining still, fights that are not fights, cries that resemble no other cry: these apparitions manifest through a sensory and corporal experience of the immeasurable. The profound discrepancy between what this could be (stones that have actually been moved, a fight with a flesh rival, the cry of an animal or a child) and what it really is (which cannot be immediately qualified) opens up a rift in the world, a space of enquiry to be filled with memories and conjecture. What the articles in this volume demonstrate is that this space is fully discursive and interactional: the matter of these apparitions – their thickness, so to speak – is made up of the words and actions deployed between people and things in order to qualify an experience that is literally disconcerting.

27To this end, Terrain has made full use of its blog to do justice to the proliferation of different investigative apparatuses and narrative registers that ghosts inspire with their manifestations: video accounts of ghost hunters on YouTube (Renaud Evrard & Jean-Michel Abrassart), the collective account of an apparition in France (Anne-Catherine Lavocat), the affected account of an anthropologist sliding away from ethnography (Alexa Hagerty), the account of an apparition in Shanghai (Claire Vidal), the account of life among the dead on the Taiwanese island of Kinmen (Jiao Wang), or in a Taoist temple in the Shaanxi province of China (Adeline Herrou). As these ghost stories unfold and interweave, the reader will no doubt start to feel the invisible gradually taking form. “People in Iceland are prone to encounters with the dead precisely because they know how to narrate their experiences” (Pons 2002: 129). Anne-Christine Taylor (1993: 438) used the Amazonian example of the Achuar to document the intimate and “necessary” relationship that ghosts have with narrativity. Telling stories is precisely what the dead make happen better than anyone, especially when they appear: “the accounts do not come after the experience, they are an integral part of it”, as Vinciane Despret (2015: 205) so aptly puts it. “The deceased is nourished and grows by these stories” (ibid.: 87); it is through them that the mere affect of their manifestation progressively assumes form and existence in the world. This lends particular weight to the accounts of anthropologists: in providing accounts of accounts, they too contribute to the dead’s substantiation. And ethnographic description, as a discursive practice, may well be what protects us from the same fate that Azamat met in the Altai: a gaze bearing on the dead with the affected living, ethnography may keep us firmly on the side of the latter, and keep the former at arm’s length.


28My heartfelt thanks go to Vanessa Manceron, Emmanuel de Vienne, Ismaël Moya and Alice Doublier for their invaluable comments on the original draft of this text. As the editor of this issue, I must commend the hard work and perspicacity of Vanessa Manceron and Sophie Laporte, without whom this volume would not have seen the light of day. I am particularly grateful to them, and to Emmanuel de Vienne and the team at Terrain for entrusting me with the responsibility for this issue.

29Translated by Dominic Horsfall

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1 Nandor Fodor would return to 132 Teesdale Street on eight separate occasions, and publish nine reports in collaboration with his colleague Lawrence Evans, all of which have been preserved, together with their correspondence and other documents (including the twenty-five or so articles that appeared in the national or local press after Allighan’s), in the archives of the Society for Psychical Research at Cambridge University Library (Hauntings, H64).

2 Vincent Durand-Dastès and Marie Laureillard (2017) offer a similar perspective in their impressive and recently published collection of articles that follow Asian ghosts from the past to the present through different academic, literary and pictorial registers.

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Grégory Delaplace, « Ghosts Happen », Terrain [En ligne], 69 | avril 2018, mis en ligne le 22 juin 2018, consulté le 17 août 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/terrain.16789

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Grégory Delaplace

Grégory Delaplace is a lecturer at University Paris Nanterre, and a member of the Institut universitaire de France (IUF) and the Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative (LESC). His fieldwork in Mongolia drove his interest for the place that the living ascribe to the dead. In the last few years he has begun to explore the archives of the Society for Psychical Research in the UK as a fresh source of reports of experiences and encounters with the invisible. He is the author of L’invention des morts (EMSCAT, 2008), and co-editor of Frontier Encounters (Open Book Publishers, 2012), together with Caroline Humphrey and Franck Billé.

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