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Meet our favourite classic ghosts

October 18, 2016 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy


Ghosts might be scary, but we all enjoy reading tales of the supernatural and are captured by the thrills and mystery of good ghost stories. To many readers, good ghost stories are sophisticated and entertaining, and while some of them leave us doubting and analysing what exactly happened in them, others often reveal a logical explanation behind the mystery.

Illustration from the Helbling Reader adaptation of The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde. Illustrated by Gianluca Garofalo e Matteo Vattani. © Helbling Languages

Ghosts and spirits are present in all cultural traditions, folklore and literature. They gain different significance in different eras from ancient times through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance right up to the present day.

As Halloween approaches we take a look at the supernatural from a multicultural perspective.

We recommend the following discussion questions and titles for teens at an intermediate (or higher) level. 

Eight questions about ghosts

  1. What do ghosts represent in different cultures?
  2. Are they present in your folklore?
  3. Do you know any famous ghost stories?
  4. Have you seen any films about ghosts?
  5. How are ghosts depicted in paintings and films?
  6. Have you read or heard about any friendly ghosts? What do they represent?
  7. What is the scientific verdict on ghosts?
  8. What do ghosts symbolise?

Ghost stories in literature

Today we will look at five gripping classic ghost stories which will undoubtedly get your students hooked on reading. Each one depicts a different aspect of ghost phenomenology so they can also serve as an excellent cultural and literary overview of the genre in American and British literature.

When we talk about ghost stories in modern literature, we need to mention The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764), which is the first classic Gothic story, the predecessor of all ghost stories. Many of the ghost stories which followed rely on this novel for atmosphere, plot and setting.

Let's meet our favourite ghosts now.

THE LEGENDARY GHOST: The Headless Horseman

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

This is the story of Ichabod Crane, a superstitious schoolmaster who arrives in Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod falls in love with Katrina van Tassel, a wealthy farmer’s daughter, but he must compete with the strong, handsome Brom Bones for her hand. When Ichabod is invited to a party at Katrina’s house, will he able to convince the young girl to marry him? And how does the terrifying ‘Headless Horseman’ change his life forever?

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow new logo

THE COMICAL GHOST: The Canterville Ghost

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

When an American family buy an old English mansion, they also inherit its terrible ghost. The ghost sets about frightening the new owners, but the Americans don’t frighten easily and the ghost gets more than he had bargained for.

The Canterville Ghost new logo

THE CHRISTMAS GHOSTS: Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Ebenezer Scrooge is a mean and lonely old man. But one Christmas Eve three ghosts come to visit him and scare him into changing his ways. Scrooge discovers that there is more to life than work and money and that kindness has its own rewards.


The Masque of Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe

The story is set in an unnamed time and place. A terrible disease, the Red Death, is spreading rapidly throughout the land, killing everyone it meets. Prince Prospero, along with one thousand noble friends, escapes to an isolated abbey where he is sure they will be happy and safe. After several months he organises a fancy dress ball in a set of rooms that have been decorated in different colours. The last room is decorated in black and has a black clock that rings every hour. However on the stroke of midnight an uninvited guest arrives, dressed as the Red Death. 



THE CREEPIEST GHOSTS: Miss Jessel and Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

When a young girl accepts a position as governess to look after Flora and Miles little does she know that her job will be so difficult. Both children seem perfect and charming but after a few weeks at the grand house of Bly two strange figures appear. Are these figures real people or ghosts? And what influence do they have on the children? Can the governess protect Flora and Miles?

The Turn of the Screw new logo


Talk about the stories

After reading some or all of these ghost stories, discuss the following questions to direct your students’ attention to the functional and cultural role of the ghosts in the individual texts.

  • What do the ghosts in each story represent?
  • How do you feel about the ghosts?
  • How superstitious are the people who keep the legend of these ghosts alive? Why do they do so?
  • Do any of the stories leave their readers in doubt?
  • Where are the stories set?
  • What is the relationship between the ghosts and the other characters in the stories?
  • What historical events happened at the time of the stories?

Some research for you and higher-level students

In this article about ghosts and Victorian literature, you can read about a socio-economical explanation of the popularity of ghosts in the era. Read this article (or ask your higher-level students to read it) and tell your class about the findings. Remember to discuss the following points:

  • servants in cities: 'Never seen, always heard',
  • invisible staircases,
  • invention of photography.

Our favourite ghosts stories

  • William Shakespeare: Hamlet
  • M. R. James: 'Lost Hearts'
  • James Joyce: 'The Dead'
  • Edith Wharton: Bewitched
  • Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca
  • Toni Morrison: Beloved
  • Stephen King: The Shining

Some ghostly language

How do you recognise a good ghost story? It's about the setting, the characters, the plot, and of course the language. We have collected the most typical words which are related to ghost stories, and then we look at some expressions with ghosts.

5.1 Use the word collection to write your own or talk about your favourite ghosts stories. 

NOUNS: spirit, dead/undead, spectre, presence, shadow, spook

ADJECTIVES: ghostly, spooky, creepy

VERBS: haunt, creak, shrill, flicker, appear, fleet

5.2 Read our selection of expressions with ghosts. Do you know any of them? What do they mean?

  1. You look like you have seen a ghost.
  2. You haven't got a ghost of a chance.
  3. My car has given up the ghost.
  4. His book was written by a ghostwriter.
  5. He's ghosting  me.

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