Why We Love Ghost Stories
Updated: Apr 28
While a real-life bump in the middle of the night would terrify many of us, reading about ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural creatures can be a delightful fright!
I love all things autumn (more on that here), and I love Halloween, but my feelings about the horror genre are a bit more mixed. I'm not a fan of scary movies (too much gore), and I've never read a single Stephen King novel. However, I think a creepy ghost story can be just frightening enough to be fun and still let me sleep at night. I well remember telling ghostly tales at slumber parties with friends and being perfectly petrified by members of the Midnight Society who appeared each week on the show Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon in the early '90s. Now as an adult, I still like to read a few ghost stories every October, just to get into the "spirit" of the Halloween season.
But why do we like ghost stories? Why are they a mainstay of literature across cultures and generations? The answer, it seems, is both science and myth. Whenever we dive into a book, of any genre, we engage in what the writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed the "suspension of disbelief." Even though we know we are just reading words on a page, we allow ourselves to accept that the story is truly happening so that we can enjoy the experience. This is how we can get lost in a story or transported to another place and time just by reading a book. We can engage in suspension of disbelief whenever we read fiction, but it's particularly important when reading ghost tales or other supernatural stories. This feature of our minds lets us temporarily accept what we're reading as true without asking too many critical or logical questions that might otherwise spoil the frightful fun.
As for why we're so willing to feel fear, that's all in our heads as well. As explained in this article from the University of Southern California, a scare with a quick reassurance of safety releases endorphins and dopamine in our bodies, making being petrified feel pleasurable. We can get that feeling over and over with each new fright and without ever risking any real harm.
Ghost stories also play a role in shaping and reflecting culture. Some stories serve as cautionary tales, instilling moral codes or standards of behavior. Get out of line, and the monster will get you! However, ghosts and otherworldly creatures are also symbols of our collective and cultural fears. They are specters of society's anxieties and unspoken terror. In his article for the New York Times (read it here), Parul Sehgal beautifully describes ghosts as "social critiques camouflaged with cobwebs."
If you're ready to set your nerves on edge, I have a few recommendations. They're all short stories so you can get your scare in a few pages and shut the book tight or go back for more!
I was in the ninth grade when a beloved teacher introduced me to the work of Edgar Allan Poe. I had never read anything like his poetry and short stories and was immediately captivated. Poe was a troubled man to be sure; he was also a master at his craft who transformed the horror genre in his day. Every October, I like to pull out a volume of Poe's collected works and immerse myself in his dark tales and poems. "The Raven" is, of course, one of my many favorites. You may be familiar with his stories like "Fall of the House of Usher" or "The Tell-Tale Heart." Those are great, but I'd also suggest Poe's short stories, "Ligeia" and "A Descent into the Maelstrom."
I never once picked up a copy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz when I saw it on the shelves of my elementary school library. I was too scared of the picture on the front cover. My son, however, had no such concern when he dived into this series of three collections of children's horror stories. Now we've read creepy tales like "The Girl Who Stood on a Grave" and "The Window." I'm still nervous about the pictures, thanks to the talent of illustrator Stephen Gammell.
For the first time, I'm reading The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. This old novella (about a hundred pages) is getting new life and attention right now because of the current Netflix loose adaptation "The Haunting of Bly Manor." This gothic ghost story is about a governess caring for two children who comes to believe the estate is haunted. I haven't finished this one yet so I can't spoil anything for you, but the story so far is sufficiently ghostly for my taste.
The Canadian author L.M. Montgomery is best known for writing the Anne of Green Gables series, but the irrepressible Anne might feel lost walking Among the Shadows: Tales from the Darker Side. This is a collection of 19 short stories written by Montgomery. Some are ghost stories, and some deal with vices and crimes found in the real world. This collection shows some of Montgomery's range and depth and is worth exploring, especially if you only know the author from her sunnier works.
Finally, if you're looking for something just a bit different (or longer), let me suggest another book where a ghost plays a pivotal role in the life of a troubled family. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a 2017 National Book Award winner by Jesmyn Ward. A family is haunted by the past and scared of the uncertainty of the future-- and then the ghost appears. It's not a typical ghost story. This book deals with issues of race, poverty, injustice, addiction, and love. Told mostly through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy, I thought Sing, Unburied, Sing was a well-written story of the struggle to overcome the limits placed on you by society, the past, and your own choices. It's haunting in an entirely different way.
So how will you be scaring yourself with a suspension of disbelief this October? Will you try something new or return to a classic ghost tale that's been told again and again? Best wishes for further reading!