Why Tell Ghost Stories?

When I was a child, my favorite holiday was Halloween.

Not because of the candy – though I certainly enjoyed the Tootsie Rolls and Snickers and yes, candy corn.

No, it was the atmosphere of it all – the tree branches against the moon, the rustling leaves underfoot and overhead, owls peering at you, black cats lurking, jack-o-lanterns glowing with grins and grimaces, costumes you could masquerade in and surprise people with, poems and stories both funny and frightening peopled with other-worldly characters and fantastic doings…

I found Halloween to be both spooky…and cozy.

Yes, that’s what I remember: spooky and cozy. How does that happen?

Spooky and Cozy – at the heart of why we tell ghost stories?

Listening to a ghost story is a way to access and experience some challenging parts of the full range of human emotions (fear, disgust, horror, nervousness, mysteriousness…among others), while at the same time being safe and in no real danger from whatever is happening in the story.

It’s a way to “practice” scenarios and responses, in a safe and controlled environment.

There’s something fundamentally pleasurable, or at least satisfying, about doing that.  And, psychologists and anthropologists offer perspectives on how it’s an important process for human individuals and communities.

A key experience with (many) ghost stories is specifically the emotion of “relief”…

…the relief that is felt after the danger has passed or been dealt with, perhaps conquered – or is simply gone because the story has ended! Often there is giggling among listeners at the end of a spooky story…It is tempting to say it sounds like “nervous laughter,” but it’s usually a release of tension and a physical expression of relief.

photodune-5711377-pumpkin-sGhost story “relief” is sometimes provided and expressed outright as humor. It’s not uncommon for ghost stories to have humorous elements and/or endings – especially, jump tales.

[A “jump tale” is a story that draws listeners in with building tension, and then has a moment, or an ending, when the teller suddenly utters a LOUD word or phrase [perhaps accompanied by the teller physically jumping or shooting his or her hands out at the audience] that makes the tension-filled audience jump – and then laugh! (*Although as a teller you need to carefully judge which person/child in the front row to physically jump toward, if that’s what you’re doing – Do NOT choose the most-fragile looking little thing: you do not want to have a frightened-to-death child crying through the rest of your show…Ohhh yes, I could tell you stories… Live and learn.)]

That feeling of relief when you come out the other side, or even of pride for having withstood or conquered something frightening (honestly, even if it’s only looking around at your friends in the familiar room when the lights come on at the end of the tale), is a deep kind of pleasure that may be unique to “scary stories.”

And that leads me back to my childhood “spooky” and “cozy” experience of Halloween…

HalloweenEven though so many Halloween elements are scary – the ghosts, skulls, witches, strange creatures, things that go bump in the night – the Halloween atmosphere was always, it seemed, also filled with candles and firelight…which can be spooky but are also cozy, right? And along with the exciting amounts of candy, there also were always goodies like popcorn and cider and pumpkin bars…and those are cozy and comfort-food-like.

But the best part? I could get scrumptiously shivery with spooky stories and decorations and costumed figures roaming around with me in my neighborhood…all the while knowing my mom was with me out there and my dad was waiting for me at home (or vice-versa) to tell him or her of my trick-or-treating adventures; and I could cuddle on the lap or hang onto the arm of one or both of them while listening to a scary story…

The whole spooky-cozy atmosphere of Halloween was delicious.

And that kind of experience is at the root of why telling/hearing ghost stories is not only enjoyable/popular at Halloween and other times (campfires, sleepovers, etc.), but is also beneficial in a fundamental way.

For both kids and adults. (Age-appropriateness will vary.)  !

Night Owl ceAnd I still love the atmosphere of it all.

Thanks for reading – and Happy Halloween!


Owl photo at the top of this post (and to the right) was taken by me in my back yard in Broomfield, Colorado.


Links to a couple of articles you may find interesting:

“The Lure of Horror” – The British Psychological Society

Excerpt: “…(T)he timeless, cross-cultural appeal of horror fiction says something important about humans, and in turn, insights from evolutionary psychology can make sense of why horror takes the form it does. ‘You can use horror fiction and its lack of historical and cultural variance as an indication that there is such a thing as human nature,’ he says.
This nature of ours is one that has been shaped over millennia to be afraid, but not just of anything. Possibly our ancestors’ greatest fear was that they might become a feast for a carnivorous predator. As science writer David Quammen has put it, ‘among the earliest forms of human self-awareness was the awareness of being meat’.”

Scary Stories: Are They Good for Your Chilld? – Parenthood.com

Excerpt:  “The answer is a resounding ‘yes,’ but with definite conditions, according to psychologists and children’s literature specialists.  ‘Scary stories are a fantastic idea on a child-by-child, book-by-book basis,’ says Steven Herb, president of the Association for Library Services for Children and a professor of language and literacy education at Penn State University. ‘A story may be very appropriate for a fourth-grader, but inappropriate for a first-grader. And while scary stories are terrific, they shouldn’t be forced on a child who doesn’t want to read them.'”
3 kinds of stories are briefly looked at: Delightfully Scary Stories, Fairy Tales, and Scary Stories That Explore Serious Issues.


Jack’o’lantern and Black Cat photos purchased under Envato Regular License.