Ghosts are both everywhere and nowhere. They are famously elusive when it comes to proving they exist, yet ghosts feature prominently in our culture. They are in television and film, from “Medium” to “The Sixth Sense.” Ghost stories are found around campfires and on bookstore shelves, in both fiction and nonfiction sections. Around Halloween, pop-culture images of ghosts haunt nearly every store, and hang as decoration in homes across the country.
Ghosts even influence some of our everyday customs, in ways we may not recognize (for example, the “bless you” heard after someone sneezes comes from an ancient belief that ghosts can enter the body during a sneeze). Here are some of the most famous ghosts of all time.
1. King Hamlet
Though ghosts appear in several of Shakespeare’s plays (such as “MacBeth” and “Julius Caesar”), King Hamlet is among the better known of the Bard’s ghosts and plays an integral part in “Hamlet.” Hamlet may be the central character in the play named after him, but without his father’s ghost, there would be no story.
King Hamlet appears three times in the play, each time during the night (apparently ghosts, like vampires, prefer darkness). The ghost tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his treacherous brother Claudius, and asks Hamlet to avenge his death.
2. The Flying Dutchman
The Flying Dutchman, the world’s best-known non-human ghost, is a seventeenth-century merchant ship said to haunt the high seas. According to sea lore, the ship, which often appears as a hazy image or a strange light, is said to be a portent of bad luck and doom.
The ship and its crew became eternally cursed when its Dutch captain refused to take safe harbor during a storm despite pleas from the crew and passengers. Instead the impudent Dutchman challenged God to take them down. The “ghost ship” has been reported on the ocean from time to time, including appearing off the coast of South Africa in 1923. Though never seen on land, The Flying Dutchman most recently appeared in movie theaters across the country in the”Pirates of the Caribbean” films.
3. The Bell Witch
The events that allegedly happened at John Bell’s Tennessee farm between 1817 and 1821 are said to be one of the classic American ghost tales. Bell shot at a strange animal on his farm, but the creature disappeared before it could be harmed. Several weeks later, the Bell family was tormented by a ghost that made terrifying sounds, shook the house, and physically attacked Bell’s daughter Betsy. The spectral assaults continued for several years, and at one point Andrew Jackson is said to have dabbled in ghost hunting and did his own investigation.
Though some authors recount the Bell Witch tale as a true account, there is little evidence that it is anything other than a ghost story. Jackson, for example, never mentioned the Bell Witch case at all; it seems that the future president’s role was created from thin air, possibly to lend verisimilitude (the appearance of reality) to the fictional tale.
While Bloody Mary spends her time in the ghostly realms waiting to be summoned to dark bathrooms so she can scare kids, Casper (whose legal last name is “The Friendly Ghost”) is the white-outlined, smiling ghost who tries not to scare people. In the Harvey comic book series, Casper was often joined by friends such as Wendy the Good Little Witch and Hot Stuff the Little Devil. While some found the idea of a dead child’s ghost hanging around with a witch and a devil a bit creepy, the characters were made benign and kid-friendly with the addition of “good,” “friendly,” and “little” to their names. Casper had a revival of sorts with a self-titled 1995 film, a modest success that managed to avoid the direct-to-video graveyard.
5. Bloody Mary
“Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary…Bloody Mary…” With those words, many schoolchildren had their first experience with a ghost. According to folklore, Bloody Mary is a ghost of a woman who murdered her children long ago. If you want to see her, go into a bathroom (usually at school), turn the lights off, stand in front of a mirror, and repeat her name three times.
While countless children (and surely more than a few adults) have tried to summon Bloody Mary using the prescribed method, to date few if any have actually succeeded. Most either stare at their scared reflection in the dark mirror or lose their nerve after saying the second “Bloody Mary” and run screaming from the bathroom in girlish giggles. An updated version of the Bloody Mary legend was made into a horror film series “Candyman.”
6. The Drury Lane Ghost
There are many theaters in the Covent Gardens district in London’s West End. Plays have been produced in that area for over 300 years, and some of the world’s greatest actors have appeared there. Yet one theater is better known more for its ghost than its productions.
There is actually more than one ghost said to haunt Drury Lane’s halls and wings, including those of several actors. The most famous, however, is a “Man in Grey” seen as a nobleman carrying a sword. Any theater worth its salt (and many that aren’t) reputedly have a resident ghost treading the boards, and the Drury Lane ghosts carry on their part of theater tradition.
7. The Vanishing Hitchhiker
“This didn’t happen to me, but my friend, she heard it from her hairdresser, it happened to her parents. It seems that they were driving along a lonely country road one night — it was really cold, maybe up in Minnesota, or Montana. Anyway, it was snowing and as they turned a corner they saw a barefoot young girl wearing a dress and a green shawl. Of course they stopped to help her, and she got in the back seat. She didn’t say much, and when they asked her where she lived, she pointed to a farmhouse in the distance. A few minutes later, when they pulled into the driveway, she was gone!
The couple were puzzled but got out of the car and knocked on the farmhouse door. A somber, grey-haired woman answered, and the couple explained that their mysterious passenger had said this was her house. ‘That’s impossible,’ the woman replied. ‘My daughter died near here twenty years ago, on this very night.’ Just inside the door, on an old wooden peg, hung her daughter’s green shawl!”
8. The Ghost of Christmas Past
In Charles Dickens’ famous novel “A Christmas Carol,” cold-hearted miser Ebenezer Scrooge has a change of heart after being visited by several ghosts representing different eras of his life’s Christmases (Past, Present, and Yet to Come).
Ghosts are often associated with life lessons and morality tales, and these spooks are no exception. The ghosts aren’t wasting time rattling chains or scaring kids; instead the Ghost of Christmas Past rehabilitates Scrooge by showing him visions of his past Christmases. Scrooge comes to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas- no, not holiday commercialism but friendship and goodwill.
9. The Murdered Peddler
One day, in the early 1840s in Hydesville, New York, a young peddler arrived at the home of a Mr. and Mrs. Bell to sell his housewares. He was invited into the home by the Bells’ housekeeper and in fact stayed for some days. The maid was shortly dismissed from service but abruptly rehired a week later. The peddler was gone, but many of his items were now in use in the Bells’ kitchen. The maid thought little of it until she began experiencing strange, ghostly phenomenon, only to find out from the peddler’s ghost that he had in fact been murdered in her absence.
At least that was the story told by two sisters named Maggie and Katie Fox, who claimed to communicate with the ghost. Years later, the sisters admitted it had all been a hoax; there was no murdered peddler, and the spirit communications had been faked. Still, the sisters had inadvertently founded a religion called Spiritualism, which is still practiced today. The Murdered Peddler is the only fake ghost whose presence started a real religion.
Slimer is the grotesque green ghost featured in the “Ghostbuster” films and cartoons. He’s green, he’s obnoxious, and he can spew slime… what’s not to love? In fact, Slimer proved to be so popular with kids that he got a starring role in the spin-off series “The Real Ghostbusters.” A reformed evil ghost that joined the Ghostbusters team, Slimer’s voracious appetite and guttural burps make him among the most memorable cartoon ghosts.