Why Ghost Stories?

The first stories I learned to tell were ghost stories, and ghost stories have remained one of my favorite types of stories. I tell a lot of them, particularly in October. And so people often ask me why ghost stories? Why are we drawn to them? Why tell them?

In thinking about that question, I am reminded of something the author of the New Testament’s First Letter of Peter wrote: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.”

For thousands of years, when darkness fell, humans huddled around their campfires at night, knowing that, beyond the safety of the firelight ring, things prowled, waiting to devour anyone foolish enough to venture too far from the light. Literal lions and figurative lions. Devils and demons and ghosts. Things in the night.

An actual lion could be confronted. Chased away with a spear or torch, kept out by a wall or the bright light of the fire. But what about those other things – the half-heard sounds, the rustling leaves on a still night, the distant scream? What were they? Could they be confronted at all? Could they even be comprehended?

And what about those of us in the modern world? We don’t have literal lions outside our door. But still there are things. Greed and hatred. Vague forebodings and fears, the sense of other forces at work, of things that hem us in like a bear prowling outside the firelight circle. Vague others that direct our lives this way or that like wolves driving their prey. Feelings of unease that often we cannot even articulate. How do we confront these things?

Ghost stories. Scary stories of all sorts. These tales allow us to give those things form – a ghost, a vampire, a zombie. We see the thing; we can name it. We confront it. In the context of the tale, we step beyond the safety of everyday and face the Thing. Yet the important part of the ghost story is not the encounter, but the ending. Along with the characters of the story, we face the figurative lions in the dark. Hopefully our character-selves survive, but even if they don’t, we listeners do. However scary the story, the storyteller finally says “The end.” And we look up and discover that we are alive. We have journeyed into the dark; we have fought with lions, and we have returned to our firelight ring.

And, at least for the moment, we are safe.

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