[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying ghosts in American society and popular culture. Boo (in the best sense)!]
[NOTE: This post originally appeared a few years back, which is why I refer to my now very-teenage sons as ‘tweens—and I should note we have begun to share more beloved books as well!]
On a more psychological and a more historical side to the enduring appeal of ghost stories.
There isn’t a lot of overlap between this AmericanStudier’s favorite books when he was a ‘tween and those of my two ‘tween (although soon to be teenage!) sons, but one series that does feature on both of our lists is Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Featuring three total books, from 1981’s original through 1984’s More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and 1991’s Scary Stories 3: More Tales to Chill Your Bones, and soon to be a major motion picture (if one that from the description I’m quite sure will be loosely adapted at best from the books), the Scary Stories series has been an enduringly popular spooky presence for young audiences for nearly four decades now. And while the books feature scary stories in a number of different genres and forms, I would argue that the ghost story is consistently at their heart, from the original’s “The Ghost with the Bloody Fingers” to the sequel’s “The Guests” to the final book’s “The Dead Hand” and many more. As most of this week’s texts and topics likewise illustrate, there’s clearly just something about ghost stories that we keep coming back to, that keeps them firmly and squirmingly in our collective psyche.
On one level, I think ghost stories and the discomfort and fears they invoke appeal to different elements in our psyches than do other horror tales. Much of horror is about external threats, bogeymen or creatures clearly distinct from us; certainly some of them can turn ordinary humans into threats as well (such as vampires and zombies), but nonetheless the fundamental threat in those kinds of stories comes from something overtly not-us (and thus easy not to believe in). Whereas ghosts are entirely us, our fellow humans with whom we know for a fact we share this world—and given the belief across religions and cultures in some form of an afterlife, it’s not difficult to imagine that we likewise share the world with humans we can no longer see but who remain in some form. Even for someone who does not believe in either an afterlife or ghosts (as I will admit I do not), I guess it would be more accurate to say that I’m pretty sure those things don’t exist—but there’s a level of uncertainty compared to, for example, my certainty that vampires and zombies do not exist. To put it simply, it’s difficult if not impossible to separate the concept of ghosts from other forms of spirituality that define much of human society and existence—and the individual and collective needs for those spiritual beliefs thus help explain the scarier flipside represented by ghost stories.
At the same time, to live in the world in 2018 in particular means that we’re surrounded constantly by layer upon layer of history. Even a relatively young nation like the United States has centuries of such histories layered beneath us, to say nothing of the Native American histories that extend back much further still (and help explain ghost stories like those about the wendigo, of course). Yet much of the time, at least in the U.S. as I argued in comparing it to Rome in this post, we act as if history is something that can be localized to particular sites or spaces, something we can visit and learn about but not necessarily a constant presence in our communities. Deep down I think we know better though, and perhaps the continued popularity of ghost stories also reflects a recognition that the past isn’t dead, it’s not even past—and thus that at any moment it can rise up from the ground or out of the air and grab hold of us. That’s a pretty scary thought to be sure, but as the more complicated and even friendly ghosts in many of this week’s stories illustrate, it doesn’t have to be, not if we first admit the ghostly but real presence of the past and then see where those stories and ghosts might lead us.
October Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other ghost stories or histories you’d share?