How did our ancestors protect themselves from ghosts?

Globe o'happiness
LaMishia Allen Photography

Every culture has its method of dealing with the afterlife. Some fear the unknown while others celebrate it but many of them just want the ghost to stay put after being left in a pleasant graveyard away from the house. How can you protect your home from becoming a pit stop on the way to Purgatory? Try these techniques plucked from history and around the world:

Iron: Often referred to as “cold iron” because it is cool to the touch, this metal has a long history of repelling spirits. Decorative iron fences around graveyards were meant to keep spirits locked within while a rod of iron placed on the grave added a little extra protection that a phantom wouldn’t arise from its resting spot and return to see what was for dinner. Horseshoes not only bring luck to the homeowner if nailed over a door, the iron wards off any wandering ghosts that want to pop in for a chat.

Salt: Being a pure substance from the Earth, salt is traditionally believed to cleanse items and surroundings. Carrying a bit in your pocket not only protects you from ghosts but ensures that you’re ready in case you run across under-seasoned French fries. A line of salt sprinkled on doorways and windows guard against malevolent spirits entering and making a ruckus. Bowls of salt placed within the house may help dispel a ghost who is reluctant to move or rid the area of residual paranormal activity. Any type of salt may be used but sea salt and Kosher are recommended.

Rowan tree: A cross of Rowan wood bound with red thread and sewn between the lining and outer cloth of a person’s clothing would protect the wearer from any ghostly shenanigans. In the 18th century, the Highlanders of Scotland would hang the tree’s branches festooned with wreaths of flowers over the doors of their homes to ward off unwanted supernatural visitors. Scottish women were also known to wear necklaces of Rowan berries tied with red string as protection against evil spirits. Welsh churches planted the trees around the graveyard to watch over and protect the spirits of the dead. Further to the north, a Rowan tree was planted directly on top of the grave to keep the body (and spirit) from haunting the family.

Porch of Ashlawn-Highland
in Charlottesville, VA
Haint paint: Descended from African slaves, the Gullah or Geechee culture in the deep south of the United States preserved their heritage through stories and tradition – including a healthy respect for the dead. The belief that ghosts cannot travel over bodies of water helped create the unique blue shade found on many slave homes in South Carolina and Georgia. By mixing a combination of lime, milk, and whatever pigments they could find that would mimic the blue sea into a pit dug into the soil, they would cover all openings into the home with the haint paint, including doors, window shutters and porch ceilings in an effort to confuse mischievous spirits and stop them dead in their tracks.

Going up! 10…11…12…14?: High-rise buildings may jump floors. Since in some cultures, ghosts can only live on the 13th floor due to its unlucky nature, builders tend to “skip” anything associated with the number. Next time you’re on an elevator in a tall building, check and see if they’ve left off the cursed floor.

Just as Americans shy away from the number thirteen, Southeast Asians abhor the four. Some buildings have no fourth floor and may even skip all subsequent floors ending in the number.

Ghost walls: The Chinese are taking nothing for granted. If a phantom has wiggled its way into a home is it faced with a protective “ghost wall.” When visitors arrive, they are forced to veer slightly to either side, something a ghost cannot do and is forced to retreat.

Curved driveways: Along the same lines as the roof, curved driveways confuse ghosts and send them wandering off, making pizza delivery for the dead a challenge.

Garlic hung on the door isn’t just for toothy vampires; it may be an effective way to get a ghost to leave you alone. Nail a wreath of garlic by your front door. If you feel you’re bothered by a paranormal Peeping Tom, take a bite of a clove and throw it away – the ghost will follow it instead of hanging around the house, probably because now you have garlic breath.

Door Gods: Portraits of Chinese generals, Qin Shubao and Yuchi Jingde, face either side of a doorway to a temple, home, or business, as a warning to ghosts that the occupants won’t put up with their nonsense. Dating to the Tang Dynasty, the tradition began with Emperor Tang Taizong who had paintings done of his most trusted and fiercest generals. Hanging them outside his own palace doors, his subjects followed suit to hopefully attract good luck while scaring away evil spirits.

The Globe of Happiness: Otherwise known as a witch ball, they were first fashioned in 18th century Europe to ward off evil spirits. Usually hung in the east window to catch the morning sun’s first rays, the balls are traditionally made of green or blue glass, though there are reports of others fashioned from wood, grass, or small sticks, with swirls of glass strung within the globe. Legend tells of how the balls were used to lure evil spirits with its bright colors, trapping them inside as the ghost tangled itself within the strands. Now they are seen as a more decorative item, though witch balls are still thought to capture ghosts with sticky fingers.

Objects hidden in walls: Cats, shoes, and even clothing, it’s an ancient belief that by entombing an item within the walls of your house, the occupants are protected from the influence of nasty spirits as well as witches. Funeral director, Richard Parson, told the British newspaper, The Telegraph, in April 2009, of finding a 400-year-old mummy of a cat within the walls of his house after renovation started, "Apparently 400 years ago people put cats behind walls to ward off witches. It clearly works as, since we have lived in the village, we have not seen sight or sound of any witches." It must work for ghosts as well.

Clothing stashed away under the eaves may be more than a reluctance to do laundry. As some items keep the smell of a human longer than others, it may have been thought to protect the household from unwanted spirits. The Deliberately Concealed Garments Project, online at, is a research database filled with these found objects. Caches of hats, shoes, and undergarments have been found throughout Great Britain, stashed away in hopes of keeping a curious ghost out of their attic.

Amulets and talismans: As cultures developed, each had their own system of dealing with the netherworld and how to control those frisky spirits. Some chose to use gemstones such as amethyst, obsidian, or quartz, believing that the only thing that could counteract the wayward advances of a ghost was by using the Earth in its purest form.

Others carried silver. Thought as a way to protect themselves from ghosts, the Miao people in southwest China cover themselves with as much as possible by way of jewelry, clothing items, and headdresses. It is their belief that after you die, there are three separate ghosts: one to stay at the tomb, another to travel to the ancestors, and a third that if the death was unexpected or caused by an accident, may roam the streets and cause trouble with the living.