“If the study of ghost belief lacks academic respectability, the study of belief in non-human ghosts is still more beyond the pale.” (Knox 262)
There are countless historic newspaper reports on ghosts of pets or animals. In fact, a quick look through the archives showed me there is way too much source material on the subject to delve into for a quick blog post.
As we can see just at a glance at the search results below, the vast majority of these sightings occurred in the latter part of the 19th century.
This sharp uptick in ghostly pet encounters coincides with the surge in interest in Spiritualism during this time. It could be a case of correlation not causation, but it’s worth taking note. The Fox Sisters—arguably the founding women of the Spiritualist movement—became famous with their knocking poltergeist in 1848, sparking an international frenzy for all things ghostly. (I gave a talk on the evolution of Spiritualism at the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London in 2018, ‘The Victorian Séance: From the Occult to the Gin Parlour’ that I’ll write up as blog post, but that’s a topic for another time.)
Perhaps it was this fashion for Spiritualism that led to people spying ghosts everywhere—or simply that admitting to having encounters with spirits had become more socially acceptable and almost mainstream, which led to more people coming forward to report what they had already been experiencing for some time. Whatever the reason, from 1850-1899 newspapers covered the stories of over 18,000 ghostly animals scampering across the UK.
Paranormal researcher Joshua Warren finds that there are two main categories of spectral animals: ‘ghost animals’ and ‘ghostly animals’. Ghost animals further break down into an ‘entity ghosts’ and ‘imprint ghosts’; while ghostly animals break down into ‘elemental ghosts’ and ‘harbinger ghosts’.
An ‘entity ghost animal’ is an interactive, unpredictable, self-aware apparition of an animal. An example would be a beloved pet that comes back after death to nudge you on the leg or interact in some way.
An ‘imprint ghost animal’ is non-interactive and appears to have no immediate awareness of its environment. An example would be horses drawing a ghostly stagecoach along a set path. Both the inanimate coach and the horses appear as visions, like a movie being replayed on a loop.
An ‘elemental ghostly animal’ is one that may have never occupied a physical body. An example of these would be the Hellhounds and Barguests of the UK. They are perceived as demonic, ominous creatures from some netherworld. Often elementals resemble regular animals in the physical realm, but look a little different. Hellhounds are frequently described as having red, glowing eyes and are much larger than known living dogs. Such slight variations in their appearance are common earmarks of an elemental beast.
‘Harbinger ghostly animals’ are physical animals in our real world, but they carry with them spiritual energy. Such creatures might have been specifically charged with paranormal energy, such as a witch’s familiar (a minion or messenger of a magician’s spell). These animals have special powers and can foretell the future. These messengers are most often seen as harbingers of death.
According to folklorist Theo Brown, harbinger animals are thought to be especially sympathetic to the fate of kings:
In the 18th century, lions were kept at the Tower of London, the principal male being named after the reigning monarch. When George II first became ill, it was fully anticipated that he would die, as his namesake at the Tower—about the same age—died at that very moment. The fish in a pond in Normandy responded dramatically when Henry II died at Exmes. Though their pond was five miles from the castle, a few days before the king’s death, they suddenly engaged in a battle of mutual extermination. (Brown 31)
Among one of the many special abilities attributed to living animals is the ability to see ghosts. However, many special abilities that people have seen in their pets might be due to the unique communication that develops between animals and their humans. As Brown noted, the familiars often listed in accusations of witchcraft were no doubt ordinary pets that achieved a special rapport with their solitary owners.
It has of course always been assumed in witchcraft and the wilder hagiologies that if you are holy enough—or wicked enough—you can control animals of any species. It does seem that saints have an attraction, but so also have sinners, though of a different kind. The murderous Patrick Mahon, of sordid memory, hanged in 1924, had an uncanny power over wild birds and strange dogs and cats. […] Lice, fleas, and flies can be commanded to infest by witches—or removed by saints. (Brown 33-34)
While some ghosts of pets and other animals frighten people, for the most part animal ghosts are friendly. A look through the descriptions of these ghosts mirrors how we view animals in our own lives: sometimes animals can be scary, but mostly our associations are fond feelings of love and memories of loyalty.
Of the historical animal ghosts I’ve surveyed, the ghosts of dogs are the most common; and of ghost dogs, the most common is a mastiff. This might be because the mastiff was a popular guard dog for country estates in the 19th century—so it would be the most common dog one might think of to be on the county roads where ghost dogs are most often sighted.
While mastiffs appear to be the most common 19th century ghost dog, no piece about ghost animals could overlook the Black Dog.
There have been entire books written about nothing else, so I can hardly do the subject justice here, but the Black Dog is not usually a mastiff, but rather a shaggy black dog more akin to a Newfoundland or Wolfhound. (For further reading, I highly recommend Black Dog Folklore by Mark Newman. I saw him give a talk on the subject at the ‘Haunted Landscapes’ symposium at Conway Hall back in 2017 and his book is a riveting exploration of the evolution of the Black Dog legend throughout the UK.)
Dog ghosts appear over the world. The interpretation of them, of course, depends on the religious views of each community. In Britain, the Black Dog falls into roughly two categories: the Hellhound (or Barguest) and the Black Dog, a regular-looking guardian dog.
The Barguest appears in various shapes, but generally that of a dog. It is dangerous and ominous to meet it, especially head on. Sometimes it lacks a head; sometimes it has only one eye in the middle of its forehead. The Barguest occurs in wide areas of East Anglia and in the North of England, from Cumberland down to the Yorkshire Dales, as far south as the Peak District. Whereas the Barguest type of dog (or ‘Shuck’ as it is called in East Anglia) is invariably horrific in some way, the Black Dog is either neutral or friendly or protective. (Norman 19)
So while both of these apparitions fall under ‘Black Dog’ legends, they are very different in character. This can become a problem when those who do not terribly concern themselves with folkloric accuracy get ahold of a local story. Who would settle for a Black Dog when you could have a Hound of Hell? Enter the joyful realm of the tabloid journalist’s interpretation of Black Dog lore.
In 2014, the tabloids had a field day with an archeology dig of a rather large Newfoundland medieval pet dog discovered buried by the old kitchens:
Initially reported in the local press, the story was of sufficient interest to be picked up by the Daily Mail, a national tabloid newspaper, and from there inevitably onto the internet news sites. At each step the story became more embellished, and more riddled with factual and folkloric inaccuracies, before Yahoo! News triumphantly degreed on its website: ‘Bones of 7ft Hound from Hell Black Shuck Discovered in Suffolk Countryside’ The story is of great interest as a piece of folklore in itself and warrants some deconstruction as a fine demonstration of the way that stories are told, retold, and disseminated in the modern age, helping to keep the folklore alive.” (Norman 172)
(Mark Norman wrote in depth about this fanciful ‘discovery’ in a piece for Folklore Thursday in 2016: ‘Black Shuck: Proof of Existence Finally Found?)
Delving into the newspaper archives and trying to make sense of the mountain of pet ghosts held there, a few choice pieces caught my attention:
‘Ghosts of Dead Pets Force Family to Flee’
Daily Express, 6 April ,1966
“A council house has been standing empty since a family of four fled from it in terror. Several families have asked if they could move in. But Swindon Council, Wiltshire, has repeatedly said no. For the house in Penhill Drive, Swindon, is haunted, says the council. It has asked a clergyman to exorcise the house before it can be occupied. The family who fled were given a new house by the council.
“They complained that they saw apparitions of animals; that objects moved by themselves; that one of the children was pinned to a wall… by nothing.
“The house had previously been occupied by Mrs Anne Reilly, a spiritualist, who moved to a house in Wheeler Avenue, Swindon. She said that the ‘happenings of Penhill Drive could have been caused by her two dead pets, an Alsatian, and a cat’. She said: ‘Both pets died while I was living here, I was fond of them both. I saw them there after their deaths walking about the house’.”
Funnily enough, exactly 50 years later, the Daily Express is back at it again:
‘Family film pet dog’s ‘ghost’ roaming the house and exorcising other poltergeists’
Daily Express, 15 April, 2016
“The couple claim their house, in Lancashire, had previously been haunted by the ghost of an old man. Daughters Bethany, 13, and Chloe, 10, were left frightened to death after an eerie apparition appeared at the foot of Bethany’s bed. The couple also claimed they had been scratched by ‘demonic forces’. But astonishingly the family now claim the ghouls have been exorcised by their cherished pet.”
And guess what? You can can actually watch the video of the pet ghost here!
Deep thoughts and takeaways…
So, what have I learned from this research? Encounters with the supernatural appear to reflect the communities that house these spectral animals and the individuals who encounter them. Tales of the vulnerable being escorted through dark forests away from danger by guardian Black Dogs fills my heart with love for these creatures—whether Black Dogs or not, something was there for people in their time of need. To meet a Barguest on a lonely night would fill anyone with fear, but perhaps whether you meet a Hellhound or guardian depends on what preconceived notions you bring to the situation. I’d like to think that if you approach all the animals in our environment and under our care with compassionate understanding—and a good dose of wary pragmatism—we can all share the planet with relative ease. But I’d recommend taking some Barguest Scooby Snacks with you the next time you wander the forests and moors alone…
Ghost Dogs of the UK Gazetteer
(source: Mark Norman)
#37. Bull Dog Bridge: Story of the ghost of a dog who saved a servant girl who was attacked by a passing friar. The dog savaged the man but was stabbed by his knife before he died. The bridge was renamed White House Bridge.
#138. Postbridge: A ghostly bloodhound was said to run out from Moretonhampstead each night and snuffle in the ditch opposite a tomb looking for beer thrown out by a teetotal convert.
#202. Dedham: A ghost of a small black dog appears at Castle House. It is said to be a family pet.
#234. Aust Cliff: Said to be haunted by a pack of hounds, which may be the ghosts of those of the Berkeley Hunt who chased a fox over the cliff to their deaths.
#257. New Forest: A man working tells another that the ghost of a small white dog runs howling from a house at certain times. A man once hanged himself in the house.
#262. Various: Tradition of ghost dog called The Lamper which was large and white, with no tail. It normally ran in circles and foretold a death. One man reported seeing it and hitting it with a stick, which passed right through, on the day before his father died. (That’ll teach you to hit dogs with sticks, corporal or otherwise!)
#283. Dublin: St Patrick’s Cathedral is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a dog.
#321. Radcliffe Tower: Haunted by a black dog said to be the ghost of a cook who murdered a woman and turned her into a meat pie.
#369. Bacton: Two fisherman who owned a large black dog between them were drowned at sea along with their pet. The ghost of the dog was said to run between their two graves.
#473. Woodstock, 1649: Tradition of a dog ghost appearing in the bedchamber of two commissioners and their servants in connection with their cutting down an old oak tree.
#594. Walberswick: A woman on the beach sees a black dog floating around her own dog. A local lady tells her it is the ghost of a dog called Chuff.
#609. Little Compton: Tradition of a black dog on Pill Lane, which is said to be the ghost of a woman called Partington who killed herself.
#610. Coventry: A man sees a dog, which he hits with his riding crop. The dog explodes. (What did we say about hitting dogs…..)
References and further reading:
Brown, Theo, ‘Living Images’, Folklore, 73:1, p25-40. 1962. Journal.
Knox, Sara, ‘The Cat Came Back: Revenant pets and the paranormal everyday’, Cann, Candi K. (editor), The Routledge Handbook of Death and the Afterlife, (New York: Routledge) 2018. Book.
Lake, E. F. Coote, ‘Folk Life and Traditions’, Folklore, 77:4, p286-289. 1966 Journal.
Norman, Mark, Black Dog Folklore, (Woodbury: Troy Books) 2016. Book.
Warren, Joshua P., Pet Ghosts: Animal Encounters from Beyond the Grave, (Franklin Lakes: Career Press) 2006. Book.
Westropp, Thos. J., A Folklore Survey of County Clare, Folklore, 21:4, p476-487. 1910. Journal.