Popularized by Charles Dickens in his 1843 A Christmas Carol, as well as in the yuletide editions of his literary magazine, All the Year Round, ghost stories were regular Christmas fare for the Victorians. “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters,” writes Jerome K. Jerome in the introduction to Told After Supper, his 1891 anthology of Christmas ghost stories.
In our contemporary moment, Halloween has supplanted Christmas in the popular imagination as the time of year best suited for tales of terror. However, as in bygone eras, there is no bad time for a good ghost story. We perennially delight in tales of the restless dead. But if ghost stories are scary and being scared is unpleasant, why consciously seek discomfort? What conjures our ghostly desire?
Scholars have many theories to explain the apparent paradox of what we might call the “pleasurable fear” of horror. Denial theorists, such as Kendall Walton, simply reject the proposition that we are ever actually scared—they posit that we know we are safe and it is all just make-believe. Competition theories of horror enjoyment, in contrast, suggest that scary stories elicit actual emotions—more than one of them. This is philosopher Noël Carroll’s proposition in The Philosophy of Horror, where he argues that the fear and disgust evoked by what he calls “art-horror”—artistic works that intend to evoke a horrified response—are offset by the enjoyments of narrative and the interest elicited by monsters. When consuming scary tales, our curiosity and fear compete. The emotion that wins determines if we keep reading or watching or call it quits and pull the covers up over our head.
And then there is Mathias Clasen’s “biocultural” approach. In Why Horror Seduces, he explains that the perpetual allure of scary stories is in fact evolutionarily conditioned. “The most effective monsters of horror fiction mirror ancestral dangers to exploit evolved human fears,” he explains, and we enjoy this because they evoke strong emotions in a safe context, and sometimes can prepare us for real-life horrors.
But these debates don’t quite capture the particular allure of the ghost story because they side-step our deep-seated desire for the supernatural. We need our ghosts, even if they frighten us.
Ghost stories are, of course, scary. In the way of all monsters, ghosts—even benevolent ones—threaten the stability of the conceptual categories we use to organize our experiences of the world. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen explains in his important essay, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” monsters are “disturbing hybrids” that complicate our attempts to make sense of things. Ghosts are a perfect example: Neither living nor dead, fully present nor absent, they are remnants of the past intruding upon the present, scuttling notions of linear chronology in the process. From our contemporary perspective, which tends to disavow the actual existence of ghosts, vampires, and things that go bump in the night, they are things that should not be, yet are.
Nevertheless, beneath the dread of the ghost is our intense desire for them—even scarier than ghosts is the prospect of their absence. The diaphanous quasi-presence of the ghost testifies to the persistence of consciousness after death. For most, few things are more terrifying than the idea of simply winking out of existence at the moment life ends. The ghost consoles us with the possibility of an afterlife. It is the evidence that something of us persists beyond physical dissolution.
In a world riddled with injustice, our ghost stories also comfort us with the idea that justice will be served, even if the universe has to enable the violation of its governing principles to ensure it. This is the message of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which begins with the appearance of the ghost of the murdered King, who returns to reveal the cause of his demise and spur his son to vengeance. It’s also the premise of Jerry Zucker’s 1990 blockbuster, Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg, in which the ghost of the murdered Sam (Swayze) lingers to protect the love of his life, Molly (Moore), and to see that those responsible for Sam’s death are punished. In Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 Crimson Peak, it is the ghosts of murdered brides that haunt the isolated heroine, leading her to the revelation of their undoing and the outing of the culprit. “Murder will out” is the message of these stories and many others, even if a ghost has to do the outing.
These functions of ghosts—confirming the afterlife, ensuring cosmic justice, providing consolation for the living—are evident in the pop culture representations that saturate fiction, film, TV, and other media such as podcasts and videogames. In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, for example, ghosts pester young protagonist Cole Sear (“see-er” of dead people, get it?) because they have a story to tell about abuse and murder. There is only one degree of separation between the living and the dead in Stir of Echoes, starring Kevin Bacon, in which a ghost leads the living to her bones in the basement and the murderer who buried them there.
The intense desire we have for ghosts is at the heart of a personal favorite film of mine: Mikael Håfström’s 1408 starring John Cusack. In this expanded version of Stephen King’s story of the same name, Cusack’s Mike Olin is a confirmed skeptic who disingenuously writes guidebooks to haunted places. What we discover though is that Olin never recovered from the death of his daughter and now travels from one purportedly haunted place to another desperately seeking confirmation of life after death. His encounters in a truly haunted hotel room leave him shaken, but also reassured.
At the end of Zucker’s Ghost, the murderers have been dragged to hell and Sam and Molly are granted what was denied them when Sam was murdered: a moment to say goodbye. Near the end of Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Cole shares with his mother his grandmother’s answer to his mother’s question, “Do I make you proud?”: “Yes, every day.” And in a particularly devastating moment in Håfström’s 1408, Cusack’s melancholic Mike Olin is able to take his dead daughter in his arms once more and tell her that he loves her.
These moving moments illustrate the power and profundity of our ghost stories: They respond to the deepest of human needs. Ghosts are frightening, of course, but even more terrifying is the thought of their absence. With this in mind, one can do no better during the long hours of dark winter nights than to gather with family and friends, and invite along the ghosts.