Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

The Woman in Black—Ghosts, Uncertainty, and Things That Go Bump in the Night

Which scares you most? Zombies, vampires, werewolves or ghosts?

Mr. Radcliffe is the most anticipated ghost story this year
"Which scares you the most ... zombies, vampires, werewolves, or ghosts?"

It was a question best suited for a tree house with a rope ladder entrance ... the kind of thing pondered by young friends pretending to be intrepid by camping in their parents' back yards.

This question, however, was asked of adults, all of us horror writers, at a "serious" professional gathering in Orlando last October.

We had every trope represented; vampire authors and werewolf authors and zombie authors and ghost story authors; all of our books were on display at the signing table outside of the conference room. Spooky Empire, the annual and much loved horror convention, was in full swing, and we authors had been gathered to come clean with the audience about what freaks us out most.

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And you know what?

No one hesitated. Almost in unison, staring, as we were at the people in the audience who were dressed as all of the creatures we were asked to consider, we all said the same thing at almost the same time.

"Ghosts," I said.

"Yep, ghosts, for sure..." said someone else.

We were all shaking our heads, surprised by the unanimity of our collective response. In fact, the response itself was sort of creepy; a chill wandered like a spider up the back of my neck. I realized that we who freely consider and indeed take delight in blood-sucking fiends and flesh-eating ghouls agreed quickly and with certainty that ghosts themselves particularly give us the willies. That sort of archetypal agreement is always a bit freaky. We usually turn to one another to remind ourselves that our paranormal fears are not real. When we're all equally frightened ... well, uncertainty creeps in, and uncertainty is a potent predictor of getting the shivers. I'll get to that in a second.

I wanted to write about all of this, because it is with great anticipation that I plan this weekend to treat myself to The Woman in Black, the new period piece staring Daniel Radcliffe and featuring a classically haunted house immersed in the swampy marshes of Victorian England. I've read about the film; no spoiler alerts here, since I have actively resisted researching the plot. I know, though, that I have watched the trailer about a zillion times, and that zinger at the end (the translucent figure that just barely appears) is more than enough to make the hairs on my arms stand tall.

Mitch Hyman, a super-nice guy and one of the writers on the panel at Spooky Empire, offered an especially wise insight into why we fear ghosts. We were all hemming and hawing with the expected reasons.

"You don't know if they're real or not," I said.

"Yeah, I think I saw one when I was a kid," said another author.

"But guys, that's not the issue," Mitch said. He stared at us with a twinkle in his eye and then looked back at the audience.

"They just stand there," he continued, "At the end of your bed or in the window or something ... they just stand there and stare." He paused again.

"You don't even know what they want."

Wow.

That's it. That's why they scare us. Zombies want to eat us. Vampires want to seduce us (and then eat us). Werewolves are just angry dogs at the park. But ghosts? Well, what is there, really, to be afraid of? We're afraid of something that we can stick our hands right through? What's up with that?

What's up with that is that we don't know what they want, and that leaves what they might want for our collective brains to freely explore. The resolution of a good ghost story is our making sense of the motivation of the ghost; the dénouement of an unsettling ghost story is our never understanding why they've come in the first place.

There's even a medical and scientific literature that discusses this phenomena. Urban legends, according to Psychology Reports (2008) are spread most effectively if the stories are scary, believable and easily retold. We can intuit that ghosts meet all of these criteria. We retell ghost stories in order to check our hopeful disbelief with the common sense of willing listeners. Yet, listeners, unable to make sense of the story, tell the story to someone else.

The phrases "I don't know" and "I'm uncertain" are highly correlated with fear and anxiety (Collegium Antropologicum 2003), another sign that the state of not knowing is immensely uncomfortable.

We don't, as a rule, like not knowing.

And ghosts don't, as a rule, like telling.

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'd hazard that whatever that ethereal thing is that appears in Radcliffe's character's window isn't about to tell you its life story.

You will have to divine the story yourself, and you will need to be fearless and powerful in ways that defy expectation. (Remember the little old lady in Poltergeist?) That kind of power, the power to make you work to find out ... that speaks to a kind of supernatural ambivalence. Otherwise, the silly ghosts would just up and tell you.

Ambivalence, uncertainty, and things that make noises at night.

Things we can't explain.

Now you've got the chills.

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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