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Why Do Christmas Ghost Stories Have Such Enduring Appeal?

Why Do Christmas Ghost Stories Have Such Enduring Appeal?


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Our fascination with ghostly tales around Christmas time goes back thousands of years and is rooted in ancient celebrations of the winter solstice. In the depths of winter, pagan traditions included a belief in a ghostly procession across the sky, known as the Wild Hunt . Recounting tales of heroism, and monstrous and supernatural beings became a midwinter tradition. Dark tales were deployed to entertain on dark nights.

The Christmas Ghost – Where Did it Start?

Ghosts have been associated with the winter cold since those ancient times. According to art historian Susan Owens, author of The Ghost, A Cultural History , the ode of Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving ghost stories, probably composed in the eighth century. This is the tale of a Scandinavian prince who fights the monster Grendel. Evil and terrifying, Grendel has many ghostly qualities, and is described as a “grimma gaest” or spirit, and a death shadow or shifting fog, gliding across the land.

In 1611, Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale , which includes the line: “a sad tale’s best for winter, I have one of sprites and goblins.” Two centuries later, the teenage Mary Shelley set her influential horror story Frankenstein in a snowy wasteland, although she wrote it during a wet summer in Switzerland.

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Depiction of witch making passes over candles and wax on an altar in the dark. ( junky_jess / Adobe stock)

The Victorians invented many familiar British Christmas traditions, including Christmas trees , cards, crackers and roast turkey. They also customised the winter / Christmas ghost story, relating it specifically to the festive season – the idea of something dreadful lurking beyond the light and laughter inspired some chilling tales.

Both Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins published stories in this genre, but the most notable and enduring story of the period was Charles Dickens ’ A Christmas Carol (1843). In this vivid and atmospheric fable, gloomy miser Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted first by the spirit of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, and thereafter by a succession of Christmas ghosts.

Their revelations about his own past and future and the lives of those close to him, lead to a festive redemption, which has spawned a host of imitations and adaptations.

Dickens wrote the story to entertain, drawing on the tradition of the ghostly midwinter tale, but his aim was also to highlight the plight of the poor at Christmas. His genius for manipulating sentiment was never used to better effect, but perhaps the most enjoyable elements of the story are the atmospheric descriptions of the hauntings themselves – the door knocker, which transforms into Marley’s face and the sinister, hooded figure of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Dickens - Christmas Carol. Date: 1843-44. ( Archivist / Adobe Stock)

The tradition was further developed in the stories of M R James , a medieval scholar who published Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904. His chilling Gothic yarns focused on scholars or clergymen who discovered ancient texts or objects with terrifying supernatural consequences.

Chilling Christmas Tales

Typically, James used the framing device of a group of friends telling stories around a roaring fire. In the introduction to Ghost Stories he said: “I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas.”

Seminal stories in his oeuvre include Number 13, Oh Whistle & I’ll Come to You and A School Story. Like Dickens, James has been widely imitated and adapted, with Stephen King citing him as an influence. King’s The Shining certainly fits into to the genre of ice-bound chiller.

Christmas ghost stories morph into new forms as time passes, like ectoplasm. Spin offs of A Christmas Carol include Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life , in which the story is transposed to small town America, and the 2019 film Last Christmas , the tale of a dysfunctional young woman permanently dressed as a Christmas elf, ripe for Yuletide redemption. This contemporary version conveys messages about integration and the value of diversity.

A new, high-octane version of A Christmas Carol will be shown on TV this Christmas, written by Peaky Blinders creator, Stephen Knight. And M R James’ Martin’s Close , the story of a 17th century murder and its supernatural outcome, has also been adapted for the small screen.

So it seems the atavistic desire to lose oneself in tales of the supernatural is still with us. Christmas ghost stories enhance our enjoyment of the mince pies and mulled wine, and the frisson of a paranormal tale offsets the “feel-good” festive spirit that might otherwise be cloying.

Some things never change – we still have a fear of the unknown, a yearning for what is lost and a desire to be secure. In an uncertain, fast-paced world, mediated through smartphones and social media, the seasonal Christmas ghost story is here to stay. The jolt of fear and dread such stories convey make the Christmas lights glitter even more brightly.


The concept of a ghost, also known as a specter, is based on the ancient idea that a person’s spirit exists separately from his or her body, and may continue to exist after that person dies. Because of this idea, many societies began to use funeral rituals as a way of ensuring that the dead person’s spirit would not return to “haunt” the living.

Did you know? The notorious mobster Al Capone has reportedly appeared to disrespectful visitors at his funeral plot in an Illinois cemetery. Spectral banjo music has supposedly been heard coming from inside Capone&aposs old cell at Alcatraz, where he was one of the first inmates.

Places that are haunted are usually believed to be associated with some occurrence or emotion in the ghost’s past they are often a former home or the place where he or she died. Aside from actual ghostly apparitions, traditional signs of haunting range from strange noises, lights, odors or breezes to the displacement of objects, bells that ring spontaneously or musical instruments that seem to play on their own.


Chilling tales

Typically, James used the framing device of a group of friends telling stories around a roaring fire. In the introduction to Ghost Stories he said: “I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas.”

Seminal stories in his oeuvre include Number 13, Oh Whistle & I’ll Come to You and A School Story. Like Dickens, James has been widely imitated and adapted, with Stephen King citing him as an influence. King’s The Shining certainly fits into to the genre of ice-bound chiller.

Christmas ghost stories morph into new forms as time passes, like ectoplasm. Spin offs of A Christmas Carol include Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, in which the story is transposed to small town America, and the 2019 film Last Christmas, the tale of a dysfunctional young woman permanently dressed as a Christmas elf, ripe for Yuletide redemption. This contemporary version conveys messages about integration and the value of diversity.

A new, high-octane version of A Christmas Carol will be shown on TV this Christmas, written by Peaky Blinders creator Stephen Knight. And M R James’ Martin’s Close, the story of a 17th century murder and its supernatural outcome, has also been adapted for the small screen.

So it seems the atavistic desire to lose oneself in tales of the supernatural is still with us. Christmas ghost stories enhance our enjoyment of the mince pies and mulled wine, and the frisson of a paranormal tale offsets the “feel-good” festive spirit that might otherwise be cloying.

Some things never change – we still have a fear of the unknown, a yearning for what is lost and a desire to be secure. In an uncertain, fast-paced world, mediated through smartphones and social media, the seasonal ghost story is here to stay. The jolt of fear and dread such stories convey make the Christmas lights glitter even more brightly.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The Strange Appeal of Christmas Horror

The best Christmas horror movies are a means to conquer and control some of the less delightful aspects that seep into the holidays.

Richard Newby

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It&rsquos the most wonderful time of the year. The lights have been satisfyingly stretched around homes and hedges, casting a Christmassy glow throughout the neighborhood. The stockings are pinned to the mantle, ready to be weighed down by all manner of trinkets. The carolers are warming up their vocal chords. And Santa, that grinning gift giver, has a grudge and an axe to bury.

Christmas horror is not for everyone. In fact, it&rsquos arguably not for most people. While most of the population likes to welcome on the holiday spirit with classics like It&rsquos a Wonderful Life (1946), National Lampoon&rsquos Christmas Vacation (1989), and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), there those who appreciate the darker side of the season and like a splash of blood across their white Christmas. Alternate Christmas movies are all the rage these days. From Die Hard (1988), Batman Returns (1992), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), film aficionados will find the tales most loosely tethered to the season to make their new holiday favorite. But horror offers an even more obscure appeal, one with titles that tend to be harder to track down and nightmarish plots that beg for controversy. From Black Christmas (1974) to Krampus (2015) there&rsquos just something appealing about the taboo nature of blending unsavory elements with what is, for many, the second best holiday after Halloween.

While Christmas horror is considered a phenomenon that began in the 20th century with the advent of film and television, it goes back even further. Ghost stories were considered an English Christmas tradition, a means to recognize winter as a season of death and decay along with the new life promised by Christmas and the birth of Christ. From Shakespeare&rsquos play The Winter&rsquos Tale (1623), to Andy Williams&rsquo classic song &ldquoIt&rsquos the Most Wonderful Time of the Year&rdquo (1963), ghost stories are referenced as being a welcomed seasonal tradition. Even our most famous and oft-adapted Christmas story, Charles Dickens&rsquo A Christmas Carol, is a ghost story. And if we&rsquore being honest, it’s quite the horror story as well. For many fans of Christmas horror movies, our first induction into that world was eagerly awaiting the appearance of the third spirit, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a specter of death who offers Scrooge a glimpse of hell. Even Dickens knew that Christmas mirth also needed a share of Christmas misery, a means of greater appreciating the former. Films that many of us were introduced to as kids, like A Christmas Story (1983) and Home Alone (1990), weren&rsquot averse to utilizing a creepy mall Santa or a sinister-seeming man next door to drive home the point that horror is simply part of the holidays. It&rsquos a truth we learn at an early age and once we&rsquore a little older we learn just how prevalent that horror can be.

It was the 󈨊s and 󈨔s that really scaled up the horror element of the holidays and gave older viewers an outlet through which to explore a modern appreciation of Christmas ghost stories. Although ghosts had largely been replaced by serial killers, prank callers and yes, Gremlins. The U.K.-produced Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) was the first Christmas-themed horror movie. Utilizing elements of Hansel and Gretel, Auntie Roo featured a witchy Shelley Winters, and while taking place during a Christmas party, the film is more about our fear of elderly women than of the holiday season. Tales From the Crypt (1972) became the first film to feature its killer in a Santa outfit, something that would become a standard of the subgenre, in the segment &ldquo&hellipAnd All Through the House.&rdquo While Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) became the first theatrical Christmas horror film made in the U.S., and the first to make a play on holiday lingo within its main title. But it wasn&rsquot until Black Christmas (1974) that Christmas horror really took off and turned heads.

Often cited as one of the earliest slasher movies, preceding the boom that began with Halloween (1978), Bob Clark&rsquos Canadian feature Black Christmas has become the quintessential Christmas horror movie. Most of the Christmas horror that would come afterward would either find itself chasing after Clark&rsquos film or Joe Dante&rsquos Gremlins (1984), which we&rsquoll get to. Black Christmas is brutal and calculating and a far cry from Bob Clark&rsquos later Christmas film, A Christmas Story. Inspired by the urban legend &ldquoThe Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,&rdquo Black Christmas follows a group of sorority sisters (Olivia Hussey, Lynn Griffin, and Margot Kidder) who receive obscene phone calls and are picked off one by one inside their sorority house. While it&rsquos now become the formula for slasher movies, Black Christmas offered something audiences hadn&rsquot seen before, including a shocking ending that still has the ability to haunt today. While Clark made use of the atmosphere of Christmas, the lights, the decorations, the snow, he didn&rsquot pervert any of the childhood sacredness of the holiday. That would come later.

Christmas horror movies never disappeared after they had made their entrance, but overpopulation of slasher movies in the 󈨔s caused a number of them to fade from view under limited releases, horrid reviews and minuscule box office grosses. Films like To All a Goodnight (1980), Christmas Evil (1980) and Don&rsquot Open Till Christmas (1984) came and went for the most part, though some have acquired a cult hold over the years. But then came the one-two punch of Gremlins and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and Christmas horror was back in a big way.

Gremlins has become one of the quintessential 󈨔s films, a pure snapshot of the Amblin quality that so many genre films strive for today. While the cute and furry mogwai turning into Gremlins and creating holiday mayhem offer plenty of humor, Gremlins has its moments of pure nightmare fuel. From the Gremlin in the microwave exploding in a glory of guts and goo, to Kate&rsquos (Phoebe Cates) story of her dad dressing up as Santa, breaking his neck and dying inside the chimney, Gremlins made memories that lingered with those of us who discovered it at just the right age. Older viewers were able to see a larger allegory at play, one that went beyond Billy&rsquos (Zach Galligan) lesson in responsibility. Filmmaker John Landis recently said on Eli Roth&rsquos History of Horror that the Gremlins were us, an American society unchecked and driven by consumer habits and insatiable appetites. Alternatively, the film can also be seen as a story of how Americans take things from other cultures, but refuse to care for them. Despite the film&rsquos massive success and its status as a beloved classic, Gremlins generated its share of controversy for its violence and led to the creation of the PG-13 rating by MPAA at Steven Spielberg&rsquos suggestion. But that controversy was nothing compared to that received by Christmas sleaze fest Silent Night, Deadly Night.

But the greatest knell was for the film itself. The PTA sought to have the film removed from theaters, while parents complained that the TV spots had made their children dread Santa Clause. The film&rsquos distributor TriStar ultimately pulled ads shortly after its release and began removing the film from theaters sometime after that. Film critics Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel condemned the movie, with Siskel famously reading out the names of the production crew on air and repeatedly saying &ldquoshame on you,&rdquo a moment that has made its way into many a horror documentary. While Silent Night, Deadly Night led to four sequels, two of which were direct-to-video, Christmas horror didn&rsquot gain the same popularity again. Even as well-received as Gremlins had been, most of the Christmas horror that followed went to video stores and have since become nigh impossible to find, even if you wanted to take a chance on them. Sellier Jr.&rsquos film had largely been dismissed, and even with its cult-appeal today, it&rsquos regarded a film so bad it&rsquos good, but there is a deeper point of interest.

There&rsquos a weird psychosexual subtext to Silent Night, Deadly Night, as virginial protagonist Billy fights against his impulses and is driven by a childlike view of naughty and nice. This prevision of Santa&rsquos list into a brutal morality lesson also served as the basis of Christmas Evil and later P2 (2007). These killers, clean-cut, emasculated and lonely, look upon their work as good deeds, favors that place them on a moral high-ground. These films provide winking nods at the Christian crusade taken too far. They aren&rsquot taking the Christ out of Christmas, but rather considering what if it was taken to the extreme by men whose Santa-Complex becomes a God-Complex. It&rsquos an interesting confluence of ideas stemming from both our pop cultural and spiritual consideration of the holiday &mdash one that seems thematically ripe for a modern update by one of our celebrated modern horror filmmakers.

Looking at the advent of Christmas horror, one that ran parallel to the increase in shopping centers and consumerism, perhaps it&rsquos that feeling of Christmas glee (or is it greed?) that possesses so many of us that created such an avenue for horror. It&rsquos no secret that Christmas isn&rsquot the happiest time of the year for everyone. Beneath the tinsel and evergreen smell are the very real epidemics of homelessness, loneliness and increased robberies and suicides. Not to bum anyone out, but Christmas can drive us a little mad. Perhaps our Christmas horror movies past are a reflection of that, a means to conquer and control some of the less delightful aspects that seep into the holiday. But there&rsquos also the fact that Christmas horror movies tend to be fun, a sublime batter of pleasure and pain. We watch Christmas horror movies to be scared occasionally, but more often than not we watch them because they&rsquore pleasurable, at least more so than anything airing on the Hallmark channel.

So where have horror films of Christmas past taken us in Christmas present? Black Christmas received an update with Black X-Mas (2006), which despite negative reviews and backlash from a number of Christian organizations, is worth a re-watch even if it pales in comparison to the original. New French Extremity got into the holiday spirit with Inside (2007), while the British film The Children (2008) made a bleak impression on quality family time. Finland&rsquos Rare Exports A Christmas Tale (2010) offered a clever reinvention of the Santa Claus mythos.

But for the most part Christmas horror has continued to adorn the ornaments of the past, which have become more pleasing than subversive in decades since. The aforementioned hidden-gem P2 features Wes Bentley giving his best Billy as he stalks Rachel Nichols through a parking garage on Christmas Eve. Michael Dougherty made Christmas horror an event again with his delightful Dante-inspired Krampus. And last year&rsquos Better Watch Out updated Home Alone&rsquos lesson that kids can be dangerous, and perhaps budding sociopaths. It&rsquos clear that as much controversy as it can cause, there&rsquos more than enough love to keep Christmas horror alive. With the anthology All the Creatures Were Stirring and musical Anna and the Apocalypse hitting this month, the subgenre is still going strong and welcoming new filmmakers to add their voices to this modern reinvention of the Christmas ghost story. While you&rsquore certain to meet some resistance in asking your family to gather around for a yuletide horror movie, give it a shot. It may be just the gift they didn&rsquot know they needed.


Chilling tales

Typically, James used the framing device of a group of friends telling stories around a roaring fire. In the introduction to Ghost Stories he said: “I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas.”

Seminal stories in his oeuvre include Number 13, Oh Whistle & I’ll Come to You and A School Story. Like Dickens, James has been widely imitated and adapted, with Stephen King citing him as an influence. King’s The Shining certainly fits into to the genre of ice-bound chiller.

Christmas ghost stories morph into new forms as time passes, like ectoplasm. Spin offs of A Christmas Carol include Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, in which the story is transposed to small town America, and the 2019 film Last Christmas, the tale of a dysfunctional young woman permanently dressed as a Christmas elf, ripe for Yuletide redemption. This contemporary version conveys messages about integration and the value of diversity.

A new, high-octane version of A Christmas Carol will be shown on TV this Christmas, written by Peaky Blinders creator Stephen Knight. And M R James’ Martin’s Close, the story of a 17th century murder and its supernatural outcome, has also been adapted for the small screen.

So it seems the atavistic desire to lose oneself in tales of the supernatural is still with us. Christmas ghost stories enhance our enjoyment of the mince pies and mulled wine, and the frisson of a paranormal tale offsets the “feel-good” festive spirit that might otherwise be cloying.

Some things never change – we still have a fear of the unknown, a yearning for what is lost and a desire to be secure. In an uncertain, fast-paced world, mediated through smartphones and social media, the seasonal ghost story is here to stay. The jolt of fear and dread such stories convey make the Christmas lights glitter even more brightly.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Christmas ghost stories: A history of seasonal spine-chillers

​As the chill of these dismal days begins to bite and you settle in front of a roaring fire, apparently safe from harm, it's the perfect time for a terrifying tale or two. Keith Lee Morris, himself a master of the dark art, looks at

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Possibly the most famous story about telling stories in all of English literature begins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. During a historically wet, cold and gloomy summer – 1816 would become known, in fact, as "The Year Without a Summer" – two of the leading poets of the age, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were vacationing near each other, Shelley with his then-future wife Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who was, in fact, pregnant with Byron's child at the time), and Byron with his friend and physician John Polidori (who would go on to write what is now often referred to as the world's first vampire novel).

There were no excursions in the woods or on the lake, no romps through fields. The days were cold and dreary and spent indoors, and Byron, inspired by a volume of ghost stories he had received from a friend, decided that each of his companions should write a ghost story. Polidori struggled with one about an old woman who peeks through keyholes on unspeakable acts. There is no record of Claire Clairmont even trying. Percy Shelley was never really one for narrative and he, too, quickly gave up the ghost, so to speak. Byron came up with a partial tale about a vampire that would eventually serve as the basis for Polidori's novel.

Only Mary Shelley succeeded, with a tale that began: "It was on a dreary night of November…" When the story later became the novel Frankenstein, the author changed the story's opening to "December 11th, 17--." Clearly, in spite of the inspiration coming in summer, the frigid weather had a dramatic effect on her, transporting her and her tale to the depths of winter. And so the novel begins in the Arctic, with "stiff gales" and "floating sheets of ice", and ends with Frankenstein's monster, doomed to a slow death, receding into the distance on an ice floe. Frankenstein is, in essence, a winter's tale.

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The notion that cold, snowy days are the best for stories designed to frighten and appal us goes back at least to the early 17th century. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, written in 1611, Mamillius says: "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins." But it was in the Victorian era that telling ghost stories became an indispensable custom of the Christmas season – indeed, the genre's popularity had been dwindling somewhat until writers such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell breathed new life into it. Families relished the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions or, in one story by MR James, a master of the genre, a "vengeful ghost boy… with fearfully long nails". The practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" mentions "scary ghost stories" right alongside singing to neighbours and hanging mistletoe as the very substance of the season.

One of the most familiar examples of the Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843 as a way of cashing in on the renewed demand for the form. The novel amounts to an acknowledgement of the ghost story's seasonal ubiquity. It's not just a ghost story that one could tell at Christmas, but – with Scrooge sitting in his armchair as his life's story is unfurled before him – it is a story about ghost stories at Christmas, a kind of meta-Christmas ghost story, if you will.

The Turn of the Screw, the US Anglophile Henry James's own take on the Christmas tale, published in 1898, operates in much the same fashion, structured as it is to position its readers by the Yuletide hearth listening to tales of horror. It begins: "The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child." If the last words of that sentence don't cause your hair to stand on end, you're probably simply not susceptible to ghost stories.

The tale, which relates a series of strange events that befall a young governess, centres on the supposed – and that word is key – possession of a boy by the spirit of a hostile figure named Peter Quint. To begin with a recounting of the telling of the story around a fire on Christmas Eve would, James decided, be the most effective context for the story's macabre twists and turns, part of a framework designed to make the whole somehow more believable, more unsettlingly so – to ensure that the chill sinks deep down into the reader's bones.

Maybe the impulse to thrill each other with these tales of the grisly and supernatural is spurred by Halloween as the leaves die off and fall to the ground before disappearing, we observe a holiday that features witches, ghosts and demons – a veritable festival of the dead. That sets the mood and liberates the spirits which accompany us through the following months as the days get colder, and Jack Frost stretches his fingers across the window pane. Winter is tantalisingly terrifying, and it's undoubtedly to do with its nearness to death – for, in the days before antibiotics, these were the months that would claim the most lives.

We relish the sense that our warm, happy homes, with their firmly closed doors and crackling fires, can keep death's frigid hand from our throats. So the writing that truly haunts us is almost always set in cold, barren landscapes. Consider this from Edgar Allan Poe's narrative poem "The Raven", the tale of a lover's death and the agonising chant of an avian visitor, who tells the narrator, over and over, that his departed love will appear to him "nevermore": "Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor." Or this, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's long poem "Christabel", ostensibly about a ghostly visitor and replete with unnerving omens, which served as an influence for Poe's eerie tales: "The night is chill the forest bare / Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?" The list goes on.

One of my favourite winter tales is the short story "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" by Conrad Aiken, published in 1934. It is about a boy who lapses into a state of schizophrenia, a condition which – due to new and deeper scientific investigations in the early 20th century – captured the public imagination with stories of hallucinatory voices and "unnatural" behaviour. The dream world into which Aiken's protagonist slips becomes – silently, slowly, inch by inch – engulfed in bright white. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how quietly it proceeds, how the snow seems literally to settle in the reader's mind, exerting a chilling, mesmerising pressure much like that experienced by the boy himself: "The hiss was now becoming a roar – the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow – but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep."

And we're all familiar with the story told in The Shining – whether in Stephen King's original novel or Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation – with the vast blanketed spaces surrounding the Overlook Hotel, and their eerie, transforming solitude. As Jack Torrance loses his grip on reality, the mood darkens and the tension increases in line with the dropping temperature and the rapidly layering snow. The result is perhaps the world's most celebrated case of "cabin fever".

Even a story that isn't intended to be scary, such as James Joyce's "The Dead", from 1914's Dubliners, distils haunting effects from its winterscape. The final scene is the telling of a story, narrated by the main character's wife, about her first love, a man named Michael Furey, who died for her love by standing outside her window in a snowstorm and contracting pneumonia. The main character, Gabriel Conroy, listens to the melancholy story, in which his wife reveals that she never truly loved him, while he stands at a window himself and watches the snowflakes "falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead". So apt is Joyce's tale for this time of year that, until 28 December, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe in London is staging a candlelit reading of the short story as part of its Winter's Tale season, with Joyce's words, read by the actor Aidan Gillen, set to an unsettling piano score played by Feargal Murray. This is the second year in a row that the Wanamaker has hosted an adaptation of the tale it's becoming something of a tradition.

How many other scenes have we read in which characters observe the snow through a window? Time and again, writers have called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss, and isolation. But the trope can also be used to reverse effect – to emphasise the warmth of the fire and the comforts of the home, as in this passage from the French writer Jean Giono's Joy of Man's Desiring, published in 1936: "The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its putty with the cold… There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the window pane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind…"

Winter's ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful aspects. Take this passage from Eowyn Ivey's 2011 story The Snow Child, set in a frozen Alaskan landscape in the early 1900s: "Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched." The jovial imagery belies its melancholy context, for Ivey's novel is about an elderly man and wife who are unable to conceive a child and who live with their grief in a hostile landscape – often brutally so. In a rare moment of levity and togetherness they construct a little girl out of snow. The next morning, they find that she has become real – as if by magic. The story, which combines one of nature's most deep-seated anxieties about fertility, or its lack, with a primitive distrust of intruders and that which cannot be rationalised, is based on an old Russian folk tale Ivey's retelling demonstrates how enduring the appeal is of these icy tales, for writers and readers alike.

In some ways, the stories by which we love to be unsettled are also a form of preparation – often for the very worst. Curled up in a favourite armchair, we still ourselves against the things we know can harm us. When the weather outside turns gloomy or threatening, we can crank up the heating and lighten the burden of our thoughts by turning to fantastic tales designed to mask the things that scare us most.

That summer of 1816, during which Mary Shelley and the others invented ghost stories, would turn out to be the party's final carefree season. The travellers returned to England to find that Mary's half-sister had committed suicide Percy Shelley's first wife, pregnant with his child, drowned herself a few months later. Shelley's son from his first marriage died of a fever in 1818. In the next few years, Percy and Mary Shelley would have two children, neither of whom would reach their second birthday. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron themselves would both die within the next 10 years. Sometimes, the frightening stories we tell each other are not nearly as horrifying as the events that real life holds in store for us. In this sense, the effect is twofold: the tales transport us from our everyday anxieties at the same time as they enable us to confront them, however obliquely they are a means to exorcise our demons by acknowledging them – in a homely environment.

But the secret lure of these tales – of the horrifying creatures we call into being, the ghosts that stalk us, and the demons that we discover at work within our own minds – is that, while the stories themselves are fictions, the underlying dangers they conjure up, and the thrill that we feel in confronting them, are in the end quite real. Think of that on a winter's night.


The Enduring Power of ‘A Christmas Carol’

One hundred and seventy-four years ago, a British writer was horrified at the conditions under which children were made to labor in tin mines. He decided to write a pamphlet exposing these conditions. His intended title: “An Appeal to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.”

Thank heavens the writer changed his mind. Instead of a pamphlet, he decided to write a novel making the same points. It’s filled with colorful characters—including an old man who goes about snarling “Bah, Humbug!”

Those two little words instantly reveal what book I’m talking about: the immortal“A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens. The book has never been out of print—and it illustrates why telling a good story is often the best way to communicate our beliefs.

Why does “A Christmas Carol” still resonate today? For the answer, I went to my friend Gina Dalfonzo, editor of Dickensblog. She told me “A Christmas Carol “is a book that “has everything: great sorrow and great joy, corruption and redemption, poverty and pain, hope and love.” And “it expresses the deep belief that even the worst person can change for the better.”

“A Christmas Carol” is not merely a magnificent story, and its message is not confined to a “social gospel” teaching: Dickens points directly to Christ throughout. For example, Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, suggests that perhaps nothing about Christmas can be “apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin.”

And Tiny Tim expresses the hope that when people saw his lameness, “It might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” This is, Gina points out, “a wonderful example of the biblical idea of God’s strength being made perfect in our weakness.”

Dickens’ classic shoots down the idea—prevalent in some Christian circles—that reading novels is a waste of time. They seem to forget that Jesus Himself was a master storyteller. For instance, He didn’t just say, “Come to the aid of those who need help.” Instead, He told a vivid story about a Samaritan who rescues a wounded man.

Chuck Colson once said that when it came to learning moral lessons, he was “much more impressed by profound works of fiction than by abstract theological discourses.” Scenes from some of the greatest stories ever told, he said, “have etched moral truths deeply into my soul. Their characters and lessons are so vivid I can’t forget them.”

And that is likely why so many of us will never forget the moral truths told through Ebenezer Scrooge, Fezziwig, Tiny Tim, and all the other memorable characters that populate Dickens’ great Victorian tale. It’s why we reject pamphlets that say, “Be nice to the needy” in favor of a good strong character bellowing, “Are there no prisons? [Are there no] workhouses?” Or the ghost of Scrooge’s partner, Jacob Marley, howling, “Mankind was my business!”

Dickens’ Christmas classic is more popular than ever. There’s a new film about how he came to write “A Christmas Carol,” called “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” And a writer named Samantha Silva has just published a novel titled “Mr. Dickens and His Carol.”

I do hope you’ll take time out to read, or re-read, the original, or read it aloud to your family. Who knows what great good may come of it?

And so I end this piece by saying—and you probably knew it was coming—“God bless us, everyone.”

Originally aired December 21, 2017


A Form of Protest

Beyond his personal reasons for writing "A Christmas Carol," Dickens felt a strong need to comment on the enormous gap between the rich and poor in Victorian Britain.

On the night of Oct. 5, 1843, Dickens gave a speech in Manchester, England, at a benefit for the Manchester Athenaeum, an organization that brought education and culture to the working masses. Dickens, who was 31 at the time, shared the stage with Benjamin Disraeli, a novelist who would later become Britain's prime minister.

Addressing the working-class residents of Manchester affected Dickens deeply. Following his speech he took a long walk, and while thinking of the plight of exploited child workers he conceived the idea for "A Christmas Carol."

Returning to London, Dickens took more walks late at night, working out the story in his head. The miser Ebenezer Scrooge would be visited by the ghost of his former business partner Marley and also the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Finally seeing the error of his greedy ways, Scrooge would celebrate Christmas and give a raise to the employee he had been exploiting, Bob Cratchit.

Dickens wanted the book to be available by Christmas. He wrote it with astonishing speed, finishing it in six weeks while also continuing to write installments of "Martin Chuzzlewit."


Our fascination with ghostly tales around Christmas time goes back thousands of years and is rooted in ancient celebrations of the winter solstice.

Our fascination with ghostly tales around Christmas time goes back thousands of years and is rooted in ancient celebrations of the winter solstice. In the depths of winter, pagan traditions included a belief in a ghostly procession across the sky, known as the Wild Hunt. Recounting tales of heroism and monstrous and supernatural beings became a midwinter tradition. Dark tales were deployed to entertain on dark nights.

Photo credit: A Christmas Carol teaser screenshot.

Ghosts have been associated with winter cold since those ancient times. According to art historian Susan Owens, author of The Ghost, A Cultural History, the ode of "Beowulf" is one of the oldest surviving ghost stories, probably composed in the eighth century. This is the tale of a Scandinavian prince who fights the monster Grendel. Evil and terrifying, Grendel has many ghostly qualities, and is described as a “grimma gaest” or spirit, and a death shadow or shifting fog, gliding across the land.

In 1611, Shakespeare wrote The Winter’s Tale, which includes the line: “A sad tale’s best for winter, I have one of sprites and goblins.” Two centuries later, the teenage Mary Shelley set her influential horror story Frankenstein in a snowy wasteland, although she wrote it during a wet summer in Switzerland.

The Victorians invented many familiar British Christmas traditions, including Christmas trees, cards, crackers and roast turkey. They also customised the winter ghost story, relating it specifically to the festive season – the idea of something dreadful lurking beyond the light and laughter inspired some chilling tales.

Both Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins published stories in this genre, but the most notable and enduring story of the period was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). In this vivid and atmospheric fable, gloomy miser Ebenezer Scrooge is confronted first by the spirit of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, and thereafter by a succession of Christmas ghosts.

Their revelations about his own past and future and the lives of those close to him lead to a festive redemption which has spawned a host of imitations and adaptations.

Dickens wrote the story to entertain, drawing on the tradition of the ghostly midwinter tale, but his aim was also to highlight the plight of the poor at Christmas. His genius for manipulating sentiment was never used to better effect, but perhaps the most enjoyable elements of the story are the atmospheric descriptions of the hauntings themselves – the door knocker which transforms into Marley’s face and the sinister, hooded figure of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

The tradition was further developed in the stories of M R James, a medieval scholar who published Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904. His chilling Gothic yarns focused on scholars or clergymen who discovered ancient texts or objects with terrifying supernatural consequences.

Chilling tales

Typically, James used the framing device of a group of friends telling stories around a roaring fire. In the introduction to Ghost Stories he said: “I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas.”

Seminal stories in his oeuvre include Number 13, Oh Whistle & I’ll Come to You and A School Story. Like Dickens, James has been widely imitated and adapted, with Stephen King citing him as an influence. King’s The Shining certainly fits into to the genre of ice-bound chiller.

Christmas ghost stories morph into new forms as time passes, like ectoplasm. Spin offs of A Christmas Carol include Frank Capra’s 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life, in which the story is transposed to small town America, and the 2019 film Last Christmas, the tale of a dysfunctional young woman permanently dressed as a Christmas elf, ripe for Yuletide redemption. This contemporary version conveys messages about integration and the value of diversity.

A new, high-octane version of A Christmas Carol will be shown on television this Christmas, written by Peaky Blinders creator Stephen Knight. And M R James’ Martin’s Close, the story of a 17th century murder and its supernatural outcome, has also been adapted for the small screen.

So it seems the atavistic desire to lose oneself in tales of the supernatural is still with us. Christmas ghost stories enhance our enjoyment of the mince pies and mulled wine, and the frisson of a paranormal tale offsets the “feel-good” festive spirit that might otherwise be cloying.

Some things never change – we still have a fear of the unknown, a yearning for what is lost and a desire to be secure. In an uncertain, fast-paced world, mediated through smartphones and social media, the seasonal ghost story is here to stay. The jolt of fear and dread such stories convey make the Christmas lights glitter even more brightly.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Fairy Folklore: The Unchanging Appeal of Changelings

The notion of fairy changelings, whilst dating back centuries, in many ways feels like a modern concept. That a human might be stolen away by the little folk and replaced with a worn-out fairy or stock of wood, enchanted to look like them, is reminiscent of the human-seeming aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There are overtones of demon possession, as in films like The Exorcist it could even be said that the issues raised are currently being echoed in the TV series Humans, with its exploration of robotics.

At same time, changelings hark back to concerns that were very much, thankfully, of their day. In situations where every child needed to quickly stop being a burden and earn their bread, the birth of a baby with disabilities could have desperate consequences. In a world riddled with disease or malnutrition, infants often failed to thrive. It is perhaps no accident that fairy changelings were said to be weak, that they would not grow or would die soon after their arrival. It must have been a comfort, on occasion, to think that the family’s perfect child had merely been stolen away to a land where it was always summer, and that a deceased baby had only been a fairy changeling.

In a world riddled with disease or malnutrition, infants often failed to thrive. It is perhaps no accident that fairy changelings were said to be weak, that they would not grow or would die soon after their arrival.

There were worse consequences to the folklore, however. Thomas Hobbes noted in 1650s that it was sometimes used to excuse abusive behaviour towards disabled children. It could even lead to the murder of an inconvenient child.

There were many tricks used to frighten changelings away or make them reveal the truth, at which point the real child was supposed to be returned. Hartland outlines some of these in The Science of Fairy Tales. They might be doused in a river, or placed on a heated shovel, or made to sleep overnight in an open grave dug in a field. They might even be thrown onto the fire in the hope they would fly shrieking up the chimney.

Changelings were not always infants. In 1895, in Ireland, a young woman called Bridget Cleary was burned to death on her own hearth. Her husband claimed he was merely trying to get rid of a changeling, so that his true wife would be returned to him. That the case was shocking was reflected in the outcry and huge interest in the court case that followed.

In 1895, in Ireland, a young woman called Bridget Cleary was burned to death on her own hearth. Her husband claimed he was merely trying to get rid of a changeling

It is quite possible that Bridget’s husband had more earthly reasons for wanting to be rid of her. Was he a true believer? Did he always think that fairies lived in the hollow hills, or did he convince himself of it because of a desire to be free of her? Was the truth something more cynical yet? The answer remains a kernel of mystery at the heart of the case, as unknowable as the fairies themselves.

By 1895, when Bridget Cleary was murdered, the general view of fairies had evolved a long way from such sinister affairs. Even whilst folklore movements tried to recover and record the stories of the past, others were leaving such images behind. For middle class Victorian writers, artists and playwrights, fairies were increasingly romanticised. In an age driven by machinery, by industrialisation and urbanisation, they were reconfigured as part of an Arcadian rural past that was lost to so many. Perhaps fairies could also return a little enchantment to the world, when the foundations of religion were being shaken by developments in geology and evolutionary theory.

“Titania and Bottom”, one of Fuseli’s grand paintings of literary fairies. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13420586

Fairies were increasingly pictured as ethereal, lovely beings, and as part of the natural world. They became tiny in stature, small enough to live in the cup of a flower, and flew on the wings of a butterfly. This is reflected in art as well as literature. At the end of the eighteenth century, Fuseli’s grand canvases depicted literary, Shakespearean fairies which varied in size but were often close to that of humans. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, John Anster Fitzgerald – known as ‘Fairy Fitzgerald’ – was producing smaller, jewel-like paintings of tiny fairies living in birds’ nests, full of obsessive detail.

Fairies … became tiny in stature, small enough to live in the cup of a flower, and flew on the wings of a butterfly.

Even whilst belonging in the natural world, however, Fitzgerald’s fairies evade being altogether sweet and lovely. Some are odd little demonic creatures reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. Others kill robins with swords made from vicious looking thorns. Fairies are by nature elusive, and whilst they may change over the years to reflect the concerns of society, they can equally slip from our grasp and question our expectations. Their ability to evolve and defy us is part of their enduring appeal.

Likewise, in literature, a sinister note may intrude. The tempestuous Heathcliff, in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, is often accused of being a changeling. When he is first brought home, Ellen Dean is inclined to put him out on the landing in the hope he will have vanished by morning. Ideas springing from an older, darker mythology of fairies still lingered.

Some are odd little demonic creatures reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. Others kill robins with swords made from vicious looking thorns.

In earlier, more uncertain times, any dealings with the folk could be unpredictable and perilous. Tales of these encounters reflected the precarious nature of life and the concerns and fears people held: about having enough to eat, or the dangers of walking in the woods by moonlight, or the risks inherent in seeing an infant safely into adulthood.

Of course, changelings appeal to one of the deepest human fears of all – that of losing a loved one. It is perhaps even more terrifying to lose someone, to feel they are at an unreachable distance, even while they appear to be living in your house, even lying in your bed. They also raise issues of how far we can ever know anyone – after all, any unexpected word or action could betray a changeling.

It is because such fears are universal that changelings are still relevant today. Stories of changelings are strange and mysterious, with more than a little dark magic at their heart, but they are essentially stories about ourselves.

Win a copy of The Hidden People!

Bestselling author Alison Littlewood has kindly offered a copy of her wonderful novel, The Hidden People, for one lucky #FolkloreThursday reader! Sign up for the #FolkloreThursday newsletter for details of how to be in with a chance to win (valid January 2017).

More about the book …

Pretty Lizzie Higgs is gone, burned to death on her own hearth – but was she really a changeling, as her husband insists? Albie Mirralls met his cousin only once, in 1851, within the grand glass arches of the Crystal Palace, but unable to countenance the rumours that surround her murder, he leaves his young wife in London and travels to Halfoak, a village steeped in superstition.
Albie begins to look into Lizzie’s death, but in this place where the old tales hold sway and the ‘Hidden People’ supposedly roam, answers are slippery and further tragedy is just a step away . . .

Recommended books from #FolkloreThursday

References and Further Reading

Jane Martineau (Editor), 1997, Victorian Fairy Painting, Merrell Holberton.

Jeremy Harte, 2004, Explore Fairy Traditions, Heart of Albion Press.


Watch the video: Why Do Christmas Ghost Stories Have Such Enduring Appeal (May 2022).


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