Okay, so this is admittedly a really broad topic. But! This post will cover the general concept of ghosts and hopefully provide a background for future posts on more specific specters.
Alright then, let’s goooooOOoOooOOOooOoooOoo
… Sorry. No more spooky O’s.
First, let’s clarify our definition. Ghosts are paranormal imprints of a person’s life force that persist after death. Unlike spirits or supernatural forces in general, ghosts usually retain a personality—they are more or less the same person in death that they were in life. Unlike zombies, they are typically incorporeal.
Now: are ghosts scary?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it depends on the ghost. But there are a few things that good ghosts have in common: they are creepy both viscerally and existentially.
First, let’s get visceral.
… Okay, I think we’re all better off if nobody uses that as either a pickup line or an Olivia Newton-John ripoff. Deal?
So what makes a ghost creepy on a visceral level? Well, they’re insubstantial, right? Ehh, sort of. This can vary a lot from ghost to ghost, but most ghosts follow some combination of the following rules:
- They appear as a translucent, insubstantial likeness of the person they were in life.
- They are capable of becoming invisible.
- They can interact physically with the world around them in small ways.
Listen, translucent humans are pretty unsettling. We are used to the people we meet being solid. Maybe when hologram technology takes off things will be different, but for now this is very unnerving on a visual level.
If the ghost is someone you knew in life, it’s even more upsetting. It’s a visual reminder that the person you once knew and loved is gone. Even if supernatural forces have given you a way to spend time together again, you know it’s fleeting—just like their physical form.
Ghosts are also physically unsettling because they are insubstantial. When you see a person, you expect to be able to touch them. You try to avoid bumping into them. It would be pretty unnerving to bump into a ghost and not feel a bump. Whether your ghost feels cold or like nothing at all, it’s not what evolution has trained us to expect. This physicality—or lack thereof—upsets us on a gut level.
Some ghosts are always invisible, while others fade in and out of visibility. Either way, we are afraid of what we can’t see. And why shouldn’t we be?
What you don’t know can’t hurt you.
I’ve never heard a filthier lie.
And how can a ghost hurt you? Well—there’s usually some underlying threat of danger when ghosts are involved, and that brings us to the third point.
Ghosts often have a limited capacity to interact with the physical world. How well-defined this is will, again, vary greatly depending on the ghost. Sometimes it’s just an eerie little tell that something is off.
“Oh, I thought I put that cup on the table, but now it’s on the counter?” A ghost moved it.
Hey, most superstitions are based in real experience, and if you’ve never done that then you’re lying to me right now.
But ghosts who can move cups can also move knives. Or hatchets. Or scythes.
The ghosts that move from “heh, spooky” to real bone-deep horror will find much less innocent ways to use that little power. Combine that with invisibility and you’ve got a really terrifying specter on your hands.
So enough with the fun-house visceral scares.
Let’s talk existentialism!
Ghosts are, fundamentally, a statement about death. They are a reminder of our own mortality. I could wax poetic on that for hours, but I won’t.
Why am I sparing you?
Because I don’t believe that death is the scariest thing about ghosts.
There certainly are ghost stories that make us terrified of our own death, but I actually think that ghosts are a pretty hopeful idea in the face of death. Confirmed afterlife? Hey, sweet!
But most ghosts aren’t happy to hang around the material plane after their bodies have died. In fact, most ghost stories are more of a warning—an argument that there is something even worse than death.
Ghost stories aren’t there to make us afraid of dying.
They’re there to make us afraid of regret.
Think about it. Most ghosts aren’t there because they want to be. They either died in a spectacularly tragic way or they have unfinished business. A happy, spiritually fulfilled ghost is not a scary ghost. Only vengeful ghosts pose a danger to humans.
Of course, most Western ghost stories come from a Christian tradition. You are not supposed to want to be a ghost because the alternative is heaven. Being a ghost is basically being stuck in purgatory.
Ghosts who have resolved their lingering issues get to “move on.”
Usually they’re either moving on to an implied afterlife or else their “soul is at rest.” A soul isn’t restless because it’s dead; it’s restless because it fucked up in life.
In the end, ghost stories are a reminder—or a warning—to live life. But the boogeyman at the end isn’t death.
It’s a life left unlived.
So, go on. You don’t want to end up haunting something, do you?
Prompt: Pick something that you’re afraid you’ll end up regretting. Use that as inspiration for a short story, poem, or game.
Hop in the comments with your favorite ghost story!