“‘Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, ‘Do you believe in me or not?’
‘I do,’ said Scrooge. ‘I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?’” (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol 1843).
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol; A Ghost Story of Christmas has permeated each year’s cultural interpretation of the Christmas spirit, from adaptations like A Muppet Christmas Carol to commercials for the newest gadgets. It’s by far the most recognizable Christmas ghost story. Though we often think of Halloween as the most obvious time for telling ghost stories, Christmas used to hold that office. The Paris Review did an article about this tradition this month, with five recommendations for Christmas ghost stories. The days get shorter, the darkness rolls in and stays there, bringing the cold with it and inviting gatherings around the fireplace with warm drinks, warm company, but chilling tales. I recently became a ghost guide for my town’s ghost walks through its eighteenth-century historic downtown. We mostly run through October, but we’ve started to embrace the traditionally haunting winter evenings (well, not me, with my low tolerance for PA winter temps). In doing the tours, I’ve seen first-hand how the atmosphere created by a small group of people, gathered close in the darkness around flickering candlelight, can produce a belief in ghosts. And it was in this spirit that Dickens drew on a long history of communal ghost stories.
I’m talking about the ghost story as a form of entertainment, but sometimes even this dips into the well of believability, and, in the eighteenth century, believing in ghosts was itself a form of entertainment for many, especially when that belief was not taken seriously. One reported haunting in particular incited a craze for ghosts and ghost hunting that would last well into the Victorian period, when the supernatural took on a life of its own. So, snuggle up with some Christmas cookies and a mug of mulled wine, sit close to the fire, away from the shadows in the corners, while I tell you the story of the Cock Lane Ghost.
In London, 1762, twelve-year-old Elizabeth Parsons began to receive communications from a ghost. Settling into bed after a long day, she was just drifting off to sleep when her dream was pierced by a sharp knock on the board of her bed. The knocks continued, accompanied by scratchings, and it became clear that these were no natural noises made by an old house. It became clear that this was the ghost of a woman. Fanny Lynes had once rented this house in Cock Lane with her deceased sister’s husband, William Kent. She had died two years earlier, reportedly of Smallpox, but her insistent presence claimed a more suspicious cause of death. Elizabeth herself did little with this information, but her father, landlord of the property, Richard Parsons, reported it to the Church and set a media fire ablaze. Soon, everyone was talking about the Cock Lane ghost and wanted to hear the sounds for themselves, attracting interest from believers and skeptics alike, including Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole (who seemed to raise an eyebrow that such a ghost didn’t bother to appear but only to make these petty noises). i
Allegations of murder pointed towards Kent, whose child Fanny had been carrying, who initiated a series of séances to disprove the existence of the ghost, asking it questions each time—one knock indicating yes and two indicating no. With each séance, the event attracted more attention, and the ghost became more attached to young Elizabeth, even when she was moved to other houses. The ghost became known as “Scratching Fanny” for the noises she made when the questions made her angry. Investigation of this phenomenon became both philosophical inquiry and public spectacle as crowds gathered to witness the ghost for themselves. It moved away from an attack on Kent and became a lucrative mode of entertainment that everyone was talking about. Parsons began charging money for interested parties to communicate with the ghost until Elizabeth was taken away for further questioning. The ghost may have survived media speculation and the cut-throat entertainment business, but it could not survive a series of tests in which Elizabeth’s hands were held in view of witnesses while they asked the ghost questions. As E.J. Clery describes the case of the Cock Lane Ghost, “All spirits, whether spuriously real or genuinely fictional, will from this time be leveled to the status of spectacle…” (17). Though the mid-nineteenth century would consider study of the occult as a serious interrogation of human mortality and the world beyond life, for now, the ghost occupied the important position of sparking the Romantic imagination and initiating an interest in ghosts as a social activity. Walpole’s interest in the Cock Lane Ghost—as an “audition”—typifies the curiosity and entertainment with which it was considered: it entered into a kind of production, both the production of a dramatic performance and of a commercial object (Clery 25). It is no coincidence that Horace Walpole would shortly after write The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel and one that revolves around the presence of a ghost. ii
So, as we wrap up another year and start packing away the Christmas decorations, don’t dismiss the spirit of camaraderie and imagination that this season conjures to give voice to chill winter winds, knocks in the night, and spirits of Christmas past.
i. Letter to Sir Horace Mann, Jan. 29, 1762.
ii. All information taken from E.J. Clery’s chapter on the Cock Lane Ghost in The Rise of Supernatural Fiction: 1762-1800. Cambridge University Press, 1995.