I adore a good ghost story, but more so, I’ve come to realise, when the ghost is never seen.
I love The Woman in Black for the many times it has made me reconsider turning my bedside lamp off, and A Christmas Carol just wouldn’t be the same if the ghosts didn’t actually turn up to serve Ebeneezer with his warning, yet there’s something terrifying about The turn of the Screw where you’re never sure if the apparitions are physical or imaginary. In The Woman in Black I always found the rocking noise on the floor above, the door that would not open, and the dog growling at something unknown, to be more terrifying than the sightings of the woman in the graveyards.
Henry James, author of The Turn of the Screw, once said he preferred ghosts that were extensions of reality – “the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy,” as he put it in the New York Edition preface to his final ghost story, The Jolly Corner. The apparitions in Shakespeare plays are very much the type that James might not have cared for, and yet the Elizabethan audience would have expected their ghosts to be no other way. Shrouded moaning figures appearing with a thunderclap, or in a puff of smoke – often with a message or a warning to deliver. The apparitions of his victims to Richard III is a poignant piece of writing that I immensely enjoyed discovering at school.
It is now dead midnight.
Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself?
Interestingly, modern stage adaptions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth see the apparition of Banquo at the banquet missing – leaving Macbeth in dread and fear at what now appears to be a product of his imagination, rather than the cause being something visibly paranormal. Is this a reflection of modern audiences? Or simply the realisation that the ghosts that aren’t seen are more dreaded than those that are? That the terror is in the suspense, the scream in the apparition?
I once wrote that the scariest ghosts I’ve ever encountered are the ones who, for a brief moment in time, lived on my bedside cabinet. These spectres live on ear-marked pages, their every action dictated by printed words yet imagined in my fascinated mind. The many nights I have spent camped out in haunted buildings within the county of Wiltshire have seen me jump and scream at noises and movements – but never at apparitions. It was the stories told by eye-witnesses that scared me more than the ghosts I ever saw. It was the anticipation that got me – not the ghosts. In nearly a decade of researching ghosts I have only ever seen two or three things that would be considered by some to be ghostly apparitions, and each time I was extremely calm and never scared. Swap that for a bang or clang in a dark, damp cellar said to be haunted and I’d have been scrambling for the exit in an instant.