I Believe in Ghosts


I suppose it could be said that I grew up with ghosts and the supernatural, and that the supernatural continues to play a part in my life, being, as I am, a Christian. Often, I’ve seen a reductive view of faith expressed on social media along the lines of – those of faith believe in fairy tales, an invisible sky wizard and ghosts. Etc, ad tedium. As though all those of faith are somehow gullible; childishly naive in their outlook.

It’s true that ghosts have played a massively important part in my life, being, as I am, a huge fan of horror and the supernatural in literature. I’ve not yet made my mind up on the existence or otherwise of actual ‘ghosts’, but I do have one story to share in that realm.

My father used to be the vicar of Huthwaite in Mansfield, and one afternoon, as he was sitting chatting to a student, a young girl ran into the vicarage and said to Dad, “Come quick. My Mum says we’ve got a ghost.”  My father and his student followed the girl to a house that was literally shaking. There was a deep booming sound within, pictures were swaying on the walls and plates were falling off the dresser. My Dad took a look around, picked up the phone, called the local coal board and asked, “Are you blasting under this street?” Mystery solved.

Ghosts in literature and film have endured, even as society moves to a more secular outlook. There has been a recent renaissance of the supernatural in film, though much of what I’ve seen appears to depend on jump scares and cheap shocks; effects which are easy and inexpensive to achieve. I could make you jump, no problem – all I’d need to do would be strike the desk when you weren’t expecting it; creep up behind you and shout “Boo!” While such a shock can get the heart racing and the adrenalin pumping, I don’t really think that that’s all we want from our encounter with a ghost.

Ghost stories are essentially human stories, and I think that’s why they’ve endured, and why they continue to be a popular medium. Two of the finest supernatural films of late have, crucially, been about something. Both The Babadook and The Witch have depth and explore complex psychological situations and relationships in breakdown. They are exceedingly frightening and moving films, not just because they provide a pleasurable chill, but because they go deeper than that, and touch something far more fundamental within us.

When we encounter a ghost, we our encountering our mortality, the fragility of the mind, and the promise that death is not the end. And that last, even approached from a position of complete scepticism, is another reason why the supernatural has such a strong appeal. Because, yes, ghost stories are scary and disturbing, but they can also be strangely comforting. There’s something gloriously cosy about the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, something deliciously spooky and reassuring about encountering the ghosts of the classic stories by James, Benson, Machen etc. Even if one believes only in the life lived now, it is comforting to entertain the notion, for however short a time, that there is something beyond life. That need for the numinous is deeply rooted in the subconscious, and that need to connect with the other is present throughout literature and art.

So ghosts aren’t going anywhere; they are a crucial part of human identity and culture. And yes, I believe in ghosts – I believe in what they represent, and what they can tell us about ourselves.


Permanent link to this article: https://www.thisishorror.co.uk/i-believe-in-ghosts-by-jonathan-oliver/


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  1. Jonathan,

    Thank you for this! I’m a 7th year seminarian who tends toward the more progressive/mystical end of the Christian spectrum, but who also carries an undying affection for and healthy relationship with the Scriptures. I also have been a horror fan for nearly my whole life, ever since a peeping tom got busted outside our bathroom window when I was about 5 years old. I swore that I saw his curly redheaded visage outside my bedroom window on the second story for years after. No joke!

    Something I struggle with as a Christian and a horror fan is the underlying sense of despair and futility that inhabits much horror short fiction. As an up-and-coming writer, I wonder whether my own inherent view of faith hope and love as real things that really help people is at odds with the notion of horror in the 21st century. I hope I’m wrong!
    Thanks for the very well-written piece.

    • Jonathan Oliver on April 15, 2016 at 10:58 am
    • Reply

    I think that there’s certainly room for horror fiction that isn’t entirely despairing. It’s healthy to safely explore humanity’s dark side, but humanity shouldn’t just be defined by its worst aspects. There can be a certain nihilism in horror, and while that is as much a valid form of expression as any, too much can feeling cloying.

  2. Thanks, Jonathan, that was very interesting. I loved the story about your dad and the shaking house.
    Isn’t it true to say that the christian conception of an afterlife isn’t necessarily consoling? After all, you might go to hell. As an atheist, I find the thought of there being no afterlife, no possibility of heaven or hell, very consoling

    • HG Ferguson on April 18, 2016 at 1:03 am
    • Reply

    A thoughtful post. As an American “across the Pond” of Scottish descent and a Christian, I applaud a site such as this and raising these questions. American Christianity wants little to do with horror. Some of that is of course cultural. My interest in and love for the genre sets me apart by and large here. But I rather enjoyed The Babbadook, particularly how it left the question as to the reality of “it” left open. I tend to think it was indeed all real, but that’s up to the viewer. I also have to say the most enduring supernatural works come from your country or are influenced by your writers — I first read Dracula when I was a mere 12, and James and Machen much later. I also applaud your decrying of the “reductive view of faith,” and I resonate with postlikecore22 about the despair and nihilism of some horror fiction and films. Indeed, for it is a worldview without God, and no genre is better poised to discuss and answer metaphysical questions like these than horror. I’ll be coming back for more. Your efforts are much appreciated and frankly, a much-needed bit of British fresh air. Thank you.

    • Jonathan Oliver on April 19, 2016 at 11:58 am
    • Reply

    Thanks guys. Dllo – I would say that the afterlife, and the nature of it, isn’t all that focused on in my day to day experience of faith. It’s hard to say what heaven is, but if I were to get all heavy and religious about it, I’d say that I believe God’s love is infinite, that we are also infinite, and that whatever happens after life it will be part of that. I know that’s horribly vague, but God is, after all, many many things. Hell is an interesting one, but again, in my experience of faith, love and shared humanity are the focus. I once heard Hell described as the ‘absence of God.’ I can certainly see why a philosophy of oblivion beyond death could be comforting, after all why worry about something you will be utterly unaware of anyway?

    H.G. Ferguson – thanks for your kind comments. I have a liberal Christian outlook and most of my experience of the faith also has that. I was brought up in a liberal Christian house, with my father campaigning for issues in the church such as women priests and a more liberal and caring attitude to homosexuality. I’ve encountered a few folk who have frowned at my choice of reading material, but on the whole it’s not something I much encounter.

    I totally agree that horror is ideally suited to explore metaphysical issues. Good horror gets to the root of what it is to be human. See Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting for example.

      • HG Ferguson on April 20, 2016 at 12:33 am
      • Reply

      Thank you for your response back. The Haunting contains THE best opening paragraph in all horror fiction — even fiction in general, if you ask me — and the original film is an incomparable masterpiece of supreme terror. Thanks also for your kind assent to my proposition re the metaphysical. Much appreciated, and a far cry from the typical response over here. THANK YOU.

    • Jonathan Oliver on April 20, 2016 at 2:08 pm
    • Reply

    If you like The Haunting, do check out the rest of Jackson’s fiction. A great prose stylistic and a brilliant writer on family, love and relationships in a darker setting.

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