A ghost story may be any piece of fiction, or drama, that includes a ghost, or simply takes as a premise the possibility of ghosts or the belief of some character(s) in them. In that sense The Tale of Genji contains ghost stories, and Shakespeare's Hamlet is a ghost story. Henry James used the ghost story premise. Stories involving ghosts are found in traditional cultures worldwide. Charles Dickens wrote one of the most famous ghost stories, A Christmas Carol, in which a miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by four spirits on Christmas Eve. They show him how he has misused his life, and their influence changes him.

In a narrower sense, the ghost story has been developed as a short story format, within genre fiction. As such, it may be a relatively restrained form of supernatural fiction, compared with the excess of the horror story. The ghost stories of M. R. James, Charles Dickens, H. Russell Wakefield, and Sheridan Le Fanu are classic expressions, as is Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow. It is important to note that the ghost story is not explicitly designed to be scary, although this is frequently the case, but has been used for comedic and tragic effect also.

Two of the most important twentieth-century authors of ghost stories were Walter de la Mare and Robert Aickman, each a supreme stylist who genuinely believed in the supernatural. De la Mare often brought a poetic vision to his work, whereas Aickman explored the dark, nightmarish and occasionally erotic byways of the subconscious. However, what unites both writers, in addition to their perfection of individual style, is their reliance upon ambiguity as a medium for heightening effect.

Many ghost stories are passed down through the telling of them to family members and friends. However, there are often several versions due to personal changes to the story and forgetfulness.

Japan has a long and complex tradition of ghost stories (kaidan in Japanese), perhaps best-known from Lafcadio Hearn's book, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things.

Colloquially, the term also can refer to any kind of scary story.

The English ghost story

In "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories"[1] (1929), M. R. James identifies five key features of the English ghost story:

  • The pretense of truth
  • "A pleasing terror"
  • No gratuitous bloodshed or sex
  • No "explanation of the machinery"
  • Setting: "those of the writer's (and reader's) own day"

[NOTE: This abbreviation of five key points in James's essay were first summarized by Prof. Frank Coffman for a course in popular imaginative literature. ]

There is an extensive critical analysis of the work of several English ghost story writers in Jack Sullivan's book Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood (1978) .

Different types of ghost story

Within the English ghost story, there could be said to be different sub-classifications, all of which emerged at different times during the evolution of the genre:

  • The psychological ghost story, as exemplified by the likes of Henry James, Oliver Onions, Walter De La Mare, Vernon Lee, and Robert Aickman. Within this tradition, the emphasis shifts from the actions of the spectre upon the victim, to the perceiving consciousness of the victim. Often calling into question social issues, in which the supernatural acts as an investigative ingredient, these tales frequently call into question the reliability and mental stability of the protagonist. These tales are usually highly ambiguous in their description, and realism is often of greater importance within this tradition than romanticism, although not always. Themes of repression and guilt feature frequently. An archetypal story within this tradition would be Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, which is frequently anthologized. Other examples would include Oliver Onions' The Beckoning Fair One and Vernon Lee's Amour Dure.
  • The antiquarian ghost story, as exemplified by the likes of M.R. James, Arthur Gray, A.N.L. Munby, E.G. Swain, Christopher Woodforde, and R.H. Malden. Dismissing the psychological, ergo rational, explanations of the psychological ghost story, the antiquarian ghost story tradition was born from more folkloric origins and in this sense is more closely tied to the traditional ghost story. Many of its practitioners were scholars or clergymen, and therefore discarded the romanticised prose of the traditional school, favouring realism and gentle escalation of the supernatural within the narrative, typically after some ancient medieval relic has been disturbed in some way. An archetypal story within this tradition would be M.R. James' Oh, Whistle And I'll Come To You from his genre-defining book Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.

There have been other schools suggested, most notably the feminist ghost story, as exemplified by the likes of Georgia Wood Pangborn, Mary Heaton Vorse, Edith Wharton, Olivia Howard Dunbar, Sarah Orne Jewett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Alice Brown. It is debatable whether or not the feminist ghost story is an independent sub-genre in itself or can best be seen as a partition of the psychological ghost story, since it still frequently focuses on the perceiving consciousness and mental framework of the protagonist. This is not always the case though, and many writers from within the traditional ghost story tradition could be considered as covering feminist themes. The biggest distinction with this tradition, if it can indeed be classed as a separate tradition, is that the social issues common to the psychological ghost story are explored from a more female position, particularly themes such as motherhood, female identity, marriage, oppression by patriarchy, typically through the eyes of a female protagonist. It is often surprising to modern fans of the horror genre, that there were in fact more women writers of ghost stories than there were men. The feminist ghost story's distinctions are thematic rather than stylistic, and often the stories create a mood of tragedy rather than terror. It could then also be argued that the tragic ghost story is also a separate tradition.

Ghost stories around the world

Though the ghost story is often thought of as an extremely English form of story, ghosts appear in every culture in the world, and consequentially each culture has its own ghost stories. The oriental ghost story has become highly marketable in Western cultures in recent years within popular film, however collections of Oriental ghost stories were popular within Victorian society after Lafcadio Hearn published his collection of Japanese folktales entitled Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things.

See also


  • Felton, D. Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity, University of Texas Press, 1999.
  • Medieval ghost stories : an anthology of miracles, marvels and prodigies / comp. and ed. by Andrew Joynes, Woodbridge: Boydell press, 2003.


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