Ghosts have endured for centuries in cultures and societies around the world, passed down in oral traditions like La Llorona, a Latin American ghost said to have murdered her children, to the Phi-Ka ghost of Thailand that can change into six different versions of itself. Read about 13 famous (and mostly) literary ghosts, from helpful souls to comic relief, or vengeful and terrifying ghosts.
The ghost of Beloved from Beloved by Toni Morrison. A mother and former slave is haunted by the daughter she killed rather than allow her to return to slavery. Is the young woman who shows up at her doorstep the spirit of the child she lost so long ago? Inspired by a true story.
"Something that is loved is never lost."
Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. A young woman becomes a governess at a remote country home, but she soon realizes the children are consorting with a pair of not-so-nice spirits, and in her attempt to protect the children, she makes a horrible choice.
“He was there or was not there: not there if I didn't see him.”
The ghost of Hamlet's father from Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Hamlet's father was straight up poisoned and murdered by his brother Claudius, so the now-ghost-and-former-king asks his son, Prince Hamlet, to avenge his death as good sons did back in the Middle Ages.
"...but know, thou noble youth, The serpent that did sting thy Fathers life, Now wears his crown."
The Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. All right, so this isn't truly a ghost (or is it?), but it's perfect for Halloween. New schoolmaster Ichabod Crane falls for an heiress, Katrina, and (SPOILER) after a night of hearing ghost stories and getting rejected by Katrina, Ichabod is chased out of town by a headless horseman who throws a pumpkin at him. That's mostly the story.
“To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a corn-field."
Susie Salmon from The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Young Susie Salmon is murdered, and her spirit watches over her family as they search desperately for answers about what happened to their daughter.
“Murderers are not monsters, they're men. And that's the most frightening thing about them.”
The King of the Dead and the Dead Men of Dunharrow from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. These guys abandoned their oath to Isildur, the guy who cut off the One Ring from Sauron's hand, and hid in the mountains instead. Isildur cursed them and the Dead Men of Dunharrow are doomed to haunt a bunch of places in Middle Earth until they fulfill their oath.
The way is shut. It was made by those who are Dead. And the Dead keep it. The way is shut.”
The ghosts from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and Jacob Marley. A miserly old man (SPOILER: he's called Scrooge) is visited by the ghost of his former business partner and three spirits during Christmas to show him the error of his ways and help him not be such a jerk-o-lantern. (Too much to include a Halloween pun for a book set during Christmas? I think not.)
"I wear the chain I forged in life," replied the Ghost. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
The Canterville Ghost from The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde. The Otis family moves into a castle that's haunted by a dead nobleman, who, much to his growing annoyance, cannot scare them no matter how hard he tries, and instead, it's the family who ends up spooking the ghost.
"The next day the ghost was very weak and tired. The terrible excitement of the last four weeks was beginning to have its effect. His nerves were completely shattered, and he started at the slightest noise. For five days he kept his room, and at last made up his mind to give up the point of the blood-stain on the library floor. If the Otis family did not want it, they clearly did not deserve it."
The Hogwarts ghosts from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Each Hogwarts house has a ghost (Nearly-Headless Nick for Gryffindor, Fat Friar for Hufflepuff, the Bloody Baron for Slytherin and the Grey Lady for Ravenclaw) plus there's a mischievous poltergeist named Peeves.
“I would rather die than betray his trust." "That's not saying much, seeing as you're already dead," Ron observed. "Once again, you show all the sensitivity of a blunt axe," said Nearly Headless Nick in affronted tones. --Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince
Banquo the ghost from Macbeth by William Shakespeare (that's right, Shakespeare gets two entries!). Macbeth is throwing a party after he murdered his pal Banquo, who joins the party all covered in blood...except no one but Macbeth can see the ghost. Plus, witches.
"And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, / The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s / In deepest consequence."
The hotel ghosts from The Shining by Stephen King. There are quite a few ghosts, supernatural forces and an alcoholic father all stuck together in the isolated Overlook Hotel, and it's the hotel that desires to possess Danny, a young boy, with the gift of the "shining."
“Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside of us, and sometimes, they win.”
The "ghost" of Rebecca in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. A young bride moves into her new husband's massive home and is spectacularly creeped out by the first wife's maid who refuses to let her beloved mistress's memory be tainted.
“We're not meant for happiness, you and I.”
The ghosts in Ghost Story by Peter Straub. A bunch of guys get together to tell each other a bunch of ghost stories, which, of course, may or may not be true, especially since one of the members of this ghost-story-telling-club died under mysterious circumstances.
“I do know that nobody can protect anybody else from vileness. Or from pain. All you can do is not let it break you in half and keep on going until you get to the other side.”
What literary ghosts did we forget? Do you have a favorite? Tell us!