Sunday, October 19, 2014


I've covered vampires and werewolves as staples of supernatural fiction or urban fantasy, so now it's the turn of the ghost. To be honest the ghost was actually a bit of an afterthought, which is rather silly, because there's probably been more written about them than any of the others. Not many people really think that they'll ever encounter a vampire or a werewolf outside of the pages of an urban fantasy novel or a TV show or film, but ghosts on the other hand, plenty of people who don't believe in vampires and werewolves do still wonder about the existence of ghosts.

For as long as people have been reading, writing and telling stories they've been telling them about ghosts. Part of this comes from a belief in there being a life after death. Becoming a ghost is a kind of way to still be alive following the death of the physical form. There are so many words for ghost: spirit, apparition, spectre, phantom, poltergeist, the list goes on.

In terms of literature I think we've always told ghost stories. It's become a tradition, especially amongst children and young teens to tell scary stories at Halloween and around campfires or on sleepovers. Generally the scary story involves a ghost of some description.

Ghosts have been appearing in literature as early as Homer's Odyssey, where they were described as the inhabitants of the underworld. They also appear in the Old Testament. Roman playwright Plautus and historian Pliny the Younger both wrote accounts of haunted houses. Ghosts also appeared in the work of Seneca.

There are ghost stories amongst the many found in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The 11th century Japanese work The Tale of Genji also featured ghost stories.

Ghosts appear regularly in the Elizabethan theatre. Shakespeare made use of ghosts in 3 of his best known plays: Hamlet, Richard III and Macbeth. Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy featured a ghost and was later admired and possibly parodied by the likes of Shakespeare, Johnson and Marlowe.

The tradition continued throughout the 16th and 17th century, with the British and Scottish border ballad, even now Scotland seems to be a great place to set a ghost story, with it's rich and often bloody history. Of course one of Scotland's literary greats Sir Walter Scott was fond of a good ghost story.

The classic ghost stories come from the 19th century and the Victorian age and it could be argued that the rise and popularity of writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Sheridan Le Fanu ushered in a golden age for the ghost in fiction. We cannot forget Charles Dickens who gave the world some of the most famous ghosts in the classic 1843 tale A Christmas Carol. I've already mentioned Poe from the American school, but there's also Washington Irving and his The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which like Dickens' A Christmas Carol has been endlessly copied and presented. Even today there's a TV show based on the story. Playwright Oscar Wilde was one of the first to see the comedic potential for a ghost and gave the world The Canterville Ghost. This has been filmed more than once with the 1944 Charles Laughton version being the best of them for mine.

The tradition continued into the 20th century. Fritz Leiber, Ramsey Campbell and even Noel Coward wrote ghost stories. Not surprisingly Coward's Blithe Spirit was a more humorous look at the phenomenon. A writer who is not often mentioned and is my opinion criminally underrated now is Thorne Smith. Smith probably did more for ghost fiction in his day than plenty of other authors of the time who are better known now. He wrote a few fantasies, but he's best known for Topper in 1926. He wrote 2 Topper novels. They concerned a respectable married banker and his experience with a young deceased couple. There were 3 Topper films made, Cary Grant starred in the first of them, and it was also made into a TV show from 1953 to 1955.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir was a 1947 film with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison, it was based on the 1945 novel of the same name by R.A Dick and it also became a TV series. I remember it better than the Topper show, but it seems to have been less successful on the small screen.

Like the vampire and the werewolf, the ghost also found itself as the subject of film and later TV. Possibly driven by the stories told around campfires and in sleeping bags late at night, and the fact that ghosts are relatively easy to fake on film (you just do some trickery to make the actor look like they pass through something solid and hey presto ghost!) ghost films proliferated.

I've mentioned The Canterville Ghost, Topper, The Ghost and Mrs Muir, all quite successful. Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit was also filmed during the 1940's, a seeming Golden Age for ghost stories in Hollywood. Ghosts also seemed somehow less confronting or scary than vampires or werewolves, which is why they often got filmed as comedies, rather than straight horror. The horror would come later.

In 1977 a book called The Amityville Horror was released. The author claimed that the events in the book really did happen, although there's been a lot conjecture over what actually took place and what was described. Whether it was true or not the book did sell well and became the subject of a 1979 film, also called The Amityville Horror (it was remade in 2005). There were two sequels written to the original book and as well as the 2005 remake there were 10 or 11 other Amityville films, one is due to be released in 2015.

In 1982 Stephen Spielberg brought out Poltergeist, which like The Amityville Horror was closer to horror than anything else and also dealt with an unseen type of ghost known as a poltergeist. It also spawned 2 sequels and there's another remake due for release in 2015.

The Nightmare on Elm Street saga began in 1983 and that gave audiences a new ghostly horror in the form of the facially scarred, razor fingered Freddy Krueger. At last count there were 9 Elm Street films featuring Freddy Kreuger, at one point he battled fellow horror alumni Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th) and was also a playable character in the video game Mortal Kombat.

The played for laughs came back in 1984 with Ghostbusters (there was also a sequel and there are rumours about a remake, as well as a chart topping song by Ray Parker Jr. that gave us the immortal line: 'who ya gonna call?'). The ghosts in Ghostbusters were a little different to how other films had portrayed them in the past. These ones were brightly coloured balls of ectoplasm, as opposed to the white spectral imaginings of them in the past.

Beetlejuice in 1988 harked back to the Topper style of ghost I felt, with an attractive young deceased couple played by Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin fighting to save their dream house from being invaded by a new family who had interesting architectural designs. They form an alliance with the unsavoury, amoral Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) and then wind up battling him for the soul of the new family's teenage daughter (Winona Ryder).

1989 saw a  different type of ghost story in the Kevin Costner vehicle Field of Dreams in which a team of ghostly baseball players from the past manage to help the main character sort out his issues with his dead father.

The ghost as a romantic lead was the focus of the 1990 hit Ghost. That showed examples of how a ghost can affect the corporeal world and also helped the main character of the murdered Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze) find his murderer and bring him to justice. The same year Truly Madly Deeply with Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman came out and was a superior example of a funny ghost story and brought home how annoying having a loved one come back really could become when one of the people is still very much alive.

There's an underrated gem called The Frighteners from 1996. It was one of Peter Jackson's early films, and it really deserved more attention than it got. It reminded me of what Stephen King would do if he played it for laughs. It's another poltergeist type film.

M. Knight Shyamalan's 1999 film The Sixth Sense brought the idea of the ghost right back into the public eye and again showed a way a ghost can influence the real world and those in it, as well as come to terms with their own mortality. The Blair Witch Project also came out in 1999 and was a different type of ghost story, but again brought home how scary they can really be if handled correctly.

Disney attempted to cash in on the Disneyland ride The Haunted Mansion with a film of the same name starring Eddie Murphy in 2003, but it failed to do a Pirates of the Caribbean and didn't make enough to encourage further films, it was also critically panned.

The fact that a few of these films are being remade or given new life in continuing entries into their franchise indicates that ghosts are still popular with the public.

TV has also given ghosts plenty of coverage over the years. As well as the previously mentioned Topper and The Ghost and Mrs Muir, cartoons have been a surprisingly popular form of ghost story.

The most famous of those is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and this was also made as a big screen film in 1995 with Christina Ricci befriending the lonely and harmless child ghost from the cartoons.

Scooby Doo is well known for it's depictions of ghosts, but they were generally hoaxes perpetrated by someone trying to pull a con job and were unmasked at the end by the gang.

Ghostbusters also spawned a cartoon.

There was a mid 70's show called Nobody's House. It was a British children's show about a family that moved into a new house that was built on the site of a Victorian workhouse and the children of that family encountered 'Nobody' an orphan who died in the workhouse.

This sank without a trace, but in 1983 Jennifer Slept Here was to my way of thinking slightly above average. It concerned a fast living Hollywood starlet who died young and as a ghost befriended the teenage son of the family that moved into her old house. Audiences and critics didn't really take to it, and it had a fairly short run.

It wasn't until the 2000's that people really saw the potential, although generally the ghosts aren't the focus of the story. They appeared in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (there was a recent fan made video for a talked about, but never made cartoon that featured Tara as a ghost. I really wish they'd done that with the character for season 7 of the show, it probably would have been more satisfying than the Willow Kennedy pairing of that season, which to me never really worked),  Angel and Supernatural. They were peripherally the focus of both Medium and Ghost Whisperer as well as Tru Calling.

The two shows that did it best though were the UK version of Being Human and American Horror Story: Murder House. The second of those gave me chills, especially Evan Peter's troubled teenaged ghost.

I know I keep mentioning Being Human, but it really was a brilliant show. The concept of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing a house and a life and trying to be human was so simple, but so well executed. Everything from the performances to the writing just worked in the show.

Harry Potter also featured ghosts in both the books and the films, although I never felt they were elevated above the level of poor parody in the films and worked much better in the book, plus they had more to do. I can't even remember Peeves in the films.

Strangely enough they aren't used a lot in urban fantasy. Anita Blake reanimates corpses, but they're not really ghosts, closer to zombies. I think it's harder to really get the point of ghosts across in urban fantasies than it is other supernatural creatures that are used. Gail Carriger has ghosts in her Parasol Protectorate books, but again they're relatively peripheral.

Jim Butcher is one of the few to do it successfully in The Dresden Files, in fact the 13th book in the series is called Ghost Story. The TV show that was based on the books also presented Bob the Skull as rather ghostly, which isn't quite how he's written.

Cherie Priest's Eden Moore series is about a girl who can see ghosts and uses them to solve mysteries. I haven't read them, but Cherie Priest is very good and these have a southern gothic feel to them.

Laura Resnick has covered a number of supernatural phenomena in her Esther Diamond series and the ghost got it's turn in the 5th book of the series; Polterheist.

Seanan McGuire has Sparrow Hill Road. That went a storied road. It began life as a song on her first album Pretty Little Dead Girl and was the story of a girl called Rose Marshall who died on the way to her high school prom and went on to haunt drivers on Sparrow Hill Road. Rose later appeared in 12 stories on website Edge of Propinquity with an updated story and toned down a little, she'd gone from killing drivers on Sparrow Hill Road to guiding people from one life to the next as a route witch. In 2014 the stories were prettied up, altered a bit, reordered, had another one added to make it an even baker's dozen and released as the book Sparrow Hill Road. Rose apparently shares a universe with one of Seanan's urban fantasy series InCryptid.

Reading and viewing (movies and TV)

Hamlet by William Shakespeare.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Topper by Thorne Smith.
The Ghost and Mrs Muir by R.A Dick.
Armada Ghost Books edited by Mary Danby (there were about 15 of these, they were largely aimed at younger readers, but they have some excellent examples of the ghost story).
The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson.
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (especially book 13 Ghost Story)
The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger.
Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire.

Topper (1937)
The Canterville Ghost (1944)
The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947)
Poltergeist (1982)
Ghostbusters (1984)
Beetlejuice (1988)
Field of Dreams (1989)
Ghost (1990)
Truly Madly Deeply (1990)
The Frighteners (1996)
The Sixth Sense (1999)

TV Series:
Topper (1953 - 55)
The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1968 - 70)
Nobody's House (1976)
Jennifer Slept Here (1983 - 84)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003)
Angel (1999 - 2004)
Supernatural (2005 - present)
Being Human UK version (2008 - 13)
American Horror Story: Murder House (2011)

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