On Ghosts and Apparitions: Essay - Summary & Analysis

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Elm Tree Walk: a Suitable Setting for Ghosts

      There was, among the ruins of an old abbey near Sir Roger’s house in the country, a long pathway which had tall elm trees growing on either side. The trees were so high that the sound of the fooks cawing at their tops sounded very far off and as if it was coming from a place which did not belong to this earth. The Spectator likes the solitude of the place and it seemed to him as if the birds were sending up a natural prayer to the Creator. He liked it all the more because of a report that it was a haunted place. Sir Roger’s butler had warned him against going to the place after dusk because one of the footmen had seen a headless horse there.

      The place did indeed seem to be a perfect setting for ghosts. The ruins were scattered all over the place and were half covered with ivy and elder bushes on which were nests of lonely and night birds like the owl. The place had once been a churchyard and remains of graves and vaults, were still to be seen. The atmosphere is awe-inspiring and footfalls echo among the graves. It is easy to imagine that ghosts and apparitions exist in such a place.

Association of Ideas

      Early and faulty education causes one to associate certain ideas and persist in this association of ideas even when there is no rational basis for their connection. A child is inculcated with the combination of darkness and ghosts and persists in this association, so much so that, in the end, he can not think of the one without bringing up the thought of the other. Locke is quoted on this matter. The Spectator himself saw on his walk a number of things that would conspire to frighten the weak-minded person into thinking of ghosts. A cow grazing in the dark could easily be colored by a slight touch of imagination to look like a headless horse.

Sir Roger and Ghosts

      The Spectator was told by Sir Roger of how when he inherited his estates, more than half his house was shut up because of the fear of hauntings. There were supposed to be ghostly noises in the gallery. A room was nailed up because a butler had committed suicide in it: Sir Roger’s mother had shut up all the rooms in which a death had occurred. As a result, Sir Roger found his living area largely curtailed. He proceeded to undo the fears of hauntings. He got the chaplain to sleep in each of the rooms to prove to the others that there were no ghosts. He managed to dissipate the fears of his servants in this manner.

Tradition and Historians on Supernatural Beings

      The Spectator would have dismissed the fears of the people as ridiculous if it were not for the fact that all nations and mankind through the ages have believed in the existence of spirits. Moreover, secular as well as religious writers have supported their existence. Certain people in whom the Spectator believes have also spoken in support of the fact that spirits exist. In the face of all this evidence, it would seem more unreasonable to disbelieve in the existence of spirits than to imagine that they are present everywhere. Lucretius put forward a theory that proved his belief in supernatural apparitions even though this was opposed to his philosophy in general. His theory was of course rather silly. He said that all bodies consist of thin surface layers and these continually fly off from the bodies. These surface layers which have flown off appear as ghosts to the human eye.


      On Ghosts and Apparitions, the topic is of popular interest. There is a widespread belief in ghosts and Addison wants to dispel this fear. He attacks this fear as having been born out of ignorance and perpetuated by imagination and the association of ideas. He describes the feelings of the rural folk about ghosts and spirits with the purpose of reforming them out of this fear. Once again we see the Spectator in the role of critic and reformer of contemporary society. He goes on to show that these fears are absurd and gives rational explanations as to how they must have originated. He quotes Locke in support of his contention.

      He uses vivid exemplifications to bring vividity to his discussion. Thus we have the description of the elm three walk and how its atmosphere could easily give rise to fears of ghosts. The example of the cow grazing which could easily have been taken for a headless horse, is another instance of how Addison uses these examples, to vivify his speculations. The account of Sir Roger and how he got rid of the servants fears of the ghosts adds interest to the essay. In this essay we also see the gift that Addison possessed of being able to create a sense of atmosphere through the description of nature — we see this gift very rarely in his essays. The essay does not completely lack humor even while it deals with a ‘fearful’ subject. One can not escape the humor in the description of Sir Roger’s tackling the situation of a haunted house. But at the end there seems to be some incongruity in the views expressed by Addison regarding supernatural beings. He seems to be justifying, the very belief he set out to ridicule. It would seem that he is against the prevalent practice of investing a place with imaginary ghosts but does not ridicule the basic belief in the existence of supernatural beings. Incidentally, the essay throws light on a further aspect of Sir Roger’s character: the knight was not superstitious and was the type who took concrete steps to dispel such fears in others.

      Addison had yet another aim in writing the essays, which was to popularise philosophy. He does mention the theory of Locke and uses it in his explanation of why people believe in ghosts in the dark. He also refers to the theory of Lucretius. It can, however, be debated as to how far he succeeded in this aim of popularising philosophy.


      Line. 9-13. I am very much......call upon him: Addison here describes the effect of walking along the avenue with tall elm trees on its sides. This path was near the ruins of an old abbey near Sir Roger’s house in the country. The trees were so tall that the noise made by the rooks and crows on their tops sounded very far off, indeed, as if they were coming from some place other than this earth. The Spectator was pleased and delighted with the noise as it seemed to his imagination as if the birds were sending up a spontaneous prayer to the Creator of the world, the God who supplied the needs of every living creature of the earth. There is a Biblical reference in the passage. It shows a simple faith in the benevolence of God. It is also one of the rare passages in Addison’s essay which have a description of nature.

      Line. 24-33. I was taking a walk......the sound repeated: Talking of the ruins of abbey near the country house of Sir Roger the Spectator says that the elm walk among the ruins was purported to be haunted. It was indeed, says the Spectator, a most suitable place for a ghost to make its appearance. The broken down remains of the ancient abbey lay here and there, some of them half-covered by creepers like ivy and plants like elder bushes which are associated with evil and ill-omen. These plants provided the nesting place for lonely birds like the owl which came out only with the darkness of the evening. The place was once a churchyard and there were still a number of signs of the graves and burial vaults. As one walked among the graves and there remains the slightest sound was echoed. A footfall which was only slightly heavier than the usual, produced a resounding echo. It was merely because the graves had made the ground hollow in certain places. In this essay, Addison aims at ridiculing the common person’s fear of ghosts and apparitions. But he draws attention to this foolish superstition by using concrete exemplifications. The description of the elm walk in the dark is used to bring home to the reader vividly that the fears felt by people about ghosts are generally due to certain natural effects and atmosphere.

      Line. 36-40. These objects......apparitions: Addison wants to educate the public and reform it out of baseless fears of the supernatural. Using concrete exemplifications like the description of the elm walk and the empty graves he brings home to the reader that it is the natural atmosphere and the imagination of the weak-minded person which, together, people a certain area with ghosts and apparitions. The sounds of the rooks seem awe-inspiring and the darkness of night adds its mysterious quality to all the objects in the place. As a result, it is easy for feeble-minded people to invest the place with supernatural horrors. Addison tries to give a rational explanation and reason why people should not believe in things like ghosts which in reality do not exist. It was merely the imagination of nervous people which created ghosts.

      Line. 46-52. The ideas than the other: Addison quotes the theory of the famous English philosopher of the seventeenth century, Locke. The theory was that of the association of ideas. He quotes it in support of his contention that it is the imagination of man which Creates ghosts. Ghosts and other spirits are not necessarily connected with darkness if one sees it rationally. Yet this association grows in the mind of a child who has been given the idea that ghosts and the dark go together by a foolish maid. It soon becomes impossible for the child to think of the two entities separately. The faulty teaching injects in the mind the association of two ideas which continues even when the child becomes an adult. So much so, that, the very thought of darkness brings on the fear of ghosts.

      Line. 77-81. At the same time......groundless: There is an apparent contradiction in Addison’s remark here. Having earlier stated that belief in ghosts and goblins are unfounded he now expresses a belief in the rationality of a person who believes in ghosts rather than one who disbelieves the appearance of spirits though the greatest historians, secular or religious, ancient or modern, support the existence of spirits. He says that the tradition of nations as well as the reports of men whom he had no cause to disbelieve regarding other factual matters give credence to the idea that spirits do indeed exist. This universal belief in the existence could not be wholly wrong and irrational. It can not be described as baseless and fictitious. Addison seems to be advancing a curiously anomalous theory. On one hand, he seems to condemn weak-minded belief in ghosts and, on the other, he seems to be supporting this very belief as being more reasonable than complete disbelief in spirits. He is apparently critical of the superstitious tendency of projecting imaginary fears on the things outside. He does not condemn our belief in the existence of supernatural beings.

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