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Getting into the spirit: how Christmas makes us think of ghosts


Scrooge was famously haunted by three spectral visitors at Christmas time, but the tradition of telling ghost stories at midwinter goes back much further than Dickens. People have been gathering around the fire to tell stories at Yule, the pagan festival to mark the winter solstice, for centuries. As the year comes to a close, it’s natural to think about loved ones no longer with us – and what better time for ghosts to draw near than deepest, darkest winter?

Thinking about the dead and remembering the past go hand in hand, especially at Christmas. Perhaps it’s no surprise the most wonderful time of the year promises scary ghost stories. Reminiscing, it seems, is as compulsory as turkey and tinsel – whether that’s talking about old times with family, re-watching comedy classics, or remembering our childhood days. When I look back at my childhood, few memories are more vivid than the time I saw a ghost. I appreciate that what I’m about to say sounds like fiction, but whether or not it was real or imagined, the experience undeniably shaped my life and the person I am today.

Like all good stories, I should start at the beginning… I grew up in a small two-bedroom house in the West Midlands with my mum and my nan. Mum had me when she was 18 and I shared her childhood bedroom, which was filled with her collection of clown dolls, figurines and puppets. I don’t mean one or two – every surface was covered with them. One day, I must have been about seven, I was playing on the floor when I saw a doll move by itself. It didn’t fall off a shelf or slip from its stand, its hand moved as if it was beckoning me. Other things happened, too; a door knob rattled when there was no one on the other side.

Once, when I was in bed, I saw a white mist, like a whirlwind, hanging above my head. I hid under the covers, terrified, and must have fallen asleep at some point. I asked my nan about it the next day, and she told me that several of my relatives had died in the house. If there was anything there, then they were my family and wouldn’t hurt me. It was like a crack had opened up in my world: if one “impossible” thing could be possible, then why not others? The experience sparked what was to become a life-long fascination with the supernatural – in particular death and what comes after.

Growing up, I used to wonder why adults didn’t talk about it more, why scientists and the people in charge weren’t working hard to discover what awaits us: the afterlife or nothingness. Like many adolescents, I kept my thoughts to myself in an effort to appear “normal”, but the obsession never left me.

Things began to change when I studied English at A-level. I remember reading Waiting for Godot and having a surreal couple of days when I wandered around school feeling as if I wasn’t really there. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea didn’t help my existential angst – though to be fair, an unhappy home life at the time (a stepfather who didn’t make me feel welcome) probably had more to do with my sense of emotional dislocation.

When I realised it wasn’t just Sartre – that other people in history had spent their lifetime contemplating the “big” questions – it was a revelation. I dropped plans to study English Literature at university and took philosophy instead. Although it didn’t answer my questions, it was a comfort to know that others had been troubled by the same concerns: the nature of reality and consciousness, whether God exists, what happens when we die. I wasn’t uniquely mad. I read all kinds of books on ghosts and the paranormal over the years – some taking a scientific view, others philosophical or religious.

I was brought up Church of England more by default than choice, and we went to church occasionally, but it was never a big part of my life. My mum also took me along to a spiritualist church a couple of times, where people sat in a village hall and the man at the front passed on messages from a “spirit”. Neither experience really resonated with me.

In my late 20s, I sought out people with alternative views – namely occultists and Wiccans. Although I didn’t find any answers, I experienced enough to be convinced that there’s more to our reality than society would conventionally have us believe. That’s not to say I believe every psychic, medium, or TV ghost hunter. The mind and imagination is incredibly powerful and reality is, at least to some extent, affected by perception (a subject which has troubled philosophers from Descartes to Kant).

There are all kinds of possible explanations for the supernatural, and part of me would like to put my experiences down to childish imagination – especially when I’m alone in the house at night. But I can’t. It was as real for me as sitting here now typing at my computer is real for me. I haven’t kept it a secret, nor have I tried to convince others of what I saw. How can you believe the impossible unless you’ve experienced it for yourself?

Looking back, I can see that there was another reason I was so preoccupied with death as a child. I was acutely aware that my nan was old and wouldn’t always be around. After the doll incident, I refused to sleep in my mother’s bedroom again and shared a double bed with my nan for the rest of my years in that house. I would often lie awake at night, listening to her breathing, afraid to fall asleep in case she should stop.

One memory in particular stands out. I was aged around eight or nine, and I was watching her take the curlers from her hair, when a huge wave of worry came over me. I couldn’t imagine her not being in my life one day, and I begged her to come back to me after she died. Tired of my pleading, she promised me that she would try. If there was any way she could, then she would. She died when I was 19 and living away at university. I knew she didn’t have long the last time I saw her, and I told her that I loved her, and I thanked her for bringing me up. Her last words to me were: “Don’t cry, we’ve all got to go sometime.”

I suppose that’s why ghost stories are so powerful. Yes, being scared is thrilling and the unknown holds a disturbing kind of fascination. But on a very deep level, we all carry an awareness of our mortality inside us. For purely selfish reasons, don’t we all want to know if we will continue after death in one form or another? Add grief into the mix and ghost stories can have a huge emotional pull. Are our loved ones really still there, watching over us? Are they safe and happy, or lost and alone? Will we ever see them again?

It sounds strange, but I grieved for my nan long before she died or was even taken ill. I don’t know whether that made it easier or harder when it happened.

The days following her funeral were a kind of blur. I remember briefly dozing off and her face filling my whole mind. It was so vivid – in the way that dreams are when you’re grieving. She said, “you don’t really want me to come back, do you?” I replied no, terrified by the thought, and she smiled and then faded away. I can’t say I’ve seen her ghost, but I’ve often had a sense of being looked after in difficult times: a hand on my shoulder, a sense of comfort. The presence has always felt female.

So when I decided to write a novel, I knew it had to be a ghost story. The more I talk about my experiences, the more I realise that I’m not alone. There’s something oddly comforting about sharing ghost stories with people who have seen things too, and I wonder if that’s why our ancestors told scary tales around the fire. Perhaps talking about the darkness is our only hope of getting the measure of it, as if by knowing it, we might lessen its hold on us.

Now, at the age of 43 and with a family to care for, I have less time to consider the afterlife, though I like to think that my nan is still with me somehow. It’s only at quiet times, such as the “dead days” between Christmas and new year, that I find myself thinking about the past.

Reminiscing can feel a little self indulgent, but don’t we all deserve to take a moment to reflect on the experiences that have made us who we are? Something tells me that Dickens, like Plato, knew that an unexamined life was not worth living. If we want to understand who we are and what we’ve become, we must face the ghosts of the past.

Order Twisted Tree by Rachel Burge (published by Hot Key Books, 10 January) from for £7.03

Source: TheGuardian