I Do Not Believe in Ghosts, But I Am Awfully Afraid of Them

Edgar Allan Poe? Germaine de Staël? Bert Leston Taylor? Charles A. Dana? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a family of quips that express a comically contradictory attitude toward specters. Here are three instances:

I do not believe in ghosts, but I am awfully afraid of them.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’ve been running from them all my life.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I don’t want to see one.

The master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe sometimes has received credit for the second statement. Would you please explore this group of jokes for Halloween?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Edgar Allan Poe employed one of these quips.

Germaine de Staël was an author and influential French intellectual who died in 1817. The physician Sir Henry Holland met Madame de Staël on multiple occasions and dined with her; in 1872 he published a memoir titled “Recollections of Past Life” which included a quotation from de Staël in French about revenants, i.e., ghosts. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Another trait she discloses, speaking of les revenants: ‘Je n’y crois pas, mais je les crains.’

Here is one possible translation of the French:

‘I do not believe, but I’m afraid.’

When Holland’s book was reviewed in “The London Quarterly Review” 2 and “Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine” 3 the remark from Madame de Staël was reprinted which widened its distribution.

Also in 1872 the notable writer and conversationalist Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. published “The Poet at the Breakfast-Table” in which he presented a slightly different version of the quotation and ascribed the words to an unnamed “famous woman”: 4

We are all tattoed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe; the record may seem superficial, but it is indelible. You cannot educate a man wholly out of the superstitious fears which were early implanted in his imagination; no matter how utterly his reason may reject them, he will still feel as the famous woman did about ghosts, Je ne les crois pas, mais je les crains, — “I don’t believe in them, but I am afraid of them, nevertheless.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Do Not Believe in Ghosts, But I Am Awfully Afraid of Them


  1. 1872, Recollections of Past Life by Sir Henry Holland, Quote Page 113, Longmans, Green, and Co., London. (Original text has “revenans” for “revenants”) (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1872 January, The London Quarterly Review, American Edition, Review of Sir Henry Holland’s Recollections, Start Page 82, Quote Page 88, The Leonard Scott Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1872 April, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, American Edition, Review of Sir Henry Holland’s Recollections, Start Page 82, Quote Page 88, Leonard Scott Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1872 Copyright, The Poet at the Breakfast-Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Quote Page 346, George Routledge and Sons, London. Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Those Who Dance Are Considered Insane by Those Who Can’t Hear the Music

Friedrich Nietzsche? Megan Fox? Anne Louise Germaine de Staël? John Stewart? Norman Flint? Science Fiction fans? Angela Monet? Rumi? George Carlin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement is credited to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.

Yet, I have never seen a precise pointer that stated where in the works of Nietzsche this quotation appeared. I know that Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown, so he may have been sympathetic to individuals who were labeled insane. I also know that music was very important in his thoughts and philosophy.

The quotation is so popular that the actress and supermodel Megan Fox decided to get the words tattooed across her back and side. Astutely, Fox did not include an attribution for her tattoo. If she wanted to append a credit whose name should be rendered in ink?

Quote Investigator: QI has not yet located substantive evidence that Nietzsche wrote or said the statement given above. In 2003 a message in the large distributed discussion system called Usenet attributed the quote to Nietzsche. The message appeared in the alt.quotations newsgroup. 1 But Nietzsche died in 1900, so 2003 is an extremely late date.

A precursor to this statement appeared in the early Nineteenth century. In 1813 the influential writer Anne Louise Germaine de Staël published the work “De l’Allemagne” in French. The English title was “Germany”, and in 1814 an excerpt was printed in “The Universal Magazine”. Madame de Staël envisioned herself watching a ballroom filled with dancers, and she imagined her reaction if she had been unable to hear the music: 2

… sometimes even in the habitual course of life, the reality of this world disappears all at once, and we feel ourselves in the middle of its interests as we should at a ball, where we did not hear the music; the dancing that we saw there would appear insane.

This figurative language was employed powerfully to illustrate an episode of dissociation. Madame de Staël was temporarily alienated from the normal rush of living, and the actions of those around her seemed purposeless and absurd.

In 1927 a version similar to the common modern examples was printed in “The Times” newspaper of London where it was labelled an old proverb. This concise instance used the word “mad” instead of “insane”: 3

They who dance are thought mad by those who hear not the music. The truth of the old proverb was never more surely borne out that it is just now.

This phrasing is distinct, but the core idea is the same. In recent times, the comedian George Carlin helped to popularize the phrase as shown further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Those Who Dance Are Considered Insane by Those Who Can’t Hear the Music


  1. 2003 August 28, Usenet Newsgroup: alt.quotations, Subject: IM Friedrich Nietzsche, From: dougk. (Google Usenet groups archive; Accessed June 5, 2012) link.
  2. 1814 April, The Universal Magazine, “On the Moravian Mode of Worship by Madame De Stael [From her ‘Germany’]”, Start Page 296, Quote Page 296, Column 2, Printed for Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, London. (Google Books full view) [Thanks to poster RobotWisdom who shared this cite at the “Shortcuts” blog of the Guardian newspaper here] link
  3. 1927 February 16, The Times (UK), The Dance, Page 15, Column 4, London, England. (Times Digital Archive GaleGroup)