I recently reread one of the greatest literary ghost stories of all time — Henry James’ ‘Turn of the Screw.’ Like Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ the James novella is part of a long tradition of sharing tales of hauntings.
I remember telling scary stories at slumber parties, around campfires and late at night in country houses. It’s fun and, at least in Mary Shelley’s case, it can be an inspiring literary exercise. Henry James story is a masterpiece of innuendo and suspicion. Are the ghosts real? Is the governess suffering from delusions, stimulated by a sublimated sexual awakening? Are the children possessed? Does it really matter? No, not really. It’s the story that counts above all else.
A good ghost story does not have to be definitive. It can simply suggest that a place holds mysterious traces of the dead — echoes of emotions or some mysterious vestige of an event or long gone person. Ambiguity is the engine that drives this kind of ghost story.
The reader fills in the missing pieces with belief or skepticism. The writer invites the reader to participate in the haunting and believing in ghosts is not required to enjoy a tingle of a hovering spirit. The stories ask the reader to suspend disbelief — just as the audience in a theater agrees to ignore the missing fourth wall. The pleasure in reading a good ghost story comes from this willingness to go along with the impossible.
For some people the group experience of watching a horror film in a movie theater replicates the ghost stories around a campfire experience, but there’s a piece of me that would like to revive the tradition of telling stories to friends. It’s how “Turn of the Screw” begins and it is how “Frankenstein” was born.