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Six Powerful Ghosts from Literature


Archetypal beings full of magic and melancholy, they haunt literature as an essential metaphor for human subjectivity.

What is a ghost? There are many kinds: those of the imagination, those of dreams, the literary and the dramatic, those of the past and even of the future, the angelic and the demonic. They have in common but a single fact: they’re not visible, normally, but only under exceptional circumstances. This lends them a shadowy atmosphere and a metaphysical charm; they’re what some call “those who inhabit the other side.” It’s a place we’ve always sought to discover.

They’re presented as a mystery, and this enchants us. “What is essential is invisible to the eye,” the Little Prince once said. But we need to remember that at least half of the world isn’t visible, and hence the power of ghosts. Or rather, hence the power of those presences we know are there but which we can neither touch nor see. There are not only beings, but also objects and spaces: ghost doors, enchanted wells, talismans loaded with magical power, geographies, ghost cartographies, cities and places which exist but which we can’t visit: Xanadú, El Dorado, Shangrilá … Paradise, to name but a few. Our love for all that’s ghostly even led to the development of paradoxical machines for detecting them.

World literature, oral and written, is full of stories in which ghosts interact with human beings or, as they say, with “the living”. At times, ghosts are made manifest, and at others, they are but simple, powerful presences (from remote places, from the past, or simply from the otherness, a word that seems so modern to us now). They’re necessary and precise tools in literature: they embody metaphors that refer to our subjectivity, to the past, and they’re a call to the mystery that forces us to turn page after page to reach a revelation, an epiphany, and which will stay with us the rest of our lives.

Here are but some of them…

King Hamlet

The ultra-famous Ghost, father of the Danish prince, who sets the plot to one of the masterpieces of Western literature running. Shakespeare deals with the theme in innumerable of his works in which ghosts appear: a restoration of order through revenge (and which might be called justice).

The Dead

A short story by James Joyce, the outcome is foreseen when Gabriel Conroy realizes that his wife is possessed by the memory of Michael Furey, a boy who’d loved her years before. The novella transcends the author’s Irish heritage and reaches for the universal in dealing with a subject that’s touched anyone who’s lost a love, or who vainly took one for granted.

Pedro Paramo

In Juan Rulfo’s novel, a masterpiece of Mexican literature, the ghost of a father reappears, but this time, he’s a symbol not only of personal and familial abandonment but also of a ruthless cacique’s abandonment of its entire region, the now mythical Comala. Juan Preciado, the son, learns of the desolation from the murmurs of the dead, all while the omnipresent spectrum of Pedro Páramo permeates the very totality of the universe that some call Mexico.


Daphne du Maurier’s already popular work reached mythological levels after Alfred Hitchcock made it into one of his own masterpieces. But Rebecca doesn’t drag chains nor does she howl bitterly; she doesn’t even to come into the world simply to make the hair of kind and innocent bystanders stand on end. The mere mention of Rebecca, by the maid, Mrs. Danvers, is enough to electrify by the very power of the ghost’s evil. Already a classic, the subtle and perverse phantom fills readers with anxiety, leaves us glued our seats and desperate for a way out.

The Imp of the Perverse

The definitive master of modern horror, Edgar Allan Poe died possessed by a ghost who followed him through the streets of Baltimore after he’d been found delirious. Poe rediscovered madness full of personal and other ghosts (as has been suggested by Shakespeare more than once), in nothing less than a rupture in the membrane between the outer and inner worlds. Paradoxically, in The Imp of the Perverse, the conscience itself takes on a near-ghostly form, leading the protagonist to confess to what he’s long supposed to have been the perfect crime.

The Murdered Horse

A work in itself ghostly for its circumstances and history, The Murdered Horse (El caballo asesinado, 1988) was written by Francisco Tario, the pseudonym of Francisco Peláez. Tario forgot a play in a desk drawer. Years later, the play is discovered. Critics describe it as “strange, amazing, and implausible.” It takes years for the play to be staged and opened. The plot proposes, in the first act, real situations which are persistently interrupted by incursions from a ghostly other world. Surprisingly, in the second act, the ghosts have themselves become protagonists, and the incursions now come from a mundane, everyday reality. In the end, the spectator, (a word which shares its root with the word “spectrum”), must decide which is really important: the “real world,” external, concrete, and material, or that “other world,” internal, ghostly, and ethereal.


A fictional depiction of a ghost in a long white veil walking down a hallway.


Images: 1) Adam Franco-flickr 2) Wikimedia Commons

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