The Spectre at the Feast: reflections on the Peterhouse Ghost

by frankbeswick

The Peterhouse ghost caused quite a stir in an ancient Cambridge College

There are times when we are disturbed in our complacency, when we experience something that should not be there, or that we think should not happen or exist. We do not need to experience it ourselves, but be convinced that it had happened, and this is what happened in Cambridge's oldest college, one cold night in November 1997. It did not occur in the dining room, but in a room adjoining it, and was enough to scare the waiters and disrupt the strict rituals that attend dining in these venerable halls.

Peterhouse College,Image courtesy of Adrian

When the Other Comes a-Calling

The spectre at the feast  is an ancient literary theme that is present in Macbeth, when the murderous king is confronted by Banquo's ghost, which only he can see. We are often told  that Macbeth's guests would think him mad for seeing the spectre, but not so! Shakespeare does not tell us what the guests thought, but in a land where such phenomena are widely accepted, they would have taken it seriously [had it happened, which it did not.] There is a similar tale in the Book of Daniel when King Belshazzar is feasting, only to see an angelic hand write words portending his doom on the wall. The same theme occurs in the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, when an unslayable spectre challenges King Arthur's knights to behead him, only to find that the head springs back onto his shoulders. 

The whole thrust of this ancient literary theme is that at occasions celebrating power and status, when the great and/or  wise of this world assemble to rejoice and feast, confident in the security of their position, the reality that the Irish called the Other might erupt into their complacency and shake them. This is what happened one night in  December 1997, when something that should not have happened did occur, and none could easily and comfortably explain it. The assembled dons included expert scientists, philosophers, historians and theologians, several of whom were in contention for Nobel prizes, but in a room behind the feast some waiters were experiencing something that should not have happened.

Peterhouse college sits close to the shallow and winding Cam, whose December mists float over its ancient spires. Like all Oxford and Cambridge colleges it is a place of ritual, where the dons meet at celebratory feasts and dine on good food and fine wine, all on beautiful china plates. There are strict rules of order, for none is expected to leave the table before the Master has done so, but this night the dean, an Anglican clergyman was summoned, by a worried butler. For the first time someone left the table when the master was speaking, knowing that something urgent had occurred and mouthing apologies to the Master.

Hurrying down to the  Combination Room, one of the most ancient parts of the college, the Reverend dean was confronted by the sight of smashed china and two very frightened servants. 

"Tell the Dean what you saw."  the butler commanded. 

The men reported that  they had been preparing to serve dinner when a figure simply  materialized, crossed the room and disappeared by a window. There was also a knocking sound from behind the fireplace. One man said that the figure had walked, the other claimed that it had floated, but both concurred that it had a face. They were hoping that the Reverend dean could explain to them what had happened. It was noteworthy that it was to the dean they turned, a clergyman rather than to one of the several eminent scientists at the feast, for they had that deeply founded intuition that at times you must turn to religion.

There is a range of responses. For some it was a nine day wonder and they shrugged and got on with their  lives, but for the  Dean, Graham Ward, it prompted reflection which continued even when he was promoted away from Peterhouse to become Regius professor of Divinity at Oxford, a position for which you do not apply, but which is within the gift of the monarch, for it is  the Anglican Church's senior  theologian. The fruits of this reflection stimulated his writing of the book, Unbelievable, which inquires into the nature of belief. It is a profound and challenging work displaying a masterful command of religion, psychology, philosophy and history. 

A cacophony of responses.

As the dean decided that honesty was the best policy, he told the butler to tell the master what had happened,and the rumour spread around the dining hall. Responses differed, but most seemed to have a need to  explain what had happened. It is as if we know intuitively that something needs to be explained, whether we like it or not. But the explanations varied considerably among the dons, and the range spread across the variety of disciplines. 

But primarily, this experience could not be written off as an hallucination, for two people had seen it simultaneously, hence it had the public character that philosophers consider to be a guarantee that perceptions are not hallucinatory. Two or more people in a room might have an hallucination, but they do not have the same hallucination. Nor were the two men disreputable characters given to lying. They were not insane and no allegations of mental instability or illness of any kind have ever been leveled at them. So it was necessary to accept that they had actually seen something, and they could agree on what they saw. 

The dean found the case challenging. As an Anglican  theologian he accepted the conventional Christian view of the afterlife, which has no room for ghosts.But he knew that the servants had seen what they believed to be a ghost. So how to explain it without re-defining his theology. But several non-believers had a bigger problem. In the materialistic ontology of science there is no room for spirits of any kind, for there is only matter, but whatever this was did not behave as matter normally does and is not susceptible of materialistic explanation. Some performed the old trick of explaining away the embarrassing phenomenon, it was a trick of the light, a floating haze that was mis-perceived. Note that none of these who proposed this explanation had actually seen it, but felt entitled to authoritatively explain away the experience that they had not directly undergone. This is the mark of one who fears that what he believes may not turn out to be true, yet he desperately hangs on to his views.

Others were more thoughtful. Some scientists and philosophers tendered the view that we might need a more sophisticated understanding of materiality, a view with which I fully concur, even though I believe that this should be set in a wider, deeper, understanding of being. Other fellows found the courage to state that there were areas of this 1284 foundation that they found a bit frightening at  night. Some tentatively linked the ghost with a college official who committed suicide three hundred years ago, and they noted that the window by which the ghost had disappeared might once have been the door to  a garden.  

Yet this case was not the first incident. The original sighting in April had been by two butlers, who had seen a figure of human size but cigar-shaped floating in the Combination Room. A month later the college bursar saw the figure, but  this time it was clearer. It was a slightly built, balding male with a wide collar, carrying a large hat. As usual the figure appeared for a few seconds and then disappeared. In all instances the figure did not interact with its surroundings. Some witnesses stated that it floated a foot above the floor,a phenomenon common in spectral appearances. So not only were there two witnesses, but there were others, in each case trusted people who had no evident reason to fabricate their experiences.   

In several instances there were unexplained knockings that seem to have come from behind a fireplace, even though the fireplace, when investigated, had no hollow places from which the knocking could come. These were heard by several witnesses,including the dean. 


The events that December evening are a metaphor for our  relationship  to the paranormal. We have a socially and politically well established system of thought derived from the eighteenth century Enlightenment. This is in competition at some times and places with well-established religious thought systems, but the Enlightenment system has no place for the paranormal. In fact it was the Enlightenment that established what was normal, phenomena  that can be explained materially, but there was always a class of phenomena that were considered to be outside the normal. These were classed as paranormal, and the official Enlightenment thought system either denied that they were anything other than illusory, or tried to explain them away by various methods, mainly as tricks of light, hallucinations, errors of interpretation. But just as the assembled representatives of Enlightenment thought were dining in one room, a paranormal event was occurring in the next one, a metaphor for the fact that the paranormal will not go away, but has the habit of encountering us, entering our comfort zone and disturbing us. 

We cope differently with this encounter. Some of us cope by denial,explaining away the phenomena that frighten and challenge us. These people accuse those who experience aberrant phenomena of lies,madness, drug taking or simple mindedness. This way they shoot the messenger. Others  are accepting, acknowledging that something odd has occurred, but confident that there will be a normal,scientific  explanation in the end, even though they have not yet found it. This begs the question about how they know that the explanation will be normal if they do not know what it is. Others are simply content to accept that there are aberrant phenomena, but they simply shrug and get on with their lives, leaving the mystery unresolved.

However, these are false  paths that led nowhere. The only method of approach worth anything is to confront the strange phenomena, reflecting on them and testing out hypotheses as to what they are and how they fit into a view of reality. We need to have the courage to change our view of reality if it demands it.Skepticism is a dead end, for the skeptic has no way of discovering new truths,even if they are staring him in the face. Yet credulity is a way to error. We cannot just accept anything, we must properly evaluate claims, subjecting them to proper tests.

I am not going to come to a conclusion on the Peterhouse Ghost, but I want to tread the path of open-mindedness that runs between the Scylla of Skepticism and the Charybdis of credulity. On this path we must be critical of claims made to us, but also critical of our own responses, which can be shaped by our language and culture, and also our prejudices. We should never be so confident in our intelligence and wisdom that we think ourselves too wise to change our views when the evidence demands it. There is much in this world that we do not understand.   


Sources:  Unbelievable, Graham Ward, J.B.Tauris, 2014

                Independent, Kathy Marks,20th December 1997

Updated: 02/14/2020, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 12/22/2023

I don't think that they always have faces. Some are shapeless wraiths.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/21/2023

The sixth paragraph to the first subheading, When the other comes a-calling, advises us that "One man said that the figure had walked, the other claimed that it had floated, but both concurred that it had a face."

Do ghosts not always have faces?

frankbeswick on 12/21/2023

It is a lifetime appointment.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/20/2023

The last paragraph to the first subheading, When the other comes a-calling, contains the reference to the "Regius professor of Divinity at Oxford, a position for which you do not apply, but which is within the gift of the monarch, for it is the Anglican Church's senior theologian."

Is the Regius professorship an appointment until death or disability? Or might it be reviewed annually or even subject to rescindability?

frankbeswick on 03/31/2023

I cannot decide on how ghosts communicate, sorry. A suicide is always a tragedy rather than an evil being.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/31/2023

The fourth paragraph to your second subheading, A cacophony of responses, bears the information that "Some tentatively linked the ghost with a college official who committed suicide three hundred years ago, and they noted that the window by which the ghost had disappeared might once have been the door to a garden."

That's why I considered whether the knocking could be a proto-Morse Code-like form of communication.

Is a suicide considered a bad or good ghost?

Would not goodness mean that that ghost could anticipate a Morse Code-like communication before humans do?

frankbeswick on 03/31/2023

No one recorded the knocks. I doubt that it was Morse, as Morse is an agreed socially constructed system that has to be learned.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/30/2023

It's interesting that there's so much knocking in regard to the Peterhouse Ghost.

Would anyone have recorded the number of knocks in an attempt to break some sound code? Would it be possible that it was Morse Code before there was Morse Code?!

frankbeswick on 11/16/2015

I believe that the most productive attitude to the paranormal is the phenomenological approach, which approaches strange phenomena with suspended judgment. Thus,when someone tells me something strange has hapened that does not fit into my world-view, I don't write it off straight away as wrong, but I bracket the judgment to enable me to examine the arguments and evidence for it. Thus, when we speak of ghosts, my response is not to summarily declare "I don't believe in ghosts." but to look objectively at the phenomenon reported to me. The correct strategy is therefore to accept the phenomenon but not necessarily the explanation that someone gives for it.

jptanabe on 11/16/2015

Fascinating - I had not heard the story of the Peterhouse Ghost before. Your analysis is also excellent - respectful and thought provoking. I also like the way you conclude with we do not understand everything and therefore cannot make a final conclusion about such phenomena. Indeed, to have the courage to change our view of reality when the evidence demands it is the right (and brave) thing to do.

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