WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT
In Muggle vernacular, we’re talking about ghosts; more specifically, the ghosts living at Hogwarts. But enlightened Muggles like ourselves know better, since there are some “ghosts” who aren’t ghosts after all. Peeves the Poltergeist is one: to quote Nearly-Headless Nick: “he’s not really even a ghost” (PS7). There are two connected terms in the HP Lexicon: poltergeists (like Peeves) and ghouls (such as the Weasleys have in their attic).
If I were going to stick to sound (common-sense) linguistics, I’d just grant “ghost” two semantic domains (the first as a general term for the whole lot, the second as a specific designation for one of at least three kinds of ghosts). But “resident non-embodied persons” (RENEPs) has a pithiness to it that makes a word like “ghost” sound boring. Of course that raises the question of whether the portaits also evince non-embodied personalities, so just to keep things clear, I’ll ammend that to resident non-embodied persons, excepting portraits, or RENEPEP’s. Which is a very satisfying term indeed. It’s not only politically correct; it’s peppy.
WHO THEY ARE
In we read that “about twenty ghosts had just streamed through the back wall,” so there are quite a few more Hogwarts ghosts than we’ve had the pleasure of meeting.
The ghosts representing each of the four houses are Nearly-Headless Nick (Gryffindor), the Fat Friar (Hufflepuff), the Grey Lady (Ravenclaw), and The Bloody Baron (Slytherin). We’ve seen least of the Grey Lady. In various interviews (including 60 Minutes), JKR has assured us that the Grey Lady showed up in PS, only we weren’t told her name. [She passes Harry in the corridor in PS12. – ed.] The other three (particularly Nearly-Headless Nick) are introduced in PS7 and put in regular appearances thereafter. The Fat Friar comes across as sweet and dumb (he’s the one for forgiving Peeves at the beginning of PS), and hence as a caricature of Hufflepuff students. Why the Bloody Baron is bloody, nobody wants to know, but he also fits the Slytherin image of violent menace.
Nearly-Headless Nick doesn’t embody the Hogwarts bravery as obviously as the Fat Friar and the Bloody Baron, although he is generous about helping Harry escape Filch in CS8. As for his personal history, he was not quite beheaded either 350+ or 499 years before Harry enrolled at Hogwarts. He is particularly prominent in CS, where he invites Harry, Ron and Hermione to his 500th deathday party and is later petrified by the basilisk. He would have died at the sight, if he hadn’t already been dead.
We know three other RENEPEP’s who are not connected to any particular house:
Moaning Myrtle is pimple-afflicted and a victim of the basilisk’s first frisk through Hogwarts. She shows up in CS, where we learn her story, and again in GF, where she visits Harry in the prefects’ bathroom and shows evidence of a marked interest in naked prefects.
Prof. Binns of the Hogwarts history department is the only teaching ghost (although one can question whether his students are actually taught anything by him). He’s certainly the only soporific ghost. Despite his own lack of tangibility, Binns also is a stickler for good, hard facts: he soundly denies the old stories about the Chamber of Secrets for lack of solid proof. One curiosity about Binns: JKR has said that ghosts are unhappy people, and most of them appear to have suffered violent deaths. All but Binns: he just died one night and went right on teaching the next day, sans body. Could the violence here be that he bored himself to death?
Peeves, as already pointed out, isn’t a proper ghost but a poltergeist. The word means “mischievous spirit”, which is Peeves to a T. The only person in the castle who makes any real impression on him is the Bloody Baron. As opposed to the other ghosts, he comes in technicolor, rather than the standard pearly-gray. He’s also funny—Peeves filling in the gaps in the singing armor’s Christmas carols is one of GF’s funnier moments. However, Peeves has a sub-human personality: he delights in any evil events in the castle (the petrifyings in CS, the terror caused by Sirius Black in PA) and yet he is not exactly evil. He’s just not human enough to require moral evaluation. Hence, my guess is that he isn’t a former human and probably belongs to an entirely different taxonomy as the proper ghosts.
WHAT WE’D LIKE TO KNOW ABOUT THEM
In one of her interviews, JKR said we’ll learn why certain people become ghosts in future books. Does this mean the definitive answer will have some particular significance for the entire series?
There are a couple of ghost-related inconsistencies. For instance, why did Nearly-Headless Nick have his 500th Deathday party in CS8 after telling Harry he hasn’t eaten in nearly 400 years in PS7? (I think it’s just a minor inconsistency, but I’ve seen theories that range from believable to hallucinatory.) [This was an error in the early editions of PS that JKR has put on the list for correction in later editions. – ed.] Another one: If ghosts can’t eat or drink (PS7, CS8), how did they administer the Mandrake Potion to Nearly-Headless Nick?