Ghost story

Illustration by James McBryde for M. R. James's story "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad".

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 characters' belief in them.[1][2] The "ghost" may appear of its own accord or be summoned by magic. Linked to the ghost is the idea of "hauntings", where a supernatural entity is tied to a place, object or person.[1] Ghost stories are commonly examples of ghostlore.

Colloquially, the term "ghost story" can refer to any kind of scary story. In a narrower sense, the ghost story has been developed as a short story format, within genre fiction. It is a form of supernatural fiction and specifically of weird fiction, and is often a horror story.

While ghost stories are often explicitly meant to be scary, they have been written to serve all sorts of purposes, from comedy to morality tales. Ghosts often appear in the narrative as sentinels or prophets of things to come. Belief in ghosts is found in all cultures around the world, and thus ghost stories may be passed down orally or in written form.[1]

History

The ghost of a pirate, from Howard Pyle's Book of Pirates (1903)

A widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they are composed of a misty, airy, or subtle material. Anthropologists link this idea to early beliefs that ghosts were the person within the person (the person's spirit), most noticeable in ancient cultures as a person's breath, which upon exhaling in colder climates appears visibly as a white mist.[3] Belief in ghosts is found in all cultures around the world, and thus ghost stories may be passed down orally or in written form.[1]

The campfire story, a form of oral storytelling, often involves recounting ghost stories, or other scary stories.[4] Some of the stories are decades old, with varying versions across multiple cultures.[5] Many schools and educational institutions encourage ghost storytelling as part of literature.[6]

In 1929, five key features of the English ghost story were identified in "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories" by M. R. James. As summarized by Frank Coffman for a course in popular imaginative literature, they were:[7]

  • 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"

The introduction of pulp magazines in the early 1900s created new avenues for ghost stories to be published, and they also began to appear in publications such as Good Housekeeping and The New Yorker.[8]

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