There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
of Christmases long, long ago…
— “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”
See that line there, the one about “scary ghost stories”? It wasn’t chosen just because it rhymed – it’s a direct reference to the longstanding Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories, family gathered ‘round the fire, during Christmastime. Even today, the U.K. continues the practice – although you may be gathered ‘round the telly instead of the hearth, watching something like Nigel Kneale’s version of The Woman In Black (on ITV in 1989) or the BBC’s 2009 Christmas broadcast of The Turn of the Screw.
But here in the States, it’s a different story; most don’t even know about this tradition. Such a shame, because even if you don’t celebrate Christmas, now’s the perfect time to use dark afternoons and frigid weather as excuses for a big, steaming mug of spooky. Here, let us help:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, M.R. James (1904)
Of the collected stories that usually feature a wandering scholar, a remote village, and (SPOILER ALERT) a ghost, James says: “I wrote these stories at long intervals, and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the seasons of Christmas.” The collection also inspired the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas that aired in the ‘70s.
Christmas Ghost Stories: A Collection of Winter Tales, Mark Onspaugh (2012)
The modern-day ghost lives! Wait, is that a contradiction? Anyway! There are plenty of Christmas ghost anthologies, but this one by horror writer Mark Onspaugh puts an updated spin on the genre. “Santa Vs. Dracula,” anyone?
“The Festival,” H.P. Lovecraft (1923)
One of the first stories in the Cthulhu Mythos (that also includes a special guest appearance by the Necronomicon, always a holiday fave), Lovecraft harkens back to the pagan roots of Yule: “It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.”
image via The Guardian
“Ofodile,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from the Guardian Weekend magazine’s Christmas Ghost Stories series (2013)
Not all Christmas ghost stories are Victoriana. “Ofodile,” in which a family at their wit’s end get an unlikely reprieve, is rooted in Nigerian tradition and legend…and reminds us that compassion does not have to be phantasmal.
Jack Frost (1997)
One cold night, science and evil collide…
Three words sum up this movie: Serial. Killer. Snowman. Who wears a plaid scarf. And seeks revenge on a genetic research company. Really, you need more convincing?
“The Unquiet Dead” (2005), Doctor Who
In an unfortunate mistake, The Doctor and Rose visit 1869 Cardiff on Christmas Eve, and wind up assisting Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) in a battle against funeral parlor ghosts – er, Gelths. God bless us, everyone!
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
So the 1843 classic is done to death (lol) - BUT The Muppets Christmas Carol is one of the more clever retellings! When Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine) accuses Jacob and Robert Marley (Statler and Waldorf, duh) of constantly criticizing him, they reply, “We were always heckling you!”
“The Ghost of Christmas Eve,” J.M. Barrie (1890)
Chapter 23 of Barrie’s My Lady Nicotine is ye olde frame story, where the narrator recounts a tale told to him about a Yorkshire manor house where he was staying at the time. In the dead of night on Christmas Eve, with only a candle to light your way, anything (or -one) can become a ghost…
“_Insert tale of your choice here_”, You
Or why not just continue the oral tradition, and gather the family ‘round the fireplace (or space heater, as it were) for a holiday ghost story of your own telling?
‘Twas the night before Christmas and I at my post
trying hardest to catch
the scariest ghost…
What’s that? Over there!
In the La-Z-Boy chair!
What looks like the spirit
of Great Auntie Claire!”
(See, if I can do it, you can too!)