“’tis the season,” I cry, wolfing another mince pie. “Another mulled wine, Liam?” “’tis the season!” “What shall we watch now?” Ah. Well. Christmas really would be incomplete without a ghost story, wouldn’t it? ‘tis the season for a wintertime chiller: snuggling down in front of the television with a haunted house and a hot chocolate, ready for a scare or two. I think the Christmas ghost story has a seasonal charm as essential to the festive period as Christmas dinner. A ghost story is simultaneously a pleasant diversion from the happy festivities and an important complement to them. And when better to indulge in some spooky atmosphere than in the bleak midwinter?
A ghost story is distinguishable from a horror, and the two should be distinguished in as far as the Christmas ghost story is concerned. While horror films are, well, horrifying (just look at Black Christmas), ghost stories should be unsettling and creepy. Horror implies a level of graphic detail, of explicitly horrifying material. Ghosts work through implication, through effect. Stretched shadows, creepy creaks, pallid things half-glimpsed through windows… The Christmas ghost story could even be suitable for children, if not really aimed at them. Christmas is about family, after all. A ghost story shouldn’t contain any strong language, gratuitous sex or onscreen violence anyway – utilising such shock tactics would break the mood as surely as a Christmas pudding can be drowned in too much brandy butter. This isn’t about horrifying the viewer; this is about bringing some good-natured spookiness to the seasonal proceedings. In fact, the Christmas ghost story actually provides comfort by reminding you of your own. By inviting you into a creaky old house – possibly snowbound, definitely haunted – it reminds you that you are warm and cosy in your own home. The winter night (of course the night – the lights are off, the curtains drawn, all for maximum effect) is no more than a wall’s thickness away, but your own house is warm and safe.
A period setting is something of a recurring feature in seasonal scary stories. The most famous tale of all, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is set in Victorian London, and in many ways, this setting adds to the magic. The time difference adds an extra layer of escapism; for the duration of the story we are no longer stuck in a world of sales and light-up Santa Clauses, we are in a world of log fires, top hats and holly wreaths. Viewed through rose-tinted glasses, the Christmas of the past is superior to the Christmas of the present: a time for love and family, not the commercial entity of nowadays. No drive home for Christmas, no Black Friday, just wrapping up warm against the winter and gathering round a crackling goose for dinner. The period setting acts as a buffer against the scares too – once the tale is ended and the lights go on, we are back to safety, back in the warmth of a centrally-heated house. Of course, the socially-conscious Dickens wasn’t just aiming for chills with his story – his is a morality tale that still resonates with readers and viewers today. His depiction of poverty and need in the nineteenth century far exceeds any horror presented by a supernatural creature. A Christmas Carol makes us doubly grateful for what we have; it allows us our chills and it paints a romantic, wholesome picture of an old-fashioned Christmas, but like other ghost stories it presents a troubled heart that prompts us to appreciate the security of our own lives.
I know I can’t be the only one who likes a good scare at Christmas time. In the 70s, the BBC produced eight Ghost Stories for Christmas, predominately based on the works of M. R. James. I must confess that my experience with the series extends only to the more recent revival episodes, broadcast on odd Christmases between 2005 and 2013, although I do have an occasionally visited collection of James’ ghost stories on my bookshelf. In many ways James is the model author of the ghost story, emphasising attributes we now think of as somewhat hackneyed in the genre: period setting, haunted churches, dusty tomes. Though not festive, such tales have an archetypical familiarity that makes them ideal for Christmastime. What is Christmas if not a time for indulging in familiarity and taking joy from a little cliché? With a ghost story, we know what we’re going to get, and there’s a lot of comfort inherent in that.
I believe ghost stories are one of the most unsung aspects of Christmas. At such a magical time of year, it seems more feasible that spirits might rise and visitations may be wrought. This creepy atmosphere is pertinent to wintertime but more importantly is tempered by the inherent warmth of the season – as soon as the story is finished, you are back to reality, all safe and secure. At its heart it’s primal: it’s the warm and the cool; it’s comfort against chill. Like a hot mince pie and cold cream or a warm hearth after a freezing snowstorm, ghosts and Christmas just go together.