A ghost story may be any piece of fiction, or drama, or an account of an experience, that includes a ghost, or simply takes as a premise the possibility of ghosts or characters' belief in them. Colloquially, the term can refer to any kind of scary story. In a narrower sense, the ghost story has been developed as a short story format, within genre fiction. It is a form of supernatural fiction, and is often a horror story. While ghost stories are often explicitly meant to be scary, they have been written to serve all sorts of purposes, from comedy to morality tales. Ghosts often appear in the narrative as sentinels or prophets of things to come. Whatever their uses, the ghost story is in some format present in all cultures around the world, and may be passed down orally or in written form.
- The traditional ghost story has its roots in folklore, but its prose style is characteristic of the romanticised writers of the gothic tradition that preceded it. Authors include Charles Dickens, Sheridan Le Fanu, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs. Henry Wood, F. Marion Crawford, Charlotte Riddell, Margaret Oliphant, Sarah Orne Jewett, Rhoda Broughton, Amelia Edwards, and Elizabeth Gaskell. Sheridan Le Fanu's Green Tea is an example from his collection In a Glass Darkly, which also includes the vampire story Carmilla. Another example is Mary Elizabeth Braddon's At Crighton Abbey.
- In the psychological ghost story, the emphasis is on the perceiving consciousness of the victim, instead of the actions of the ghost. These tales frequently call into question the reliability and mental stability of the protagonist, and may investigate social issues. Authors include Henry James, Oliver Onions, Walter De La Mare, Edith Wharton, L.P. Hartley, Vernon Lee, Violet Hunt, and Robert Aickman. Examples include Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, Oliver Onions' The Beckoning Fair One, and Vernon Lee's Amour Dure. Charles Dickens' The Signalman is notable for exploiting the fear of new technology in the form of the railways, and the likelihood of an accident. Dickens' central character experiences foreknowledge of an impending accident three times from a spectre, the last ending with his own demise.
- The antiquarian ghost story was born from more folkloric origins and in this sense is more closely tied to the traditional ghost story. Many of its practitioners were scholars or clergymen, and they discarded the romanticised prose of the traditional school, favoring realism and gentle escalation of the supernatural within the narrative, typically after some ancient medieval relic has been disturbed in some way. Authors include M.R. James, Arthur Gray, A.N.L. Munby, E.G. Swain, Christopher Woodforde, Cynthia Asquith and R.H. Malden. The genre influenced on writers such as Russell Kirk, E.F. Benson, H. Russell Wakefield and Ramsey Campbell. An example is M.R. James' Oh, whistle and I'll come to you, my lad from his book Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.
Around the world
- The pretense of truth
- "A pleasing terror"
- No gratuitous bloodshed or sex
- No "explanation of the machinery"
- Setting: "those of the writer's (and reader's) own day"
The Arabian Nights contains a number of ghost stories, often involving jinns, ghouls and corpses. Other medieval Arabic literature such as the Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity also contain ghost stories.
- Felton, D. Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity, University of Texas Press, 1999.
- Medieval ghost stories : an anthology of miracles, marvels and prodigies / comp. and ed. by Andrew Joynes, Woodbridge: Boydell press, 2003.