Ghostly encounters: is truth scarier than fiction?
Posted: Jul 09, 2016
Watch any recent Hollywood horror movie about ghosts and you're bound for a disappointment. Hollywood has lost touch with the narrative of the ghost story form, replacing the art of slow terror with its lazy cousin: the jump scare. While jump scares work, they are terribly ineffective when it comes to tapping into what really unnerves us about ghost stories. Like glowing goblins that pop out at you in a funhouse, jumps scares are over the minute they've occurred. Authentic horror, on the other hand, gets under your skin, and it's a rare artist that can realize this fact to its potential.
But what makes this sort of horror effective in raising hackles on our arms and necks? Perhaps it is the fact that it illuminates a core fear woven into the human experience, which is our own mortality. And here is where fiction collides with truth.For the movies that scare us the most are the ones with scenarios that are actually plausible; there exists the possibility that they could be true, and True Ghost Stories leave us with a most uneasy feeling indeed.
Haunted house stories are another extension of our confrontation with the unknown. We all have a connection to a place that we call home. We understand the emotional call of that place. We know that it is strong enough to call us back after we leave it—if not in dreams, then possibly after death. Reading haunted house stories and chilling stories of poltergeists, gives us the proper outlet for the emotional rage of the child who leaves the comfort of home. This is the metaphor of life when we're face to face with its end.
In one of the most brilliant haunted house stories, Ambrose Bierce's "The Suitable Surroundings", a man reading a ghost story tells the writer of the story that he is unmoved by it. The writer then chastises the man for reading his work in broad daylight on a busy streetcar, and insists that the man must read the story in suitable surroundings: in a deserted cabin in the middle of a forest, at night, by the light of a single candle. The story is a perfect exercise in setting as a means of conveying fear. Bierce describes the desolation of the cabin in the woods—purported to be haunted, of course—so well that the reader is right there with the characters.
True ghost stories bring this setting home, literally. Our most cherished place is transformed into a holding place of the damned. Our cozy spaces are suddenly infested with the brambles outside the desolate cabin.
Even unbelievers are not immune to the power of unexplained phenomenon stories. Renowned skeptic Michael Shermer, writing in Scientific American, once related a story (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/anomalous-events-that-can-shake-one-s-skepticism-to-the-core/) about a broken radio belonging to his bride's dead father began to mysteriously play on their wedding day, stopping the day after and never working again. Shermer related the story as one that shook his skepticism. Events such as these may not break a skeptic's iron-clad resolve to find non-supernatural explanations, but for a moment, they, like Shermer, are shaken. And a harmless old radio can, for a moment, be transformed into a communication device for lost souls yearning reach out to us from beyond.
To this point, who among us has not tucked their foot inside the covers at night, lest a cold hand wraps its brittle nails around our ankle in the dark? Is anyone really a skeptic who has been in that situation, if only for a brief moment? If the answer is no, then for that brief moment, ghosts do exist.
And in moments like that, we confront the void.
Author of True Ghost Stories and Hauntings: Chilling Stories of Poltergeists, Unexplained Phenomenon, and Haunted House Stories
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