Ghost Stories

At some point or another, we've all wondered about the afterlife. What happens when we die? Where does our consciousness go? Will we ever return to this world? All of these musings eventually lead us to speculate about ghosts and their place in our world. With all this fascination around ghosts, is it any surprise that authors, poets, playwrights, filmmakers, and artists want to tell stories about them?

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Table of contents

    Ghost Stories: meaning

    Every culture in the world has its own understanding of death and the afterlife. They also have stories and folktales about their dead and what transpired after their death. The figure of the ghost is popular in many cultures. The ghost signifies traces of one’s being, mind, or soul that are left behind in this world long after the person is dead. Ghost stories refer to stories that feature ghosts. These stories may be written, told, performed, or sung.

    Henry JamesThe Turn of the Screw (1898) is an example of a famous ghost story.

    Ghost Stories: characteristics

    According to medievalist scholar and author, M. R. James, an English ghost story includes certain features. A ghost story with these features came to be known as a ‘Jamesian Tale.’1 These include:

    1. A setting that made an impression. The setting contributed to the mood of the story. For a ghost story, it was important for the setting to convey a sense of bleakness and foreboding. The setting could be as small as a country house and as big as a village or town.

    2. An object that is the source of the haunting. Usually, the ghost in the ghost story would make its presence known when the protagonists discovered an object closely associated with the ghost.

    3. A bland and naïve protagonist to maintain the reader’s attention on the ghost and the haunting.

    4. No explanation of supernatural occurrences, such as the ghost, through reason or science.

    5. Wrathful or menacing ghosts, as James believed that friendly apparitions belonged in fairy tales.

    Ghost Stories: analysis and popular books

    Analysing a ghost story requires close examination of certain aspects of the narrative. These include the setting, reason for haunting, and source of haunting.


    When analysing the setting of a ghost story, you can ask yourself the following questions:

    • What are the features of the setting?
    • How does the setting add to the spookiness of the ghost story?
    • The setting is usually special in some way or contains something special to the ghost. Ghosts typically cannot leave the place of their haunting, so it is important for the setting to be diverse – how does the story achieve this?
    • Are there certain symbols or motifs in the setting that underline the ghost story?

    This is a lot of questions, so let's take a look at how you can use them to analyse a text:

    In Susan Hill’s Woman in Black (1983), the setting is a decrepit, secluded house, called Eel House, that sits on the marshes outside a town called Crythin Gifford. The name of the house and its seclusion from the town suggest something unnatural about the place. The marshes surrounding the house are the reason for the haunting, as the ghost, when she was alive, had a son who drowned in the marshes. She haunts Eel House to search for her child, whose body was not recovered, and to punish others. Numerous scenes take place in Eel House, primarily in the nursery, which adds the feeling of uncanny to the narrative. The rocking chair in the nursery rocking by itself gives the impression that the woman’s ghost is seated in it as she waits impatiently for her child. For the protagonist, who is alone in the house, this adds to the feeling of menace in the atmosphere. The nursery in shambles, and all its paraphernalia is a symbol of the lost joy of motherhood that consumed the ghost when she was alive upon the death of her child.

    Reason for haunting

    In most ghost stories, it is believed that those people who had 'unfinished business' on earth after their death find themselves unable to move on to the afterlife. Their restless souls, therefore, become ghosts and haunt a particular place they were closely associated with during their lives. Typically, ghosts can never leave the site of the haunting, except to 'move on' to the afterlife.

    In Shakespeare’s widely read and performed Hamlet (1601), the late King appears as a ghost to Prince Hamlet. He's unable to move on due to his murderer going unpunished. He appears in the grounds of the castle and, although visible to the guardsmen, the ghost exclusively communicates with Hamlet. The ghost tasks Hamlet to avenge his murder.

    Source of haunting

    Usually, ghosts are tied to a place by some precious belonging or some deep attachment to people or areas. These places or objects become the source of the haunting. Some people who believe in ghosts also believe that destroying the object frees the ghost. While that is yet to be scientifically proven, as is the existence of ghosts, the objects or places that are the source of the haunting also add to the fictional narrative and serve as a symbol for something else.

    Similar to Hill's Woman in Black, Sarah Waters' 2009 novel, The Little Stranger, also involves a dead child. The child is Susan Ayres, who died of a disease at 8 years of age, and has been haunting the nursery of Hundreds Hall in a bid to get her mother, Mrs Ayres, to join her in the afterlife. Mrs Ayres, upon encountering and later escaping 'Susan's ghost,' kills herself mere days after. Although it is unclear whether it is Susan's ghost that the other members of the Ayres family see, it is important to note how Susan's ghost is tied to the room where she played and died, and how Mrs Ayres is driven to suicide after being locked and terrorised in this very room – the source of the haunting.

    Ghost Stories: genre

    While all ghost stories belong to the genre of supernatural fiction, not all supernatural fiction is a ghost story. Supernatural stories may feature creatures and beasts other than ghosts.

    Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) features vampires, which are different than ghosts. This makes the narrative a tale of horror and supernatural but not a ghost story.

    While ghost stories may include features found in tales of the supernatural, such as psychologically disturbing occurrences, spooks, death and tragedy, ghost stories must irrevocably contain ghosts to be qualified as such.

    Tales of horror and the supernatural, including ghost stories, are often regaled during campfires and late night gatherings. Some ghost stories have snowballed into great popularity as a result of being told over and over during such events.

    There are multiple stories of phantom hitch-hikers who haunt particular stretches of roads and the commuters who pass through them. The story of 'Bloody Mary,' a ghost who appears in mirrors to those who are about to die, is another well-known ghost story. Because of their heightened popularity, these ghost stories go on to become urban legends.

    Ghost Stories: ideas for writing your own

    If you're setting out to write a ghost story yourself, it's advisable to read some famous ghost stories in the English literary canon first, as these will give you an idea of how to enthral your readers. This could include reading stories by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Shirley Jackson.

    It is important to keep the following aspects in mind: the backstory, the source of the haunting, the setting and atmosphere, and the protagonist.

    The backstory

    Devise the backstory of the ghost first by asking yourself the following questions:

    • Whose ghost is it?
    • Why are they a ghost?
    • Do they have some 'unfinished business' on earth?
    • Who are they haunting and why?
    • Are they malevolent towards only their target or to anyone who encounters them?
    • What can potentially set the ghost free?

    The source of the haunting

    Once you have your ghost's backstory, identify the source of their haunting by asking yourself the following questions:

    • What object triggers the appearance of the ghost and why?
    • What is so special about the object for the ghost? Make sure it features significantly in the backstory. The object can also be a symbol for something that the ghost feels, such as rage, jealousy, or greed.

    The setting and atmosphere

    Setting and atmosphere are very important in a ghost story. These convey a sense of 'spookiness' to the reader. Traditionally, the appearances of ghosts are marked with cold spots and drafts, mists and vapours, etc. The ghost is also tied to a particular place and can usually never leave the place. In your ghost story, identify this place and set the scene for building a sense of horror and fear in your reader through imagery.

    The protagonist

    Know your protagonist. While all of these factors are important, it is also the interaction between the ghosts and your protagonist that will captivate your readers.

    Ghost Stories - Key takeaways

    • The genre of ghost stories belongs to supernatural fiction. All ghost stories are supernatural fiction, but not all supernatural fiction is a ghost story.
    • Ghost stories are fictional narratives that feature a ghost.
    • In ghost stories, ghosts are typically tied to a place or an object. They have 'unfinished business' that needs resolving before they can move on in the afterlife.
    • Some ghost stories, due to immense popularity, go on to become urban legends.
    • In ghost stories, the setting, the source of the haunting, and the reason for the haunting play a significant role.
    • Examples of ghost stories include The Little Stranger (2009) by Sarah Waters, The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James, and The Woman in Black (1983) by Susan Hill.

    1 S. T. Joshi. Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories: The Complete Ghost Stories of M. R. James. Vol. 1. Penguin Books. 2005.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Ghost Stories

    How to write a ghost story?

    To write a ghost story, devise the backstory of your ghost, the reason for their haunting, the source of their haunting and the setting of their haunting. Then set the atmosphere to 'spook' your readers.

    What is a ghost story?

    A ghost story is a fictional narrative featuring one or more ghosts.

    Why are ghost stories popular?

    Ghost stories are popular because of their speculation about death and the afterlife, and also because of the fascination of some readers with the uncanny and the macabre.

    How to start a ghost story?

    There are many ways to start a ghost story. Typically, you can start with the protagonist arriving at the place of haunting, and early on have them encounter the ghost so they may investigate the origins of the ghost.

    What makes a ghost story a ghost story?

    The presence of a ghost as a key character makes the ghost story a ghost story.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is a ghost story?

    Which character, according to M. R. James, should have more depth in a ghost story?

    Ghost stories with the features of a ghost story devised by M. R. James are written in the ______ style


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