10 Ghost Story Tropes and Their Origins

Belief in ghosts is widespread in folklore and mythology, dating back thousands of years. Most cultures have legends of the afterlife, including souls that linger on earth after their bodies die. In literature, ghosts appear in ancient works like the Oresteia and of Homer Odyssey.

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In the millennia since, ghosts have remained a mainstay of fiction, works of Shakespeare to classic ghost stories of the Victorian era. Beginning in the 1920s, ghosts appeared in dozens of Hollywood horror films, often portrayed in a sympathetic light. Since the 1970s, movies about ghosts have tended to be horrors or comedies, with the latter frequently subverting tropes of the genre. It’s a testament to the power of the ghost as an idea that storytellers continue to represent in books and movies to this day.


White sheet

The white sheet is perhaps the most iconic image of a ghost. These days it’s more like being seen in cartoons like scooby-doo, but in the past, the sight of a spectral white sheet was genuinely terrifying to readers and audiences alike. The origins of the white sheet go back centuries when corpses were wrapped in white shrouds.

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White sheets were used to portray ghosts in serious horror films until 1964. Whistle and I’ll come to you. Since then, several filmmakers have parodied the blank sheet to great effect. The best example is by David Lowery A ghost storyabout a man (Casey Affleck) whose spirit lives in the house he shared with his wife.

Ghosts teach a lesson

Another classic ghost story trope is the idea that ghosts have a lesson to teach the protagonists. The most famous example is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Miser Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, who warn him that he must change his ways. They show him visions that frighten him while cleaning up his act.

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Similar ideas are explored in films like At Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backboneand even by Miyazaki Taken away as if by magic, in a certain way. These ghost stories can be seen as a kind of memento mori, an artistic reminder of the inevitability of death and a lesson in appreciating life before it’s too late.

Ghosts with unfinished business

The predominant idea in the ghost story genre is that the dead have unfinished business in the living world, leaving them unable to move on to the afterlife. This concept also dates back centuries but had its heyday in film between the 1970s and 1990s when Hollywood produced films like field of dreams, Phantom, and heart and souls.

M Night. by Shyamalan The sixth sense is emblematic of this trope. Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) dies but remains on earth as a ghost, unbeknownst to him. With the help of clairvoyant child Cole (Haley Joel Osment), he accepts her death and tells his wife that he has always loved her. This completed, Crowe’s soul leaves the material world.

ghost hunters

Real-life ghost hunting began in earnest in the late 19th century, reaching more mainstream attention after the 1950s with the investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Since then, Ghostbusters have featured in dozens of movies and novels. The most famous is undoubtedly the one from 1984 ghost hunterswhich spawned several sequels and created a new model of horror-comedy.

In the early 2000s, ghost hunting became even more prominent on television with reality shows like A haunting and Most haunted. However, these programs are often criticized for being pseudo-scientific and failing to find real evidence. Nonetheless, ghost hunting remains a surprisingly popular pastime. One of the biggest ghost-hunting organizations, the Atlantic Paranormal Society, was the subject of the reality show ghost hunters. Interesting little anecdote: the company counts the author Jodi Picoult among its honorary members.

haunted houses

Several famous buildings around the world are now said to be haunted, including the Borley Rectory in England, the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California, and the Wukang Mansion in Shanghai. It’s not new. Stories of haunted houses date back to ancient Rome with the play of Plautus appointed The haunted house. Hauntings also appear in the work of a later Roman writer Senecawhich influenced ghosts in some Shakespearean plays. Arabian Nightssthe collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, also includes a story about a haunted house.

A modern update of the genre came in the late 1800s when the author Charlotte Riddell wrote several stories about apparitions threatening people in their homes. This was followed by Shirley Jacksonseminal 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. Among the most acclaimed ghost stories 20th century, The Haunting of Hill House inspired dozens of horror writers and filmmakers, including Stephen King. It served as the basis for two film adaptations and, most recently, a Netflix series.


Ectoplasm is said to be the physical substance created by spirits in the living world. The term was coined in 1894 by the researcher Charles Richet, but there is no evidence that it exists. That didn’t stop it from becoming a feature of ghost history.

Ectoplasm appears in various forms in dozens of movies and TV shows, including Undesirables, The legend of the house of hell, The scary ones,andpersonal customer. The most influential depiction of ectoplasm is found in ghost hunterswhere it turns out to be thick, greenish mud.


A poltergeist is a noisy spirit that can cause physical disturbances, such as throwing objects, levitating objects, or making sounds, such as knocking. References to poltergeists first appeared in the 17th century. Since then, there have been several alleged cases of poltergeists in the real world, and the concept has spread to horror movies and novels.

Poltergeists feature prominently inInsidious, paranormal activity, The Amityville Horror, The entity, Funeral meetings, and more. However, none of these films can eclipse the 1982 film. Fighting spiritwritten and directed by Steven Spielberg and led by Tobe Hooper. The film had a major influence on later ghost stories and became a horror classic.


Possession can be found in most folklore and many religions, dating back thousands of years. In fiction, the earliest known description of ghost-possessed characters comes from 11th-century Japanese work. The Tale of Genjiwhich could be the world’s first novel.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, ghostly possession has featured in many horror films, including Conspiracy series2012 Ownership,and The Haunting of Enfieldas of 2015. Often a character is first possessed by a ghost, creating an opportunity for a more malevolent force, such as a demon, to invade the host.

Ghosts as Comedy

All genres evolve, often reversing or mocking the works that preceded them. In recent decades, comedies and shows about ghosts have proliferated, mimicking a similar trend. that happened with zombies and vampires.

Once again, ghost hunters’ influence as a ghost comedy cannot be overstated. Other films followed, including that of Tim Burton beetle juice, caspar, like paradise, horror movie 2, and Extraordinary. Ghosts are also humorously depicted in the Harry Potter movies, especially with the almost headless character of Nick (John Cleese). Many television shows also offer a comic version of the ghost story, such as Wellington Paranormaland, more recently, the BBCGhosts featuring Charlotte Ritchie.


Horror movies about ghosts often feature strange images that show up in photographs, especially of the dead. Paranormal investigators have claimed for decades that these “orbs” are created by spirits. The phenomenon is real: it is not uncommon for strange artefacts, often white spheres, to develop on the photographs.

However, there is a perfectly innocuous explanation for these “orbs”: they are caused by light from a camera flash reflecting off particles in the air, such as dust, towards the camera. It’s called backscatter, and there’s nothing ghostly about it.

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