The Anatomy of a Ghost Story

Classic ghost stories are as old as literature itself. Ghosts are present even in ancient epics like ‘The Odyssey’. The only thing that has changed about them is how they’re told. From oral tradition to modern multimedia, these tales of woe have sewn conscious or unconscious terror in our minds throughout history.

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Why are Ghost Stories so scary?

The answer is simple: they remind us of death.

Whether you believe in an afterlife or a higher power the fact remains; we don’t understand death. Things we don’t understand, fill us with fear and anxiety.


Didn’t Tolkien call death ‘The Gift of Men’? The compensation for our mortality, presumably, is free will.

We’re allowed it, temporarily.

What could be more terrifying, then, than the idea that this gift – this blessing – might be taken from us?

Hauntings are ostensibly the result of “unfinished business”, tying an angry spirit to our world until it is able to “move on”. What could be worse than denial?

Maybe that is why ghosts are so angry.

Therefore, I think we can conclude that the destination of a ghost story is death, or un-death.

Our heroes must either succumb to it, or help a spirit embrace it.

The power of these derivative, formulaic (more to come on this – I’ll be writing a Ghost Story Template soon) stories, must lie in the telling.

Nature VS Nurture

If you take a look back at all the ghost stories you’ve read you’ll notice the two key themes: intelligent characters, representing science, and adverse weather conditions representing nature.

We can control our science, it gives us power, but who can halt a thunderstorm?

Often, weather, rust, decay, represent our powerlessness. In spite of everything we’ve achieved, the ravages of time will claim us in the end.

Locations in ghost stories are typically rural; the trees, animals, and threat of mother nature are physically present.

Where then, do the ghosts sit? Presumably, they must be an amalgam of these two elements. Something more than human and less than nature.

Of course!

So then, our mortal protagonists use their secret weapon to placate the ghosts; logic and reasoning.

Look at the Woman in Black. How she is – seemingly – defeated.

Our Human Vulnerability

How many recent horror films have you seen, whereby a sceptic is converted into a true believer in the course of under 90 minutes.

We are prone to paranoia, self-doubt, and ultimately human vulnerability. Who wouldn’t be when faced with ghosts in the night?

The formula goes something like this:

Question the location > question the people involved > question the history > question ourselves.

How often now, is psychology involved in ghost stories? This wonderful red herring – which I will admit to using – serves only as a distraction.

Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up and realise it was all a dream?

Wouldn’t it be hell to wake up still in this mortal coil?

Ghosts, Demons and You

What’s the difference?

Ghosts were once us, you will one day be a ghost.

Demons aren’t worth talking about.

The reason ghosts are so frightening is quite simply because they remind us of us. They know what we know, and more. They’re better than us.

Wouldn’t you prefer someone shouting in your face that they’d get you, than eerie silence, knowing they could be waiting around the corner?

Ghosts know that too.

Is Resolution a myth?

All ghost stories come to an end.

Or do they?

Just look at the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise…

They endure, whether we like it or not.

Good ghost stories leave you asking questions, or more specifically, one question: have we done enough?

Spiritual conflicts require spiritual resolutions, and as long as we remain technologically advanced sceptics…

The answer should always be no.