10 FEBRUARY 2007, Page 17

Is this a toasting fork I see before me?

Chosts are fashionable just now. There are two productions of Ibsen's play and a movie. At dinner parties, if conversation falters or begins to move down forbidden (by me) tramlines, I ask, 'Do you believe in ghosts?' Instantly there is a babble. Nobody believes in ghosts personally. But everyone knows somebody who does, and provides an instance of what happened to him or, more often, her. This illustrates Dr Johnson's dictum on haunting, All argument is against it, but all belief is for it.' Dr Johnson was torn between his great fear of death and confidence in supernatural agency, and his contempt for credulity and the delight he took in exposing imposture. He played a leading role in detecting the fraud of the Cock Lane Ghost in 1762 and described it in the Gentleman's Magazine. But he would never willingly sleep in a house believed to be haunted. Neither would I. Would you?

When did people begin to feel ashamed of believing in ghosts? Hard to say. The Greeks and the Romans were brazenly ghost-ridden. Mediaeval man lived in a world of ghosts and spirits. In Troilus and Criseyde Chaucer wrote, without a trace of embarrassment, His lighte goost ful blissfully is went Up to the holoughnesse of the eighthe spere And all his readers took in the reality of this delightful image. Shakespeare loved using ghosts in the machinery of his plays, and in acting them too — his ghost of Hamlet's father was a notable performance — knowing that he could count on an easy frisson from his audience. All big houses with many rooms, some of them empty much of the time, were bound to be haunted. But ghosts, in those days, were good as well as frightening, wise too and helpful, like the one in Sonnet 86, That affable familiar ghost Which nightly gulls him with intelligence.

But Shakespeare also believed in spells to ward off apparitions and those who dealt in the supernatural, the song in Act Four of Cymbeline being an instance: No exorciser harm thee!

Nor no witchcraft charm thee!

Ghost unlaid forbear thee!

Nothing ill come near thee!

On the other hand, by Shakespeare's time, the advance of science was beginning to challenge credulity, Francis Bacon's essay 'On Superstition' being a notable milestone. John Aubrey always said that the Civil War was another one, destroying old customs and beliefs and depriving the young of the ghost stories which their parents had believed to be absolutely true, 'for gunpowder is a great fugator of phantasmes'. Not only shot and shell but fire was an enemy of ghosts. When the old Whitehall Palace burned down in the 1690s, besides the priceless works of art such as Holbein's masterpiece of Henry VIII and his family which were lost, many historic spirits vanished for good as the stones, tapestries and wainscoting which harboured them were destroyed, and then replaced by modern rooms and furniture. Ghosts rarely survive displacement. In the 1930s, as a child, I saw a Hollywood movie, The Ghost Goes West, in which a millionaire, in the way made fashionable by William Randolph Hearst, transported to America an ancient building and its ghost travelled with the stones. But not even I, aged six, believed that.

Ghosts certainly dislike novelty and cling to antiquity. Dickens, who used them as vital bits of machinery to forward the story, needed old buildings, plus darkness and fog, to create the right background to an apparition. In A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge returns to his city chambers, 'the yard was so dark that . . . [he] was fain to grope with his hands. The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold'. In these circumstances, auto-suggestion takes over, as it must in all hauntings, and Scrooge sees the doorknocker as the face of his dead partner, Marley. In the old house where Scrooge lives alone, he crouches before the fire to swallow his gruel. 'The fireplace was an old one, built by some Dutch merchant long ago, and paved all round with quaint Dutch tiles.' Again, he sees Marley's head in every one. All this is preparation for Marley himself, dragging his long chain of cash-boxes and ledgers. Marley's ghost, like all ghosts, came from the past, bringing it painfully into the present, just as in Ibsen's play syphilis, the consequence of ancient sin, is the ghost which haunts and destroys those who live now.

Persons who think a lot about the past are more likely to believe in ghosts than those whose imagination is confined to the present dimension, poor things But ghosts are shaped by the mind of the viewer. Thus Gladstone, Disraeli and Queen Victoria all believed in ghosts, as they venerated history. But Gladstone's ghosts were religious, Disraeli's romantic and Victoria's regal. It was M.R.

James's intense and detailed knowledge of the past which made him the greatest ghoststory writer of all. His Ghost Stories of an Antiquary still scare me stiff, especially that dreadful one, 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'. When I was a child I divided ghosts into two kinds. There were the white, glowing, sheeted ones, composed of the flesh of the dead, and the skeletons, made up of the bones. On privileged evenings, when I was allowed to stay up late, we would sit round the fireplace and tell ghost stories, until the coalscuttle was empty and the embers slowly died into ash. To me, ghost stories are inseparable from the old coal fires, and now that they have gone or are going, it is more difficult to tell such tales comfortably and credibly. I feel sorry for children who have never known such fires, or used a toasting fork, or huddled up together round the fender to enjoy the terrordelight of phantoms.

Is science eroding superstition, and will it finally lay the ghosts? Surely not. There is more science, and more superstition, in the world today than ever before. I believe Chesterton was right when he said, 'If a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing, he believes in anything.' A case in point was his contemporary, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was educated by the Jesuits at the same school I went to, but later lost his faith. He spent the second half of his life believing in various psychic phenomena, which now seem to us ridiculous — table-tapping, mysterious voices, levitation, etc. He took it all with deadly seriousness. I expect Richard Dawkins will end up the same way or, more likely, will turn to Holy Mother Church, who will receive him, of course, with open arms and crush him to her bosom. Noel Coward had splendid fun with the psychic folk in Blithe Spirit, though this brilliant comedy could only have been written by a man who believed in ghosts. Coward also got the point that ghosts needed old buildings, ending his ditty, If anyone spots the Queen of Scots In a hand-embroidered shroud, We're proud Of the stately homes of England.

It may be, however, that the 21st-century ghosts will not find old buildings essential for hauntings. It seems to me that the newest computers, with their mysteries, 'downs', bugs, bursts of apparent bad temper and sheer inscrutability, are a perfect environment for phantoms. We may yet be scared by Ghost Stories of a Hacker.