When I was 15, my family spent a week staying a friend’s house in Prince Edward Island. In Canadian terms it was old, filled with creaky wood floors and musty blankets. The house faced away from the nearby town and towards the sea. With no light pollution, the rooms were all incredibly dark.
One night, I woke up and saw a woman’s silhouette, thin and tall, standing in the doorway to my room. I sat bolt upright, flicked on the light, and, of course, no one was there. It must have a dream, I thought, what else could it be?
A week later, after we left, my father told me that he had seen a ghost. A woman, he said, thin and tall, with an old-fashioned bonnet. He woke up with her face inches from his own, staring him down.
“No surprise somewhere like that is haunted,” he said, “how couldn’t it be?”
That was my only ghost or, at least, my only ghost story. Like all narrators of stories like this, I’ll start by saying that I don’t believe in ghosts. When you’re dead, you’re dead, and nothing in the world can bring you back. I’d prefer it embellished anyway, maybe with a backstory about some poor bitter woman who threw herself into the sea. Why not, I tell myself, given that it’s all nonsense anyway?
The reason I keep on telling the truth is not a very admirable one. I won’t lie about my story because I want to believe that other people aren’t lying either. I may not believe in ghosts, but I would desperately like to believe that some of the stories we tell about them are true. There are few things better than a good haunting told well. I’m certainly not alone in my love of ghost stories. From creepy story threads on Reddit to endless films, the ghost story is alive and kicking.
My single haunting has all of the hallmarks and clichés of the genre. So much so that, looking back, I wonder if there isn’t a psychological trick to manipulating memory. A sort of paint by numbers effect to meet cultural expectation. That is what’s often surprising about ghost stories. We tell so many of them and they’re still so similar, across the decades and from one country to the next.
I found this out myself nine years later when I moved to London. London’s ghosts are better heeled than their Canadian cousins, monuments to the city’s famous history. Tourists on ghost walks can hear about Anne Boleyn carrying her severed head around the Tower, or the victims of Jack the Ripper trailing entrails through the East End. There are also phantasmagorical buses (rumoured to cause car crashes) and oddities like the ghostly chicken of Pond Square. The chicken is linked to the experiments of the 16th century philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon. Sir Francis is rumoured to have died after contracting pneumonia trying to preserve a chicken by freezing it in the snow. Ever since, the site of the experiment has been haunted, not by Sir Francis, but by his chicken.
London is a world away from the small cities of Canada’s east coast and so the particulars of its hauntings are different. But, for all that, the impact of its ghost stories is much the same. Hauntings often centre around places with long histories as well as violent or notable deaths. In London, this means transparent monks near ancient monasteries, sobbing where people perished during the blitz, and martyred Catholics screaming in the Tower. In Canada, bells toll to herald shipwrecks, logging camps fend off spirits, and French widows mourn husbands killed by the British.
Even places with less shared cultural heritage than Britain and Canada have ghost stories with similar themes. Countries like Japan, Russia, and Korea each have their own unique ghost traditions. They also have stories that are recognisable anywhere: vanishing hitchhikers, vengeful ghosts, and wailing spirits. All across the world, ghost stories are designed to evoke the same thrill of unease. This is just as true of less dignified hauntings like the phantom chicken of Pond Square. After all, life is tragic-comic, why shouldn’t death be too? The draw of ghost stories is always fear not reassurance. Being afraid isn’t the price we pay for ghost stories, it’s part of the package.
It’s not hard to understand why we like being shaken out of our comfortable lives. We’re animals that are made to be afraid, our survival premised on the awareness of danger. The compensation for that fear is how it also makes us feel alive. In big cities, surrounded by the predictable outcomes of law and technology, ghost stories are a confirmation that our ideas about the world are still correct. That there are still horrors hiding in the dark.
Ghost stories are also bound up with a kind of fear that’s untied to anything as specific as actual violence. In movies, when the ghost finally claims its victim, there’s just a scream and then a rattle, maybe a flash of something awful. What happens next is always a mystery. That’s because ghosts are liminal creatures, between one world and the next. As all good filmmakers understand, if we know them too well they lose their power.
And that is perhaps why ghost stories matter so much, they give us a way of talking about fear. Being afraid is almost always premised on uncertainty. Even if we know what’s coming next, there’s always a mysterious what if or how will it happen? But mystery and uncertainty are hard concepts to pin down. The incomprehensible part of the world can never come too close. Touch it, and it becomes something different. Touch it, and it dies.
It’s an old chestnut to say the more we talk about something, the less frightening it becomes. The purpose of ghost stories is the opposite, meant to intensify fear not take it away. This is useful because we’ll never get rid of the uncertainty at the heart of frightening stories. We’ll never know what goes on in every dark corner or empty room. Hauntings are a way of managing this uncertainty without destroying its essence. This is because ghosts are uncorrupted, not just by knowledge, but the ability of knowledge to be there at all.
In the end, ghost stories are a good way of holding on to something slippery. They give form to our nightmares, both petty and complex, and offer catharsis in return. And that, whether you believe in ghosts or not, makes their stories worth telling.