Ghost stories have been with us for thousands of years. The oldest ones, dating back to The Epic of Gilgamesh, included tales of monsters and spirit beings in the underworld, ghosts who held secrets for the living.
Spectrality plays with our beliefs about time. We like to think that past, present, and future are separate from each other, but they’re interconnected. When something happens in the past, it isn’t just over and done with. Tragic events from the past still resonate in the present, which is why certain places enter into local folklore or become historical sites. After suffering a deep loss, people can become engulfed with grief and memories of a loved one. Guilt follows people to their graves. We live in a layered continuum of time, and ghost stories make this explicit. Ghosts signal memories that won’t go away; they signal the guilt of culprits or survivors; they signal an eruption of the past into our present and the dead’s future as we watch a spirit repeatedly go through the motions of a last act.
Need proof? Think of the most popular folktales and legends. The Tower of London is haunted by Anne Boleyn. Every major city in America has a ghost tour, full of stories of buildings haunted by past inhabitants. The ghosts in these stories are usually victims, whether of murder, an untimely death, or past abuse. The specters we see repeatedly are reminders of the things that we can’t yet face, but they keep materializing in front of us, especially when we try to ignore them.