20th July 2022 by

‘To Be Read at Dusk’: Ghost Hunting in the CLiC Corpora

Dickens’s ghost stories have formed a key component of his legacy as a writer, with A Christmas Carol (in its variety of forms: novella, Scrooge, or the Muppets’s adaptation) often serving as an introduction to Dickens’ oeuvre. Today, A Christmas Carol (1843) is on the national curriculum as a GCSE text and, in 2015, the popular video game Assassins Creed included Dickens as a character whose role it was to roam around Victorian London hunting ghosts. In the course of my time working at the Charles Dickens Museum as a Research Assistant on the upcoming exhibition ‘To Be Read at Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts and the Supernatural’, I turned to the CLiC Web App (Mahlberg et al 2020) for an overview of how ghosts figure in Dickens’s corpus. In particular, I sought to ascertain what the relationship was between Dickens’s references to the supernatural, and those of his contemporaries.

I started by running a keyword test for ghost in Dickens’s novels against the Nineteenth-Century Reference Corpus, allowing me to get a sense of the frequency with which Dickens was referring to ghosts in comparison to his contemporaries. It is important to note that CLiC does not currently include Dickens’s short stories, the form that the majority of his ghost stories take, so the results offered by CLiC are only representative of Dickens’s novels.

Fig. 3 Concordance distribution plots for ‘ghost’ in the DNov Corpus, via CLiC v. 2.1.2.

In the novels there are less ‘real’ ghosts, but there are many ghostly spaces and characters. To restrict my search to examples of ghost-like things, I filtered figurative language by using the KWICGrouper to search for ‘like’ or ‘as’ (figure 4).

Fig. 4 Concordance distribution plots for ‘ghost*’ in the DNov Corpus using KWICGrouper to search for ‘like’ or ‘as’, via CLiC v. 2.1.2.
CLiC shows that ghost appears 147 times in the Dickens Corpus, compared to 103 times in the Nineteenth-Century Reference Corpus. The Dickens Corpus is made up of 3,833,544 words, whereas the reference corpus is made up of 4,512,568 words, making the log-likelihood value* 16.62. The LL score tells us whether the result can be treated as significant. For a p-value cut-off of 0.0001 the critical value is 15.13 (Rayson et al 2004). This means that ghost (at 16.62) meets the threshold for statistical significance, but only just. In our research for the museum’s exhibition, we have been considering the extent to which Dickens’s ghosts influenced other contemporary writers. This evidence — that Dickens was referring to ghosts at a slightly higher frequency than other nineteenth-century authors — supports our theory that Dickens was perpetuating the ghost story genre.
As we have discovered through delving into the Dickens Museum stores, Dickens undoubtedly influenced nineteenth-century fiction writing on the supernatural. From Hans Christian Anderson, to Wilkie Collins, to Elizabeth Gaskell, Dickens was both subtly and overtly invested in encouraging fictionalised accounts of the supernatural. In 1859 Dickens published ‘The Haunted House’, a weekly periodical ‘conducted by Dickens’, in All the Year Round’s Christmas number. Dickens used ‘The Haunted House’ as a way of creating a framework for writing supernatural stories. Authors (including Wilkie Collins and Gaskell) were invited to contribute, and Dickens framed tales written by contemporaries by writing the first and last stories of the publication.

In the CLiC Nineteenth-Century Reference Corpus, there are three novels by Wilkie Collins and three by Gaskell. This is not to say that there is a direct relationship between ‘The Haunted House’ and the results for ‘ghost’ in the Reference Corpus, but the LL test results show that Dickens is referring to ghosts at a marginally increased rate to his contemporaries, speaking to Dickens’s role in the ghost story genre as both writer and influencer.

If we compare the distribution of ghost* (the asterisk means that the search will include ghosts and ghostly as well as ghost) across Dickens’s novels, Bleak House (1852), Barnaby Rudge (1841) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859) appear to have the highest concordance count. Bleak House is an unsurprising result, with the ‘Ghost’s Walk’, the ‘ghostly likeness’ of the past and present Dedlocks and the ‘ghostly stories’ that ‘shall be told of the stain upon the floor’ following Mr Tulkinghorn’s murder.

However, if the results are ordered by ‘Relative Frequency’ rather than ‘Count’ (which takes into account the word count of each novel), A Tale of Two Cities moves up to first place, Barnaby Rudge drops from second to fourth, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) moves from thirteenth to third.

Fig. 9 Nineteenth-Century Parisians engaging in spiritualism, Ange Louis Janet, Histoire de la semaine, L’Illustration, Paris, 14 May 1853, via Wikimedia Commons. 

Interestingly, the concordance lines generated for A Tale of Two Cities are mostly referring to an actual ‘ghost’, as opposed to something ghost-like or ghostly. Dickens writes of the ‘Cock-lane ghost’ which ‘had been laid only a round dozen of years, after rapping out its messages, as the spirits of this very year last past (supernaturally deficient in originality) rapped out theirs.’ The inclusion of the ‘Cock-lane ghost’ allows Dickens to — somewhat comically — fictionalise supernatural communication. The Dickens Museum exhibition ‘To Be Read at Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts and the Supernatural’ will explore Dickens’s own feelings about the possibility of tapping into ghostly messages, at a time of huge public interest for séances and spiritualism. This specific reference to a ghost in A Tale of Two Cities provides a fantastic link between Dickens’s fiction and our theories about Dickens’s own thoughts on ghostly rappings.

We can compare these findings again to the reference corpus. When ordered by relative frequency, A Tale of Two Cities still has the highest concordance count, very closely followed by Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford (1853), which first appeared as instalments in Household Words. Gaskell writes:

Miss Pole was slightly sceptical, and inclined to think there might be a scientific solution found for even the proceedings of the Witch of Endor. Mrs Forrester believed everything, from ghosts to death-watches. Miss Matty ranged between the two — always convinced by the last speaker.

Here Gaskell portrays three ‘types’ of people: the sceptic, the unwavering believer, and the uncertain (easily influenced) follower. In creating these polarised and undecided characters, Gaskell plays with the concept of supernatural belief, largely as a topic of conversation and entertainment between the women. The concordance lines for ghost* in Cranford demonstrates the oral nature of ghost-story-telling (in this case specifically among women) in the nineteenth century. The Dickens Museum exhibition aims to demonstrate the influence that Dickens had on the ghost story genre, so the idea that Gaskell is also perpetuating ghost stories, the evidence that Cranford has the most (relative frequency) references to ghosts, and the knowledge that this was initially published in Household Words, provides a great starting point to consider the relationship between Dickens, Gaskell and ghost stories.

Fig. 10 Concordance distribution plots for ‘ghost*’ in both the DNov Corpus and the 19C Corpus, ordered by relative frequency, via CLiC v. 2.1.2.
To end I want to focus on one example of how I have used CliC to understand the construction of Dickens’s ghosts. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens describes the spirits as being ‘motionless’ and ‘immovable as ever’. The lack of motion, which puns on the stillness of death, attaches an unnerving omnipresent quality to the ghosts. It is as if they had always been there, but have only just shown themselves to Scrooge. Dickens blurs the lines of the animate and inanimate — in which something that is alive can move and something which is dead cannot — in his creation of the ghosts, attributing the dead beings with a fixity that resembles death but allowing just enough isolated movement to show them pushing against this categorisation.
The ‘just-dead’ nature of the ghosts mimic the ‘just-alive’ nature of Scrooge that Dickens establishes in his opening paragraphs, in which Scrooge — who is characterised as being interchangeable with Marley — is not quite ‘dead to begin with’. Using the ‘any word’ feature I ran a concordance search for ghost and spirit and filtered my results to show instances in which stood was a collocate of these terms. The concordance lines generated reveal the limited movement of the ghosts, which contributes to their uncanny nature.  Standing is an isometric contraction, the muscles have to work in order to maintain their position against gravity. As such, ‘stood’ is a verb that necessitates a bodily function that is very much beyond the capability of a corpse, and yet it connotes a distinct lack of movement and animation. Although there is a limited number of instances in which ghost or spirit collocate with stood, it is worth noting that they occur throughout the novella, demonstrating that this is a verb repeatedly attached to multiple spirits. 
Fig. 13 ‘Marley’s Ghost Appears to Scrooge’, Reproduced with permission of The Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy.
Fig. 14 ‘Marley’s Ghost Appears to Scrooge’, reverse of stereo card, Reproduced with permission of The Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy.
In two of the concordance lines, the standing spirits are accompanied by a pointing motion, and thus assigned a second limited corporeal movement. If we swap out our concordance search of the word ‘stood’ to search for ‘point’ we can see several more instances of this fixed motion being attributed to the  Christmas Carol ghosts. Interestingly, one of these examples emphasises this even further, Dickens writes that: ‘the Ghost pointed with an unmoved finger’, the restricted motion of the point is juxtaposed by the frozen finger. The image of a spirit, standing upright but pointing with one hand, became a popular way of depicting ghosts. This is reflected both in illustrations of A Christmas Carol, and in wider contemporary references. As part of the Dickens Museum exhibition, we will display original John Leech illustrations of the Christmas Carol spirits alongside stereoscopic images. The stereoscopic images will demonstrate the many contemporary references to this ghostly positioning of being stood with one pointing hand, a stance that became popular alongside Dickens’s crafting of his ghosts. In one of the images we have chosen for display, (Fig. 13) a scene from A Christmas Carol is recreated and we can see the ‘motionless’ ghost of Jacob Marley, fixed both by his chains and in his static stance.


‘To be Read at Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts and the Supernatural’ will run at the Charles Dickens Museum from the 5th of October 2022 until the 5th of March 2023. The admission fee is covered in the price of general admission to the museum. Advanced tickets can be booked here.


*You can test the frequency difference between two corpora using the log-likelihood wizard, created by Paul Rayson.

  • Dickens, Charles. (1859). ‘The Haunted House’, All the Year Round.
  • Mahlberg, M., Stockwell, P., Wiegand, V., & Lentin, J. (2020). CLiC 2.1. Corpus Linguistics in Context, available at: clic.bham.ac.uk.
  • Rayson P., Berridge D. and Francis B. (2004). Extending the Cochran rule for the comparison of word frequencies between corpora. In Volume II of Purnelle G., Fairon C., Dister A. (eds.) Le poids des mots: Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Statistical analysis of textual data (JADT 2004), Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, March 10-12, 2004, Presses universitaires de Louvain, pp. 926 – 936. Available here.

All nineteenth-century novels and novellas were accessed via the CLiC Web App

Please cite this post as follows: Eastman, A. (2022) ‘To Be Read at Dusk’: Ghost Hunting in the CLiC Corpora [Blog post]. CLiC Fiction Blog, University of Birmingham. Retrieved from [https://blog.bham.ac.uk/clic-dickens/2022/07/20/dickensghosts/]

Author: anyaeastman

Anya Eastman is a second year Technê PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Anya’s work explores the memorialisation of Charles Dickens, George Eliot and Oscar Wilde, with an emphasis on heritage and material culture. In addition to her doctoral research Anya is the co-director of Royal Holloway’s Centre for Victorian Studies and she has been on placement at the Charles Dickens Museum, working as a research assistant on upcoming exhibition ‘To be Read at Dusk: Dickens, Ghosts and the Supernatural’.

Join the discussion

1 people are already talking about this, why not let us know what you think?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *