A Long History
Why Were Americans Interested in the Supernatural?
Ghost Stories Provided a Needed Thrill
Fiction and perhaps even non-fiction ghost stories were popular with Victorian Americans in part because they had the ability to frighten them. The spirit world represented the death realm—an unfamiliar and potentially frightening place for the living. Added to this fact, phantoms could do the unexpected, such as appear out of thin air or perform superhuman feats, which no human being could hope to match. It is no wonder that many of the protagonists in these tales were frightened out of their wits by the appearance of a ghost—an often menacing creature who powers defied logic and who usually could not be killed, since the being was already dead. Readers, who were able to live vicariously through the story’s characters could probably become just as frightened. This thrill represented a welcome diversion from the boredom of everyday life, which seemed to become more standardized and predictable with each passing decade (1).
Ghost stories of the era catered to this need for excitement. One such story started off by claiming that it was “[a]n exciting story,” and it provided its first thrill early on when the protagonist, Clara, came face to face with a menacing looking apparition:
One evening, Miss Clara was alone in one of the upper rooms of the institution practicing her music lesson; an apparition suddenly appeared before her in the shape of a girl about eight years of age...The object was virtually a skeleton in appearance, clad in a dingy and tattered dress of faded pink, which was partly covered with a slimy mould. It seemed also to be transparent...The apparition advanced however, with slow and noiseless steps to the bedside...Clara, aghast and speechless with terror, was nearly thrown into spasms... (2).
ghost, supernatural, Spiritualism, antebellum,