The time I heard M.T. Anderson speak, he said he always begins by asking the audience about their local ghost stories. This kind of fascinated me because I’d been writing about a local ghost story, and the people in the folding chairs around me alluded to a lot of the ghostly legends I’d been uncovering in the process –from our very own town. And M.T. Anderson said in every town he visits people have these ghost stories to tell. That got me thinking about my characters and people in general –why do we love ghost stories?
We like the rush. In a sense, it’s biological. We like the adrenaline coursing through our veins because it reminds us we’re alive. It reminds us of our transience, of the fragility of being alive. Afterwards, colors seem a little more vivid, music a little more poignant, our dinner tastes delicious. Details to which we’ve become numb are suddenly in high definition.
Ghost stories also help us cope with the very real scary things in our own lives. On the one hand a bone chilling ghost story is unpredictable and this is unlike life. There is no boogieman coming to get us. Life, we think, we can handle. On the other hand, the protagonist in a ghost story give us a chance to take control over what terrifies us while in the real world suicide bombings, war, and disease rage on, things we can do little about. So in a way, ghost stories allow us to practice facing our fears. We try on our power for size, and when we step back into the real world maybe we have a chance of addressing the evils amidst which we live.
It is perhaps in this way that ghost stories satisfy a need on the community level during times of rapid change, fear, and loss. Beyond empowering us, they bring us together. Have you ever noticed, when listening to a good ghost story around the campfire, how we cling to each other? Ghost stories create a closeness in which we are less lonely and more safe. They bind us together. In certain situations, accepting a ghost story makes you part of the group. Ghost stories cement community.
Ghost stories also say something about our individual psychology. While horror stories deal with external threats, ghost stories often unearth internal ones. They provide a safe format to talk about the uncomfortable, the taboo. In this way, they allow us to exorcise our own hidden demons and monsters. Filmmaker, Guillermo Del Toro wrote, “To learn what we fear is to learn what we are.”
And if that doesn’t send chills down your spine… So I think that’s why I’ve enjoyed the way ghost stories have woven themselves through my manuscript, and I know my characters understand these draws. In the comments section below, I’d love to hear some of your local ghost stories if you’re willing to share.