The 14 Scariest Ghost Stories

Halloween has its roots in pagan rituals and is a convenient contraction of All Hallow's Evening, a celebratory time before All Hallow's Day (also known as All Saints Day), all connected with religious influences.

Blah, blah, blah. Very few people nowadays know or care much about this now, focusing instead on trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins into jack-o'-lanterns, and reading, listening to, and watching ghost stories.

Tales of the supernatural have been a fixture of the story-telling traditional since pre-literate times, and the most popular form they have taken is the ghost story. This should not be surprising, as the fear of death and its aftermath has abided in the breasts of humans ever since they became cognizant of what it meant to no longer be alive in the manner in which it is traditionally understood.

All cultures on the planet have superstitions about the dead returning as spirits or phantoms--belief systems memorialized in drawings and writings from the very beginnings of civilization. In The Egyptian Book of the Dead, departed people are shown to return, not merely looking as they did in life, but dressed in similar garments. Therefore, apparently not only do dead people have the ability to materialize, making themselves visible again after they are gone, but so do textiles, leather, and metal.

Literature of all eras abounds in ghosts stories, and there is a great cross-section in The Big Book of Ghost Stories. Shakespeare often used ghosts in his plays, most famously in Hamlet and Macbeth, and Charles Dickens wrote the greatest pure ghost story of all time in A Christmas Carol. Others among the world's greatest authors who have written in the genre include Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Guy de Maupassant, Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald--well, really too many to continue.

What is the great attraction of supernatural fiction in general, and the ghost story in particular? From the time of childhood, we have a fear of the dark (and rightly so, as we don't know exactly what is lurking out there, wrapped in the black cloak of invisibility). Although it frightens them, children still love to hear scary stories at bedtime; just consider such fairy tales as Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood.

Ghost stories may be told in many different tones and styles, ranging from the excruciatingly horrific to the absurdly humorous. Ghosts, after all, may have widely divergent goals. Some return from the dead to wreak vengeance; others want to help a loved one. Some are the spirits of people who were murdered or committed suicide and so could not rest because their time officially had not yet come and therefore walked the earth instead of stretching out comfortably in their graves. Some were playful, enjoying the tricks and pranks their invisibility allowed them, while others delighted in their own cruelty, committing acts of violence and terror for the sheer inexplicable pleasure of it.

Ghosts, like other people, come in all varieties, and so do the stories about them.

The 14 Scariest Ghost Stories