Somebody’s Watching Me: A Cultural History of Ghosts in Horror
Ghost stories are the bread and butter of the horror genre. The idea of the unknown bleeding into our known world is both fascinating and terrifying, and sits at the root of most horror subgenres. Stories of monsters, home invasions, aliens, possessions, and more could all be tied back to this concept of a horrific entity spilling into our own reality.
Though the basic mechanics stay the same, ghost stories will naturally vary from culture to culture. For example, Britain has a rich history of gothic storytelling traditions that weave tales of vengeful tyrants and lovers lost, which varies greatly from the many supernatural tales of terror from across Asia.
Even with the multitude of cultural differences, the fascination remains the same, and each country has historical depth that influences how these ghosts are portrayed.
In Spanish horror, children seem to be the focus of these grave encounters. Looking into the country’s history, it’s easy to see why. There is a dark stain in the shape of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s — a time when children were separated from their incarcerated parents. These children were either killed or sent away to orphanages under deplorable conditions of neglect. There was terrible violence against women and children, and illegal adoptions worked to effectively erase children from their families by changing their names and re-homing them with Francoist supporters. Their lives were taken away from them – in some cases, literally – leaving them haunted by the shell of their former selves.
The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone both demonstrate the mistreatment of children in orphanages, using ghostly apparitions to highlight lost innocence. Mexico’s Tigers Are Not Afraid also utilizes specters and haunting visions to show the lost innocence of children due to the ever-present cartel violence that leaves orphans and victims in its wake. In both cultures, there’s a trauma that surrounds this abandonment that flows through their storytelling in a beautiful and haunting way.
Like Spain, America has had its share of bloodshed and displacement. During the American Indian Wars, the United States Army carried out a number of massacres and forced relocations of Indigenous peoples. Militia forces took body parts of slain Cheyenne and Arapaho as trophies during the Sand Creek Massacre. The ground was disturbed by a genocide that – at the time – was seen as justified. Jumping further ahead we see a country that was shaken by wars fought against perceived-as-strictly-evil villains.
American ghost stories grow from the country’s historic and religious roots, all focused on the moral and psychological struggle between good and evil. With deep ties to Christian and Catholic beliefs and the rules they create, ghosts in American cinema are rarely sympathetic — most hauntings are definitively sinister with demonic or otherwise “evil” intentions.
These evil spirits are concentrated in one specific location – a “cursed ground” – and abide by a specific set of rules and tropes. As we’ve seen in films like We Are Still Here, Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, and The Conjuring, the fight between good and evil is often set on the battlefield of a family home, further emphasizing this dichotomy between the pure, wholesome love of a family, and the vile, tortured entities that wish to tear them apart.
In some cases, spirits will hold a ghostly influence over the living with disastrous results. The Amityville Horror and The Conjuring both see examples of this, in which mortals are “possessed” by sprits. This terrifying act is reminiscent of the demonic possession that is so frequently feared by Christian and Catholic belief systems.
Of course, some of the more popular ghost stories in American horror film are tales of terror borrowed from Japan.
The origins of Japanese horror can be traced back to classic ghost stories of the Edo and Meiji periods, with common storytelling traditions born from Kabuki and Noh theatre, which often depicted tales of revenge and supernatural beings. 1964’s anthology film Kwaidan is a perfect example of how these tales and techniques can brilliantly combine into cinematic storytelling.
Of course, many Japanese ghost stories stem from the country’s flexible relationship with the Shinto and Buddhist religions, allowing them to pull legends and beliefs from each.
Buddhism teaches that life is a façade, and the only way to avoid the ongoing cycle of death and rebirth is to accept this deception. Shinto teachings rarely deal with death directly, however, their belief is that everyone has a soul that can become trapped among the living if the person feels emotionally traumatized when they die, or if they don’t receive a proper funeral. This ties in quite nicely with the idea of the “unfinished business” that seems to plague most Japanese spirits in horror cinema – known as yūrei.
Yūrei are frequently female and often shown with long, dark hair and white clothing (or funeral garb), and these ghosts know how to hold a grudge. They’ll typically haunt a specific place or person that pertains to their untimely death – seen in Ju-On (The Grudge) and Dark Water — and can infiltrate technology to do so – as in Ringu (The Ring) and Kairo (Pulse) – showing that there are no modern protections from these angry spirits.
Contrary to American horror, Japanese ghost stories accept that there is ambiguity in the world of the supernatural – it’s not a simple argument of good versus evil. Western audiences expect everything to be neatly tied up by the end of the film, whereas in Japanese horror cinema, that isn’t necessarily the case. It’s understood that the rules of the universe are beyond our understanding, which offers a lot of flexibility within the world of the story.
Of course, there is far more history, folklore, and religious depth that feeds into this topic – this is just scraping the surface.
Ghosts are effective for horror because they explore that fear of the unknown. Any strange sound in the middle of the night — any unexplained event – can be easily exploited by an active imagination. When there’s the fear of a ghostly presence, it’s a wild, untamed, incomprehensible fear. There’s no physical entity to stop and no weapon that could provide aid. We’re utterly helpless in the face of a malicious spirit, and that’s a really fun idea for our brain to run with.
But there’s also something comforting
about the concept of a ghost; it’s a monster that’s as close to human as they
come. They’re culturally familiar and they fit the narrative of our beliefs
about the afterlife. And what is fear for if it doesn’t make us feel more