My friend Jo has a ghost living in her house. This is a well known fact amongst our circle of friends. In the wee hours of weekend hijinks, we have been known to assemble at Jo’s house for a spot of spectral provocation. “Here ghosty, ghosty, ghosty…come out, come out wherever you are.”
I say “we” but I really mean “they”. I have never and will never set foot in Jo’s house ever. Like never. Because ghosts give me the major ooglies. Just the idea of them completely terrifies me. They don’t even have to do anything. By all accounts, Jo’s deceased housemate is utterly benign. It doesn’t matter. Ghosts creep me out.
This fact has sunk in with further clarity recently as I have been I watching French television drama The Returned on ITV. Seemingly harmless ghosts just wander back to their homes as if nothing had happened causing emotional upheaval and confusion in slow moving, beautifully French cinematic style. I spent the entire hour clutching my pillow for comfort. Predictably, the most terrifying of these spectres is the doe-eyed little boy who says nothing.
Aha. Maybe what frightens me about ghosts is their silence? They just stand there staring at you all dimly lit and shadowy saying nothing. I’m sure there is deep wiring in our ancestral DNA which links fight or flight with being silently stared at. It’s predatory and it’s giving me goosebumps just writing about it.
One of the most frightening ghost stories is Woman in Black. If you have only seen the recent film and are now thinking I am a spineless wimp, get yourself to a theatre or a library. The stage play and the novella it is based on are far more haunting. Jennet Humfrye is a truly frightening ghost, and she never says or does a thing (other than waving her arms about once or twice and causing children to die). She was a tortured soul in life whose death was a cruel olive on top of her liver ice cream sundae of an existence.
Hmm. Maybe what frightens me about ghosts is the way in which they embody the life left behind? Someone who lived their life in physical or emotion pain will leave an echo of this when they die. Ripples in time, as Doctor Who says. A ghost is unlikely to leave pleasant ripples in their time puddle. In the case of Jennet Humfrye, she wants to pass around her horrific ripples by splashing about spectacularly and soaking everyone around her with as much pain as she possibly can.
Even if they aren’t silent, ghosts are just wrong. They are dead and they don’t belong here. They come in uninvited and uknown. You can’t quite make them out so you’re not sure who or what they are. Or if you do know who they are but you know they shouldn’t be there. It’s like running into your teacher out of school when you aren’t expecting it, only ten times worse. Ghosts are spectacularly out of place.
In The Returned, the ghostly main character of the first episode is a young girl who has no idea she is dead. Her parents struggle to cope with the concept of a daughter they buried five years ago taking a bath as if nothing had happened. The girl in question only becomes aware that something is wrong at the end of the episode when she comes face to face with her twin sister who is now five years older and no longer her living reflection. The world has moved out without her and she has no place in it any longer.
The good old Ghost Who Doesn’t Know It’s a Ghost trope (Sixth Sense, The Others, all six seasons of Lost—sort of) plays beautifully into the uncertainty surrounding the discernible dead. When I was a kid, around ten years old, I purchased A Question of Time by Dina Anastasio from Scholastic Books. For some reason my mother got her hands on the book first. Once she had read it she declared it too scary. Mom hid the book and I was not allowed to read it. Of course I found it and read it secretly in the dead of night. Kids, listen to your mothers. That book is quite possibly the reason why I find ghosts terrifying. That and the ten or so other ghost stories I read as a child.
I suspect I might be an emotional masochist or psychological adrenaline junkie. No roller coasters or bungees for me, but I will endlessly read, watch and even write ghost stories. As long as I have my teddy close by.