What’s the point of ghost stories?
In this post, ‘ghost’ is a proxy for anything supernatural: What’s the point of monsters, werewolves, and other magical fantasies?
I have a friend who disapproves of Harry Potter, but not for religious reasons — for scientific ones. His argument: stories about magic promote magical thinking, when the world needs more critical thinking. I can’t fault him on his main point, but do magical, ghostly, supernatural stories during childhood really contribute to lack of reason, and poor critical thinking?
For storytelling purposes it doesn’t really matter if ghosts are ‘real’ or not. The feelings definitely are.
‘I believe in whatever these feelings are.’
PERFECTLY GOOD REASONS FOR WRITING GHOST STORIES
To encourage readers to believe in ghosts.To encourage readers to consider there’s something beyond our own realities.
- To create a temporary storyworld in which ghosts do exist, to allow us to enjoy that frisson of temporary horripilation.
- To allow us insight into the way others experience fears. Supernatural stories can be allegories for mental illness or drug-induced hallucinations. The experience of non-reality as reality is indistinguishable from actual reality. If some of that fear can be provoked in us, we might achieve empathy with those people.
- Supernatural elements in a story can function as part of the symbol web, leading the reader towards new (non-supernatural) insight about the human experience: longing, obsession, uncertainty and disbelief. The symbol web might signify memories of things which exist no longer, or various other fears and anxieties.
- To allow scary experiences without leaving the audience in a downcast mood. Stories which genuinely scare me are about climate change, about missing children, about sickness and old age. This is a depressing kind of scary, and part of me would like to really enjoy a Stephen King novel, with beasts and supernatural beings which will never actually hurt me or my family. For most of us, ghosts are a pure, safe kind of terror.