The legend of the ghost story and other horrors

by Lorin Michel Friday, October 31, 2014 8:03 PM

The scariest book I remember reading as a child was The Exorcist. Coincidentally and forever it was also the scariest movie I ever saw. I still consider it one of the scariest, and it’s often my go-to when someone asks, usually around this time of the year, what’s the scariest movie you ever saw? There have been others, none of which are the original dead teenager movies like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream or whatever the latest incarnation of dead-teenager movies is. The original Halloween, with Jamie Lee Curtis, scared the hell out of me. I was a teenager at the time.

When I was a kid I loved scary books, books about the supernatural especially. I read The Exorcist when I was 12 and had been forbidden to do so. I read it in my grandmother’s attic at night when I was supposed to be sleeping. That may be one of the reasons it left such an indelible impression.

I read Stephen King when I was in high school. Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Stand. I saw the movie Carrie as well, and like everyone else who saw it, was scared out of my mind by the final scene. It seems tame now, but at the time, it was terrifying. In my 20s and 30s, I graduated to Anne Rice’s vampires and witches, for a time devouring every book she put out. I preferred to read my horror rather than watch it. The imagination is much more visceral.

I haven’t read a scary book in a long time. The last was several years ago when I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I am surprised to this day at the impact it made. It was truly horrific, mind-numbingly frightening because it was about the horrors we could and do visit upon one another. The film was among the bleakest I’ve seen, but the book remains in my mind, swirling and ominous.

Ghost stories are as old as humanity. I’m amazed at how often I type something similar to those words. As much as we continue to advance as a species, there remain parts of us that have been around since we began, which means they will also be around when we end. Perhaps that’s the enduring appeal of scary tales and ghost stories. They play with our inner psyches, with the parts of our minds and our imaginations where fear of the unknown resides, and there have always been unknowns.

Richard Mansfield performing as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Many think of writers like Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley, or even Edgar Allan Poe as the earliest purveyors of horror but one of the earliest written horror tales was by Pliny the Younger, a Roman letter writer who lived in the first century AD. He wrote of a restless corpse, the rattling of chains, the beckoning finger. His story begins like this: “There was in Athens a house, spacious and open, but with an infamous reputation, as if filled with pestilence. For in the dead of night, a noise like the clashing of iron could be heard. And if one listened carefully, it sounded like the rattling of chains.”

The roots of horror literature are thought to have been planted during the first Inquisition, in 1235, when the Vatican issued an order to reestablish the orthodoxy of faith. Almost immediately heresy became code for witchcraft, and we all know how that ended.

Isn’t it fascinating that many Christian’s abhor the idea of Halloween and All Hallow’s Eve because of its pagan past, when it was actually the church that first introduced horror and the underworld, ghosts and goblins, to the world?

In 1307, Dante published the first volume of his Divine Comedy, Inferno, complete with a vision of hell and Satan. In 1486, Henry Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, inquisitors both, published Malleus Maleficarum. The book, which translates to The Hammer of Witches, essentially made witches and witchcraft the official purveyors of evil. It was reprinted 14 times in Europe. In 1585, gruesome plays started to appear, the first in the guise of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, followed by Shakespeare’s Titus Adronicus (1594), Hamlet (1600) and Macbeth (1605), ghost stories all.

The gothic novels of the 18th century took over from there, largely because of the works of men known as Graveyard Poets, so-named because of their obsessions with mortality and death. In 1765, The Castle of Otranto, considered the first Gothic novel, was published by Horace Walpole and told the tale of an evil prince, a curse and a family destroyed.

Ghostly figure walking the up stairs. Artist: Sandra Cunningham

In June of 1816, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollenstonecraft Shelley and John Polidori shared a villa, Villa Diodati, at Lake Geneva where they decided to have a ghost-story writing contest. Mary Shelley created Frankenstein. Polidori established the vampire with The Vampyre whose main character was a caricature of Lord Byron. His story may have taken inspiration from the village of Medvegja in Austria, which immortalized the tale of a local citizen named Arnold Paole who had claimed he was bitten by a vampire and thus cursed. He died after falling from a hay wagon, but the villagers believed he had risen from his grave and killed four others. They exhumed his grave 40 days after his death, and drove a stake through his dead heart.

The 19th century became a bastion of horror with Edgar Allan Poe publishing his first story, MS Found in a Bottle, in 1833; Hans Christian Andersen’s Tales Told for Children in 1835; and the impossibly gory Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber (both by Thomas Prest) and The Feast of Blood by James Malcolm Rymer (1845). The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson was published in 1885. Stoker’s Dracula didn’t even make an appearance until 1897.

Fast forward to the 20th century where the horror genre flourished in America, the biggest of which was I am Legend, written by Richard Matheson in 1954, and Shirley Jackson’s The House on Haunted Hill from 1959. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin was published in 1967, and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist made an appearance in 1971. From then on, Stephen King and Anne Rice took over.

Some of the best first lines of horror and ghost stories include: “It happened that in the midst of the dissipations attendant upon a London winter, there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton, a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities, than his rank” (The Vampyre); “I see, said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window” (Interview with the Vampire); “The blaze of sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man’s brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot sweet tea as if to warm them. He could not shake the premonition” (The Exorcist); “The terror that would not end for another 28 years, if it ever did, began so far as I can know or tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain” (It).

My favorite begins with these ominous words: “It was a dark and stormy night,” by that master of horror, Snoopy. Whatever happens next, inside that storm-tossed darkness is for the reader to discover.

When it comes to ghost stories and other tales of horror, allowing the imagination to run wild is key. All it takes is suggestion, a flashlight and a dark attic. Foreboding ensues. Cue the wind, the scratch at the window. And a guttural howl, low and dripping, and closer than it should be.

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