Yeah, it’s that time again. In many ways, this genre is a spiritual successor to the fairy tale and in truth ghost stories probably started as a modern offshoot of folklore. However at this point it kind of exists as its own thing, with its own purposes and that makes it a genre of its own. What’s more, ghost stories are very popular, enduring and “grown up” modern stories where fairy tales are considered old fashioned and “childish” and generally a niche thing, baring reinterpretations aimed at a mass audience.
So what, exactly, is a ghost story?
- It is a story focusing on a string of unexplained events popularly credited to a supernatural force, namely a person who is now dead. Yes, I consider stories about demonic entities, such as The Exorcist, to be separate subgenres with their own conventions and tropes. In order to be a ghost story there must be a ghost, or at least the idea of a ghost. The quintessential American ghost story is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, in which the reader is never clearly told whether Ichabod Crane’s terror is inspired by a ghost or just a jealous rival masquerading as one. Of course some ghost stories go all one way or the other – all Scooby Doo ghosts and goblins prove to be normal people plus some tricks while Jacob Marley is generally accepted as quite real in A Christmas Carol. The main point is that the idea of a ghost has to be present as an inciting incident.
- A focus on the state of the dead person before and after their death as a motivation. This is most pronounced in A Christmas Carol, with a heavy emphasis between Marley’s contentment with life before death versus his horrible state after death. Likewise, the nameless Hessian soldier’s loss of his head is exactly what drives his haunting of Sleepy Hollow and makes others terrified of him. Note that, while the states of these spirits are pitiable, they are more the source of motivation for the living characters to act. Yes, some ghost stories present clear cut motivations for a ghost’s actions but even in these stories the dead prompt responses from the living characters at the heart of the story and those reactions are what drives the story forward.
- A contrast between courage and exploration and cowardice and superstition. This is most pronounced in Sleepy Hollow, where Crane is strongly contrasted with his rival, “Bram Bones” Van Blunt, a very famous local who seems to possess more fortitude and a keener, if not more learned, mind than Crane. On the other hand, Scrooge’s willingness to travel with the other spirits he meets after Marley’s visit and learn about humanity and relearn his own story shows a courage the character is rarely credited with. Yes, he whines a lot but his circumstances surely justify it to an extent. Scrooge learns and grows where as Crane never does.
What are the weaknesses of a ghost story? As I said before, I truly feel that ghost stories started as just another kind of fairy tale intended to convey a simple moral in a memorable fashion. Unfortunately the memorable fashion was a story of suspense and occasionally horror and those are the aspects of the ghost story that far too many people emphasize in the telling.
A ghost story of cheap thrills and jump scares isn’t going to linger long. Worse, after sitting through a few of these the audience learns to anticipate what is coming and steel themselves against it. Worst of all, a surprisingly large number of people grow out of being easily startled as they age, to the point where a bad ghost story, chasing pure thrills, is going to break against them to no effect. Other than making the teller look silly, perhaps.
What are the strengths of a ghost story? When told well, with good atmosphere and an eye towards pacing, these stories can emphasize feelings of isolation, loneliness and, most importantly, how characters overcome these things or what weaknesses cause others to succumb to them. These are both incredibly valuable lessons that create empathy and understanding in audiences and when handled correctly make for powerful emotional investment for the reader.
Proof is no further than A Christmas Carol, one of the most commonly referenced stories of English literature. A TV show that lasts more than a season or two is probably going to do a homage to it, it has more TV, movie and stage adaptations than perhaps any other work of fiction and the original text still rings true today. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is another prime example, although it hasn’t had the widespread cultural impact of Dickens’ tale it’s still widely recognized and frequently comes up around Halloween.
Ghosts are rarely real things – I’m not going to say they’re never real and when they are they’re probably not what we think they are (dun, dun DUN!) But they hardly need to give you nightmares and, like many things that have little bearing on reality, they can be incredibly useful tools for making characters in stories reflect on themselves and, by extension, prompt audiences to do the same. So don’t be ashamed of reading a ghost story now and then, so long as you can rest in peace when you’re done.