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Episodes: On ghosts (and why they keep turning up in your favorite TV shows)


Emily VanDerWerff

Oct 30 2015

6 min read



(We're talking about scary movies and TV shows this week. It's a good week for it, don't you think?)

I mentioned yesterday that I love horror perhaps above all other genres (though romance and sci-fi give it a run for its money), and if there's a subset of horror I love the most, it's the ghost story, particularly the very classic British ghost story that arose near the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. There's a quaint provincialism to these stories that reflects both the seemingly endless history of the British Isles and the very British Empire belief that the dead would probably keep coming back to English country houses, because where else would you possibly want to be?

This is perhaps best reflected in Turn of the Screw, a story I have loved in almost all its forms, from Henry James's original, wonderful novella, to its film adaptation, The Innocents, one of my favorite movies to pop on for viewers who think no scary movies were made before the 1970s. What James gets at is the terrifying way that a ghost feels very much like madness, if you're not the person seeing it. Vampires and werewolves and the like are at least physical. You could, conceivably, catch one and convince others of what was happening. (You never would, but you could try.) But a ghost fundamentally can't be caught. It's an embodiment of a memory.

There are two popular schools of thought about Turn of the Screw, which are that the haunted governess at its center really has foiled a plot by some ghosts to possess two children to continue the love affair they began while alive, or that she's simply a mentally unstable woman who's projecting the contents of her own brain out onto an otherwise idyllic setting, prompted by the slightest of incidents (one of her young charges is expelled from boarding school).

I've always been fond of my wife's read of the story, which is that because the governess is mad, she's able to see the ghosts. The only way to foil the plot of these treacherous dead souls is to let go of your own sanity, just a bit. There's that longstanding bit of folk wisdom that only children and the mad can experience ghosts, and I wonder somewhat if James wasn't playing around with that idea in writing this story.

Even though ghosts are literally non-corporeal, I think I like them so much because they're maybe the most tangible of our classic supernatural beings. They represent regret and secrets. They represent the things we try to keep hidden, whether that's the terrible trauma two children suffered or that Indian burial ground that was dug up for the Poltergeist family. They are, in other words, inherently stories in a way most other horrific creatures just aren't.

The classic ghost origin myth is that something so terrible happened that it gets stuck to a place or an emotional wavelength or a person, and it just hangs out there. There's something vaguely scientific about that, no? (And, indeed, science has come up with a surprisingly convincing answer for most real-life hauntings that will convince you your brain is the greatest haunted house story of them all.) Physical scars are left upon places all the time. Why not emotional ones?


Of course, ghosts being stories also means that they promise resolution, which is why they're so often trotted out for any given TV show's Halloween episode, and why those episodes so often disappoint.

My colleague Caroline Framke has a great post at Vox today about shows that unexpectedly take place in supernatural universes, and it's often because of a one-off like this. The writers are getting a little bored, so they toss a ghost or seeming immortal or Santa Claus into the mix. Why not have a little fun?

There's no harm in this if it's done well, even if most of the examples Caroline collected were done poorly. But TV often stumbles when it comes to ghosts, because it thinks what's most interesting about a ghost story is the resolution, when what's most interesting about a ghost story is that it doesn't resolve. The ghost is stuck in its own worst moments, and it's forcing all of us to consider them, too. TV ghost stories, however, have to come to neat conclusions, so that there's not a dead spirit mucking up the Thanksgiving episode. And that means that whatever prompted the ghost's appearance has to immediately be solved or resolved.

The show that I think did this better than any other might have been Buffy, which worked a ghost story into its overarching plot in season two, but did so in a way that played off of what the characters were going through emotionally at the time. The ghosts didn't go away; instead, they resonated with the current story arc. That shouldn't seem so tough, but it is.

Ghost stories keep popping up on TV, because they seem easy, but they're deceptively difficult. They require a deeply felt, compellingly told emotional story in the present and the past the ghosts represent, and that's a tough row to hoe when you're making a one-hour TV episode. That's how you end up with glop like the Boy Meets World episode Caroline links to, where the ghost is just there to help his still-living son resolve a bunch of emotional baggage.

I mean, that's fine, I guess, but it also speaks to TV's limitations compared to film or literature. The medium, no matter how sophisticated it gets, will always have an air of "on to the next thing!" to it, and ghost stories can't be propulsive. They need to linger. And TV hasn't quite figured out how to do that yet.


Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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