Wendy Moore reviews The Ghost by Susan Owens (Tate)
Samuel Pepys scoffed at the idea of ghosts. Yet after an evening spent swapping ghost stories with friends he crept to his bed “almost afeared to lie alone”. Little has changed in the intervening centuries.
Today we smartly dismiss the notion of ghosts yet remain entranced by ghost stories in books, films and on television and given the chance most of us can recount an eerie encounter which defies logical explanation.
Ghosts have been part of our culture since humans first sat around a fire and told each other stories. Ensconced in castles, pubs and country houses all over the country, woven into our literature and art, ghosts maintain a vice-like grip on our imaginations just as they did for Pepys.
Art historian Susan Owens heard her first ghost story aged ten when her headmaster told the school assembly he had seen the ghost of his father as he cycled to work. She has never met a British person, she says, without a ghost story to tell.
Charting the history of ghosts in British culture from the eighth century to modern times, Owens reveals not only how ghosts have endured but also adapted to different art forms, fashions and technology, shifting shape with an astonishing talent for survival. Ghosts, she says, “hold up a mirror to us”.