Fall is finally on its way here in the southern U.S., and I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s my favorite time of year for a lot of reasons–the cooler temps, the changing color of the leaves, the temporary elimination of the worst bugs–but one thing I absolutely love about the advent of the autumn and winter seasons is the increase in creepy stories on TV, in movie theatres, and on bookstore shelves. Supernatural and Gothic creepy stories, to be precise. For purely objective and scientific reasons, I associate spring and summer months with an entirely different (though still beloved by me) set of horror themes, namely urban legends, slasher films, and maybe alien abductions or a lake monster or two. But come October with its grey skies, crisp winds, and crunchy leaves underfoot, and I’m ready for ghosts, vampires, and the kinds of monsters that linger in the dark and cold.
In honor of the fact that I can finally wear long pants and/or boots without feeling like I’m going to die, I will be dedicating my next several blog posts to the exploration of what we love about scary stories and why, focusing on a different area of horror each time. I will begin with GHOSTS.
Do you believe in ghosts?
One of the best answers to this question I have ever heard/read comes from Marie du Deffand (she was a prominent patroness of the arts and personal friend of Horace Walpole, who wrote The Castle of Otranto). She said, “Do I believe in ghosts? No, but I am afraid of them!” In her simple and honest reaction, Madame Deffand reflected a common human sentiment regarding the supernatural: many people may not openly admit belief, yet they continue to be plagued by persistent questions or fears they do not dare confront. Or they just, you know, load up their Netflix queue with all the scary ghostness and try to bribe people to watch with them so they don’t die of fear. Or something.
I love ghost stories. I collect them, both fiction and nonfiction. I enjoy telling ghost stories late at night and watching people shiver or try to appear unaffected (they seldom are, really). I’ve given ghost tours and presented research on local hauntings. I’ve written papers on haunted houses in Gothic literature (both European and American) and even wrote my MA research thesis on a Victorian ghost poem. I want to become a ghost hunter (not ALONE, mind you). I have plans to photograph a cemetery at night (again, not ALONE). And I’ve experienced a few things I can’t explain, yet if pressed I wouldn’t have an honest answer much different from Madam Deffand’s. Not sure that I believe in them, but they most DEFINITELY disturb me. And fascinate me. And ofttimes steal my peaceful sleeps.
Why They Inspire Fear and Fascination
Ghosts, like many other topics of the horror/terror genre, evoke intense responses from readers/listeners/viewers on a very deep level. They represent the ever-important perversion of the sacred (in this case, of a peaceful rest and hope of a happy afterlife). They force us to reflect on death and what it means, and by extension life and what it means. Ghosts can strike fear into our hearts because they represent not just the unknown, but the potentially unknowable. They can, if presented well, force us to question our own beliefs or broaden our understanding of the world. And that’s in addition to the whole threat of insanity and/or death that most ghost stories contain!
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is of the unknown.” -H.P. Lovecraft
Sometimes ghost stories offer us hope in the form of reconnecting with our loved ones (this belief played a significant role in the popularity of the spiritualism movement of the late Victorian period) or of some form of life after death, though neither of those often take a very desirable form in traditional ghost lore. And while my area of expertise is largely limited to European and American ghost stories, it is worth mentioning that nearly (if not all) known cultures in history–from the most primitive to the most advanced–have some form of ghost folklore.
A Few Fine Examples
Disclaimer: This list is by no means exhaustive or even representative, but rather contains some of my favorite entries in the genre. Nothing more.
–The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Though certainly not without its issues and inconsistencies, this tale marks the beginning of the Gothic genre as we know it and heralded in a whole new era of haunted tales with dark and creepy settings.
–“The Haunted and the Haunters” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton is a fantastic entry in the Victorian ghost story genre and the ending is both and surprisingly original.
–“The Beckoning Fair One” by Oliver Onions. His name was Onions. Read his story.
–The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. James wrote this short novel by dictation while sick in bed. May or may not have been delirious and/or drunk most of that time. Story kinda rocks either way.
–Hell House by Richard Matheson. I hesitate to list this book here because it’s not really a favorite of mine. In fact, I don’t intend to ever read it again, as I’m still scarred from reading it 8 years ago. However, it is well-conceived and follows a tried-and-true formula that I think is pretty great. It’s definitely horror, not terror, though, so approach with caution if you tend to be disturbed by reading terrifying and awful things.
–The Awakening. Rebecca Hall and Dominic West are believable and sympathetic, and the story itself is very well done. The ghost story genre seldom receives this classy a treatment. so I can’t recommend this film highly enough. Also, bonus points for delving into the spiritualist movement of the time:
–El Orfanato. It’s sad and scary and scary and sad. And somehow really beautiful. Watch it.
–The Woman in Black is probably the closest you can get to reading one of the old classic ghost stories without reading. It follows all the appropriate rules and genre restrictions perfectly, but still delivers a pretty nice creep factor. Plus, Harry Potter. Plus, creepy dolls.
–The Devil’s Backbone. Guillermo del Toro. Shiver. This one will stick with you. Like El Orfanato, this film has a certain poetry and beauty to it that in no way lessens the terror. And the writing is excellent: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time. Like a blurred photograph. Like an insect trapped in amber.”
–The Conjuring. I admit to finding the Warrens absolutely fascinating, both as individuals and through their investigations. This representation of Ed and Lorraine is pretty great. Also, Annabelle. Shiver. DOLLS, man!
I have a vague memory of my older brother playing a video game (console, not PC) that required the player to take photographs in the dark. These pictures revealed scary things. I cannot for the life of me find this game and I really want to play it! Especially since big bad big brother was too scared and had to return it after only playing for a very few minutes. Help!
**This post was originally posted on September 29, 2014**