Why do ghost stories exist? Well, one might simply answer that they exist because people have had real encounters with the supernatural. But these are only encounters, and a personal experience can be kept
to one’s self. Why do ghost stories exist? Why the need to communicate such strange tales to others?
Let’s step back from the question for a second and take another perspective on the ghost story. Perhaps ghost stories are, as Freud argued, merely dreams from the childhood of our race come back to us, rebelling against our materialism. Or perhaps they are metaphors for the internal battle of man vs. man, of the thoughts of the “establishment” vs. the “marginalized” who do not quite fit the system or threaten to destabilize it. Even in this case, ghost stories, as stories, are meant to deal with something out in the open, to externalize an experience that is internal.
One of the primary experiences ghost stories deal with is fear. Many literary critics recognize that the management of fear is one of the important explanations for the existence of the ghost story. Julia Briggs in her book Night Visitors says, “Both the recital and reading of stories of the terrific unknown suggests a need to exorcise in controlled circumstances, fear which in solitude or darkness might become unmanageable. By recounting nightmares, giving them speakable shapes and patterns, even if as compulsively as did Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, we hope to control them and come to terms with them.”
Similarly, Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert note at the beginning of their Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories: “Whatever we do with the dead they will not go away. Whether we entomb and isolate them or scatter their ashes, they remain as ghosts in our memories and faced with their continuing presence we have no option but to learn to live with them. Our most effective way of accommodating them is, perhaps, to encapsulate them in stories, either as the vengeful or grateful dead of folklore, as the dull prosaic phantoms of psychical research, or as the less predictable revenants of fiction.”
Or if we take the materialist view again, ghost stories are psychological exercises, the attempts of individuals to grapple with “their own failure to be at one with themselves and their surroundings, both physical and intellectual. Out of an alienation, to which the decay of supernatural beliefs contributed, there emerges the figure of the double, neither the self nor another, a powerful symbol of unresolved inner conflict” (Briggs). In this case, for example, “supernatural figures such as the vampire, or, more obviously, the werewolf symbolize a regression to the natural bestiality lurking within, and [are] ignored at one’s psychic peril” (Ibid). In this view, ghosts become figures of the frightening aspects that man discovers in himself, and ghost stories become a sort of self-psychoanalysis.
We seek to manage our fears then, because we are creatures of reason that strive to create meaning. Both reason and meaning imply an ordering, an arranging. If you believe in the supernatural, it is still super-natural, above ordinary occurrence, and must somehow be factored into the hierarchy of the psyche. If you are a materialist, you must still deal with “the unknown forces in man”, in Freudian terms, the dark Id that must be brought into subjection (Ibid). Stories, then, can help to serve this function.
This does not render the narrating exercise explicit and simple, however, because the fears being grappled with may not always come straight to the surface of the story. Briggs observes, “Like other forms of fantasy–myths, legends, or fairy tales—[the ghost story] could be made to embody symbolically hopes and fears too deep and too important to be expressed more directly. The fact that authors often disclaim any serious intentions—M.R. James declared that he only wanted to ‘give pleasure of a certain sort’—may paradoxically support this view. The revealing nature of fantastic and imaginative writing has encouraged its exponents to cover their tracks, either by self-deprecation or other forms of retraction. The assertion of the author’s detachment from his work may reasonably arouse the suspicion that he is less detached than he supposes.”
Storytelling is also a means of making sense of life in light of death—death being one of the greatest fears of man. British novelist A. S. Byatt has noted that “life, Pascal once said, is like living in a prison, from which every day fellow prisoners are being taken away to be executed. We are all . . . under sentence of death, and we all think of our lives as narratives, with beginnings, middles, and ends.” Death, of course, is the end of our individual stories in one sense. And with the approach of death we seek to make sense of what our lives have been. The German literary critic Walter Benjamin made this observation in his essay “The Storyteller”: “It is, however, characteristic that not only man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life—and this is the stuff that stories are made of—first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death. Just as a sequence of images is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end—suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is at the very source of story. Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell.”
Notice how Benjamin relates death and storytelling to two sets of people. First, to those who are dying. In light of their approaching fate the narrative of their life begins to take shape (a sequence of images). But second, to those around that person, the narrative of that life also begins to take shape as well. Death sanctions the stories of the dying as well as the stories of those who live on. Benjamin also quotes Pascal in this respect: “’No one,’ Pascal once said, ‘dies so poor that he does not leave something behind.’ Surely it is the same with memories too.” These memories remain in the stories that are told of us. As Byatt says, “Stories are like genes, they keep part of us alive after the end of our story.”
As with fear, this does not mean that storytelling and narrative somehow wrap up our lives in neat and meaningful packages, or make death completely palatable. As Cox and Gilbert said, “Whatever we do with the dead they will not go away.” Even in stories death may approach too close for our comfort. Ghost stories are always a negotiation between fear and the control of that fear. It makes sense that for a ghost story to be effective it should be fearful to a point—otherwise what is the use of it as a “ghost” story? But the fear must also be controlled lest it overcome us, and so rules are created for how ghosts should operate. Again Briggs notes, “This consequential patterning of the ghost story normally implies that there must be a reason (if not a strictly logical one) for supernatural events. If a ghost walks, it is because its owner has not been buried with due ceremony, because he has to atone for some great sin, or perhaps to warn, to provide information concealed during life—the existence of a second will or buried treasure for instance. The dead seldom return merely to reassure fond relatives that they are not lost but gone before, or to dictate their latest symphony. Thus the behavior of the traditional ghost resembles that of a restless sleeper whose bed is uncomfortable or who is troubled by guilt or an unfulfilled obligation. There is similarly an illogical logic in those ‘spirits created for vengeance’ who usually seize on secret criminals, or hapless magicians who dabble with powers beyond their control, or on the fool who sells his soul to the Devil for some misconceived advantage.” The rules are there, but the rules may be broken, and the unmanaged force of death may strike out in a story.
Finally, the telling of ghost stories is a means of finding some hope and consolation within community. Storytelling by nature requires community—after all, nobody tells a story to nobody. And if we are seeking to control our fears, then they are easier dealt with in the light of fellowship with others, because “in solitude or darkness [they] might become unmanageable” (Briggs). In the sharing of stories we come to realize that we are not alone in the exigences of human existence, that we all share common concerns and cares. Hearing the stories of others becomes a path back into their experience, which connects to our own experience. Daniel Taylor writes, “We are drawn to stories because our own life is a story and we are looking for help. Stories give us help in many ways. They tell us that we are not alone, and that what has happened to us has happened first to others and that they made it through. They also help us see, however, that our own story is not big enough, that the world is larger and more varied than our limited experience. They help us be more fully human by stimulating and appealing to all that we are—mind, body, spirit.”
We bring our stories into the community so that we can orient our individual narratives in the context of the greater communal narrative, to once again seek a measure of reason and order. As Scott T. Cummings puts it, “I have a story, therefore I am. . . . The fact of having a story and the act of telling it constitute a kind of redemption, a saving grace which imbues [our] profane lives with a touch of the sublime.” While we are alive we can reach out to each other as human beings struggling together. And perhaps, when we are gone, our memory will live on in others who share our story in the company and bright lights of community, or by the fireside on the darkest nights of the year.
Chris currently teaches writing and literature to community college students in Massachusetts. He is the author of six books of poetry, and can probably be found reading a book, drinking chai, and wearing flannel. In 2018 he and his wife Jen co-founded The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, hanging out in coffee shops, and poking around used bookstores.