Scary or Haunting: The key differences and the effectiveness of the two types of ghost story.
Ghost stories are often seen as opportunities to tell a story that acts as a sort of "ghost train" experience. We look at the likes of The Conjuring, Insidious, or even going back to William Castle's early films such as House on Haunted Hill, and we can see that there is a clear precedent for this. A ghost story can work in this way, as an opportunity to make the audience jump, and generally have a roller-coaster of a time. If Martin Scorsese calls Marvel movies theme-park rides (and I agree, that's not a bad thing), then one could easily consider these types of films the theme-park rides of the horror genre. A chance for audiences to sit down, switch of their brains, and have some fun being scared.
But, personally, those types of ghost stories are not the ones that stay with me. More often than not, while I enjoy them at the time, they quickly become forgotten or lost among a sea of other, similar films. For every Insidious there is a The Curse of La Llorona, or The Nun, or... well, you get the idea. And most of these movies don't quite embed themselves in my consciousness in the same way that a different type of ghost story does.
For, the other type of ghost story is the tragic one. The one that forgoes the obvious jump scares (that's not to say they don't necessarily have them) and "ghost train" aesthetics for a slower, more ponderous, more thoughtful and, ultimately, more emotional experience.
Ghosts, unlike any other movie monster, have an odd sort of melancholic quality to them. By their very nature they represent, as I have previously discussed in my blog here, the great unknown. Death is the single biggest fear of all of humanity, and ghosts are more or less the physical manifestation of that fear. What lay beyond the veil will forever be our most unanswerable question, and fear of the unknown is where true horror is born from.
But ghost stories, good ghost stories at least, also tap into something more than that. They tap into the sadness we feel at the loss of a person. The fear we have that there may not be anything better, or that there may be but that we won't be able to get there. The fear that we will be left unable to communicate with others, that we will become tied to an existence of simply being, lost in grief and pain and anger.
The truth about a good ghost story, at least as far as I'm concerned, is that it gets under your skin with heavy, weighty questions. The fear doesn't necessarily arise from the scares but rather from the scenario. The Others, The Innocents, The Haunting, The Entity (that's a lot of "The" movies, right?), all manage to do this in one way or another. They find a scarier, more uncomfortable, more uncertain approach to the ghost narrative. And furthermore, all of them are imbued with a kind of sadness, a sense of loss, and a genuine fear of what happens after death,
I'm not saying that I don't enjoy the "ghost train" approach, I do. And when I'm looking to have, for lack of a better term, a good time at the movies then those are the type of films I'm going to seek out. But when I want to be challenge, to be scared, or to be taken to a place of real emotional complexity, then I look to the other type. And it is the other type that keeps me up at night.
A good ghost story can get under a viewers skin in a way no other horror can. Most people have had experiences with loss and grief in one way or another, and the ghost sub-genre is one of the only sub-genres that is able to tackle it with such frankness and honesty. It is a prime example of why genre cinema, and especially horror cinema, can be just so damn effective. Telling very real, very relatable stories through the horror lens, allows for a far more human, far more in-depth approach.
I appreciate that not everyone will agree, and for many of you the "ghost train" approach the approach that works best. It works for me too, but not quite in the same way. Some of the films I listed above have had an impact on me beyond simply making me jump in the cinema, some of them still linger with me now when I'm sat at home alone and I hear a creaking floorboard or the door slowly blows open in the wind. Much like the ghosts they present us with, those movies have stayed with me. You might even say they haunt me.
And that, for me, is what makes a good ghost story.