Reviews

Review: A Natural History of Ghosts

Written by Melissa Kane. Tales of the dead coming back to haunt us have been told throughout history, varying across time and region. 'A Natural History of Ghosts' explores the phenomenon of the supernatural and how the relationship between the living and the dead has an important contemporary relevance.

Tales of the dead coming back to haunt us have been told since the infancy of man, of what happens to our souls once we pass through the veils of death or whether we enter at all. Kirsty Logan takes us through the evolution of these tales, beliefs and stories, ranging from the ancient ghosts of Egypt and the Chinese ‘pregnant ghost’, to La Llorona and the emergence of spiritualism in the 19th century.  

The series is an immersive, detailed and passionate exploration of our relationship with death, the dead and the afterlife, observing how our relationship with spirits and ghostly figures has not only developed and changed, but evolved along with mankind and our changing histories. One such case, as she discusses, is the tale of Judge Clark Woodruff and his enslaved mistress, Chloe, who in a fit of jealously poisoned the wife of her lover and was subsequently put to death by her fellow servants for her betrayal and sin, doomed to haunt the plantation forever in search of her master’s love. Or was she? Logan re-examines the case in its historical context of plantation-run Louisiana during the height of slave labour to see Chloe as the mutilated victim of the reign of terror Woodruff enacted, to argue that the tale of her ghost is not a romantic fable of jealous love, but an escape plan that went terribly wrong.  

Logan argues that the tales of ghosts, much like other examples of lore, witch-trials and depictions of monsters, present a reflection of the human mind and the condition to which it finds itself in history and society. Influenced by tales from across the globe to provide a complex, beautiful and sometimes gory history of the dead, and their relationships with those who go on living. In the case of Judge Woodruff and his ill-fated slave, their story is one of glorification, of the simplification of the relationship between plantation owners and their human property that seeks to sentimentalize the treatment and punishment of African Americans through to the nineteenth century.  

One interesting aspect of the series is also the future of ghosts and their survival in the modern era: from growing scrutinisation and media attention seen in cases such as the Enfield poltergeist hauntings to modern TV excursions of parapsychology and investigation, Most Haunted and Buzzfeed Unsolved alike. Logan documents the evolution of the ghost as a piece of lore that intrinsically moves and adapts to human behaviour and belief, suggesting that in the new age of technology, we create our own ghosts; from text messages, to digital photographs and chat-bots of the dead, even commenting that her own work in the series is a case of the creation of her own ghost.  

Overall, the production of the series is an incredible feat of research, creation and storytelling; immersing the listener into a forest of sounds that accompanies Logan’s voicing of her tales and analysis. A Natural History of Ghosts, is an indulgent escape into the world of the supernatural, perfect for the fireplace. 

Written by Melissa Kane

A Natural History of Ghosts is a BBC Radio 4 production and is available on the BBC Sounds app 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“BBC Radio 4 – A History Of Ghosts”. 2020. BBC.co.ukhttps://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000nl7v.  

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