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A Most Strange and Dreadful Apparition

“Newspapers” devoted to reporting spooky behaviour were a hit with communities in the 17th century

People in the 17th century were so keen to read news of ghostly behaviour that they bought “newspapers” devoted to reporting the latest paranormal goings on around the country, research shows.

These cheap pamphlets reported tales of spirits and haunted houses, and suggest ghost sightings were a part of everyday life for communities in 16th-century Britain. They feature families who were having to endure spooky apparitions? ripping their clothing, creating horrible smells and even frying their bacon.

The pamphlets, mostly published in London, had names like A Most Strange and Dreadful Apparition of Several Spirits and Visions, A True Relation of the Horrid Ghost of a Woman and A Narrative of the Demon of Spraiton. As most ghost sightings were not reported to the authorities or recorded, these publications are among the only evidence remaining which shows apparitions were taken seriously by people because they felt they sent a message about death, and because they were connected to religious beliefs about life after death.

The five-page booklets, particularly popular between 1670 and 1700, show how people dutifully obeyed the demands of ghosts because they thought they were haunting them for a particular purpose.

Ghosts are described as being in the ‘shape’ of a deceased person or they appeared still wrapped in the winding sheet that they had been shrouded in for burial. They also took the form of an animal - ghostly horses, rats, chickens, a bear, a lion and even a dove were seen as well as black cats.

Some ghosts were reported as being “horrid” or “dreadful” creatures who frightened the neighbourhood. One lady materialised on top of a wardrobe “like a monstrous dog, belching fire” and chased a servant out of the room. In the 1680s in Scotland, a man and his wife were haunted by the shape of a head, and then an arm which “came v near as it were to shake hands with them”.

Hauntings were described as being noisy, with ghosts making “terrible groans and hideous cries”, or “great ratling” and “creeking”. Some hauntings took the form of sound alone, as houses were plagued with “screeks, sad cryes and heavy groans”, knockings and footsteps. On occasions flashes of fire might accompany the strange noises, and a sulphurous smell or “brimstone stink” was not unusual. When spirits were near the candles would burn low and blue, and dogs whined, whilst horses and hogs cowered and shivered.

The pamphlets featured ghosts which opened doors and shifted furniture around: one ghost moved all the pewter about the kitchen whilst another made a barrel of salt march from one room to another. This ghost also “placed a hand-iron on the fire and spirited two flitches of bacon into it”. People were disturbed in bed by ghosts who would draw the curtains of the bed to gaze grimly down on them, or pull all the blankets and sheets off the bed.

One ghost seen in 1647 cut all the “bedding, Linnen, Apparel, and Houshold-stuff” to pieces, including gloves, several petticoats, most of the chairs, a mattress, and a pair of stockings. Another flung people “heels over head” across rooms, or out of their house entirely. One ghost in 1680 caused people to be strangled with their own cravats, and “shewed great offence” at the perukes, or wigs, young men wore, tearing them from their head in a “strange manner”.


Dr Laura Sangha, from the University of Exeter, who has studied the pamphlets, said; “These publications reported ghost sightings as news, with plenty of detail from eyewitnesses. They were written to inform, but also to entertain. Because these pamphlets were written by an elite, well-educated minority, they can’t tell us everything about the beliefs of ordinary folk at the time, but they do point us to common expectations about what spirits were like and what their appearance meant’.  “These pamphlets show that people often assumed ghosts appeared for a particular purpose. People responded to ghostly demands to sort out unpaid legacies or to find lost wills. They went on long journeys to find still living relatives and even visited the magistrates to accuse murderers and reveal the location of bodies, bones and treasure. These tales definitely demonstrate a widespread assumption that the spirits of the dead sometimes returned to the living to interfere in worldly affairs.  ”



Date: 1 November 2017

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