I can practically hear all the Yu Gi Oh fans groaning at the reference in today’s title. Today, we’re talking about probably the oldest monster in fiction. Horror stories about ghosts have been around for so long that if you use the term “ghost story”, everyone knows you’re talking about a horror story.
When it comes to actual stories about ghosts, there are three kinds of tales. The first is your typical revenge story, where the spirit wants to get back at whomever caused their untimely demise. The second is the “unfinished business” story, where the spirit cannot pass on to the Heaven or Hell or wherever until they resolve whatever it is they still wanted to do in life. These are less likely to be horror stories, but it depends on what the “unfinished business” is. The third type of story is the one where the protagonists disturb some kind of burial ground, and the spirits rise to menace the people that disturbed their eternal slumber. I can’t say that I blame them. I get cranky when people wake me up too.
Out of all the different types of monsters, stories about ghosts seem to have the most crossover with other genres. The most famous literary story with ghosts is Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, a Christmas story about teaching an old man to be a better person. The two most famous films with ghosts (that I can think of) are 1984’s Ghostbusters and 1990’s Ghost, neither of which are horror stories.
Of course, we’re not here to talk about the comedic or romantic ghost stories, and there are plenty of really good horror stories about ghosts to talk about. Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House is considered one of the best horror novels written, with even horror legend Stephen King giving it high praise. The 1944 film The Uninvited was both one of the first ghost horror films, and still one of the best.
Even modern horror has had great success with ghost stories, like the Poltergeist film series or the Paranormal Activity series. Before anyone mentions the Nightmare on Elm Street or The Ring films, I feel that the monsters in those films are unique enough to deserve their own separate posts, so I won’t be talking about them today.
Despite the fact that ghost stories have been around for pretty much all of human history, there is surprisingly little consensus when it comes to ghost lore. We know that they can walk through walls, possess people, and can’t be seen except in special circumstances, but otherwise we don’t know a whole lot about them. Then again, a large part of fear comes from the unknown and the unknowable, so that could be part of the point.
What most stories and films seem to agree on is that they can be removed by a priest or holy man. Some suggest that a symbol of the faith like a cross or holy water will suffice in keeping ghosts away, while others state that only a member of the church can repel an evil spirit. Incidentally, if any of you are thinking about haunting me from beyond the grave, just know that my brother-in-law was a youth minister. I’m pretty sure that exorcising evil spirits was part of his training.
Other stories suggest that you can fight off ghosts with suitable advanced technology, or with magical weapons. Of course, you need to make sure that any magical weapons you use have at least a +1 modifier, and even then you only have a 50% chance of hitting them. Oh come on now, you already know that I’m a fantasy nerd and that I have an unhealthy obsession with monster lore. You can’t be pretend to be surprised that I play Dungeons and Dragons.
In some of the best ghost stories, the only way that the main characters survive is by figuring out why the ghosts are terrorizing them and resolving the issue. This adds an element to these ghost stories that is sorely missing from some other horror stories: the idea that what the heroes are up against something that cannot be fought or killed, and can only be stopped by giving in to what they want or getting rid of something the heroes may not want to part with.
If I had to pick a favorite ghost horror film, I would have to pick 1992’s House IV. Granted this is not one of the better films revolving around ghosts, but it had a lot of chilling scenes and had the actor from Greatest American Hero in it. Plus, any movie that has a possessed pizza can’t be all bad.
And with that, our discussion on ghosts comes to it’s untimely end. I’m sorry this post was shorter than the others, but the only iconic ghosts that I could think of (Casper, Beetlejuice, Slimer, etc.) don’t really belong in the horror genre. Tomorrow, we’re going to shift gears and talk about one of the most unique monsters in fiction that I can think of: the Blob!