Contributed by Jeamus Wilkes
Ghosts are a population in a subgenre of horror known as ghost stories. The stories assume or imply ghosts and spectral things. Ghosts are forever at war with their own fiction and nonfiction natures. In modern times, it’s one of the few subjects that almost everyone has a tale to tell. And that tale often begins, “I don’t really know if I believe in this sort of thing, but I have a ghost story to tell.”
A major source of the ghost story’s power is drawn from its phantasmic refusal to be pinned down into a simple and solitary one-sentence definition. It’s because a ghost fully inhabits the parameters of a noun. A ghost can be a person, place, or thing once thought dead that returns to haunt those current and living persons, places, or things. Ghosts and ghost stories are often the same thing, their corporeality and incorporeality at constant war with each other, their fallout touching and withering the living. Ghost stories scare and haunt us so effectively because they remind us that the sliding scale of chronology in our tragic history was real. Ghosts are the personal and public scars of time.
Ghost stories pervade nearly all of the early and ancient oral traditions, folklore, and legends of Earth’s cultures. Written versions of these survive today—somewhat intact—in collected volumes such as Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn (1904; featuring many Japanese ghost stories), American Indian Myths and Legends (1984; Richard Erdoes & Alfonso Ortiz, Eds.), Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (now up to at least 20 editions, and riddled with ghost stories that inform our very language), and Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity by D. Felton (2010).
Ghost stories in their short form that haunt the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s—encompassing the age of Victoria, the American Civil War, the Wild West, and World War I—are abundant, and their haunted collections include tales from masters of the subgenre peppered with gothic influences, such as Best Stories of Algernon Blackwood (1973; E.F. Bleiler, Ed.), The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (1986; Michael Cox & R.A. Gilbert, Eds.), Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories by M.R. James (2005; S.T. Joshi, ed.), The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton (1976), The Best Gothic Tales and Ghost Stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (2019; M. Grant Kellermeyer, Ed.), and The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women (2012; Marie O’Regan, Ed.; this particular collection lets 21st century gems and their late 19th & early 20th century influences share the same space).
Ghost novels exemplary or classic in status include Ghost Story by Peter Straub (1979), The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959), House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000), The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983), Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (2007), The Shining by Stephen King (1977), The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (2002), and Hell House by Richard Matheson (1971). Many of these novels have been adapted for cinema and television with varied results.
When done right, cinema is a terrifyingly effective vehicle for ghosts and their stories. A partial list of titles includes The Others (2001), The Innocents (1961), Crimson Peak (2015), Poltergeist (1982), The Orphanage (2007), The Amityville Horror (1979), The Changeling (1980), The Ring (1998 & 2002), Oculus (2013), Paranormal Activity (2007), The Fog (1980), Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), Candyman (1992), The Entity (1982), Stir of Echoes (1999), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), The Innkeepers (2011), The Uninvited (1944), and Lake Mungo (2008).