Every story is a ghost story.
No, not every story is about the disembodied soul of a deceased relative who discovers agoraphobia in the afterlife and won’t leave the house. But every story is about a ghost, nevertheless, and about our relationship to ghosts, and the extent to which we are ghosts ourselves.
What is a ghost, when you really get right down to it?
Ghosts are those things in life that don’t exist but also happen to be real. Setting aside whatever Zak Bagans is up to these days, no one has ever managed to reliably establish the presence of any physical evidence of ghosts. You will not find them under an electron microscope; you will never catch one with a Geiger counter or a high-powered microphone. They don’t exist.
But anyone who has lost a loved one knows that ghosts are real. They press in, they chase after. They are the presence of absence. They give shape to our thoughts, body to our emotions. We carry them around with us in a million different forms. In every meaningful way, ghosts are more than real: they are the essence of reality. They just don’t exist.
I’m hard pressed to think of any story that isn’t ultimately about a ghost. Sometimes they’re literal, of course: the ghost of Hamlet’s father, for instance. But Hamlet is also haunted by the ghosts of royal obligation, his assumed place in the world, and his own mortality. Ultimately, Hamlet himself is the true ghost of the story, and by the end of the tale he presumably becomes a literal one.
Hamlet is a ghost story that just happens to contain an actual ghost.
Most ghost stories don’t. For example, let’s jump ahead to something more modern, one of my favorite books: Jurassic Park. There’s not a single spectral presence in the story, but it’s still a ghost story.
The premise of Jurassic Park is that a corporation is “recreating” dinosaurs for a theme park. But these creatures aren’t in fact dinosaurs, but rather new animals being engineered to match our expectations of what dinosaurs are supposed to be. As Alan Grant says in the book, they’re actually monsters, a distinction that becomes evident once they get loose and start killing people.
Dinosaurs – real, actual dinosaurs – are the ghosts. All of the characters are, in their own ways, haunted by the ghosts of ancient lizards. Grant’s entire life’s work is about digging up the history of life from the ground. Hammond only sees how every kid goes crazy for the cartoon beasts, and that their parents spend money; he just sees the commercialization of the popular concept. Malcolm sees the ghosts of a vanished world haunting his mathematical theories.
The living, breathing monsters are almost beside the point. The ghosts of real dinosaurs loom larger in the story than any faux T-Rex dramatically stomping on a car. They haunt every corner of the tale.
Ghosts aren’t always fantasy monsters, either. Often they’re embedded deeply in everyday life.
In the crime novel Out, by Natsuo Kirino, a group of women who all work the night shift at a food packaging plant become entangled in a plot when one of them kills her husband and asks the others for help in disposing of the body. Of course, the task becomes far more complicated than they think.
There’s not a single disincorporated soul or fantasy monster to be found anywhere in that story, nothing but human beings and society, but it is absolutely a ghost story. The ghost in Out is the promise of a better life, a get-good option that offers an escape from the bitter compromises of poverty, terrible work, bad marriages, ungrateful relatives, and loneliness. A way out, in other words.
In the novel, that escape doesn’t actually exist but is clearly real, driving the characters into greater and greater distress, haunting them in their every waking moments. As in Hamlet, the ghosts of Out lead the story’s characters to their fates, in various ways making them ghosts themselves.
I suppose that’s the end game of every good ghost story. If you chase ghosts for long enough, eventually you become one – real, but not existing – and it’s often not a pleasant road in getting there.
And these characters always make the same essential error: they confuse existing with being real. Desperate to confront their ghosts in the flesh-and-blood world, they instead chase them into greater and deeper levels of utter unreality, until they finally join the ghosts in their nonexistence.
Different people, different situations, different ghosts. But ghosts, nevertheless.