1879: Playing The Ghost
In the 19th Century, it was well understood that there were two types of ghosts. The first was a supernatural occurrence, the spirit of a departed person hanging about due to a great injustice that still persisted, or returning from beyond the grave with dire portents for the living, often vaguely and confusingly phrased. These came from a long tradition of spectral visitations, and served a purpose, both of their own and socially. They sought justice, to settle business so that they could find their proper eternal rest, and they enforced the ideas of proper behavior, of rules of society so important that they could bring the dead back to the world of the living if broken.
The second, however, started with breaking the rules of society, and went on from there. These were no spectral apparitions. Far from it – these were men (women just didn’t go in for this sort of thing) who dressed up as ghosts in order to cause panic and mayhem. For example, there was John Graham, a shoemaker in Hammersmith, who dressed up in a bedsheet to frighten his apprentice, who had in turn frightened Graham’s children with stories of the Hammersmith Ghost, an alleged haunting by a person who had committed suicide. His appearance may have contributed to the death of James Milward, a plasterer shot by a drunken vigilante while walking home through a churchyard in the white clothing of his profession. Others had much worse purpose, sometimes to commit assault, usually against women, without being able to be identified, or to commit robbery, or to frighten the citizens of an area for other nefarious purposes. I recommend Jacob Middleton’s book, Spirits of an Industrial Age, for a scholarly treatise on the subject. Each non-spectral haunting played off the previous, as the story passed through the folk process. Each man playing the ghost added their own embellishment – claws, or luminous paint, or a cloak that could be turned inside out to hide the disguise and allow the ghost to seemingly vanish. Ghosts would appear in one borough for a few months, then disappear for a year, then appear in a neighboring borough. Their appearances generally coincided with the lunar cycle, those playing the ghost avoiding the full moon as it gave too much light for them to conveniently elude pursuit.
This leads into subjects such as Spring Heeled Jack. We mention this particular ghost briefly in the London sourcebook. Whether Jack is someone playing the ghost, and given his historic activities of assaulting women over several generations that’s quite likely, or the current incarnation is a Weird Scientist testing out their equipment or using their abilities to cause breakage and bedlam, or there’s been an actual supernatural presence somewhere in the lineage, is left up to the GM. Playing the ghost may be useful for the player characters as well as for GMC opposition. A luminous ghost making an appearance would certainly draw off the Peelers and public attention from neighboring areas, and any witnesses to a ghost that makes good his escape will only remember the disguise, and may inflate their account due to the circumstances.
So, will you hunt the ghost, or play it yourself?