Did You Hear That? The Rise of The Ghost Story
You blow out the candle on your bedside table, crawl under the covers and close your eyes. Feel the gentle breeze of the fan brush goosebumps on your exposed arms. Let the air flow in and out of your nose.
What was that?
You gasp, tossing your comforter across the floor. Your knees tremble, which will leave a trail of bruises as you step out of bed. One cautious step at a time you walk toward the commotion. A shoe lies in your way and you trip, look up, and come face to face with…
What is a Ghost?
The character of a ghost finds its life in the belief that the body and the soul are unique beings, ones that separate upon the death of the vessel. Many cultures and religions hold varying beliefs on the idea of the soul’s afterlife. Some say that if the soul is in a state of unrest, it will not pass on to its final resting place, rather it stays on earth and haunts people who get too close.
Not all people believe that ghosts are malevolent, many feel that the spirit of loved ones guide and support them throughout life’s big moments. These differing beliefs in ghost, spirits, and supernatural activity hold their roots in different religious traditions. Religion has played a large role in shaping society's views on these elusive creatures.
Ghosts have fascinated (and haunted) people for centuries and are a topic that humans are endlessly attracted to. Let’s learn more about the origin of these supernatural beings.
Ghost stories have haunted people since the first century A.D. Pliny, a great Roman writer, recorded one of the first known ghost stories in a letter which later gained immense fame for its vivid and lucid accounts of life in the Roman Empire. In one letter in particular, Pliny notes to have seen a man, wrinkled and old appear in his house. This man had a long beard and never spoke, rather he rattled chains as he haunted Pliny’s home in Athens.
As the years moved on, more accounts of ghost hauntings continued to be penned. In 856 A.D, the first poltergeist— otherwise known as a ghost that causes physical disturbances including throwing and moving objects as well as creating loud noises— appeared to a family living in the outskirts of Germany on a quiet farm. The family’s account of torment included statements that the poltergeist set multiple fires on the property as well as threw stones and other belongings.
History is riddled with tales and folklore about ghost sightings and experiences. Some have been told for so long that they have developed into legends. One of the most famous being the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Ann was the second wife of King Henry VIII and mother to Queen Elizabeth I. On a dark day in May 1536, she found her death by beheading at the Tower of London after being accused of practicing witchcraft, treason, incest, and adultery. A tragedy to many, as the evidence against her was circumstantial at best and she proclaimed her innocence until her last breath. Now, many passersby accounts whisper tales of seeing Boleyn’s ghost scaling the walls of the tower. Some have even claimed to see her appear in Hever Castle, her childhood home in Kent.
A Victorian Tale
The end of the 17th century saw the birth of Gothic fiction. Gothic is a literary tradition that found its roots in Medieval beliefs and incorporated aspects of terror, romance, and the supernatural. Anne Radcliffe, a prolific English novelist, is credited for creating the Gothic novel and making it popular though her work The Mysteries of Udolpho. Many writers parodied this genre that teemed with melodrama and young heroines in distress. Jane Austen most explicitly poked fun at Gothic tropes in her novel Northanger Abbey.
Despite the tumultuous relationship that Gothic fiction had among writers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the genre found its peak in the 19th century where belief in spiritualism, mediums, and the supernatural were at a high point. The Victorian public were religious and spiritual people. As the era in general is known for its emphasis on moral conduct and the rise of the middle class, religious beliefs and practices were very much involved in the daily lives of the Victorians. With the rise of industrialization, enlightenment, and science many people forget that religion and spiritualism were also highly important to 19th century society.
These beliefs led to many ghost stories that came out of this era. Writers were able to blend the ideas of spiritualism, morality, and terror into their works which the Victorian public could not get enough of. The reasons for this fascination vary, but perhaps it is a desire to better understand the unknown and the unseen. Some of the most famous examples produced in this era are:
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
The monsters and ghosts in these stories were terrifying to their modern audiences and even in the 21st century, film adaptations of these novels have caused chills for viewers.
Ghost stories have a rich cultural history. They appear in many forms and hold different significance based on the people who believe in and encounter them.
Today, we most often hear them huddled around a fire on a crisp fall evening with friends.
Now that you know where they come from, you can take the lead and narrate a story so terrifying, it will chill the fire you sit around.