You cannot have a discussion of Halloween monsters and urban fantasy without talking about ghosts. 😉
Is there anything more timeless, more automatically understood, than ghost stories?
The one thing that all humans have universally in common is death. It only makes sense for us to wonder about what happens after, and to hope that those who leave us aren’t really so far away. With that, however, comes the fear of those who we would prefer be very, very far away, and those who, having suffered some terrible fate, we just feel that they ought to be allowed a peaceful rest. Something of the dead always lingers with the living, but what if that something was a bit more active? What is more dangerous than something you can’t actually hurt, something that isn’t bound by the same rules? What is more threatening than a walking reminder of death itself? Even more, what is more unsettling than to have the tranquil afterlife we are promised be upended by restless spirits?
Especially since such simultaneously assures us that there is an afterlife, offering comfort and creepiness in the same breath.
Now, unlike fairies and goblins, or angels and demons, and much like vampires, witches, and werewolves, there are absolutely ghosts, or spirits of the same ilk, in all of the urban fantasies I’ve been discussing this month. So, let’s get to it!
One thing all of them have in common: the dead are always pictured as generally quiet, but the unquiet ones certainly demand attention!
Supernatural spends most of its first season dealing with ghosts, and they pop up frequently throughout the rest of the series. This version is pretty straightforward: ghosts are the spirits of the dead. Most of the dead go straight to either Heaven, guided by the angels of death, or to Hell, dragged by hellhounds in fulfillment of a bargain made. Some, however, end up lingering. Sometimes the trauma of their death is simply so sudden and shocking that they need time to come to terms with it. Sometimes they simply refuse to go with the angels, for whatever reasons. However, whether they had good or bad intentions, they soon go mad for a variety of reasons, not least of them being the isolation, the loss of memories, the need for revenge, or a penultimate drive deep in their core that overcomes their good sense, that sort of thing.
Dealing with ghosts is fairly simple: they cannot cross lines of salt, their form is momentarily dispersed when it comes into contact with iron, and putting them down for good means salting and burning their remains, purifying the body and soul in two ways at once.
The Vampire Diaries features ghosts which are a bit more mentally intact. Not that they can’t or don’t go crazy, but they don’t simply change from being who and what they were. That is proven well enough, as various characters keep coming back from the dead, to the point that death kind of loses a bit of its sting, if none of its immensity. Most of the ghosts we see are just people who have been caught in some sort of limbo afterlife, even including Hell itself. These were created by witchcraft, and I believe we see all of them undone by the same power. As the boundaries between the mortal life and the various afterlives are weakened, then the many, many ghosts, the dead who have been forced to be silent, are now able to be most unquiet indeed, many of them seeking revenge on those who wronged them… though a few settle for spending a little more time with their loved ones instead. Indeed, when all the other, temporary afterlives are stripped away, the one that is left is, quite simply this: they don’t go too far away, still able to watch over their living loved ones, but to die is ultimately to go home to one’s family. There is something very beautiful about that.
And it needs to be said: in a story where the undead frequently have so much power, the danger of ghosts cannot be understated. They aren’t easily dispensed with, at least not in any permanent way, and they can wield absolutely devastating power from which there is no defense. Heck, a huge swathe of the trouble which arises on The Originals comes from dead people still trying to get their way, to impose their will on the living. Even the strongest and most ancient vampire of all is eventually destroyed by a conflict with a witch’s ghost.
In contrast, the universe of Buffy and Angel has only a relative handful of instances where the living are bothered by the souls of the unquiet dead. They sometimes manifest in a semi-physical form, but clearly are still separate enough that it was practically impossible to physically hurt them. Most could speak and be heard, and those that couldn’t were able to make themselves known in more forcible ways. Responding to them required magic of some sort, either literal witchcraft, or releasing another spirit to overcome the first one, or helping them gain some form of absolution for their misdeeds. By and large, one could make a convincing argument that the physical power of a vampire or vampire slayer was all but useless against them.
So much the worse, then, that they tended to be souls who were trapped within their very worst moments: a poltergeist born from the abuse of children, a couple who self-destructed in murder and suicide, and a warrior who bore hatred for the annihilation of his people. Even the nicest ghost among them was still trapped in the moment his own mother murdered him, Cask of Amontillado style.
The ghosts of the Dresden Files are slightly different. In that series, ghosts are echoes and fragments, not whole or even fractured people. They’re imprints, something left behind to do a job that the dead can no longer do. They’re most prominent in two of the novels, so far.
In the earlier novel, the titular hero has to deal with the ghost of an enemy, one that has been seriously empowered. The dead usually don’t have the power to bother the living, but this one has plenty and to spare. Eventually, the hero manages to bring in backup: he “dies” and has someone on hand to revive him, so he’s still there, and his ghost shows up to help double-team on their foe, just long enough to help before, his purpose fulfilled, he fades away. Ironically, their enemy would have just faded away if he’d succeeded in truly killing them. And then the hero faces down a second terrible evil moments later, and again calls on the dead for reinforcements: he summons the lingering ghosts of their many, many victims, taking a page out of the enemy’s playbook by empowering them to take their vengeance.
The later novel follows the hero himself after he has been killed, or quite nearly so. Unlike other ghosts, he actually is his whole, complete, original self, this here being a little trick his allies are using to keep him alive and active long enough to save his life. He associates very closely with the dead, of course, learning about them, witnessing what they are. Some are crazed psychopaths, barely restrained, while others just float about. Many of them rest when the sun comes up, and that rest, the rest of the dead, is sweet indeed, but not permanent for them. And, as it turns out, the dead, having no means to replenish their energy as the living naturally do, have a very finite amount of power, though more considerable for some than others. This also means that they can consume each other, or be consumed by yet darker, more nefarious forces, because there is only so much of them to go around.
In contrast to the Dresden Files, the Mercy Thompson series starts out with the same basic assumption, that ghosts are incomplete echoes, not the real people, but it does not stick with that. Over the course of events, the protagonist sees things which force her to question her previous understanding. There seems to be something about ghosts that remains true to who they were, and they can even make some choices for themselves. Before long, she decides that when she needs to ask something of the dead, she really does ask it of them, and allows them to choose for themselves. She also protects them from those who would use them against their will. She realizes she doesn’t understand them, so she chooses to err on the side of humane behavior, treating them as well as she can under the circumstances.
Finally, there are the ghosts of the Monster Hunters. And I kind of love how there’s not really a big deal made about them. Oh, there’s some dramatic flare, especially as they’re dealing with a cosmic-level war that is all coming down to the actions of these few people. What I mean is that, with everything going on, it’s not even a question who and what these ghosts are: they are the spirits of those who have gone before. They are the same people they were while alive, whole and complete and with wills of their own. They make themselves known as needed, they relay all the information they can as needed, and they come to protect their still-living comrades, their family, as needed. Those who were brave, determined, and selfless in life, they continue to be so after death.
So, it would seem that, the scars of life and death notwithstanding, our modern ghost stories feature ghosts who are, in fact, the same people as they ever were, just in a new, uniquely trying situation.
There’s something very encouraging, I think, about this undercurrent of hope that we can remain ourselves, who we truly are, even as we pass through death itself. We might… well, I suppose dying is the very epitome of not emerging undamaged, but we’ll still be us. Even if we have pick up a few of our pieces first.
And if the dead can do that much, then why not the living, eh?