Ghost Story Research

Last night I read The Little Stranger and then some of the reviews of it. I thought it was really well-done, though I couldn’t decide if I thought the ending was too ambiguous or too spot on the nose. Which, I guess means that it was just right.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about two things I read in reviews:


Yet, while Waters might have blown the dust off a fusty genre, she can’t escape its limitations. There is an inherent problem with ghost stories: they always boil down to a futile argument between sceptic and believer. Poor Dr Faraday has the thankless task of trying to convince the Ayres that every odd sight and sound and incident has a rational explanation. I eventually grew tired of vacillating between wondering if there was a real ghost and expecting the housemaid to be behind it all; I longed for a credible third way. Waters hints at one, but its supernaturalism disguised with psychology left me dissatisfied.


Every ghost story needs a Dr Faraday, a blunt literalist with a sturdy sense of self. Such a figure begins as the reader’s surrogate, the voice of scepticism. We’ve been told ghost stories before, and we’re not going to fall for the author’s wiles and tricks; our narrator is determined, on our behalf, to avoid melodrama. Then as the story progresses, our representative comes up with ever more tortured “rational explanations” for bizarre events, explanations that require us to be more imaginative and gullible than we would be if we simply accepted the supernatural. “I see what’s in front of me,” Faraday claims stoutly. For the love of God, the reader cries: wake up man, look behind you! The author has worked a spell. We now see that our guide and mentor is dull-witted, complacent, perhaps self-deceiving; we are turning the pages faster and faster.

On the one hand, I agree with both of these things–that ghost stories do boil down to an argument between believer and rationalist and that, if the author’s done her job, the person in the guide and mentor position does seem eventually dull-witted, complacent, and perhaps self-deceiving. (I should take a moment to note that, if all you know about The Little Stranger comes from the two paragraphs I quoted here, both of them seem to entirely misunderstand Dr. Faraday and what’s going on in the house, so don’t discount the book solely because these paragraphs make Faraday seem dull.)

But I can’t help but think that, unless you move the focus of the argument between the believer and the rationalist, you can’t set a haunted house story in the American South. What Southerner doesn’t love a good ghost story? Even if only as folklore? Who wouldn’t want to hear it? To see for him or herself if it can be experienced? Where would you find a Southern rationalist about ghosts?

The argument isn’t about whether there are ghosts or not. To me, it seems obvious that the argument is about which ghosts are there, why those stories get told, what they mean. In other words, it’s an argument between the history believer and the history rationalist.