Ghosts and ghost stories are one of the most pervasive frights in our culture. So in honor of Halloween, what life lessons can we learn from the dead?
If you know me, you know I don’t do horror. Like, at all.
The closest I’ve come to sitting through a horror movie was the film version of Sweeney Todd, and the only reason I got through that gore fest was the music of Stephen Sondheim.
I’ve never been into vampires or zombies. Werewolves I can do to an extent, if only because they’re fluffy and Remus Lupin is one. Witches I write about, but I prefer good witches to bad witches, taking the scare out of it.
But there is one creature of the night that has had a hold on my imagination for a long, long time:
Not all ghosts, mind you. I’m not touching Poltergeist or Amityville Horror or Paranormal Activity. But I can’t deny ghost stories are something I’ve connected to since childhood.
That can be said about a lot of us, really. Of all the classic monsters, ghosts are, I think, the most pervasive. Stories about ghosts are a staple of childhood sleepovers and campfires. Plus, think of all the haunted houses of Scooby Doo, the ghostly urban legends of Hey Arnold, the lively spirits that roam the halls of Hogwarts. Even A Christmas Carol, one of the most timeless Christmas stories, centers around specters normally found at Halloween.
Along with Harry Potter, a significant number of books I read as a preteen involved ghosts. I would lie on my bed or hunch over the book in my hands, eyes poring over the words for page after page as a chill of dread – and anticipation – pricked the back of my neck.
Some stories had benevolent spirits, some malevolent, some both. Some were creepy, some silly, some sad. Some had psychic powers, or younger siblings who adopted the spirit as an imaginary friend. A depressing amount had disbelieving, useless parents, but that’s a conversation for another time. The point is something about those stories must have stuck, because ghosts have haunted my writing ever since.
Halloween, to me, is a time to think about the things we fear, and the things we learn from fear. Even though the ghosts in stories aren’t always scary in themselves, their very existence is closely tied to something we all fear and must inevitably face. So, what do we learn from ghosts?
Remember – but don’t get stuck in – the past
Ghosts may haunt us in the present, but they’re literally stuck in the past. They are souls out of time, often unaware that their era has long since passed. In fact, it is said that ghosts only walk through walls because those walls didn’t exist in their lifetime, so they “live” as if nothing has changed.
On one hand, ghosts are a valuable reminder that the past has an effect on the present, even if the living have forgotten. And in trying to put a ghost at peace, the living must learn and respect the history that got them there.
Yet, on the other hand, ghosts are a sometimes sad, sometimes horrifying example of what happens when you cling to the past, particularly to old grudges. The scariest specters are the ones with a bone to pick, the trauma of their death driving them to lash out against others, whether the victims are connected to the death or not. Their reasons may be legitimate, but their coping… leaves something to be desired. But then, to be fair, ghosts have no one to reach out to. Unless there’s a psychic-medium around, they’re left to stew in their pain all alone.
The past may be a valuable teacher, but it is no place to make a life… or an afterlife, as it were. We the living have more resources at our disposal to deal with our own haunted pasts and move forward. Use them, and help others to do the same.
Talk about death and grief
Part of the reason we are both afraid of and fascinated by ghosts is that they’re closely tied to death and what happens after. Ghost stories are the only time it’s “fun” to talk about death – it may be surrounded by an air of darkness and mystery, but it still gets us to talk about it beyond a euphemism or a passing mention.
Yet often times in books or movies about ghosts, part of the problem for the protagonist trying to stop the haunting is that no one wants to talk about what happened. Talk of death is treated as taboo, a whisper, a secret, a scary thing that terrorizes the living, and thus unwanted ghosts become a representation of that repressed idea.
I can’t speak from experience about dealing with grief. I’ve been lucky in my life so far that I haven’t lost someone who impacted me so deeply. But the knowledge that it won’t be that way forever lingers at the edge of my consciousness. Grief is a consequence of love. You can’t have one without the other. But that doesn’t make it any easier to think about what happens when the worst has come.
Despite this, grief is a theme at the core of much of my writing (and part of why ghosts are a persistent feature). Reading and writing about characters going through a loss makes me think about and research what I could do in that situation. It helps me to feel like I could survive it.
Likewise, I’m grateful my mom was always willing to talk about how she dealt with losses, how she fondly remembers those she’s lost, and what would happen to me when she was gone.
It’s also interesting that we’re seeing more works in American culture about Day of the Dead, which takes a friendlier, more celebratory view of death. Along with movies like The Book of Life and the upcoming Coco, there’s the middle grade graphic novel Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier, which came out last year.
The 12-year-old protagonist moves to a town full of ghosts, which isn’t treated as a fearful thing by the people who live there as they prepare for Day of the Dead celebrations. But Cat is terrified, for herself and her little sister with cystic fibrosis, and tries to stop her curious sister from interacting with ghosts for fear it will bring her closer to her own death. The story paints ghosts and talk of death in a sad, yet comforting light that brings acceptance and connection rather than fear.
From what I understand, everyone has to deal with death and loss at their own pace. I’m not advocating forcing a conversation on a grieving person who isn’t ready. But we need to know it’s okay to talk about these things, and that repressing those conversations can leave us feeling haunted. There’s also a number of studies that show that writing about grief and trauma can help deal with those feelings. So if ghost stories can get us to talk or write about those things, we need as many of them as possible.
The final lesson is perhaps the most essential, but not always easy to accomplish. It’s certainly something that haunts me.
Whether threatening loved ones or reminding us of life’s brevity, ghosts in stories teach protagonists and readers alike to appreciate what they have. Life may be difficult, relationships may be frustrating, and it’s easy to fixate on little problems, but we’re still here, in the present, and able to make a difference where we can.
Whether there’s an afterlife or not, there is nothing quite like the life we have now, where we grow and learn and love each other, feel the sun on our faces and the ground beneath our feet.
At the same time, I do get tired of the common adage that we have to appreciate every single moment. The thing is, we weren’t built for that. We were built to survive, and if we were absorbed in every single detail of our existence we would probably go insane and never get anything done.
Yet I still get a sense of guilt and regret whenever something is coming to an end, whether I did enough or appreciated it enough. I’m trying to get better about that.
It’s not about guilt or regret. That’s what we’re trying to avoid getting stuck in when we follow what ghost stories teach us. We need to accept our limits too. But that is why we need the reminder that ghost stories give us. Because of our nature, we need to consciously be mindful and present when we can. Ghost stories, tragedies, holidays, and birthdays can all act as those conscious reminders.
And on a darker note, ghosts remind us not just to value our own lives, but the lives of others. When we hurt others, even if it was accidental or all in good fun, we can leave a mark that goes beyond death. You don’t have to be a ghost for your actions to haunt someone, and you don’t need a ghost for your actions to haunt you in turn. But while the damage can’t always be repaired, amends can be made if you have the courage.
In the end, I think if we remind ourselves once a day to be present, to express love and gratitude, to build a bridge, to find or do something that makes us smile, then that would be enough.
So, to all you ghost-lovers and Halloween enthusiasts out there, I hope you hear some good ghost stories, take these lessons to heart, and have a happy Halloween!