Ghost Stories: Why ghosts remain largely unchanged throughout history.

September 12, 2019

 

Throughout the years horror has gone through some hefty changes. Monster movies, for example, no longer represent the feat of Nuclear War in the way they once did, while slashers evolved from genuine, suspenseful, terrifying thrillers to the meta, semi-comedic takes on the tropes we see today. Of course, there are always certain recurring elements, but if you look at, say, 2018's Halloween when comparing it to John Carpenter's 1978 original, you can see the context and the approach have been drastically altered.

 

Even within the world of nostalgia that we find ourselves in now, with Stranger Things' riffing on Stephen King and E.T., while Star Wars returns to the big screen with an eye on a more "traditional" approach to the behind-the-scenes work, that evolution and change is present.

 

This happens within all genres. Star Wars is a good example, and the subsequent.... sigh, "controversy" around the PC brigade taking over your favourite franchises is what I focused my post on last week. But, the fact of the matter is, things change, times change, you should probably get over it. Everything is a reflection of the society and the people making it, that's how art works. Whether it's a big budget family movie about magical space wizards, or a small scale art house film that wishes it was as cool as David Lynch.

 

But, there's one sub-genre that remains largely unchanged. Sure, there have been attempts to update it, but overall, the approaches are always pretty much as they were.

 

I'm talking, of course, about the ghost story.

 

Whether were looking at it through the lens of M R James or Charles Dickens' The Signalman, with their unsettling atmosphere, ambiguous conclusions, and slow, unfolding narratives, or the more ghost-train, bump in the night, crazy fun approach of someone like William Castle, with his 1959 cult classic The House on Haunted Hill, or, indeed, that movies own 1999 remake, there is a consistency here.

 

And while the films themselves couldn't be more different, or at least appear to be more different, one with an emphasis on the dark, brooding sadness that a ghost story ultimately invites, the other focused solely on jump-scares, frightening imagery and a roller-coaster kind of, for lack of a better word, schlock, one things remains almost uniformly unchanged; the ghosts.

 

While zombies became the "infected", fast moving, gory decomposing monsters, the ghouls of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead bearing little to no resemblance to those found something like Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, and slasher villains evolved from Norman Bates' boy-next-door to Jason Voorhees' masked killer all the way through to The Strangers twisted psychopaths or Funny Games' insidious antagonists, ghosts, at least in principal, are the same thing they always were.

 

The look, the "powers", the approach may all change film to film, but fundamentally a ghost is still just the spectre of a dead person. And with it comes the same sense of grief, loss and regret that all good ghost movies touch upon in one way or another. It doesn't matter if it's the malevolent manifestations of Poltergeist to the angry, monstrous entities of The Conjuring films, a ghost is a ghost.

 

Why is it, then, that ghosts have remained largely unchained, while the sub-genres around them are in a constant state of flux and evolution?

 

For my money it's to do with the representation. Ghosts, in almost every iteration I can think of, represent death in its most purest of forms. And death, regardless of the time or the setting or the political climate, is a universal unknown. Even the most devout amongst us can never be truly sure what lurks beyond the grave. Ghosts, are that.

 

Anyway, these are my thoughts for the week. For me ghosts have always been one of the most interesting of the horror movie "monsters", and a good ghost movie can be far more chilling and effective than almost any other sub-genre within horror. Perhaps precisely because of this universal fear that they are able to tap into. Maybe I'll write a ghost movie next. Who knows?

 

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© Alex Secker 2018