What Ghost Stories Say About Society

Last night (and I use that phrase loosely, since I made darn sure the sun wasn’t down yet) I watched The Woman in Black. I’m not sure why I did it. Maybe because I pretty much have to see all new costume dramas, or I wanted to see Daniel Radcliffe in another period piece (remember pre-Potter when he was in David Copperfield with Maggie Smith… yeah… memories). But I knew one thing: it was going to scare me, and scare me good.

And it did.

That set my little INTJ brain to analyzing. Why did it scare me? I don’t believe in ghosts, at least not in the traditional sense. But I do believe in demons, so each time a malevolent ghost appears in literature or film, my faith translates that to “demonic presence,” and that to me is far more frightening than some dead person wandering around with a bone to pick with the living. But I’m not most people. So why do ghosts scare everyone? Universally, almost without exception, ghosts are frightening. That’s why ghost movies get made – to scare the living hell out of the audience. It works. Tickets sell, screams fill the theater, and we all kind of hate to glance into the dark corners of our room after that.

I spend some of my time on Tumblr. I looked up The Woman in Black in the keyword search. I found pages and pages of posts that generally agreed on a consensus of “I couldn’t sleep for a week,” or “I had to wait until the sun came up to finish watching this film.” Most of them aren’t Christians. (At least, given the sheer amount of f-words, I hope not.) Yet all of them were scared by the film.

Why?

I love British apologist C.S. Lewis. He had a brilliant mind. (He was also an INTJ, just saying.) His theory of thought was that the presence or absence of something in humanity is meaningful. Under that philosophy, the very existence of our fear of ghosts implies that it is wired into us to believe in the existence of life after death – in a spiritual world; that God placed in us a deeper Knowing of such things, and that indirectly, it proves they exist.

Think about it. Under the theory of evolution, we evolve to survive. At what point did we decide to become irrationally afraid of something that – according to evolution – does not exist? When and why did we become afraid of the dark? Why does being alone in a dark, old house at night, particularly a large one, give us the creeps? When did becoming fearful of dead people become important to our survival? Yet, every civilization throughout history has been afraid of ghosts.

Rationally, most of us know that the Woman in Black does not exist… yet for a split second (me) or a few hours (most people), we are temporarily afraid that she might come and get us. Why would ghost stories, and midnight walks through the cemetery, and other such things scare us if some part of us did not believe it was true? If internally, we did not actually fear that there are supernatural forces, and some of them intend us harm? Is it, as Lewis would suggest, the mere presence of such fears that acknowledges the existence of such things?

Fear is not always rational, but it has to work on multiple levels to succeed; some small part of it needs to be possible for us to be afraid of it. So what does that say about ghosts?

12 Replies to “What Ghost Stories Say About Society”

  1. I’m blessed with a very active imagination and cannot deal with psychological thrillers at all (although I’m strangely ok with comedy/stylised gore). An avid reader even as a kid, my night fears took the shapes of Gollums and Ring-wraiths under the bed and at the foot of the stairs. However I did discover one trick to help me make it to the bathroom and back in safety – I used to sing Psalm 23 as I walked. Whether it was the psalm itself or just the act of breaking the silence I don’t know, but it worked.

  2. I really like your thoughts here. I had never thought of the reason ghosts scare people. Oh, and though I haven’t been doing more than reading the first sentence or so of your posts about Buffy, I’m reminded each time that I want to watch it. Jon and I made it halfwayish through the first season, and he got tired of the cheese, but I want to watch it. Mind you, it’s going to be a while–I still have to finish Dollhouse, then X-Files.

    1. I’ve grown out of Buffy. I once loved it — adored it, even, but I went back and rewatched some of it recently and realized how cheesy it is. The characters are still fun, but I think I’ve moved on to different things now. Plus, the later seasons got really… um… progressive in their morality, or lack thereof.

  3. I think this goes far beyond evil. CS Lewis has a point there. The fear is based on something we don’t know, be it real or not. But it is the unknown that really draws our attention: what is it? A wise teacher once used to tell me that UFOs are the new ghosts. Whether we can accept that or not, there is also something in it: we don’t know what is beyond, so it tends to become a fear.
    WHatever it is, I always feel it is the absence we feel deep inside, no matter how rational we pretend to be. I don’t know if we can call it a “primal fear”, since being ready for the unknown can be easily a method of survival. Run and hide instead of lingering.
    Certainly it is something we have to think about. Especially when we take into account that even today people still belief in magic and wizardy… maybe not as spectacular as we see it in movies, but certainly still as alluring as always.
    Great post, by the way!

    1. True, fear of the unknown does motivate us (although, are people really afraid of UFO’s? Really? That’s just… sad). It prevents us from doing things we should try, for the fear that we aren’t certain of the outcome. Death scares society on the whole because most of them aren’t positive about what happens after death. If you aren’t afraid of death, you have nothing to fear in death.

      Thanks for commenting. I look forward to reading your future Tolkien / HP musings.

  4. Evil (fear) is a very real thing, and while I think we have to LIVE our life, we also have a responsibility to be smart: To use the mind God gave us.

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