As someone who grew up watching The X-Files and visiting every ghostly landmark I could find, I am a total sucker for a good ghost story. If the Victorians hadn’t been so uptight about other things, I might even pine for that long lost era, because those guys really knew how to spin a good spectral yarn.
If you’ve read The Turn of the Screw, then you’ll know what I mean. I’ve been thinking lately that perhaps, despite our modern society, we are still in some ways just a little bit Victorian in our fascination with the supernatural. Which leads me to ask this question: are we more Victorian in our literary proclivities than we realize?
Why Ghost Stories?
So what is it about ghostly tales that draws us in? One author suggests that at least for the Victorians, gas lamps and carbon monoxide hallucinations might have been to blame for the increased interest in ghost stories, but that doesn’t account for those of us living in the present, does it? Other theories suggest that a shift in economic times increases the interest in ghost stories and Neil Gaiman has even written a few words on the subject here, but I have another theory.
The Modern Ghost
What if the popularity of ghost stories were connected in some way to the growth of technology?
If you thought that spirit photography was an old, weird tradition, how do you account for the many many pictures purporting ghostly encounters online? Or the youtube videos declaring true sightings. And this type of “true footage” story lives on in the film industry too, with titles such as Paranormal Activity, a story that chronicles the demonic stalking of a young woman through security camera footage. This certainly might account for the reason people still want to hear ghost stories, but what about the Victorians?
Victorian, At Heart
If you think about it, in some ways, ghost stories were connected to “modern” technology for the Victorians too. With the development of the electric telegraph and the radio, people were suddenly able to be in better contact with one another and to hear a real-live disembodied voice speaking across air waves, but they were still in some ways disconnected from one another.
Steamships could deliver them farther than they might have thought possible and the railroads were opening up new routes of travel too. Just like us, the Victorians were experiencing a change in the way that they found human interaction. Similarly, in a world where we are increasingly connected, yet disconnected, is it really such a stretch that we would yearn for an everlasting connection to our world even after death?
Anxiety, Loneliness & the Spook
If you look at a ghost story like The Open Door by Margaret Oliphant (1885), which is about a boy who hears a frightening noise in his house and begins to go mad and compare it to something like Asylum by Madeleine Roux (2013) which in many ways deals with similar themes of anxiety and loneliness, it feels like the stories we tell time and again are scratching at the door of something much larger. Perhaps it is some unchecked fear of the collective unconscious that speaks to an increasingly anxious population of readers.
Whatever the case, I have a feeling that ghost stories aren’t about to disappear any time soon.
What’s your favourite ghost story?