Halloween may be over and Christmas might be just around the corner, but what does that mean for ghost stories? Is it time to box them up and wait for next October? I don't think so. In fact, any night is a good night for a ghost story. There might be no genre of fiction more relevant to the human condition.
We are a nation of believers in spirits and haunts. At least one out of three Americans believe in ghosts. Despite all of our science and technology, many of us become as fearful of the dark as our cave-dwelling ancestors at the slightest hint of the paranormal. It takes no more than a footstep on a stair or a knock on a wall for our hearts to skip a beat and our adrenaline to spike. So why do we remain so stubbornly superstitious even now in the twenty-first century? Why are we drawn to ghost stories?
For centuries, tales of supernatural places and phenomena have been a part of American folklore. Most folks nowadays could tell a version of the ghostly hitchhiker story. Or perhaps you’ve sat around a campfire and heard the story of the poor fool who takes a dare and visits the local cemetery at night, only to scare himself to death when he thinks he’s seen a ghost!
And then there are accounts of historical hauntings with eyewitness reports to back them up. For example, the phantom cannon fire and moaning specters of Gettysburg’s battlefields. Or the poor souls of the falsely accused who met their end at the famously haunted Gallows’ Hill in Salem, Massachusetts. Or any one of the hundreds of tales of haunted pubs, hotels, graveyards, and mansions all across the United States.
Ghost stories continue to enthrall us simply because they are, at heart, stories of human suffering, tragedy and redemption. They capture and magnify our passions, jealousies, foolishness and pride. A ghost story, in other words, is a window into the soul. And sometimes the view can be downright ugly. You could say that the greatest horror story is a life lived in service to one’s own selfish desires.
In any case, no matter what century we're in, people are consistent and rarely ever change. Fundamentally, we are a species given to both remarkable acts of compassion and despicable deeds of cruelty. And at the end of the day, ghost stories remind us that our actions have consequences. We can own them or ignore them, but we can never escape them.