Ghost Stories Aren’t About a Fear of Death; They Are About the Trauma and Regret of the Living

Stuart K. Hayashi
 

My drawing is supposed to be of Chernabog from Disney’s “Fantasia.” Of course, Chernabog is a demon, not a ghost. ^_^

I recognize that, by definition, everything that exists, exists within the natural universe and operates according to the principles of natural law.  Even that which is man-made is natural in the sense that it functions according to scientific principles and cannot contradict or suspend them.  Anything that exists has natural attributes.  According to that understanding, to say that the “supernatural exists” is a contradiction in terms.  To label something “supernatural” is not to say that it is “extremely natural,” but that it is above and beyond natural — that it is outside of what is natural (i.e., that which exists).  To proclaim that something has an existence beyond, apart from, and outside of Nature is to proclaim that it has an existence beyond, apart from, and outside of existence.

I find it no contradiction that I continue to be fascinated by stories about the paranormal and the occult.  I do not take those stories literally anymore, as I did when I was ten; they now interest me as a sort of psychological phenomenon.  I am interested in the significance and the symbolism of ghost stories.  Here, I will not so much discuss people’s motivations for why they listen to and tell ghost stories, but about why I think certain famous ghost stories remain well-remembered.
 

It’s About More Than “I Just Like to Feel Scared”
Briefly, I think that it is an incomplete explanation to say that people like ghost stories because they like to feel scared.  As horror movie mogul Wes Craven once pointed out in USA Weekend, no one really likes feeling scared as such.  Rather, people expose themselves to scary stories and movies in order to make themselves feel brave.  When they encounter such scary stories, they feel all of the primal sensations of fear and alarm.  But, by the end of the story, they remain safe and alive, while they feel somewhat brave for having “survived” the simulation of terror.

I think that if people listened to ghost stories and watched scary movies solely for the sensation of fear — without any interest in the other emotions involved in the story — then they wouldn’t have much memory about the details of the story.  I surmise that the details of certain ghost stories touch upon emotions other than fear.  When people have strong memories about a certain ghost story, it is not merely because they empathize with the protagonists who encounter the ghosts, but empathize with the ghosts themselves.
 

The Rules of a Certain Ghost-Story Template
There is definitely a lot of variation, and what I am about to say doesn’t perforce apply to every famous urban legend about ghosts.  However, many famous ghost stories follow a certain template.

First, the ghost is territorial; he or she inhabits a certain location; there are geographic parameters the spirit cannot breach.   Some ghosts, such as the one I will describe later in this essay, are capable of traveling long distances.  However, even in the case of these exceptions (as I will detail below), there remain thresholds the apparition will not cross.

Secondly, the ghost has some sort of “unfinished business”; there was something that happened to the ghost when he or she was alive; the ghost feels that this matter remains unresolved.  This aspect of the ghost-story template is integral to my theory.

The third aspect is that insofar as the ghost conveys that he has “unfinished business,” the ghost will betray this information in only the most indirect fashion.  This is seldom purely by the ghost’s own choice; there is always some involuntary (usually unexplained) aspect of the spirit realm that precludes the ghost from very directly expressing to the living what issues of the ghost remain unsettled.  The story usually goes that when some living human encounters a ghost, the ghost communicates by nothing more than cryptic clues that the living investigator has to piece together.  (This is seen in the supposedly based-on-truth movie The Changeling.)

In many respects, a living human trying to investigate the story behind a ghost’s unrest is very similar to a psychologist trying to uncover the reasons behind the mysterious behavior of someone who is mentally ill and in denial about the mental illness.  If you very directly ask a mentally-ill-person-in-denial about the reasons for his or her condition, you will seldom receive a direct, straightforward, earnest answer.  This is especially true if that person is still going through his or her “episode.”  By the same token, if the living human enters the haunted domain and asks the spirit, point blank, what it wants and what needs to be done for the hauntings to stop, the ghost will seldom provide a direct, lucid, coherent answer.  Usually, the ghost cannot give a coherent answer, just as a mentally-ill person will feel that he or she cannot.

The fourth rule is that a ghost that haunts a place engages in some sort of repetitive behavior.  I have heard stories about some horrible mass murder committed on some famous spot.  Supposedly, every anniversary the ghosts of the victims and murderer will reappear and, behaving and reacting as if they are still alive, will re-create the entire massacre before living spectators.  When I give this example, one might say to me, “Aha! The murder results in death; therefore, the ghosts’ re-enactment of events necessarily has to involve their death.”  I dispute that.  For instance, there are some ghost stories (both presented as fiction and as “true”) about some hospitals, schools, or orphanages where patients or children were mistreated.  According to the legends, the mistreated ghosts will re-appear and whimper, and re-enact the mistreatment, even if the mistreatment did not result in their physical deaths.

The repetitive behavior is another trait that haunting spirits have in common with living people who have certain mental illnesses.  As I mentioned before, many people, who have a certain context-dropping image of “life, as it really is,” insist on going through the same self-destructive behavioral patterns over and over again, despite their always getting the same dismal results.  An example would be an insistence on getting into one abusive relationship after another.   The pattern only changes when the living human chooses to commit to changing with it, and sticks to that commitment.  Likewise, a ghost that haunts some place will usually repeat the same pattern until the “unfinished business” is resolved.  Unlike a real-life living person, however, the ghost cannot change the pattern on his own; he necessarily needs a living human being to help him; he needs the living, lucid human to initiate some new action that alters the course of events and gives him peace.

Next, I will give an example of a famous ghost story that I think follows these conventions.  After that I will explain why I think that people find the story scary not primarily on account of it reminding them of death, but primarily because it reminds them about the regrets that living people have about their lives.
 

The Vanishing Hitchhiker
Here is a story that is almost always told as true, and goes at least as far back as the 1970s.  Commonly the storyteller says it happened to a friend of a friendA motorist minds his own business driving along some area that isn’t very familiar to him.  Along the way, he finds a rather benign-looking hitchhiker.  The motorist stops and asks the hitchhiker where he wants to go.  The hitchhiker gives a very specific home address.  The motorist replies, “Hey, that’s on the way to my destination!  Hop in!”  The hitchhiker probably doesn’t ride in the front passenger seat, but in the back, where the motorist cannot see the hitchhiker unless he turns his head.  Along the journey, the two get to talking and form an emotional bond.  After a while, though, they stop talking.

Eventually, during the silence the motorist reaches the home address.  He turns around and says, “We’re at your stop!”  But the hitchhiker is nowhere to be seen.  The motorist looks everywhere and cannot find his companion.  Puzzled, he says to himself, “I deserve an explanation.”  He goes to the residence and rings the doorbell.  Some old person answers it.  The motorist says, “This is going to sound very strange, but I picked up a hitchhiker who asked me to take him to this address.  But now I can’t find him.”  At this point, the motorist sees the hitchhiker in a photograph on the wall and exclaims, “That’s him!”

The resident explains that that hitchhiker is a relative or some family friend, and has been deceased many years.  Sometimes the story goes that the hitchhiker had some falling out with the house’s residents, and they always missed each other.  The hitchhiker died before any reconciliation could take place.  In some versions of the story, the hitchhiker was going to the house to make amends, but on his way he was hit and killed by a drunk driver . . . and he died on the very spot where the motorist picked him up.  In some versions, the resident says that there were many occasions on which other motorists picked up the hitchhiker at that exact same spot and the hitchhiker gave the address, only for the hitchhiker to disappear before arriving at the destination.

At this point, someone who hears the story for the first time (usually a child), gets goosebumps.  I find that a very interesting reaction.  Why would you find that story scary when the ghost’s intentions are completely harmless?  The hitchhiker isn’t trying to kill anyone.  He isn’t trying to possess or enslave anyone.  He just wants to return to a certain location — a place he couldn’t return to while alive.    My first impulse might be to say, “People find the story scary, despite the ghost’s benign intentions, because the story reminds of them of death.”  But now I think differently.  I think that the story is scary because it reminds people of regrets about actions people have taken while alive — the story is scary even when it reminds you of people who still are very much alive, at least physically.
 

My Analysis of the Hitchhiker Story
First I want to point out the areas where I think the hitchhiker tale fits the template I mentioned.  At first it might seem that the hitchhiker is not territorial; he is able to travel by motor car.  But note that he always follows the same path and his mobility remains limited.  Whenever he is picked up by a motorist, he is picked up at the same basic spot.  In some versions, that spot is where he died, and, according to some odd rule, his dying there renders it his default location.  The hapless motorists usually take the same route.  Finally, the hitchhiker always tries to get to the same address, and, presumably, he always disappears from the car at roughly the same area on the road.

Second, that the ghost has some “unfinished business” is very obvious.  He keeps trying to reach a certain residence, and he never succeeds.  Back when he was alive, he wanted to get there to try to resolve some personal matter.  Because he died before that could happen, the matter will forever remain unsettled.

Third, the ghost’s method of communicating his basic problem is indirect.  The ghost could have told the motorist from the beginning, “I’m a ghost and I want to reach this street address because there is someone there whom I never properly said good-bye to before I died.”  But the ghost doesn’t say that; his pain is conveyed to the living person in a very roundabout way.

Fourthly, there is the repetitive behavior.  There are versions of the story where the house resident tells the motorist that many other motorists in the past have picked up the hitchhiker in the same location, only for him to disappear in the same location.   Thus, like many people with Borderline Personality Disorder, the hitchhiker keeps replaying the same pattern of behavior, only to wind up with the same dismal results (or non-results).

I believe the story strikes a chord with people for reasons quite apart from the part about the hitchhiker being dead.  I think lots of people remember that story because they have empathy for the hitchhiker.  They think, “Isn’t it tragic that the hitchhiker died before he could truly settle the matter?  Isn’t it tragic that the hitchhiker will not be able to give his final message to the house resident face-to-face?”  Then they think, “I have lots of unresolved concerns going on right now.  What if I died before my dreams were fulfilled, before I could resolve the troubles in my life?  What if I die with similar unfinished business?”  That’s a very unpleasant thought, and I think that is the real reason that the story’s ending gives people goosebumps.

I think that the tale of the vanishing hitchhiker evokes a fear much greater than the fear of death.  It reminds people about regrets.  It reminds them of how so many living people, today, engage in regretful actions — or regretful inaction — and lots of them are going to die before things can be made right.  That is, those wrongs will never be righted.   A possibility such as that is what is truly frightening. This is the probable root of a common American expression.  When someone continues to be bothered by unpleasant memories, he can say, “I’m being haunted by the ghosts of my past.”
 

Haunted
That metaphor is given a lot of meaning in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  As he is being literally(?) visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Ebenezer Scrooge is pressured into facing all of the regrets of his past.  When talking with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge faces his present insecurities, particularly his loneliness.  Finally, when stalked by the Ghost of Christmas Future, Scrooge contemplates the possibility that he will die before all of his present insecurities are reconciled — that when he dies, it will be in a state as lonely as he has been in the present and the past.  The ghosts are a metaphor for (1) Scrooge’s regrets and (2) Scrooge’s fear that those issues will never be rectified.

I think the principles I have explicated even apply to ghost stories involving ghosts that re-enact their own murder.  When those tales evoke fear, I don’t think the fear mainly comes from the realization that the victims have died, but mainly from the horror of contemplating the fact that real, living people are capable of performing an act as monstrous as murdering other human beings.  That’s why people will find a ghost story scary if dead children in an orphanage, mental hospital, or school reenact physical or psychological abuse they have endured.  Even though the re-enactment doesn’t involve the characters’ death, it evokes fear and revulsion because it reminds us that people can inflict forms of cruelty that don’t even result in anyone dying.  That, too, is regretful.

And as the vanishing hitchhiker story exemplifies, the ghost story doesn’t have to involve human evil in order to be disturbing.  The common thread in these stories is that, back when the ghost was alive, people made highly regretful choices and they were never corrected — nor will they be.  Very few of these stories end with the living eyewitness finding a way to finish the ghost’s unfinished business.

I have been thinking long and hard about this symbolism, because I know someone who spent time in Hawaii with me — and returned to Norway — who has suffered with suicidal tendencies and self-mutilation for years, and could be very happy, but, to my knowledge, has refused to return to psychiatric care.  In one of her more lucid moments, my friend warned me that in social relationships she repeats the same dysfunctional pattern — first it starts well, but she does something to sabotage it later on.  Just as it would be with a ghost, my attempt at conversing about the matter in a straightforward way are frustrated; but, like a ghost, my friend lets out indirect cries for help.  Many people assume my friend is confident and business-savvy.  But, conspicuously, my friend insisted on looking like a ghost, wearing black almost every day and trying to be very pale.  She even went as far as uploading — in the absence of providing any context behind it — pictures onto the Web where she was very realistically photoshopped to look like a dead body, complete with pallid gray skin. Later she finally stopped uploading the corpse pictures but that hasn’t stopped the public morbid gestures entirely — she legally changed her name to match the last name of someone she and another relative have cryptically hinted was a source of abuse.   My worries about the matter have led me to be very openly agitated and jumpy, just as I would be if a supernatural entity were visiting me.  As there is with every ghost story, there are elements of regret:  I regret that my attempts to help my friend are stifled, and that my friend’s inner torment — like any specter’s — goes on and on and on. You can say that I’m very much haunted by this.  And until I find a way to stop worrying about it, this remains a demon yet to be exorcised.

Advertisements