Have you ever been to a restaurant and been amazed at the stupendous, mouth watering variety listed in the menu? You’d be even more amazed by just a single glance at the mindboggling variety of ghosts listed over the years. Of course, unlike extensive menu lists, ghosts lists are not “mouth watering”, but instead of exciting the palate they certainly fascinate the mind and excite curiosity. Incidentally, these lists should not be confused with the alphabetical Ghostbusters World List of Ghosts with names like Baba Yaga, Boogaloo, Drool, Egg Ghost, Jogger Ghost, etc. which forms part of an AR mobile game, similar to Pokemon GO, in which “players battle and catch a wide variety of ghosts, which they can then use in PvP battles and story mode”.
Significantly, though impressive, none of the non-game ghost lists published so far are exhaustive, yet they outstrip the variety on any menu in the world by a record margin. For example, apart from a detailed country wise list of ghosts in Wikipedia, just a single, non-exhaustive list of one country—China—consists of more than 1,500 ghosts ranging from evil to benevolent to creepy, with each of them making an engrossing read. Sample a few examples from a compilation by Xueting Christine Ni: Fu Gui— this ghost lives in the human abdomen, whispering to victims and causing extreme pain in their internal organs, followed by death. As they both live in the body and their victims rarely survive, the appearance the Gao Huang Gui and Fu Gui remain a mystery. Hua Pi Gui—their name literally means “painted skin ghost.”
They are green in appearance, with big gnashing teeth. They eat humans at night, wear their victims’ skins by day, and usually appear as very beautiful women. They are believed to be ghosts of women who were horribly wronged during their lives, the essence of whose spirits have remained in the bones for hundreds of years after the corpses had decayed. That is why they look for skins to get around in. The Hua Pi Gui recently starred in a lead role in the globally released Painted Skin I and II. Hell hath no fury! Huang Fu Gui—said to be active around Hubei. A shape shifter that appears as mist, beasts or people, and likes yellow clothes. He is lecherous, lives on a diet of other ghosts, laughs hideously at those he dislikes, causing death or crippling in the victims.
As Benjamin Radford pointed out in Live Science when writing about some of the most famous ghosts of all time, “Ghosts are both everywhere and nowhere. They are famously elusive when it comes to proving they exist, yet ghosts feature prominently in our culture…. 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…”
In Boo: A Reading List About Ghosts, Sara Benincasa makes another point. Ghost stories, she writes, seem to point to a reality beyond our own—or, at the very least, to an expanded understanding of what exactly this plane of existence encompasses. “There are many genres of paranormal tale, and I believe the greatest of these is the ghost story. Do we see the people who’ve died before us? Is this simply wishful thinking? And if it is wishful thinking, why do some people report terrifying apparitions none of us would ever wish to see? Is this a collective human tendency to hallucination, or mental illness, or are ghosts really real…?”
She goes on to cite a BBC article “The Truth About The Paranormal” by David Robson, which opens with an anecdote about a naked Winston Churchill encountering the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. “His supposed contact with the supernatural puts Churchill in illustrious company. Arthur Conan Doyle spoke to ghosts through mediums, while Alan Turing believed in telepathy. Three men who were all known for their razor-sharp thinking, yet couldn’t stop themselves from believing in the impossible. You may well join them.”
A website that claims its ghost list is “the spookiest, creepiest, most haunting collection of wraiths and phantoms this side of the underworld: Ghosts from A to Z!” has included in it Banquo’s ghost from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “Murdered on Macbeth’s orders, noble Banquo’s ghost appears at a feast, causing quite a scene. The historical Banquo was thought to be an ancestor of James I, which colored his depiction in Shakespeare’s play.” Clytemnestra from Greek myth/drama also figures in the list: “One of the first ghosts to appear in a work of fiction, Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 BC) portrays her as a scheming femme fatale who murders her husband and is in turn killed by her son, Orestes. Her vengeful spirit appears to spur The Furies to action, urging them to torment and punish Orestes. Even in death, she’s not a woman to be trifled with…”
The Flying Dutchman, often described as “the most famous non-human ghost” is also listed. “Legendary ghost ship doomed to sail the seas forever, never making port. “The list covers ‘good’ ghosts too such as Ibbur in Jewish folklore— in which a benevolent soul temporarily inhabits a living person in a beneficial and positive way”. Amongst the vast assembly of ghosts there is Xunantunich as well from “Real life/Archaeology”: “The name of this ancient Mayan archaeological site in Belize comes from Mayan words for ‘Stone Woman, after the ghostly figure who has been seen haunting the site since 1892. Dressed all in white with fiery, red glowing eyes, the woman reportedly appears at the site, ascends the steps of the ceremonial pyramid and disappears into a stone wall.”
Vetala from Indian folklore is there too: “Spirits who tend to haunt places of burial and charnel grounds; trapped between life and the afterlife, they can take possession of corpses and cause all kinds of crazy trouble for the living”. And so is Indian folklore’s Bhoot/Bhut : “The restless ghost of a deceased person, usually appearing in human form but with backward-facing feet. Bhoots tend to appear in white, often floating above the ground or in trees, and cast no shadow”. Just as making a choice from the sheer variety listed in a restaurant menu often constitutes a challenge, it’s not easy either to pick the most freaky, the most powerful and other “mosts” from ghost lists. But after some study, it is possible to zero in on ghosts that enjoy more advantages than other ghosts and therefore more power to affect our lives. Will tell you about them in the next column.