Happy Friday, Readers, and welcome to the second day of Spooktober. This is personally my favorite month because I identify with cold weather, fog, and copious amounts of candy in the middle of the night. Today we don our word nerd hats for another deep dive into literary history. There are many facets to the Horror Genre, but one genre that has endured is the ghost story.
A Dark & Stormy Night
The modern ghost story is a subset of Gothic Fiction, a genre that rose to popularity in the 18th century and covers the board from monstrous creations to blood sucking fiends, all under the same visual visceral aesthetic of doom, gloom, and fabulous architecture.
“Gothic fiction is very specific — dark imagery, bleak, fog-filled, dark castles,” he says. “A sub-genre, gothic horror, is the style a lot of the names we’re familiar with wrote in, including stories like Frankenstein, Dracula and even A Christmas Carol. These stories would combine elements of romance with dark horrific figures. They aren’t always ghost stories — there is some realism.” -Paul Patterson, The History of Horror
The popularity of Gothic fiction reflected the advancement of science: as we continued to demystify aspects of how our bodies functioned and ceased to function, our fascination grew with bodily horror such as Frankenstein, and the tantalizing idea of immortality, despite gruesome consequences, ala Dracula. While the advancement of science brought many incredible improvements to quality of life and longevity, it also brought a greater awareness of our mortality. Gothic ghost stories often revolved around the fragility of life and the acknowledgement of how death was a constant in our lives.
Ghosts of the Ancient World
The concept of the ghost story has existed throughout human history, in various forms. It boils down to a universal fear we all share, a fear of death and what lies beyond. The question of what happens to us post mortem is at the heart of many ancient religions, the idea of the soul existing once the flesh gives out is the seed of the ghost story. Most ancient religions had some form of afterlife, where the spirit continued to exist.
Where fear and horror intersect is the idea of the spirit being trapped or caught in this world, unable to move on from this plane of existence and thus haunting their loved ones or the location they died. Ancient funeral rites were designed to help a spirit move on, rites watered down and echoed into today’s practices, such as wakes and covering mirrors.
Ghosts were the result of this fear that the circumstances of death, if handled incorrectly, would leave a soul in limbo. This is the reason violent deaths and suicides had a higher likelihood of creating a ghost story than benign deaths. The concept of unfinished business and vengeance beyond the grave all play into the general dread that surrounds our mortality. Ghost stories fascinate us because, no matter how dark and grim, they promise an existence beyond death.
Modern Morbid, the Redux
The Gothic genre continues to grow and evolve in modern times. Stephen King emulates the Gothic aesthetic in his fiction, one of the authors responsible for ‘American Gothic’, a style that inspires many authors writing in the genre today. Modern Gothic fiction builds on atmosphere, the feeling there is something not quite right. Whether the setting is a small town or the city, there is an atmospheric sense of dread that permeates the story, a slow psychological crawl of terror as the protagonist is pursued by foes seen and unseen. On the other side of the globe, Asian horror has mastered the aesthetic of creeping dread, particularly with visualizations of the modern ghost story and how ghosts and technology intertwine.
As technology continues to develop and advance, we have not shaken our fear and fascination with death. With the looming threat of climate change, the fast approaching advent of artificial intelligence, and the current pandemic, dread seems to dog our everyday lives, but the ghost story continues to evolve with us, and with it, a seed of hope. Many of our modern ghost stories, while still rooted in our fears, also explore deeper aspects of our psyche, such as our family relationships and making the most of our time on Earth.
A cinematic example of this shift to inner exploration surrounding mortality can be seen in the modern adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s the Haunting of Hill House, a story suffused with mortal dread, while also exploring the intimate and familial relationships of the Crane family.
As we continue to move forward as a society, it will be interesting to see what the next iteration of the ghost story shall be.