Over two hundred more years have passed since Johnson wrote this—two hundred years of vast technological advancement—and still, this subject comes down to the simple notion of belief vs. disbelief.
In his book The Fantastic (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975), Tsvetan Todorov offers one of the best explanations of how readers participate in a “gothic hesitation” to sort out this potentially disturbing subject.
The fantastic, we have seen, lasts only as long as a certain hesitation: a hesitation common to reader and character, who must decide whether or not what they perceive derives from reality as it exists in the common opinion. At the story's end, the reader makes a decision even if the character does not; he opts for one solution or the other, and thereby emerges from the fantastic. If he decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we say that the work belongs to another genre: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous.
I have had my own brushes with the uncanny and found there is always a frustration when trying to relay the experience to a friend later on. In the moment, I was positive I was faced with the “new laws of nature” Todorov presents, and that “all belief was for it,” but once I began explaining it to another person, the certainty became diminished with each passing word I tried to place upon it.
This is why ghost stories are so popular. We read the book, or watch the film, and can safely entertain the notion, in the guise of fiction, that we accept the supernatural as real. We are safe there. We wander the halls of The Overlook or Hill House expecting entertainment but also to enter the world of the what if, the Todorovian hesitation that allows for the real possibility that the spirit world is real.
My new collection, Silhouette of Darkness includes two ghost stories.
An Act of Naming
Norman wanders the streets after a night of drinking and meets Angela, a homeless amnesiac. The moment their eyes meet is the beginning of an evening of mystery.