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.