"He wants to appear to them"

We can get a sense of the form ghosts took in the Victorian imagination by looking at the art of the period. An 1825 illustration of the 16th century magician John Dee raising a ghost shows a white lady who, though deathly pale, is quite as substantial as the living figures. Théodore Chassériau’s depiction of the ghost of Banquo in Macbeth, meanwhile, shows a pale and luminous being surrounded by an aura of unearthly light. So-called spirit photography, in which charlatans such as William H. Mumler and William Hope doctored prints so that faint images of departed loved ones appeared behind the sitter, was also big business at the time. The apparitions in these pictures are faint and translucent, much as they are imagined today.

Picture of the ghost of Abraham Lincoln with Mary Lincoln (c.1869)
Public DomainPicture of the ghost of Abraham Lincoln with Mary Lincoln (c.1869) - Credit: William H. Mumler
Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo (1854)
Public DomainMacbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo (1854) - Credit: Théodore Chassériau