Ghost Stories: Why ghost are as popular now as they've always been, and why audiences connect wi


I’ve always been fascinated with ghost stories. Ever since I was a little kid there’s something about a ghost story that just grabs my attention. It’s a hard thing to describe, because it’s a purely emotive sensation, but ghost stories creep under my skin more than any other type of “horror” I can think of. And I use the term “horror” there loosely, since there’s nothing that necessarily means that ghosts, or stories surrounding ghosts, need to be strictly designed to scare an audience.

Of course, the best ghost stories, at least as far as I’m concerned, are of the horror variety. You know the ones I mean; the kind that play on your mind and create an atmosphere that is hard to shake off. Like I said, nothing gets under my skin quite like a ghost story, and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone. Afterall, ghost stories have existed for as long as stories have existed.

But why? What is it about a ghost story that has this ability to capture our collective imagination in a way that nothing else quite can? Well, I have a theory, and it’s what I want to talk about today.

It could be easy to say death is the answer. Ghost stories, after all, are about death, and there’s no escaping that. It’s a fundamental aspect of ghosts. It seems silly to say because it’s so obvious, ghosts, by their very nature, sort of have to be dead, and death is something that is universal. At some point all of us will have to face our own mortality.

Everybody dies. Whether we face it first through the loss of a family pet, or a loved one, or even ourselves, death is something that we all must deal with at some point. And, as Elanor Shellstrop puts it in the excellent Michael Schur created sitcom The Good Place, because of that fact every human “is a little sad all of the time”.

I have no arguments with the idea that death is a big part of why ghost stories are so successful. After all, death is as old as life, and the theme of death runs deep through almost every ghost story I can think of. Hell, even Casper found the time to weave it into the narrative. It’s pretty much undeniable that the looming spectre of death hangs heavy over the entire ghost story sub-genre, and it makes sense that, give our relationship with death as a species, it would be a key aspect of why we’re so intrigued by the idea of ghosts. Specifically, why we’re so intrigued with that ultimate unknowable; what comes after death?

Ghosts give us a kind of explanation of life after death. It is one of many concepts for what may await us on the other side. Mind you, and this is something that has never entirely sat right with me, it would be a pretty dark and horrific existence, right?

Imagine dying only to face the rest of your existence, and all existence for that matter, trapped in a limbo where it’s almost impossible to interact with anyone, and you just to have watch as time moves on, the people you know and love continue and then ultimately die themselves, and you are still stuck in the house of on the plot of land or wherever.

It’s hardly a hopeful outlook, is it? It’s bleak as hell. And, moreover, it doesn’t entirely fit with why ghost stories are so universally beloved. After all, if you believe in an afterlife – a Heaven and a Hell or whatever you want to call it – then the idea of ghosts doesn’t entirely fit in with that. Sure, there are attempts to explain it away, lost souls or unfinished business comes to mind, but it’s not quite as neat and tidy as I would like.

The works of M R James, widely regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of ghost stories to have ever lived, will often present his ghosts as something less than human. They are more like dark omens, sometimes they’re monsters, but they’re very rarely out and out humans. When they are, they come in the form of murdered children, or the dark remnants of evil men. Often, these spectres are discovered by curious people uncovering past secrets that should have remained buried.

And I think it is here that we find the real reason ghosts are so successful; the past.

See, I believe that it isn’t about looking forward, about discovering what lurks beyond the veil and awaits us after death, that has seen ghost stories become so popular throughout history. I think it has much more to do with looking backwards, with being able to connect to a place or a time or a person who is no longer here.

Ghost stories are about our history. They offer us a catharsis. A way to speak to a loved one again. A way to discover something we otherwise would have no way of discovering. A way for us to resolve our unfinished business, to go back and right our wrongs, to connect with a history that it no longer with us, loss to depths of time.

The most popular and well-remembered ghost stories all feature a haunting of some sort outside of the ghostly goings on themselves. A haunting from the past. George C Scott in The Changeling is haunted by the loss of his wife and child. Jack Torrance in both Stephen King’s The Shining and in Kubrick’s movie, is haunted by his violent behaviour as an alcoholic. In both Ringu and the American remake, The Ring, the spectre of divorce hangs over our lead characters. Even in more mainstream, less well remembered outings, such as Robert Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath, Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford are haunted by the knowledge that all is not well in their relationship.

Ghosts enable us attack these forgotten issues, these buried secrets, these hazy memories in a way that is now. It is about bring the past into the present and allowing us to deal with it head on. Ghost aren’t successful because we look forward but because we look back.

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© Alex Secker 2018