A few weeks ago, I met friends for dinner at the Custom House, a restaurant located in a historic building by the Erie Canal. Anna and Adrienne are interesting, smart women, and I’d happily hang out with them anywhere, but on this particular wintry night, I was glad we’d picked this spot. The Custom House, with its wooden floors, brick walls, musty air, and long windows overlooking the canal’s milky gleam of ice, seemed right for our discussion.
We’d gotten on the strange subject of ghost stories.
I don’t know how or why. But at one point during the course of the conversation, I glanced out at the swirl of snow, heard the metallic strum of traffic on the lift-bridge, and thought, Hmm. I think I could write a ghost story.
I haven’t written it yet, but I’m in full-blown ghost-story mode, reading, reading, reading, not just examples of the genre but criticism of it, too. Parul Sehgal wrote a fantastic piece for The New York Times entitled “The Ghost Story Persists in American Literature. Why?” In this recently published essay, she notes how such unnerving narratives can function as “social critiques with cobwebs” because ghosts, in their shape-shiftiness, are ideally suited to reflect cultural fears and the lingering shadows that societal sins of the past invariably cast.
An apparition is the past. It’s also fear personified—and personalized. What terrifies one person is not necessarily what terrifies someone else. In a ghost story, the guise the spirit takes when it reveals itself to a character actually says a lot about the character…his or her unique dread.
A facet of these spooky tales that doesn’t vary much is the setting. Ghosts typically aren’t appearing to the characters in cars, on the sidewalk, or in the park; they’re usually contained in houses. Houses where the ghosts once lived. Houses where they once hurt. Houses where they languished, hid, sickened, or got murdered. Houses that held violence or passion or crime. Indeed, a ghost melds into a bedroom wall and slips into an attic floor so readily, it practically wears the house as clothing.
Even the words used in lieu of ghost—phantom, wraith, spirit, specter, vision, shade, presence—are evocative. They connote slightly different meanings. Consider haunt. We usually think of it as a verb, but it’s a noun, too—an antiquated synonym for ghost. Haunt also can refer to a place that a person visits frequently because he or she enjoys going there; for instance, “The bowling alley is one of Ginny’s haunts.” Though the location gets the ghostly label, it’s the regular visitor who’s doing the ghosting: haunting the haunt, returning again and again to a beloved place.
The haunted house. Does an image spring to mind? I picture one of the houses I lived in when I was a child, our old green house on Blanchard Street. Not that I ever saw an apparition there. But I had dreams of ghosts at that time, and these dreams very much showcase the house-ghost connection. I guess they also say a lot about me.
Starting around the age of nine, I used to spend a week of every summer at Mission Meadows, an overnight camp on Chautauqua Lake. Bonfires, singing, canteen treats, crafts, swimming…camp was fun. But at night, when I’d wiggle into my sleeping bag on my skinny bunk, I would think about home and start missing it. I’d begin to feel scared.
The uneasiness probably accounted for the nightmare I had my first summer of camp. I dreamed I was back in my bedroom in our house on Blanchard Street and someone was trying to get inside. This would-be intruder managed to crawl up to my second-floor window. It was a young girl. I asked her who she was and what she wanted. She claimed to be my long-lost sister Holly and said that she wanted to come back. So I let her in. And she joined the family—or rejoined it.
I actually did have a sister named Holly. I knew about her but never knew her personally. She was my older sister Noelle’s identical twin who died at birth. It’s odd that she made her ghostly reappearance in my dream neither as an infant nor as old as my older sister, but as someone in between, as if death had merely slowed her aging. Another thing I remember about this dream: Holly’s return, though accepted matter-of-factly (if not joyfully) by the rest of my family, filled me with increasing horror. I woke from that dream screaming—rousing and freaking out everyone else in the little cabin.
Why did I dream about the ghost of my sister, while I was at camp of all places? Was I worrying about dying and never seeing my family again? Was I worrying about being replaced? I was homesick, for sure. I must have been feeling abandoned, displaced, disowned. A little like poor Holly. Lost.
Another ghost-riddled nightmare I had was a recurring one. It started after I turned eleven. When we first moved into the house on Blanchard, I shared an upstairs bedroom with my sister. This was not a peaceful arrangement. The older we got, the more we argued. My grandad, a handy guy, offered to build me a room in the basement. I soon had my own space with paneled walls and a thick carpet. However, right outside my door, the unfinished basement loomed: its cold cement floor, creaky steps, moldy air, and small, ground-level windows that were filthy on the outside with spiders, webs, and the shriveled carcasses of insects.
My grandad meant well, and I did like my room. But only until bedtime. Then I dreaded it. I kept the curtain drawn to cover the horrible promise contained in the egg sacs of those patient spiders. I listened hard for strange noises. I kept my closet light on. By that dim glow, I would make out grotesque faces in the twisted grain of the paneling. All too often, when I finally fell asleep, a nightmare would consume me. It was oftentimes the same one, a dream in which a man entered my mirror. His face was lean, almost skeletal; his expression, hungry. Sometimes he’d accompany my own reflection. Sometimes he was my reflection. I felt both trapped and unprotected in that basement room, and I sensed that the phantom was trapped, too—that he resided in my mirror and needed me to look at myself in order to be found, in order to be seen.
A vision, recall, is another word for ghost.
I stopped having that nightmare when we moved into a different house across town. It was as if that dream ghost really was chained to a location. It couldn’t follow me, and thank heavens for that. Though there were things I missed about our Blanchard home, my basement bedroom wasn’t one of them.
Ghostly reading materials, ghostly dreams: they’re giving me a lot to think about in this prewriting period. I’m realizing intriguing things about ghosts. How they manifest the fears of the ones to whom they appear. How they belong to houses.
And that first thing I mentioned: how they are testaments to an earlier era.
In her excellent essay, Parul Sehgal writes, “They [ghosts] emerge from their time.” They don’t merely show up decked out in period costume; they arrive bearing something important about the years in which they lived—an element of the past that then resonates in the time of the story’s action.
This link between the past and present relates to the fundamental question of any ghost story, the very question that propels the plot: Why the hell is this ghost floating around in the first place?
A haunting happens when a soul fails to proceed to the afterlife. Why hasn’t the spirit moved on? A ghost story begs that question right off the bat. The rest of the tale is at least partly devoted to the answer.
The reasons vary. A spirit may persist in the material world to seek vengeance or to deliver a warning to the living or simply because it’s not done: there’s an incomplete quest, an aborted mission, an unsatisfied desire. In short, unfinished business. The ghost of Hamlet’s father, for instance, plays a terrible taskmaster when he tells his living son to seek vengeance on his behalf and “Remember me.” Remember—a word etymologically related to mourn, memorize, commemorate, and memoir—is an interesting command, an evocative way of ordering young Hamlet to avenge him. It becomes the responsibility (and sometimes the psychological and emotional burden) of the living to remember—honor—the dead: to right a wrong, end whatever needs to be finished, and make the present more just or tolerable than the past.
And this aspect perhaps also explains why a ghost story appeals to us. Certainly, we feel for the tormented living character. But we also sympathize with the ghost. These tales tease the emotions so many of us wrestle with: wistfulness, sorrow, regret. They challenge the idea that it’s too late. They whisper, So you’re dead. So what? Stick around. Someone breathing and able will show up eventually. Give her a hard time. Turn her days and nights into a living hell. She’ll get the job done. She will do anything to make you go away…