The Death of the Ghost Story

I once asked if the ghost story was dead…and with your permission, I’d like to revisit that question.

Don’t get me wrong, I watch Syfy’s Ghost Hunters. I’m in awe of the adventurers creeping around some deserted asylum, calling out to spirits and chasing after sounds that would send me flying in the opposite direction.

However, am I a typical Ghost Hunter‘s fan? Or is there something else motivating the audience of Ghost Hunters? Are people watching for a fright, or out of curiosity and the need to explain the inexplicable? If so, then is this same curiosity and pragmatism responsible for the death of the ghost story?

From 1961's THE INNOCENTS

In today’s world of digital cameras and CGI, where film must proceed at a breakneck pace to hold an attention-deficit ridden audience, have stories and film written twenty, thirty, forty years ago lost their ability to hold a modern audience? While The Innocents (1961) may have been chilling at the time of its release,  would today’s moviegoer still sit patiently through the sometimes slow moving atmospheric and character heavy adaptation of the Henry James classic The Turn of the Screw?

I know many folk were chilled by Paranormal Activity, but that was a bit of clever film making and viral advertising at work. Also, the story was more about demonic possession than ghosts.

Is it even possible to write a story, or a novel about ghosts and have it be effective? A good many writers will be wagging fingers at me, proclaiming they have just finished a successful tale of ghostly fright. However, what do the sales suggest? Are you buying ghost stories? Really?

Some of you are shouting at me, pointing to the last flurry of ghostly tales that made it to the cinema (although I don’t hear the same being offered up from the bookstore crowd). Sure, The Ring, The Sixth Sense, and The Grudge made money.

I admit these had their moments, but weren’t they the exception? And weren’t The Ring and The Grudge mostly successful for the director’s terrifying camerawork than story and character? Also, weren’t these films mostly novelty? How many were able to hold up under a second or third viewing?

No, I’ll say it again, and invite discussion and argument, and if you see me at World Fantasy or Conclave, feel free to come up, jab a finger at me, and argue your point of view, or feel free to just comment here.  But I maintain, the ghost story as a legitimate literary vehicle is dead. Gone. Finished.It’s a relic of a simpler time when we were more willing to suspend disbelief, when shadows held spirits and not the chainsaw wielding psychopath.

—Stewart Sternberg

8 comments to The Death of the Ghost Story

  • I’m not so sure that’s true for everyone. Ghost stories, for some reason, still have the ability to wig me right the hell out. Even the innocuous ones like “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”. I would quite possibly have an accident in my pants if I were ever confronted by a ghost, and there has been many a night I have trembled in fear over strange noises that might be a ghost. This is in no small part due to the ghost stories I have read all my life, especially as a young girl and teen.

    Maybe the younger generation isn’t impressed. But I still am.

  • I argue Pro-Ghost because the ghost story IS a tale old as mankind. I hardly think you don’t know someone somewhere who claims to have seen/felt a ghost. They are hardwired into the belief structure of humanity.

    I also tend to think things move in cycles, who would have believed vampires would be so hot NOW 7, or 8 years ago? It timed out right coming off of Buffy and Ann Rice. There was a breather and then a whole glut of paranormal romance opened it’s sparkly vein on a waiting audience.

    People will latch onto something in the here and now-and come 5 years later-we will see the thoughts/images/feelings of today transformed into stories tomorrow.

    So because of how people view both their personal universe and the TV shows and related movies of the media universe(I lump demonic possesion with ghoststories) I DO think a ghost story-IF original and gripping enough could set the Lit-world afire.

    Give it a few years. This discussion makes me want to write one and send it to ESP.

  • Just do a market search to find where you can sell your newly inked ghost story. Not to many of them out there. And then trying to find one that actually pays semi-pro or better decreases the field even more.

    Unless you know the people at Ashtree Press. They publish a lot of ghost stories, but mostly reprints. If I remember correctly, they also help run the Ghost Story Society.

  • Stewart Sternberg

    You know what is easier to sell is non-fiction ghost stories.

  • Stewart Sternberg

    I suppose there’s some truth, David. Given enough time everything comes around again. I think the issue with ghost stories has more to do with a change in culture around the world and developments in science. How many times have you heard a rational explanation of ghostings, not necessarily scientifically sound, but pragmatic in approach?

  • Stewart Sternberg

    I don’t know Netta, I think ghost stories can be given some teeth. Let’s take it back to Lovecraft’s quote: “The oldest and most powerful emotion is fear, and the oldest and most powerful type of fear is fear of the unknown.

  • That gives me a basis to start on a ghost story-the pragmatic explanation and fear of the unknown=when they pass in the night.

  • I sold four ghost stories at pro rates just this last year, so you haven’t convinced me. 🙂