Thursday, October 1, 2020

A History of Haunting: Ghost Stories Throughout History

    As the months turn colder and Halloween approaches, we stay inside more often and look for anything that might give us a little fright. So, ghost stories seem like a perfect fit. But before you curl up to read The Shining for the 100th time, let’s take a look at the history of the ghost story.

    The genre of the “ghost story” may be relatively recent (coming into vogue in the Victorian Era), but the notion of a tale involving ghosts goes back to ancient times. In an article for St. John’s University, Paul Patterson, P.H.D. is quoted as saying “We see a lot of these [ghost] stories start to emerge in ancient Roman writings. The ghosts are never really harming anyone, but they’re always showing up. A lot of the time, the hauntings are because the person was never properly buried. It’s tied to respecting the dead.” So, we have this idea of spirits remaining on the mortal plane due to circumstances surrounding their burial.

    As we take a giant leap forward into the mid-16th Century, we see the recently deceased sticking around due to events leading to their deaths. Hamlet’s father appears to his son in order to inform him of his murder at the hands of Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In his Macbeth, the ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth himself to remind him of his own murderous deeds. Both ghosts seek vengeance on their murderers. Hamlet’s father puts to the titular Dane the task of avenging his death. In haunting

Macbeth, Banquo drives the titular Thane to the brink of madness with guilt over his crimes. While neither of these spirits are physically able to exact revenge, their presence as specters allows them to influence the minds and deeds of the living. A fun fact is that, despite Hamlet featuring a ghost, just like Macbeth it’s only bad luck to say the name of the latter in a theater. That’s (at least partially) because audiences weren’t nearly as concerned about invoking the wrath of ghosts as they were of witches.

    We now take another jump forward in time to 1764 when Horace Walpole wrote The Castle of Otranto. Believed to be the first example of a gothic novel, this book created precedent for many of the traits we associate with ghost stories. There’s a castle (obviously), full of secret passages. Doors fly open with no reason. A giant helmet is dropped on a young prince by an unseen force. While the gothic novel and the ghost story are different – the former doesn’t always include the presence of the supernatural – the genre paved the way for the haunted houses frequently seen in ghost stories.

    One thing we see a lot of in ghost stories/gothic literature is a female character seeing visions and being put in her bed to rest and get better. This is something that would happen in the real world as well. And, more often than not, the visions would only increase with bedrest. That’s because a lot of the time these visions were caused by hazardous materials within the home – lead paint, asbestos, mold. Keeping a woman in her room would only make things worse. Strangely enough, in both stories and reality, she would often show a marked improvement if taken away from the house and brought to, say, the seaside. Go figure.

And now we enter what is known as the “Golden Age of the Ghost Story” – the mid-19th Century until the start of WWI. In 1843, Charles Dickens combines the supernatural with the festive spirit of giving and good will towards men, creating A Christmas Carol – possibly the most confusingly themed ghost story of all time.

    During this time, the ghost story was also finding its foothold in America. Of course, we have Edgar Allan Poe telling his tales of the macabre and uncanny. And Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw has long been regarded as one of the most classic ghost stories. In fact, it’s been modernized or adapted at least three times in the last couple of years (the film The Turning, Ruth Ware’s novel The Turn of the Key¸ and Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor).


 But one of the most iconic examples of an American ghost story is from right in our backyard: Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It tells the story of young schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, who arrives in a small town in New York. The town is rumored to be haunted by the Headless Horseman, the spirit of a Hessian soldier from the Revolutionary War. But is the Horseman real or a ploy to scare Crane away from the town and his pursuit of the beautiful Katrina van Tassel? This question has been posed since Irving wrote the story in 1820. Irving’s tale holds special sway in the Hudson Valley because of its extremely local nature. We can visit the sites mentioned and hunt for the Horseman ourselves. The story also has a connection to Clermont because the aforementioned Katrina van Tassel is rumored to be based on Serena Livingston, niece to Chancellor Robert Livingston and object of Irving’s affection.

    Obviously ghost stories continue beyond their Golden Age. Stephen King has been writing tales (so many tales) of hauntings since the ‘70s. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) saw a resurgence of popularity due to its being adapted by Netflix in 2018.  And kids still tell stories of ghosts to scare their friends in the woods.

    But why do we tell these stories? Why did the ancient Romans write of such encounters and why do we continue the tradition? There’s a couple of possible answers for that.

1)         1. Mankind has ALWAYS tried to reckon with the concept of mortality. Telling ghost stories is a way of reassuring yourself and others that there exists something after death. Those who have passed can provide us with guidance or let us know if they need something.

2)          2.The reason we most likely see an uptick in the creation and popularity of ghost stories in the Victorian Era is because that is a time defined by change. With new inventions and scientific discoveries, more and more was being explained about our world. And the possibility that there were some things left unexplained was appealing to our sense of both spiritual need and magical wonder.    

    By that logic, ghost stories will continue to be with us as long as there are humans in doubt of what lies beyond. Now go grab those spooky books, some cocoa, and enjoy the Halloween season! 

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