We’ve been telling ghost stories for thousands of years. Why do they have such staying power? There are endless answers to that question, but my favourite is that ghosts help us to understand and articulate aspects of our inner lives.
Essentially, they’re us; out of time, and without the distractions of survival. A ghost is just a self with the skin peeled away.
Ghosts are real, kind of
I don't believe in ghosts in a material or a metaphysical sense, but they are fully real to me in a phenomenological sense. That is, as mental, emotional, or psychological phenomena. They are as real as our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions.
So when people describe hauntings or sightings they're describing real experiences, as far as I'm concerned. It's just that where some locate ghosts outside ourselves, I believe they dwell within us.
If you've experienced anxiety or intrusive thoughts you'll know that the feeling of fear, or the upsetting thought, are very real. They feel completely real, and that's what makes them so difficult to ignore. In that sense, they are real. But they're not true. The fear isn't caused by actual danger. The thought doesn't represent your secret wish. Perhaps our ghosts are the same; real, but not true.
My favourite metaphor
In fiction it's the reverse, of course. We're writing about things that aren't real, but nonetheless they are true.
Ghosts are my favourite metaphor. Rich in association, meaningful, powerful, flexible. Ghosts can be scary but they can also be funny, sweet, or sad. There are centuries of tropes and traditions to play with, but because the human belief in ghosts is so ancient and so universal, it's possible to connect to something quite primal too.
They are a superb metaphor for memory and for trauma. Spirits, shades, and phantoms help us to talk about what it is to feel haunted, to feel the past intrude on the present, to lose a sense of linear time.
My first ghost story
Almost everything I've written so far has a ghost in it. And actually the very first complete piece of fiction I wrote as an adult was a ghost story. That's not especially surprising given it was prompted by an exercise in an online ghost story class (run on Facebook during one of the lockdowns by Adam Z. Robinson, who was a great tutor).
It was a timed write, using a three part prompt chosen randomly. We were asked to think of three numbers, then we picked something from three lists which corresponded to the numbers we'd chosen.
The first list was characters. In this case, your classic different types of ghost, such as grey ladies, glowing orbs... I got "hooded figure". The second list was spooky settings, in my case "the banks of a beautiful lake". The third list was unsettling actions: mine was "speaking Latin".
We'd already done a couple of 10 minute writes to prompts earlier in the course. After years of staring at blank pages willing myself to create a masterpiece, I was astonished at how fast the words flowed when I let myself off the hook of writing something good.
This little story is the first one I started in a free write that I liked enough to finish. What's more, it was fun. The random prompts made it into a game, so rather than trying to generate an entire story and all its elements it was just up to me to connect the dots. It was also good practice for working with tropes and archetypes in interesting ways. Here are your building blocks; what will you make?
Below you can read what I wrote, in all its glory. I carried on writing for about 30 minutes after the class to finish the first draft. Then I edited it slightly. (Twice, I think.) But otherwise it's untinkered with. I was, and am, extremely proud of it. Not because it's good, but because it exists, and because I had fun making it.
A hooded figure haunts the bank of a beautiful lake, speaking Latin
It was the first of those long, lazy summer days, so Ally and I grabbed some snacks and headed for the banks of the old millpond.
It was quiet as we passed under the towering broken arches of the old abbey. It would be another few weeks before the tourists poured in. We picked a spot with a view right over the lake, hidden by trees and tall rushes either side.
We spread our blanket on the soft grass, fed each other strawberries, giggling, and laughed at the coots which occasionally dashed across the water in a fury. I began to feel drowsy.
Ally hummed a song softly beside me as I lay back, peering from under my hat across the lake to the dark row of trees on the other side. I started suddenly as the shadows organised themselves into the shape of a figure. I had forgotten that this whole golden afternoon didn’t belong only to us.
The person opposite us stood still, apparently watching. They were wearing a hoodie, no – some kind of cloak. I laughed, and turned to Ally, pointing to the figure.
“One of your LARP friends?”
She turned her beautiful hazy head. “Huh?”
“Under the trees.”
She said nothing. I turned to look with her. The figure was gone.
“Oh, they’ve wandered off. Just some guy in a cloak. Like this.” I gestured.
“Ah. I think you’ll find that’s a cowl.”
“Sure,” I said, lying back again with a smile.
I began to doze again, and found myself drifting in and out of the afternoon and a warm, soft, sleepiness. I heard Ally humming again, the distant traffic, the birds, a siren, and someone speaking nearby in a low murmur, a language I couldn’t place. Ally fidgeted beside me.
“I’m going for a walk. I won’t go far.”
“Ok, baby,” I said, I think, and pulled my hat right down over my eyes.
I drifted, occasionally surfacing to hear the drone of a bee or a complaining coot. And once – a splash, as if a large dog had plunged into the lake. Then it was still, and I sank into what must have been a deep sleep.
When I woke again the edges of the sky above me had turned deep blue and were streaked with orange clouds and the shadows from the trees stretched right across the lake towards me. I checked my watch. I’d been asleep for an hour. Where was Ally? I shivered, and pulled on a cardigan as I stumbled to my feet.
“Ally?” My voice bounced across the water and sank like a stone. I began to feel a hard weight forming in the pit of my stomach. Where was she?
In a daze, I gathered up the remains of our picnic and stumbled towards the entrance of the abbey park. The sun was dropping in the sky, I knew the park attendant would soon come to close the gates. I’ll wait here, I thought, she’ll have to come this way.
I waited as the light faded, fighting a queasy feeling. I paced around. I carefully deposited our picnic rubbish in the bin, piece by piece. I paced some more, and finally wandered over to the park information board to check the closing times again. I studied the map, in the twilight. I started reading about the history of the park, and as I did the weight in my stomach turned to ice.
“The abbey park is home to its very own ghost. With recorded sightings going back to the 1700s, many visitors have reported seeing a shadowy, hooded figure at the side of the lake. According to local legend, it is the ghost of a disgraced monk who took a lover, violating the sacred vows of his order. When threatened with discovery, he drowned his beloved in the mill pond beside the abbey."