October 11, 2012
Scary stuff: Why tales of ghosts, goblins and things that go bump in the night are more than horror stories
Whether it's sitting around a campfire, at the movie theater or reading something by Stephen King or Edgar Allan Poe, scary stories have long been popular, especially around Halloween.
According to Kansas State University literature expert Naomi Wood, an associate professor of English, fear of death is often an underlying theme in hair-raising tales, movies and books.
"Zombies, vampires and ghosts embody people's fears about extinction, our awareness that everyone must die," Wood said. "Telling stories about how monsters and spirits are turned back, turned away from the living, are ways of reasserting our life. The stories go on even as the tellers die, and stories that tell of triumphing over the monsters are even more powerful."
Stories that name our fears, especially about death, can be powerful, Wood said, but they also can be seen as lessons as well, such as Frankenstein's Monster in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."
"This story can be thought of as a cautionary tale about what can go wrong if a person impiously pursues immortality," she said.
Today, urban folklore is a good source for Halloween stories, Wood said.
"Thriller movies often channel urban folklore in their depictions of killers," she said. "One example of an urban myth and motion picture overlap is the movie 'Nightmare on Elm Street' and the urban legend about the escaped convict with the hook. Both feature an escaped psychopathic killer who comes after young couples."
Ghost stories often channel unease about death and unfinished business, Wood said. In many of these tales the ghosts are usually tied to earth because of old crimes and conflicts.
"They show not only how humans are afraid of ending and dying, but also of things failing to end," she said. "This is apparent in hauntings — how a spirit is forever forced to roam the world, never to rest or find a way of peace."
One way we lighten the macabre tone of Halloween today is with costumes, Wood said.
"Dressing as zombies, vampires and werewolves, people are able to take the spookiness out of the legends by putting themselves in the characters' shoes. It seems to be a way to forget the stories and legends, to see a lighter side of death than as just an imminent ending," she said.