The Lure of a Ghost Story by B.R. Myers, author of A Dreadful Splendor
Ghost story. Those two words illicit an immediate response; anticipation, intrigue, and perhaps foreboding.
Even Arnold Lobel wrote a ghost story for his Frog and Toad series. In SHIVERS, Frog is visiting Toad on a cold dark night and while they enjoy their tea, he decides it is the perfect time to tell a ghost story. Toad is not so sure. Frog says, “Don’t you like to be scared? Don’t you like to feel the shivers?” At the end, the teacups were shaking in their hands. They had the shivers, it was a good warm feeling.
Be it horror or suspense driven, as a reader you know you’re being invited into a tale that will seduce you with its atmosphere and make you squirm with its intentional unease.
It could be subtle and creepy, or a gory thrill fest, but every good ghost story will have the most important element grounding its narrative—mystery.
There is always a reason for the haunting. In stories, spirits linger because they are tethered by their weighty ambitions of revenge, guilt, and unfinished business. There are layers to be exposed, questions to be answered. Who is the ghost? Why are they haunting? And why now?
But long after the mystery is solved and the reader is satisfied, the unease attaches itself to our memory, quietly. A good ghost story makes us suspend disbelief, allowing our reasoning to consider the impossible. Not only consider it, but sometimes, even long after we’ve finished the book, we find ourselves glimpsing a face in the shadows or hearing a whisper through the crack in the floor. It’s in these moments of heightened tension that the terror returns to us, setting off the goosebumps and making us run up the basement stairs—even though we know nothing is in the dark.
So, is it just entertainment, or do we on some level need affirmation that there is something else on the other side of death?
Poe used the theme of death in his works, and more specifically the effects of death on the living, such as the stress of mourning, and the unknown torment in which they ponder if they will ever be reunited in the afterlife.
In the poem, NEVERMORE, Poe uses the raven as a conduit for the widower’s greatest fear, that he has lost his wife for good, and shall never see her again.
THE TELL TALE HEART is narrated by a man who is slowly losing his mind with guilt and eventually confesses to murder. And in a way, becomes death itself.
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, highlights themes of isolation, madness, and fear, which leads to a self-fulling prophecy of being buried alive. The line between life and death blur as if one can occupy both at the same time.
Peter Straub wrote GHOST STORY, warning us the mistakes of the past will always come back to haunt you. Revenge from beyond the grave can reach across decades; it’s always there, waiting.
Dating back to at least the eighteenth century, the telling of ghost stories during the long dark nights of Christmas time was a yuletide tradition and as common as decorating the fir tree and exchanging presents. During the Victorian era, magazines published ghost stories specially for the holiday season as a spooky delight to be read around the fire, one of the most famous being A CHRISTMAS CAROL. And while the stories didn’t necessarily take place at Christmas or even during winter, there was always the theme of isolation, grand estates, and of course, things that go bump in the night. THE OLD NURSE’S STORY by Elizabeth Gaskell is a perfect example.
In my house, every Christmas Eve we listen to CBC radio broadcast THE SHEPHERD by Frederick Forsyth as read by Alan Maitland. He originally wrote it for his wife as a Christmas present.
However, even though some stories conclude with an explanation for the supernatural occurrences, not all the answers are found between the lines, and the reader is left with the sense that perhaps a ghost was there after all. THE OPEN DOOR by Charlotte Riddell is a fine story that comes to mind.
What is the lure of the ghost story? To be scared, reassured, entertained, or even taught a lesson? Perhaps it is all of the above.
So, take a pause, suspend reason, and enjoy the shivers.