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.
GHOSTS AS EXPRESSIONS OF EMOTIONS
The following is excerpted from a 1974 young adult novel by Penelope Lively, and explains how old ghost stories can still be relevant in modern times. In a metafictional discussion about a school performance of Macbeth, 14 year old Clare speaks to Aunt Susan and Aunt Anne:
Aunt Susan didn’t agree. “They are psychological ghosts. You shouldn’t see them. They are an indication of Macbeth’s private guilt and anguish.”
“Surely you are being too modern?” said Aunt Anne, retrieving hair. “To the seventeenth-century mind ghosts were perfectly acceptable. Portents, maybe, expressions of guilt, if you like, but quite real and visible.”
The aunts argued, gently. The library clock whirred, clicked, struck five.
“What do people have now, then?” said Clare. “Instead of ghosts?”
“Have in their minds, instead of ghosts. If they’re in a state about something, like Macbeth?”
“I suppose obsessions would be the modern substitute,” said Aunt Susan. “Neuroses of one kind or another. Burying anxiety in some kind of obsessive fancy.”
“Imagining something was going on that wasn’t?”
“That kind of thing.”
— The House In Norham Gardens
The uneasy feeling that we are not alone is remarkably common. So common I’d guess almost everybody has experienced it:
About halfway up the steps, every time, I was overcome with an unshakeable certainty that there was a monster behind me, chasing me. I won’t say I never get that feeling anymore, but I force myself to walk up the stairs slowly and calmly when it happens now, swallowing my fear. That’s called being an adult.
The sense of someone near you when no one is actually there is called “feeling of presence” or FOP
GHOSTS AS EXPRESSIONS OF ONE’S OWN MADNESS
Claire Messud touches upon the relevance of ghost stories to modern life in her novel The Woman Upstairs:
There is a story by Chekhov…that had fascinated me in college. The black winter of my second year, assailed by doubt at not having gone to art school, I’d read it over and over. ‘The Black Monk’: about a man who imagines himself visited by a ghostly monk, with whom he has life’s vital conversations, about creativity, and greatness, and the meaning of existence. The monk assures him of his importance, of his exceptional talents. Then he realizes that the monk isn’t real; that he himself must be mad. But how much better to be made in the company of the monk, than to be sane, and constrained in his aspirations, and alone.
“The Wer-Trout” by Annie Proulx is not a ghost story but draws from the supernatural ghost story in a tale which is realism. In classic modern horror story, the supernatural creature of the story is made up by a drunk man’s imagination, but in the Self-revelation phase he sees himself reflected and reflected back is the face of the creature he’s concocted to scare his fishing buddy. The function of the Wer-Trout in Proulx’s story is very similar to the function of the ghost in Messud’s novel: imagined supernatural creature as outworking of one’s own frightening parts. This is generally how modern writers use ghosts, monsters and supernatural events — to allow a character insight into the inner darkness of themselves.
WRITING SUPERNATURAL STORIES
For storytelling purposes, I divide supernatural stories into two separate groups:
- The supernatural element is part of the plot. The writer creates a full fantasy storyworld in which supernatural elements are not only explained, but they also have their own detailed lore. Enjoyment from reading these stories derives partly from getting to know a supernatural milieu so different from our own. Twilight would be an example of that.
- The supernatural element is part of the symbol web. The writer is probably writing a story set in the real world, or something quite close to it. The origin of the supernatural element is never explained. It comes, it makes its impact on the main character(s), and it may leave at the end, or hang around to create chaos beyond the story. “King Bait” by Keri Hulme is an example of that kind of story. We don’t know where the whitebait river came from, or anything about it, but Hulme uses the supernatural fish to say something about the human condition. Neil Gaiman’s short stories are often like that, too: teenagers gatecrash a party and find they’ve gatecrashed an alien party. We don’t know where the aliens came from or why they’re at the party — the story is only about the human experience of encountering something very strange and beyond us.
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