Ghosts, hauting and haunted houses are a mainstay of the horror genre.
O Death, rock me asleep. Bring me to quiet rest. Let pass my weary guiltless ghost out of my careful breast.
Anne Boleyn, Queen Consort to Henry VIII of England 1507 to May 19, 1536
Anne Boleyn was beheaded at the Tower of London, accused of being unfaithful to King Henry VIII. It is claimed her headless ghost is just one of several spectral tenants of that famous site. Her distinguished ghostly companions include Sir Walter Raleigh, Lady Jane Grey, Thomas Beckett and Edward and Richard, perhaps more famously known as The Princes In The Tower.
The Tower of London is reputed to be one of the most haunted locations in the world. People claim to have seen a group of ghosts performing the execution of the 8th Countess of Salisbury, troops of phantom soldiers and a lady dressed in mourning black… without a face. As the Tower of London can claim a long and often grisly tradition of imprisonment and execution it’s not really surprising that the unhappy and unpleasant experiences of some of its inmates linger long after their bodies have turned to dust. I have visited the Tower of London some years ago, and although I saw no headless spirits and faceless mourners it certainly reverberates with a sad and disturbing atmosphere.
Definition of a ghost: an alleged disembodied spirit or soul of a person (or sometimes an animal) that remains on Earth after death. Some beliefs claim a ghost may be the personality of someone after his or her death, so it is not tied to the spirit or soul. ghosts feature in almost every culture in the world, but stories vary across time and place. ghosts are also very contentious subjects, and disagreements abound as to their definition, and whether they are figments of imagination or a part of reality. Because there’s no single explanation for their existence writers have great artistic licence and freedom to write stories featuring ghosts.
Buildings are popular venues for ghosts, particularly places where murders have been committed. People claim to feel physical changes in haunted places. The temperature drops, a staircase creaks, a gust of wind rushing through the air, the silence of a menacing presence… all common descriptions of the presence of ghostly manifestations in old buildings like the Tower of London. And the descriptions are not imagined, although there is usually a simple explanation for them. The construction of older buildings means that spaces behind walls cause drafts and invisible currents and sound waves from installation of modern objects like extractor fans. Fortunately for the Horror writer most readers are more interested in the reasons the ghost has remained on earth than early construction flaws! And that’s the focus of this newsletter.
Many western cultures claim that ghosts are souls unable to rest or move on after death, so they linger on earth. They may wander around places they enjoyed visiting when they were alive, dressed in the same kind of clothing they favoured whilst still living. Reasons for this reluctance are usually unfinished business, such as a murder victim seeking revenge or justice for his death. Another belief is that the ghosts of criminals remain on earth in an attempt to avoid Hell or Purgatory, such as a serial killer whose spirit remains earthbound after his execution. Still other cultures believe that those who suffer a traumatic death, such as a car accident, a suicide or murder, cause mental energy to be released, and this energy is experienced by people sensitive to its presence.
A writer can work an exciting Horror story around a ghost and the reason he has got into that situation. Some of the most successful ghost stories have interaction between the ghostly plane and the living world. Sometimes the living person has to help the earthbound ghost progress, and this might have to be done in different ways. In Stephen King’s Bag of Bones the main character has to find out what happened to the ghost haunting his house and the town, as well as finding and putting her bones to rest. The story of his research into her terrible death and the reasons for hiding her body make this book a very good read, because Mr King manages to combine a ghost searching for vengeance with a seemingly normal, typical town filled with people just like you and me. The main character is a writer suffering with the dreaded WRITERS’ BLOCK, and when he goes to his country house in search of inspiration he learns of a terrible act that links the most powerful people in the town to an old murder… and the people involved will do anything to stop him from learning about their crime.
Descriptively ghosts are a wonderful subject, and offer the writer a palate of words to paint a vivid picture for his or her readers. They are usually depicted as being of human or animal size and shape, with physical terms such as silvery, shadowy, transparent, shimmering, hazy, nebulous, ethereal, tenebrous and vague applied to their appearance. Equally the words used to describe ghosts are very illustrative: phantom, spectre, wraith, apparition, spirit and presence are some of the alternatives. The ghost may also exhibit signs of his or her cause of death, such as the headless horseman in Washington Irvine’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Ghosts need not always be evil and out for vengeance. There are many examples in literature where they have helped the living to solve a problem – almost like an ethereal counsellor or messenger from the world beyond this one. An example is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the title character summons the ghosts of former kings and great conquerors. He discovers not nobility, but petty, childish and stupid people with no wisdom and who accomplished their great deeds for mean, selfish reasons. Another example just as relevant, although not from the literary world, is the film Ghost, where the spirit of a murdered man remains on earth to find out more about his murder and avenge his killer. With the help of a psychic medium, he contacts his wife and learns the truth while protecting her from the person who killed him.
Proving that ghosts are not restricted to the Horror/Scary genre is Douglas Adams’ science fiction book The Restaurant At the End Of The Universe, where one of the main characters summons his great great grandfather’s ghost to help them stop their ship from being blown up. They also feature in the comedy genre, with the film Ghostbusters being a prime example. The title characters use scientific equipment to hunt, capture and imprison ghosts for their paying customers, ensuring some rather hilarious encounters between the spectres and their hunters.
There are some excellent ghost stories on this website. I’ve highlighted a couple for you below that I hope you will enjoy reading. This subject is a very broad one, and as Horror/Scary writers you may find you have a good ghost story lurking around your subconscious… or in your house… or perhaps even in that antique clock your grandfather so loved! Inspiration is all around you – so let your imagination run riot!