As pop songs go, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is a venerable seasonal classic—but what’s with that weird lyric about “scary ghost stories”?
Christmas is a holiday defined by brightly decorated trees, the exchange of presents, festive warm drinks, deadly earworms (the musical kind), and arguing politics with your family around the hearth during some of the coldest, darkest nights of the year. But there’s one yuletide tradition that’s been relatively overlooked in recent decades: yes, the annual sharing of ghost stories, a centuries-old practice with its origins in Norse, German, and Celtic celebrations of the solstice. The longest night of the year was thought to be a time when the barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead grew thin; hence, swapping stories of spirits seemed only natural. The rise of puritanical Christianity—and the subsequent push to quell the ancient rituals surrounding the solstice—meant the practice fell out of favor, though it briefly regained popularity in the Victorian era thanks to one Charles Dickens (more on him in a minute).
These days, we of course mostly associate scary stories with Halloween (another holiday that cribs heavily from pagan practices), but in the interest of reviving the tradition as a staple of the Christmas season, here are our suggestions for 6 spectral tales best enjoyed during the most wonderful (and darkest) time of the year.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
The most well-known example of the “ghost stories at Christmas” trend (and it should be, considering it managed to bring the practice back into fashion—and bring the once rather low-key holiday into the forefront of public consciousness), Charles Dickens’ morality tale about stingy miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his encounters with four unusual ghosts needs no introduction. But while numerous adaptations and retellings, the the Muppets to the Fonz, have unpacked the work in detail, nothing quite packs the punch of the original novella, in which Dickens layers on atmosphere to spare, generating palpable tension even before he sets off with Scrooge on a tour of the spirit world. Dickens’ familiarity with serialized fiction helps, making the most of every moment in a way that feels elegant rather than leaden. It goes without saying that this heartfelt classic holds up to multiple re-readings.
“The Nimble Men,” by Glen Hirshberg
Taking place entirely on a plane stuck in a de-icing station in the woods, “The Nimble Men” seems tailor-made for ghost story aficionados and the Christmas season both, serving up a tale of two pilots’ encounter with an odd supernatural force in the woods. It follows the structure of the classic ghost story pretty well—the two main characters even do their part to raise the tension by bantering back and forth as they share their own weird tales—and the tone is more about raising the hairs on the back of your neck than making you jump in fright. When the “nimble men” of the title finally reveal themselves, they seem more odd than dangerous, and the ending also provides no concrete explanation for what’s going on, making it all the more eerie. The sense that reality is off-kilter, coupled with the remote wooded setting, makes for this the perfect ghost story for a cold, dark night by the fire.
“The Reaper’s Image,” by Stephen King
More than a few of the stories in King’s literary canon would fit nicely on this list—the upsetting house-haunting in “It Grows On You,” the decidedly retro atmosphere of “The Breathing Method,” the isolated terror of the bathroom-set “Sneakers,” and any number of other stories from the exceptionally ghostly Skeleton Crew—all would be solid picks. But “The Reaper’s Image” gets by on just how eerie yet utterly simple it is: two men discuss a mirror’s supernatural history, something unsettling happens, and the ending is left ambiguous. There’s no “why,” no long history to explain what the mirror is, it’s just a haunted mirror, and we’re left with an odd sense that something upsetting has just occurred. It’s that simplicity that truly makes it a chilling story, and an excellent read.
“20th Century Ghost,” by Joe Hill
While a little lighter than other entries on this list, Hill’s entry is still a haunting—if bittersweet—tale of a movie theater occupied by the spirit of a young woman who touches the lives of cinephiles in an unusual way. It’s the story of how a place can change lives if it finds the right person. It’s the story of what “home” really is, of the power of art and stories to move a person, and it has one of the saddest, sweetest endings a ghost story ever could. I could go on and on about how wonderful it is, but as it’s very much in the “show, don’t tell” mode, it’s best experienced first-hand, rather than discussed at length. It does come with a brief warning, though—you may find yourself tearing up at the end.
“Spectral Evidence” by Gemma Files
Academic-flavored horror is a playground rarely played in, which is a shame, because any subgenre that contains such gems as Stephen Graham Jones’s zombie anthropology story “Chapter Six,” surrealist horror like House of Leaves, or Catherynne M. Valente’s fantastic Invisible Games deserves all the readers. A prime example of the form, “Spectral Evidence” takes the shape of a research paper on the photos from a parapsychological study. Files lures you in with the bizarre central objects, and the informal way the parapsychologist who ostensibly penned the paper peppers her comments throughout the scholarly text, and the amusing annotations from other researchers trying to decipher her work. As the photos go on, things take a turn for the sinister, but it never stops feeling like we’re reading about real, tangible objects. It’s an unnerving read, with just enough edge to cut you a little, and leave you bleeding.
“Is Your Blood As Red As This?” by Helen Oyeyemi
Oyeyemi’s collection of linked short stories is brighter in palette than some of her more gothic work, but the stories themselves are no less eerie for it, especially “Is Your Blood…” which manages to blend an unusual arts academy, a haunted brass puppet, and a young woman who can see spirits together into a tale of relationships, how an artist’s disposition can affect their art, and the weird ways we connect with one others—even if those others aren’t quite human. It’s a strange story, bursting with odd details and strange flourishes (like the nihilistic puppets of one of the art students, and the fear amid the puppet collection that they might all be split up) that only serve to deepen the weird sense of humanity and empathy the narrative creates.
What’s your favorite ghost story?