A Ghost Story for Christmas: Why spooky Ghost stories are a Christmas tradition that needs to make a comeback.

December 26, 2019

 

As a film fan, if there's one topic of conversation you can guarantee is going to come up over the Holiday season, it's this; is Die Hard a Christmas film? Well, I'm not going to discuss that here, you can type the question into Google and they'll be countless articles exploring the answer (for what it's worth, as far as I'm concerned it's a resounding "yes", by the way. The film in which a man, estranged from his family, travels to see them on Christmas Eve, and through a series of events learns the error of his ways, finally reconciling with his wife... who is called HOLLY(!), and together they waltz off together to the tune of Let It Snow, is most definitely a Christmas film, and I'll hear no more about it), instead I want to talk about the question I always find coming up this time of year...

 

Why do you watch Ghost stories at Christmas, Alex?

 

There seems to be a strange divide between me and most people I know, here. See, for me, and as far as I was aware everyone when I was a kid, Ghost stories are an undeniably Christmassy type of thing. There's nothing better, as far as I'm concerned, than curling up on Christmas Eve and watching a good, spooky Ghost story.

 

It's a tradition that stretched way back to the Victorian era as well. So, it's not like it's something I just made up. In fact, M R James, the father of what one might consider the modern Ghost story as we know it, got his start telling chilling tales around the fire at Christmas. And, of course, there's the now iconic BBC series of the late seventies and early eighties, recently revived by Mark Gatiss, A Ghost Story for Christmas.

 

And yet, despite all of this, so many people seem totally unaware of the Ghost story tradition. It's as if it simply isn't a thing to them. And I sort of get it, lots of people aren't as in to horror as me, and even those who are might not necessarily make the link. After all, a Ghost story for Christmas often isn't set at Christmas, and for many people that is the defining factor of whether or not something is "Christmassy" (although, interestingly enough, those same people often like to make the argument that Die Hard isn't a Christmas film despite the fact that it's... y'know, set at Christmas).

 

Anyway, the whole point of this is to explain, to myself as much as anyone, just why a Ghost story, to me, is intricately woven into the fabric of what I consider Christmassy. Why is a Ghost story the perfect way to spend your Christmas Eve? And, perhaps most importantly, to convince you that you should be spending your Christmas Eve watching them!

 

So, firstly, we have to take a look at the story that inspired Christmas. Without it, there would be no Christmas as we know. And no, I'm not talking about the Nativity.

 

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is, no matter which way you put it, a Ghost story. It tells the tale of a man who hates Christmas, is visited by four Ghosts, three of which force him to confront the error of his ways an embrace the holiday season. And it is the most Christmassy story of all.

 

I don't think there is a single person out there who would argue with me on that one. It features all the Christmas trimmings, from the snow to the carols to the iconography of what many of us now consider fundamentally Christmas. More so than the Nativity, in my eyes at least, has A Christmas Carol influenced the holiday. It's fun, and warms your heart, and there's a version of it featuring Muppets, so... what's not to love.

 

(Seriously, they should fob the Nativity off altogether and make A Christmas Carol the go to school Christmas production because... why wouldn't you do that?)

 

But, for all those things, A Christmas Carol is, fundamentally, a Ghost story. And a scary one at that.

 

It may be hard to consider this when you have the vision of Statler and Waldorf moaning about chains, but A Christmas Carol is terrifying. From the scary transformation of a door knocker, right the way through to the deathly sinister sequence involving the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, which is so chilling it's frightening even in the worst of the adaptations.

 

And have you ever read the book? I have, and the focus is very much on the horror there. It's almost as if giving you a good fright was the entire point of that story. And, given that Dickens was hardly a stranger to Ghost stories anyway, I'd be willing to be that was an important part of it.

 

But what A Christmas Carol does highlight, above all else, is the fact that Christmas time is, regardless of all the other aspects of it, a really, really good time for a Ghost story to take place. We have long, dark nights, we have the twisted dead trees, we have the cold. And, perhaps above all else, there's something undeniably sinister, upsetting and nasty lurking underneath the idea of Christmas.

 

It's hard to ignore the fact that while we're all cosying up nice and warm in our houses, surrounded by family and friends, there are people out there who are not so lucky. People left to shiver on the streets, children unable to afford enough for food, let alone presents, and, of course, the darkness of the depression the Holidays can strike in people.

 

Indeed, death surrounds Christmas almost as much as capitalism. Seeing family can and will almost always lead to a reminder of those no longer with us, who we'll never get to spend another Christmas with. It might sound miserable, and I'm sorry for being all depressing, but it's important to note because, well, with death inevitably comes ghosts.

 

And then there are the aesthetics of the season. I've already mentioned the whole dead trees, dark nights, figures in the snow... and it was only a couple of posts ago I reminded us all of how good a deep red blood looks against crisp white frozen water, but going beyond that, we enjoy the darkness at Christmas time. We light rooms to a mood, dim fairy lights hung around a tree throw the corners of spaces into shadow, their warm light almost glowing from a single, tiny source. We call it cosy, but... well, what kind of lighting tends to be idea for spooky horror movies?

 

What lurks in those shadowy corners?

 

And, of course, there's the final aspect. If Christmas is a time of coming together with your loved ones, there is nothing that brings you together quite so well as a shared terror. Huddled up together on the sofa hiding behind a pillow, or too terrified to leave each other's side for fear of what might get you out in the night!

 

For me, Ghost stories and Christmas have always gone hand in hand. I remember it being something I looked forward to throughout the year, an excuse to watch The Others, or the old adaptation of The Woman in Black. As I grew older I learned of the BBC adaptations of the M R James classics, I discovered other Ghost stories to join in the tradition and, of course I was obsessed with The Muppets.

 

But I have always found it somewhat bizarre how many people seem wholly unaware of this tradition. It should be the standard way to spend a Christmas Eve. There's no better way to capture the spirit of the Holiday season, trust me. Next year, maybe you can join me.

 

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© Alex Secker 2018