Ghosts in Storytelling

This post contains spoilers.
They are the past come to haunt us, omens in the dark, regrets manifested and leeches feeding on life. Whatever shape they take, we’d be woeful to assume they are simply expressions of the supernatural. In stories, they are an irreplaceable tool.

Ghosts are powerful symbols which can do something with a seamless stroke: recall the past to juxtapose it beside the present. All the while, the audience doesn’t have to deal with the awkward tedium that is flashbacks.

After watching and rewatching films like Insidious, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, IT, The Conjuring, Hereditary, and more, I started to find beauty in not just the stories, but the ghosts which so haunted the protagonists, the imagery left behind.

Strangely enough, I started to feel like I was beginning to see a whole different dimension to horror stories. Don’t the ghosts themselves desire to be understood? What are their stories? Severed from the protagonist’s journey, what do we learn from them?

For this article I’ll be calling upon two films in reference.


Spirits Starved of Life

Insidious follows the Lambert family being haunted by a host of ghosts and their unofficial ringleader, the Man with Fire on His Face.

I sympathised with this character. He was, after all, condemned to The Further for what can only be assumed is eternity. A presumably nefarious individual whose death consigned him to a demonic fate, what more does he have to do but harass those with brighter lives than he ever had?

The Man with Fire on His Face in his realm. Also simply referred to as ‘the Demon’.

The Man with Fire on His Face in his realm. Also simply referred to as ‘the Demon’.

The Demon’s primary aim is to gain control of the body of Dalton, a young boy. the Demon haunts him because Dalton frequently experiences out of body experiences, leaving his vessel vulnerable for repossession. For the plot and lore of this film, this means that, although the Demon may certainly be malicious, he does not possess any specific motive regarding his choice of victims.

His evil derives mostly, if not wholly, by his desire to once more inhabit the human realm.

His evil has no contingencies or prejudice. His evil is the result of selfishness, yet it is something we can all relate to: to possess humanity and life.

I would liken the Demon to any state of being which feels divorced of equanimity. States of being involving depression, frustration, rage, are almost always coupled with a yearning to return to normal. A yearning to become ‘alive again’.

The Demon gesturing towards Dalton as he sleeps.

The Demon gesturing towards Dalton as he sleeps.

But if that is a stretch for you, one might find it easier to sympathise with the lost souls in The Further, (where most spirits go in Insidious). Unlike the ostensibly simplistic and absolute evil of the Demon, most ghosts in The Further are simply lost. They lack agendas. Like humans struggling to find meaning, purpose, or direction, they long for what they’re missing. They are the epitome of what it means to be lost.

The Dancing Boy

The Dancing Boy

The Dancing Boy embodies this perfectly.

Neither malicious nor corrupt in any way, the ghost of a young boy from the 1930’s haunts the Lamberts’ home simply to play and dance to the tunes from their record player. Although this manifestation shocks Renai, (Dalton’s mother), to my mind, it merely expresses the intense loneliness and craving that ghosts represent.

This translation echos into the entire plot of Insidious. If you don’t know it, essentially the Lambert family is targeted by a collection of ghosts for a brief time not for any specific reason other than the fact that Dalton and his father are ‘natural born astral projectors’. In other words, their physical bodies are vulnerable when they sleep.

After attracting the Man with Fire on His Face, the spiritual world follows suit and makes a spectral carnival of any home they inhabit.

Once more, this reiterates the theme that ghosts aren’t necessarily to blame for their nature. They are confused, lacking conscience and reason. And so, when the dinner bell rings for a chance to inhabit life once more, naturally, they come haunting.

The spirits in Insidious are much like us: craving a whole, colourful life. They are our pasts manifested, versions of ourselves which yearn to see us embody something more than them. I often feel as if I am haunted by my past self. Fragments of me, memories, hoping I make use of my time. This intuition doesn’t unsettle me, rather it encourages me forward. To live more. It reminds me how human nature dances on the edge of death and the inspiration we can harvest from it.

But what if ghosts don’t want to live? What if a ghost exists as it does, trapped, but has no ulterior motives for plans when haunting the living? What if it craves exactly nothing?

What do we make of them, then?

I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House

Walking Back to Front

I adored this film for so many reasons. First and foremost, its atmospheric and slow approach to the portrayal of a haunted home. The shots take their time. Uninterrupted by jump scares, we settle into the quiet of a remote home in Massachusetts. Inhabited by a retired horror writer with dementia, Iris Blum, the only other living inhabitant is Lily Saylor, hired to look after Iris in her final days.

The eeriness rises from the relationship between mentally unstable patient and timid hospice nurse, recluse and home, dusty corners and book shelves filled with horror stories. Indeed, there is little for Lily to do but simmer in the atmosphere as she awaits Iris’ inevitable death. Without modern technology to distract her, she whiles away her days keeping company with ghosts.

The key difference between the spirits in these two films is the vacancy of purpose.

Polly is the lingering fragment of a beautiful, young woman murdered in her own home. Entombed in the walls, the grotesque details are still alive through one of Iris’ novels, a literal translation of Polly’s story as transposed between phantom and listener.

In Insidious, the Demon has motivation. (Admittedly lacking three dimensionality), the Demon’s aim is quite clear: to possess the living and throw a party. But our story begins after this ‘transposition’. Polly has told her story. Iris is withered, her mental state collapsing.

We meet Polly through this degradation. Polly the name that Iris calls Lily every time she speaks to her.

An author with dementia and an intense attachment to a ghost, a bitterness void of fear, and you get a most fascinating and spine-chilling scene when Iris addresses Lily, once again mistaking her for Polly.

I did nothing but sit and listen. I made no noises. I welcomed no visitors. You had so much to say in those first years. When you lived here with me. Enough to fill a book. And then... nothing.

You turned your back, and you turned your back so many times ... that soon your feet were facing the wrong way altogether. And I had to watch you come into a room ... back to front.
— Iris Blum
Polly Walking

Have you enjoyed imagining a novelist isolating herself from the world so as to get closer to a ghost?

Something about the archaic ‘welcome no visitors’ is particularly harrowing. It’s the dedication, for me, and the resentment of her phantasmic companion also losing herself, that caught my attention.

This is what one needs to know to understand Polly. Her lack of purpose save for the infinite repetition of her past life. Even in sharing her life and death with a famous novelist to be read by thousands, perhaps millions … still she finds no peace.

Polly exists in perpetuity in the house. It’s this endless obsession with her death that warps her irrevocably. Her inability to move on.

One can speculate that Polly is not merely the byproduct of a deterministic realm of the dead. This decision to dwell in endless circles on what once was seems to be a conscious decision as eluded to by the film’s writing. Even after death, Polly has a strong personality, and within that, a wilful desire to remain stuck in the loneliness of her murder.

A house with a ghost in it “does not belong to the living”. One of my favorite themes from the film.

It is this wilfulness which so inspires the unsettling, subtly malevolent air of Polly. A possessiveness over the lives that come into contact with her.

She is an otherwise harmless victim of a murder, but her determination to so embody and simmer in the grief of her demise borders on depravity. And it’s this illness which so spreads to the living and kills them, too.

Polly’s literal ‘back to front’ imagery is one of my most savoured reinterpretations of a common archetype of ghosts: that they relive their death over, and over, and over again, so much so that it drives them mad and twists them into that quintessential form of ghosts:


A memory so wrought it feels severed from human experience. A memory which cannibalizes itself.

It is also just wonderfully unsettling watching Polly walk ‘with her feet facing the wrong way altogether’. I recommend watching the film if only to get to that scene.

Polly’s existence calls upon the self-pitying despair that has potential to decay all of us, and the dangers of neglecting to resolve one’s past traumas.

The consequences of failing to do so has potential to poison both our lives and the lives of those we touch. Despite the ‘malevolence’ I attributed to Polly’s pressence, I believe she is, wholly and truly, a victim. In retrospect, one cannot help but realise the tragedy that is Polly’s death and postmortem struggle with it.

I will conclude this with a quotation from the introduction of the film. This moment alone made me suspect this was a worthwhile film when so many others criticised it for being lazy, even boring.

Why did I fall in love with it?

The movie begins with poetry. Poetry about ghosts. And most importantly, it illustrates why some linger, and inevitably, haunt the living.

They are free to go,
but still they confine themselves,
held in place by their looking.
For those who have stayed,
their prison is their never seeing.
And left all alone,
this is how they rot ...
Tending to their deaths
like patchy, withered gardens.

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