Recently, I wrote a ghost story. I sent it off to some writerly friends for feedback, every single one of whom came back to me saying, ‘Well, from this point on it was clear it was going to end in ghostly revenge.’ Which, obviously, was a bit of a problem I had to address in the rewrite (hopefully I have). However, it also led me to thinking on the motivations of ghosts. My initial reaction to the feedback (apart from Argh, how do I fix this?) was, well, what else do ghosts want?
After thinking about it for a while, I decided it could be any number of things, actually. Thinking over the ghost stories I remember, it seemed to come down to the reason why the ghost was…well, a ghost. So, in the interests of adding a bit of diversity to my characters next time I attempt a ghost story, here are the things that I came up with that might reasonably motivate a ghost.
Due to something to do with the manner of the person’s death, their ghost is now seeking revenge. Outright murder is an obvious one, but perhaps their persecutor made them miserable and drove them to suicide, or framed them for a crime that carried a sentence of death, or was somehow negligent, with fatal results.
One of my favourite ghostly revenge stories is that of Pearlin Jeanne, who haunted her faithless lover’s stately home at Allanbank in Scotland. She was killed in Paris when she tried to prevent her Scottish lover leaving her by climbing onto the wheel of the coach he was absconding in. He ordered the coachman to ‘Drive on!’ She fell and her head was crushed under the wheel. Her dying threat was that she would always come between her lover and any woman he married. From that day, Allanbank was troubled by the apparition of a young woman in a bloodied pearlin lace veil…until someone came up with the ingenious solution of hanging a picture of her between the portraits of the baronet and his wife.
This is possibly another version of ‘Revenge’. I suspect that the vengeful ghosts are likely to be the ones that wouldn’t normally have recourse to any other avenue of justice. So the justice-seeking ghosts must have a level of confidence in some sort of earthly authority to deliver retribution for them.
The timing or manner of the ghost’s death left something important undone. Something the ghost is determined to complete. There are some great stories about ghosts who knew something, but never communicated it to the person who needed to know it in life, so come back just for this purpose. Often it’s the location of the family fortune or some other treasure. But, then there are tales like Joan Aiken’s ‘The Ghostly Governess’ from All but a few (one of my all-time favourite childhood reads), in which a rather sweet, if slightly autocratic, governess is unable to rest until she is satisfied that she has taught her students the things they are supposed to know.
The ghost is compelled to return either to warn someone about something similar to what happened to them, or to save a loved one or descendant in peril. Like the young woman whose death somehow resulted from her giving in to the amorous advances of a local rake. Her ghost then developed the disconcerting habit of appearing before other maidens who were on the point of making the same mistake. I really hope, for equity’s sake, that she made some effort to haunt the guy who caused her death, but I don’t remember that being part of the story.
5. To fulfill a promise
This is an interesting one. It could be the ghost’s determination to make good on their word that has kept them around. But, it could also conceivably be the power of the promise itself that has called them back.
6. Can’t let go
There’s probably a few reasons here that fit under the category of ‘can’t let go’, but sometimes there’s no other reason, other than life is good, death is unknown, so why not hang onto what semblance of life you can, while you can? Or maybe they’re just so enraged at the thought of having died, they’d rather share the misery by hanging around and venting their anger on the living. Or, maybe, there is something, some person or object, that their affections and energies were so bound up in, that they just can’t bear to leave it and move on. Like this fantastic story from Yorkshire in the UK about a young woman who died just as her family’s grand, new, stately home was nearing completion. Distraught that she would never see it finished, she made her grieving family promise to cut off her head and keep it in the house so that she might watch over it. When they buried her (whole) in the churchyard, the house was beset by all manner of ghostly annoyances until they relented and finally brought her head inside (ew!)
Then, of course, there are the ones that don’t seem to realise that they are ghosts, so they don’t know that they have to let go.
7. They’ve been called
There are plenty of stories of people who have passed on perfectly peacefully, yet are disturbed in their rest by thoughtless individuals who seek to reawaken them for their own purposes. If you’re going to go around raising happily slumbering spirits, the consequences are on your own head.
8. They’ve lost their way
I suppose this is centred on the idea that there is some sort of journey for the ‘soul’ to make after death to whatever place it is that souls go, and some of those souls get distracted or lost en route.
9. They know where they’re headed, and they don’t want to go
There are also stories of ghosts who know exactly what’s in store for them after death, so they do what they can to avoid that well-deserved fate. Like the blackguard lord who died unrepentant, and whose unquiet spirit then went and stuck his head through the stained glass window of the local church in order to thwart the devil’s attempts to collect his blackened soul, on the basis that once he was on hallowed ground, the old goat couldn’t touch him.
10. Psychic shock
Perhaps the manner of the person’s death was so sudden, or shocking, or violent, or tragic, that it caused some kind of psychic shock. These are the kinds of ghosts who don’t seem to have any attention to spare for the world of the living; they’re simply too caught up in endlessly reliving their own last moments.
I once read an account of a place in Britain that was supposedly haunted by a legion of ghostly Roman soldiers, who would march through a basement over the ancient remains of a Roman road. I always wondered why it would be the whole lot of them at once. Maybe they were off to some battle that went badly for them, and this was some sad remnant of their final march.
So there you go. There’s a bunch of motivations for ghostly characters that I’ve come up with. What do you reckon? What have I missed?
2 thoughts on “The motivations of ghosts”
Great post! I’ve been asking myself that same question and your list had some points that I didn’t consider.