Hallowe’en: Finding The Heart Of The Ghost Story

Reading & Writing, The Arts

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.

5 comments on “Hallowe’en: Finding The Heart Of The Ghost Story”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Holloween is the second largest holiday in the States now. That may be what happened to Holloween.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    My mother told me about something she and a friend saw which made her believe in ghostly presences. The story was chilling and had a local setting which I could visit. Since then I hear every once in a while about a ghostly presence in our art gallery, once a private home. The stories come from people working late and aren’t threatening, just disturbing. Stories that have an identifiable physical location always make a stronger impact. I don’t know about movies where you want all viewers to have a feeling of immediacy.

  3. snowy says:

    (It is sort of related) I have been long mystified by the decision of the BBC to commission the radio series ‘An Apointment With Fear’ in the midst of a World War, (it began in 1943). But it became very popular, ran for almost a decade, and is still remembered even today.

    Narrated/Introduced by Valentine Dyall, ‘The Man in Black’ and with some scripts by John Dickson Carr. (It shared some material with the US series ‘Suspence’)

    As to the lack of ghost/horror films, perhaps it’s only when people feel comfortable, they will pay to be frightened.

    Or perhaps society has moved on, and what people fear has changed. I meet more and more people who have no interest in what is going on around them, but if they can’t get onto ‘les cahiers du visage’ they are completely inconsolable.

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    Did I ever tell you that lo…ng ago the horror/supernatural writers association had a rule: the ghost, monster, whatever in a story was never to be furry like a pet. That way a facinated reader wouldn’t reach down to stroke a dog or cat and get a horrible reading shock.
    Are those days gone or what?

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Those people with pet lizards or snakes – or birds, for that matter – will still have problems. I remember someone telling me that about horror stories, but I have trouble imagining a furry ghost, unless it is the ghost of a furry pet. How scary would that be?

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