If you really want to get at the heart of what makes Halloween great, telling Ghost Stories is pretty much the reason this holiday persists. We might tell our stories a little more abstractly – through blog posts, cosplay, or in rambling podcasts – but the basic idea is that you want to convey a story that has a “spooky” dimension to it, be it of the goriest horror, or the merest suggestion that it wasn’t wind they heard in the first place. Much has been written about Oral Tradition and the way that pre-literate culture has persisted into “today” through stories that are passed down. Ghost Stories historically persisted in the world of sitting around a fire, leaning in to get warm, and having someone in the group start with, “Did I ever tell you of the time I encountered the spook that haunted my Uncle’s barn?” (Or some other personal variant of a few different ghost notions.)
While the telling of any story is fairly compelling while in the right hands, Ghost Stories carry a particular weight because they refer (directly in some cases) to the kinds of pre-literate religions that featured ancestor worship. While many faiths include some form of the dead living on outside of their earthly vessel, the notion of a Ghost – the “spirit” of a person who has passed and is haunting a location / object / person – opens a world of the supernatural that is somewhat outside of the stories we hear as part of experiential reality or modern religion. So much of our lives can be explained through rational thought, or through supplication to God. But when we hear about a ghostly encounter, we are immediately outside of the acceptable discourse of every day life, and into something truly harrowing and unique.
In discussing the world of the supernatural as if it were something that actually happened – even as a lark or a fictive campfire pursuit – the speaker is asking the audience to put themselves into a different relationship with what we’re about to hear, one that is almost “forbidden” in many contexts. That experience alone makes a Ghost Story a rare and fascinating piece of narrative discourse, not to mention, chilling if taken at face value.
The Golden Age of Ghost Stories
Ghosts certainly show up in The Odyssey when Odysseus travels to the Underworld, they have made regular appearances in Shakespeare, had a hand in Gothic Literature, and have so many other antecedents that is would be impossible to claim that any one period had more or less Ghost Stories than any other. But Jack Sullivan makes a very strong case for the period between 1830 and 1914 being the unmistakable “Golden Age of Ghost Stories.” Not only are Edgar Allen Poe and Sheridan Le Fanu publishing during this period, but it is essentially sandwiched between two huge world-wide events that changed the world is massive ways: the end of the Industrial Revolution and the beginning of WWI.
Life in the late 19th Century wasn’t exactly “easy,” and yet humanity lived in a post-Industrialized world that longed to ease the problems of the past. Newspapers were ubiquitous, but most people still read at home by creepy candle-light. Homes were not electrified, outhouses were still the most common solution to waste-management, people largely still traveled by foot or by horse, and the world still felt unexplored, boundless, and full or events and experiences that could not be explained. And yet, travel was becoming easier, roads were going to more and more places, clothes and food was more accessible for poor people and helped insulate you against the cold better, and families could now afford a few “luxuries,” but did not yet live in a “modernized world.” Most importantly, a central fire was still present in nearly all American homes, giving the family a place to gather and talk about the day when the Sun went down.
This period is also significant because many American traditions were becoming solidified in the cultural consciousness, all because of these new communication technologies that were sweeping the nation. New Holidays were being developed, new traditions were being celebrated and regionalized, and people began to share their stories with friends and neighbors that were living on in more than just a story told late at night. The precursors to Devil’s Night caught on quite a bit almost everywhere, and as costumes and trick-or-treating became huge parts of Halloween, the telling of Ghosts Stories – something that would happen at night throughout the Fall and Winter – became something that happened around the hearth.
Ghost Stories still exist, and will most likely never disappear, but the emphasis on the Oral Tradition has dropped off quite a bit as the years have wore on. With the development of recording technology and radio broadcasting, horror anthology shows intermixed with annual “Halloween” episodes moved the yearly Ghost Story from the hearth to the radio. Once film – and later television – replaced the radio, horror movies and TV programs became all the rage, and when Shock Theater! hit America in 1957, it was the glow of the screen late at night that signaled where you could hear a good scary story.
Record companies certainly tried to capitalize on this old-fashioned scary story in the ’60’s with the advent of Halloween LPs, containing “scary sounds” and Ghost Stories, and this trend seemed to last well into into the early ’80’s. But spoken Ghost Stories – in a ’round the campfire’ spirit – is not nearly as popular as it once was almost 200 years ago. This has not quieted those who are listening to Ghost Stories, but technological developments has transformed the nature of these stories tremendously. Ghost Hunting is still alive and well nearly everywhere in the country, and with franchises like Paranormal Activity and a slew of “haunted” house films raking in big bucks ever year, the desire to interact with Ghosts has not dropped off in the slightest. We still love being scared, and we look for more and more sophisticated ways to go about it with each generation.
However, for my money, I am captivated once the sun goes down and a fire gets started. Once someone starts in on a good Ghost Story – even a funny one – I lean in. As the flames dance on their face, and as the unbelievable tale unfolds, the cloak of night is enough to lend a crumb of credibility to what I’m hearing. For a moment, as a convinced atheist who has found no basis for supernatural reality, I get chills, and I like it. Perhaps it is the power of a good Ghost Story to convince us of something – in spite of our earnest beliefs – that is at the heart of their charm.
To quote Fox Mulder, “I Want To Believe.”