I’m doing Hallowe’en events all next week, and I’ll be reading several new ghost stories, but I still struggle to find a way of reaching the heart of the ghost story. Some questions need to be asked.
In modern times, how can we believe in them? Are ghost stories horror stories? What are they for? Why do they remain so popular? A look around this Hallowe’en reveals almost no horror or ghost stories at all; no new original movies or books. What’s gone wrong?
Let’s take those questions separately.
As long as there is belief there will be ghost stories, not necessarily religious belief but belief in the power of life and death, belief in retribution and guilt and the possibility of repairing mistakes to heal the past. This is what ghost stories are for; they do something for us that we cannot do alone, or force something to emerge that we cannot hope to contain. In this sense, ghost stories provide psychic balance for life’s iniquities, which explains why they are so popular after wars and times of economic hardship. Strangely, they offer comfort by rationalising, even if the rationalisation concerns aberrant psychology, as in Henry James’ ‘The Innocents’. They help us to make sense of the inexplicable.
There is another category; the story that details the completely unfathomable disturbance for which we are not prepared and will never be able to explain. These ghosts disrupt and bring chaos to order. Such stories are often the most intriguing. It’s a category that appears to have come to the fore since 9/11, and one could even count films like the ‘Final Destination’ series, which suggests we are all trapped in Fate’s design and can do nothing at all to divert it. Indeed, powerlessness, loss of identity and fear of invisibility often provide motors for modern ghost stories.
We can believe in them because times and technologies change, but human emotions are timeless. And ghosts are born from emotion. Ghost stories aren’t necessarily horror stories. Only a handful of horror films have ever successfully replicated the purity of the classic supernatural story. While films like ‘Dead Of Night’, ‘A Stir of Echoes’, ‘The Orphanage’, ‘The Others’ and ‘The Innocents’ all remain true to supernatural roots, others take a non-fantastical route to find the same state of unease, reaching a level of terror from which there can be no return.
Europe has a strong tradition of telling psychologically dark tales and instinctively understands the rulebook. ‘The Others’ even goes so far as to state the rules aloud.
In the US, noir movies provide a similar rulebook – a girl, a gun, a car, a last shot of redemption that’s snatched away.
Spain is the country bringing the best supernatural stories to the screen, thanks in part to Guillermo del Toro’s championing of great Spanish genre directors. Recent output includes ‘The Orphanage’, ‘The Others’, ‘La Madre Muerta’, ‘Biblia Negra’, ‘Fausto 5.0’, ‘Community’, ‘Fermat’s Room’, ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, ‘The Nameless’, ‘Anguish’, ‘Darkness’, ‘Julia’s Eyes’, ‘Penumbra’, The Valdemar Inheritance’ and ‘The Valdemar Legacy’ and many others. Even films like ‘Agnosia’, although not directly supernatural, feel as if they are because they’re imbued with a fatalistic gothic intensity. It’s something that Hollywood hardly ever manages to create.
Could this explain the dearth of ghostly films this Hallowe’en? (I don’t count lovelorn vampire flicks because they belong to the genre of teen romance rather than ghost stories). If there are any worth seeing this year, I’d love to hear about them.