Ebenezer Scrooge said it best when he begged the preceding question of Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol. What, he wanted to know, motivates a ghost to return to his living acquaintances? Is it a desire to torment, to reform, to encourage, to disturb, to expose, to restore? In Scrooge’s case it was all the above. In other literary ghost stories, the motives are less obvious and oftentimes the real target is the reader themselves. Of course, none of this pertains to so-called “veridical,” real-life ghost stories: if real ghosts do walk the earth, their reasons for appearing and mechanisms of doing so are crypto-scientific – powered by as-yet unknown channels of physics. Even if their “Will to Power” enters the equation, it does so with no more cosmic significance than how my Will to Snack translates from electric signals in the brain into standing, walking, standing, and scavenging the pantry for chips.
But fictional ghosts are entirely different animals, whose every choice, action, and detail carry profound significance. In the critical disciplines of Structuralism and Semiotics, the appearance of a ghost is no less intentional than the existence of a spark plug in an engine, and its influence on the characters is no less transformative than the process by which the same spark plug converts gasoline into purposeful explosions. So what – in literary terms – is a ghost? What is its purpose? What does it represent?
I’ll keep it short since I could write reems on this single topic: when a spirit manifests in literature, it almost always symbolizes a hard truth which one or more characters in the story are struggling to deny. This interpretation traces its way back to the earliest theories of why ghosts roamed the earth. Ancients believed that spirts were summoned when human beings failed to do their duty by the deceased person. Injustices were left unchallenged, crimes left unpunished, wishes left unfulfilled, violations permitted to be conducted, scandals allowed to stay unexposed, and trusts knowingly neglected.
As a result, only an action outside of the control of humanity (and the dominion of neutral nature) could right the wrong, so the conventional order was overruled: an equally unnatural event (a spirit emerging from the afterlife) would be required to absolve an unnatural (viz., inhuman, depraved) deed. Once the ghost’s message is understood and its target has either accepted the reality which they were denying, or been destroyed in their flight to avoid hearing the truth, the specter recedes back into the ether and the status quo is (apparently) restored.
So whenever we watch a movie, read a book, or view a play where a supernatural action takes place, we can be sure that someone on our side of eternity is refusing to accept a difficult truth that the ghost is hellbent on forcing them to recognize.
Now before we dive into what some of these hard truths tend to be, lets establish some basic definitions. In the most literal terms – as the Colonel explains to Parkins in the 1968 Omnibus adaptation of “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” – ghosts are “the spirits of the dead.” This is as opposed to monsters, werewolves, vampires, and the like. For our purposes, however, in this discussion, we will be including all kinds of hauntings – still primarily tales of “the spirits of the dead” visiting the living, but also allowing for some flexibility with less clearly defined visitations.
We will define “hauntings” as the intrusion of a supernatural personality, force, or motif upon the recognizable, mortal world (distinct, then, from fantasy, where magic and the like are to be expected). A ghost, in our understanding, could be a clairvoyant vision of a moment in the future, a demonic entity who torments the living, a poltergeist that willfully snuffs out candles, or a doppelganger that appears at critical moments. The unifying characteristic is that they willfully manifest – out of whatever dimension they come from, outside of our own – to a person who is selected to receive their message.
What that message is, and why it is sent, is what I want to explore in this post. So, without further hemming and hawing, lets explore the seven main Hard Truths that ghosts in fiction force their hosts to recognize – and the radical ways in which they are transformed (or destroyed) by the epiphany.
(A quick note: many of the example ghost stories cited here can communicate more than one "hard truth": most use 2 or 3, but often have one main theme that stands out)
7. THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT OUR ACTIONS AND MISDEEDS
These kinds of revelations are the oldest and most common trope in supernatural literature, which often fall under the umbrella term of “Murder Will Out” stories. Although they don’t always involve murder, they always involve a staggering moral failure which almost always involves an unforgivable act committed against another person. In this sort of scenario, the haunted person has likely succeeded in hiding their offense from society, and – if they didn’t suffer from a guilty conscience – they would have lived a pleasant life of it. The appearance of their apparition, however, reminds them of what they have done, and hounds them with the reality of the choice (to murder, steal from, reject, or humiliate the person who is now haunting them) which they have tried to desperately to deny and repress. The finale – usually ending either in the wrongdoer’s confession, arrest, or death by terror or suicide – sees them finally come to terms with their action, and their acceptance of the consequences: they can run no longer from responsibility.
Famous examples of these stories are manifold, ranging from Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” and “Black Cat,” to J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “The Familiar” and “Ultor de Lacey.” Others include Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” (an old woman is haunted by the ghosts of her sister and illegitimate niece, whom she betrayed to a violent father who expelled them to die in a blizzard), E. Nesbit’s “In the Dark” (a man who has murdered his bully constantly runs into his corpse when the lights go out), W. W. Jacobs’ “The Well,” “His Brother’s Keeper,” “In the Library,” and “The Interruption” (four stories of men who murder their oppressors but are driven nearly insane by their nagging consciences, until each is exposed in a dramatic finale), M. R. James’ “Martin’s Close” (a noble who flirted with a mentally disabled woman cuts her throat when she falls in love with him, and is hounded by her gruesome specter), and Mary Braddon’s “The Cold Embrace” (a reckless artist spurns his lover who drowns herself, and is tormented by the feeling of her damp arms still reaching out for him).
6. THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT THE PEOPLE WE LOVE AND TRUST
A far less common trope, but certainly an interesting one, this sort of story follows a character who is visited by an apparition with a message about someone they are close to: a spouse, lover, parent, child, friend, coworker, superior, or confidant. The main catch here, usually, is that the spirit works to peel back the delusions which are preventing the character from seeing their confidant for what they truly are: duplicitous, cruel, craven, or even murderous. As you may already suspect these stories tend to be versions of the first trope told from a third-party perspective. This is true, but while the wrongdoer experiences the reckoning of the previous archetype, the primary lesson told to the reader says more about the transformation of the third-party than the exposure of the wrongdoer.
Examples of this trope can be found in stories like Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Captain of the Polestar” (a surgeon on a polar expedition chronicles how his nervous captain is driven mad and eventually lured to his death by what seems to be the spirit of his mysteriously-deceased lover), Edith Wharton’s “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” (a new maid is haunted by the ringing of a phantom bell and the sight of her deceased predecessor, who appears to be warning her about her new employers and their volatile past – including affairs and abortions – which she had been made to assist), J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Madam Crowl’s Ghost” (a young serving girl is terrified by a vision of her demented, old employer’s wicked ghost slipping into a hidden panel on the night she dies; soon after, the panel is explored and the skeleton of her stepson is discovered: a boy she entombed, alive, decades earlier), and – of course (although it checks many other boxes as well) – The Turn of the Screw (a governess is consumed with the desire to protect the wards of her handsome employer from the ghosts of their previous governess and her lover, the employer’s valet, but may end up learning more about her master’s unspoken wickedness – and her own).
5. THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT OUR PASSIONS AND DESIRES
This sort of story is the stomping ground of none other than M. R. James. It tells of how the protagonist leans so far into their pet passions that they become fully consumed with them and – in the process – become acquainted with their own unwholesome, unconscious motives. Often these sorts of tales involve a milquetoast bookworm who is polite and tidy, but fosters a delight for some unsavory, but academic obsession: witchcraft, sordid histories, controversial figures, secret knowledge, arcane learning, esoteric traditions, or even antiquated architecture.
By tunnelling deeper and deeper into their passion, they increasingly silo themselves from the society of the living, and find themselves in grim company when they finally reach their destination. These protagonists are violently shaken out of their reverie with the realization that their passions or desires likely stem from frustrated and repressed yearnings for power, attention, fame, revenge, or validation, and are forced to confront the dark, ugly underbelly of what has been passing as a respectable hobby.
Of course, the trope is epitomized by James’ stories of snoopy academics plunging far too deep into their passions (“Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” – medieval literature – “Treasure of Abbot Thomas” – breaking codes and hunting treasure – “Count Magnus” – travel and biographies – “The Haunted Dolls’ House” and “The Mezzotint” – art and antique collection – “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance” – mazes – “A Warning to the Curious” – ancient archeology – and “Lost Hearts,” “A View from a Hill,” and “An Evening’s Entertainment” – necromancy).
It can also, however, be found in stories by most great practitioners of the genre, including Arthur Machen’s “Novel of the Black Seal” (an archeologist disappears in the Welsh hill country pursuing an obsession with finding a subterranean culture), Ambrose Bierce’s “John Bartine’s Watch” (a man preoccupied with his ancestor’s lynching suffers a similar fate), Algernon Blackwood’s “The Glamour of the Snow” (a man on vacation in the alps is increasingly driven to spend more and more time farther and farther away from the safe chalets while he skates and skis with a silent, flirtatious woman), and Poe’s “Ligeia” (a man’s fixation with his willful, late wife begins to manifest bizarrely in his second marriage).
4. THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT OUR SOCIETIES AND SYSTEMS
Especially by the turn of the 20th century, serious writers were becoming increasingly comfortable with using their work to subversively critique Victorian imperialism, capitalism, and classism amongst other complicated social systems that had heretofore enjoyed relative immunity from criticism. Some of the most famous non-genre examples of this are novels like Heart of Darkness, Passage to India, Jude the Obscure, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, and The Jungle. Fantasy, supernatural, and horror writers – who already worked in a coy, subversive medium which had been used to quietly critique the status quo since the inception of fairy tales – had a leg up on this.
Ghost stories which aimed their venom at calling into question the morality of large social structures or practices usually did so by having the protagonist benefit – seemingly innocently – from the same privileges and opportunities of many of the readers, and yet he is followed home by some uncouth vision which calls into question both his morality and that of the society which called his actions legal.
Some famous examples of these hard-hitting types of stories are H. G. Wells’ “Pollock and the Porroh Man” (a British traveler is hounded by the sight of the severed head of an African witch doctor whom he had killed for putting a curse on him), J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Schalken the Painter” (an apprentice painter sits idly by when his master is induced to essentially sell his niece – the apprentice’s beloved – to a rich stranger as a wife; when the stranger turns out to be an undead revenant, the niece is spirited away and both apprentice and master are forced to question their morals), Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Brown Hand” (a retired army surgeon who preserved an Afghani’s amputated hand as a medical specimen – in defiance of Muslim custom – is haunted by the now-deceased man’s angry spirit), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (a woman suffering from mild postpartum depression is confined to a room in a strange house where she develops a psychotic kinship with a woman she begins to see behind the grotesque wallpaper: it is apparent that the room has been used for this before…)
3. THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT OUR BELIEFS AND CONVICTIONS
This kind of ghost story is often one of the saddest: it follows the protagonist on a journey of crushing self-assessment wherein they learn that the beliefs they have clung so dearly to have either been completely vain and empty, or have been backwards and harmful to others. This is usually accomplished by the appearance of the ghost which represents the reality of what those beliefs manifest in the living world. This is often a riff on the previous trope (usually these beliefs are tied into broad, systemic forces), and the most famous example easily fits into both categories: Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol, which both assaults Scrooge’s personal beliefs about the lot of the poor along with the broader systems of Victorian industrialism.
These beliefs might, however, also be more microcosmic: personal convictions about politics, religion, nature, race, marriage, society, vices, gender, and personal responsibility. Once confronted with the ghost that exposes the ramifications of holding these beliefs, the protagonists are either forced to change their ways, or are doomed to sink into bitter despair.
Some well-known examples of these stories are Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (a Puritan man agrees to meet with Satan in the woods, but when he sees a vision of his friends and family there with them, this is too much, and he dies a broken man), M. R. James’ “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (a sworn skeptic and individualist is shaken out of his hubris when he accidentally summons a supernatural bedfellow and must finally ask for help), Charles Dickens’ “The Signal Man” (a railroad worker is tortured by a series of seemingly meaningless omens of disasters: previously content to be a mere cog of no significance, he is now desperate to use his visions to help others – but how can he, and why him?), Henry James’ “The Real Right Thing” (after his friend’s death, a writer is hired by his widow to probe through his papers and write a biography on him; at first both of them are positive that they have the late man’s blessing, but a series of increasingly heavy-handed manifestations soon cause them to question their motives, and the meaning of the ghost’s presence: approving or disapproving?), and E. Nesbit’s “The Mystery of the Semi-Detached” (a fashionable playboy is shaken from his lack of seriousness with his lover when he sneaks into her house and sees a vision of her sprawled out in her nightgown with her throat cut).
2. THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT HUMAN NATURE AND MORTALITY
Perhaps the second-most common type of ghost story (following the “Murder Will Out” variety), this trope involves metaphorically shoving a moldering skull into the face of a previously carefree protagonist who has been in denial about their own final destination. These sorts of tales are always about corruption – mortal or moral – so they might use death as a metaphor for human evil.
Either way, the message is that we are not what we feel ourselves to be: even if there is a soul, our bodies are corrupt and will one day fail, and even if we have a spirit, that spirit is just as diseased with sin and villainy as our bodies are poxed by illness and decline. This is the archetypal story of a group of randy teens who are rattled out of their wild, YOLO behavior after a shocking brush with the supernatural. Sometimes the protagonist doesn’t even get to learn from this lesson: instead, they die just as it dawns on them that they have taken life for granted. In any case, the clash between blissful ignorance and bitter understanding is usually sudden and always life-changing.
Some classic examples of this story are E. F. Benson’s “The Bus Conductor” (a man wisely avoids getting on a doomed bus after he recognizes the driver, and his voice, from a recent nightmare), E. Nesbit’s “Man-Size in Marble” (loving honeymooners rent a cottage near a church with a legend that the funerary statues of two evil knights roam the countryside on Hallowe’en; this worries the wife but the husband is nonplussed – life is too good for such foolishness – but the honeymoon is about to be crashed), Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House” (also fits into No. 3 and No 5.: a young, M. R. James-esque scholar rents a lonely house – purportedly haunted by a sadistic judge – to study for his exams, eager to be far away from people; he will learn that we are never exactly “alone” and that the company of the living – distracting as it may be – is far preferrable to that of the dead), and Algernon Blackwood’s “The Kit Bag” (after working on a gruesome murder case, a fusty law clerk prepares for a skiing vacation, but as he loads up his borrowed duffel bag, he is increasingly sure that someone is watching him – and that he remembers seeing the bag on the evidence table).
1. THE HARD TRUTH ABOUT WHO WE ARE IN OUR HEARTS AND MINDS
This final archetype is, in some ways, what virtually every ghost story is actually about at its root. Spirits in fiction are fundamentally representative of an unacknowledged reality about our own selves and our metaphysical identity within our society and the universe itself. This is clear in the way that each of the previous six tropes has included the word “our”: if we boil them down even further, each story is essentially calling into question the protagonist’s fundamental identity – and, by proxy, the reader’s – by first challenging the superficial barriers that appear to protect us from existential chaos (our beliefs, societies, choices, relationships, passions, etc.).
However… some stories are more specifically and directly concerned with challenging the protagonist’s personal identity, in an overt and unfiltered manner. These sorts of tales directly confront the character’s heart and their mental perceptions of selfhood and reality. As such, they are not merely called onto to question their priors about their morals, their racism, their politics, or their social class: they are challenged on the nature of their very character and identity. The ghost will confront them in the most basic, vulnerable corner of their heart or mind, shining a brutal, unfeeling light on the parts of their selfhood which most foundationally define the parameters of their own existence and reality.
A confrontation with such a personal challenge will shred this character down to their core: they can no longer trust their previous assumption’s about humanity’s place in the universe, their own significance or purpose, their fundamental identity, or their understanding of reality itself. Such a denuded soul will now have three options: 1. Implode into madness or death, 2. Bury itself in a miserable cocoon of forced denial, or 3. Accept this new information and choose to engineer a new reality for themselves out of nothingness (the third path is, of course, the hardest and rarest for characters to follow).
Examples of these kinds of stories are Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” (a hunter is terrified when his guide is possessed by the chaotic spirit of the wendigo, which causes him to be transformed into a puppet-like victim of his own impulses – running endlessly in some outer dimension), Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (yes: Ichabod Crane’s humiliating confrontation with the faceless Headless Horseman – a symbol of Vanitas – is a violent reckoning with his own insignificance that shocks him into abandoning his job and possessions without a word, decamping to a new city, and burying himself in a pathetic career as a minor bureaucrat in an attempt to fabricate a meaning for his life), J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” (an insomniac minister who pores himself into occult studies (cf. No. 5) while drinking copious amounts of stimulant-doped green tea is hounded to violent desperation by a phantom monkey who calls into question his sanity, selfhood, and salvation), and H. G. Wells’ “The Ghost of Fear” (a skeptic who spends the night in a supposedly haunted room is terrorized by a formless supernatural power which taunts him by snuffing his candles, revealing to him that true terror isn’t something ugly, powerful, or vicious: it is the existential threat of sheer, mute nothingness).