Why Ghost Stories At Christmas?

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STEWART KING asks why are ghost stories so popular at Christmas?

Like many enjoyable things it’s sometimes best not to question them.  As an antidote to the mawkish side of Christmas ghost stories are an ideal way to balance the emotions we feel at this time of year.  So in those few snatched minutes of reflection as we stare into the fire/the sink of washing up, what better way to bat away the surfeit of sentiment than considering our own mortality and how we could get revenge from beyond the grave.

Ghost of Christmas Present confronts Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol

These are the subjects of a lot of the classic Christmas ghost stories by such masters as M R James and, of course, Charles Dickens.  The theory is that the telling of ghost stories originated in Victorian times when the occupants of festive drawing rooms craved thrills from magic, spiritualism and the imagination of anyone adept at regaling the fireside occupants with a creepy tale.

But it seems likely that the tradition began way before this era although there is no evidence of it.  I personally believe the key element is fire.

Whenever people are at their leisure and gathered round it, whether it’s an atmospheric campfire of Christmas hearth, it seems the most natural thing to do is to try and scare your friends and loved ones half to death.

I was pleased to see that the BBC have finally released a definitive DVD collection of their ghost stories which were produced from 1971 to 1978 and then revisited in 2005.  These have really stood the test of time, probably because they’re solid period pieces.  The classic is, of course, the unsettling ‘Whistle And I’ll Come To You’ directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Michael Hordern.

But there are other riches to be had particularly ‘A Warning To The Curious’ starring Peter Vaughn.  I remember being particularly shocked by the graphic nature of its conclusion when I caught it as a kid.  Of the more recent efforts, ‘A View From A Hill’ is my particular favourite and, I think, captures the eerie atmosphere of the earlier programmes.  It’s all there – the lone academic, the down-at-heel aristocracy and the distant, static figures.

Seymour Hicks as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol 1935
Seymour Hicks as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol 1935

Of all the titles I’ve written Christmas Ghost Stories has outstripped them all proving just how popular the tradition still is.  I tried to evoke some of the spirit of M R James with each one (although I would never presume to get even close to the those timeless classics) and, as I chose solitude as my theme for all of them, it made his influence even more felt.

So however busy you are this Christmas I hope you can make some time to pour yourself a schooner of something warming, lock the door and enjoy some ghosts of the screen or page variety.

Now, who’s been sleeping in the spare bed?


  1. I’ve always loved the idea of getting together at Christmas and doing ghost stories around an open fire but I’d never realized how mainstream ghost stories were until I started doing research for our pub event (Ghost Tales in the Pub.) I even found a couple of Google Images of clippings from major daily papers, as late as the 1970s. recommending various good literary ghost stories for telling after dinner on Christmas Eve. It’s a bit of an underground British tradition, and I’m glad it’s alive and healthy!


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