We all know the stories: A dark shape lurks in the background, just out of view. A house seems to have a life of its own, doors opening and objects moving untouched by human hands. Whether they’re told around a campfire or on the big screen, ghost stories still haunt and intrigue people today, particularly Americans. But why? What do ghosts mean to us, and why do they still matter, even in 2023?
The answer is, it depends. Ghost stories have a long history in American culture and media, but almost every culture has its version of a “ghost” –– and they aren’t all here to haunt us. “What a society calls a ghost is really reflective more of the society than it is necessarily the entity itself, depending upon your belief system,” says N. Fadeke Castor, an ethnographer and assistant professor of religion and Africana studies at Northeastern University.
It might sound simple, but to understand why and what ghost stories mean to us, it’s important to first understand what a ghost is –– and what it’s not.