Mary Patterson Thornburg Shivers About Things That Go Bump In The Night...
The dark of the year is coming...the dark of an already very dark year, in fact. But some things won't be changed. I saw a story recently about communities making plans for socially-distanced trick-or-treating. And among the children costumes as pirates, princesses, and current public figures (is there a difference?), there will of course be others dressed as "the sheeted dead," squeaking and gibbering in the streets, as Shakespeare has it. Ghosts. They'll scare us and each other, and we'll welcome it. We love to be scared. Why?
There must be a reason why scary movies, horror novels, and ghost stories are always popular, and never more so than now, even when real life should be frightening enough. Don't look for an answer from me--scholars and psychologists have theorized about the question endlessly, but I don't pretend to know. All I'm sure of is that I'm as delighted as anyone when I have to sleep with a light on because I've just treated myself to The Haunting on television or to one of any number of my favorite old gothic novels or ghost stories.
Some might say we like these entertainments because they're obviously just fantasies, and they remind us that these weird and uncanny things can't really happen. Some of the earliest gothic novels seem to bear this out, with incidents that are shiver-inducing (or scream-inducing) at first, but are then explained as perfectly normal, just misunderstandings. The figure in white, floating along the hall, was just a housemaid walking in her sleep. The terrible laughter echoing from a closed and locked room is nothing but the family parrot escaped from its cage. I've written at least one story like this myself, but I have to admit I think it's a sort of cheat. I want my ghosts to be real...well, at least maybe real.
To me, the best stories of ghosts and hauntings and various other sorts of creepiness are the ones that are ambiguous. Was it or wasn't it the mother's dead lover, nothing but bones now, walking up and down the stairs, in Robert Frost's poem "The Witch of Coös"? In Henry James's very scary novella The Turn of the Screw, are the evil spirits of two dead servants really attempting--in one case perhaps successfully--to possess two innocent children? Are the ghosts real or are they not? We can guess, we can believe what we want to, but in both cases and in other horror stories that I've loved, we can never know for sure, because the story is being told by a narrator who's untrustworthy...maybe. And maybe is the operative word here. Because if the story is well told, we're not sure. I've written an ambiguous ghost story myself, maybe successfully and maybe not--time will tell.
But this is not my story Ghosts, a Halloween story about mothers, daughters and friendships. There's nothing ambiguous about this one--the ghosts in the title are quite real. Trust me.