How absurd we are about death. In reality, it breaks our hearts – yet half our entertainment is based on it. If we’re not gazing at it on TV, we’re reading about it in novels, and it comes in so many flavours. Cosy crime! Scandi noir! Psychological horror! Detective vicars! Terrifying ghosts! But there is one genre which to my mind does not get praised enough, and that is: the very human ghost.

Why, so often, does our culture make humans our enemy the moment they die? Why are they suddenly out to get us, with the screeching and clanking and nasty smells, their bloodstains and heads under their arms, jumping out and saying boo, or ectoplasming all over the place, creaking and moving furniture or throwing plates or worse? I can’t go into detail about how much worse ghosts behave in modern films or TV or books, because I can’t watch them, or read them. Am I the only one who wonders why anybody still lived on Elm Street by the sequel – I mean wouldn’t you have moved the moment vengeful undead Freddie made an appearance? I can’t even watch trailers. Thumbs-up-from-behind-the-sofa is not a mode in which I operate. I do not care to be scared. I like ghosts to be… human.

Still from the original “Casper the Friendly Ghost” TV series – Paramount Pictures
Gene Tierney as Lucy Muir in “The Ghost and Mrs Muir”, 1947

So I come to you today to laud the friendly ghost – the ghost with character and personality; the ghost who is one of us. The first I loved was the animated sweetie in Casper the Friendly Ghost, with his Betty Boop pout and Shirley Temple voice. Episode after episode, from 1945 to date, sad and lonely little Casper only wanted to make friends, but accidentally terrified everyone, from the giant octopus and the raging bull to the bully boys and the pirate skeleton on the bottom of the deep blue sea, and then, so reliably, rescued someone and won love. He has ancient antecedents. The Grateful Dead, before it became the name of the mighty Californian country-rock band famous for being so stoned they’d pay eight-hour gigs without really noticing, was a term describing a particular kind of spook. The theory was that if a person died and the correct rites were not performed for their body – say because they were out of money, or in the hands of enemies (pace Antigone, the Bible, etc) –  their soul couldn’t rest. Should a living person get the chance, they should always perform those rites, for anyone. Then, next time you’re in trouble at sea, or lost in an eerie swamp, or a howling gale, your grateful dead will come to your aid and guide you to safety with a mysterious touch, a ghostly light across the moors or dancing on the wave-crashed rocks under a ragged moon.

It works the other way round too. The living can – and indeed should – rescue ghosts. The Canterville Ghost (1906), in Oscar Wilde’s story of the same name, another childhood favourite, is far from friendly at first, but badly in need of a friend. This vain and self-indulgent fellow had for centuries morosely enjoyed spooking guests at Canterville Chase (in a marvellously varied wardrobe, including a winding sheet with ruffles at wrist and throat), until the Otis family, “cultured Americans of the better class”, arrived with their modern hygienic ways to tease and torment him. They clean up his recurring bloodstain with Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent (which necessitates him using up all young Virginia Otis’s paints to recreate it, and it ends up emerald green). They politely offer “a small bottle of the Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator” for his clanking chains. “Never, in a brilliant and uninterrupted career of three hundred years, had he been so grossly insulted.” In the end though, it’s little Virginia who listens to his problems, understands his needs, weeps for him and helps him to eternal rest. “He made me see what Life is,” she says, “and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both.”

Bring on The Ghost and Mrs Muir – the wonderful  1947 classic film (with a score  Bernard Hermann called his personal best) in which widow Lucy Muir (Gene Tierney) moves to a haunted cottage and falls headlong for dashingly grumpy sea captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), who has alas been dead for four years.  She is skint; he wants to write his memoirs. As any fule know, the best route to love is via a shared project (be it getting over a cold in Jane Austen or escaping the gods in Shakespeare) so he dictates, she publishes, and all should be well – until George Sanders turns up…  Well, go and watch it. Suffice to say, if you’re in love with a ghost, there are impracticalities and, as the old folk songs suggests, “if you kiss my cold clay lips Your days they won’t be long” – words uttered by a corpse who would like his girlfriend to stop weeping on his grave now please, because it “will not let me sleep”.

Kay Hammond as Elvira in “Blithe Spirit”, 1945

The ghost in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1945), adapted by David Lean, isn’t nice either – but boy is she human! No generic gothic spooky stuff here. Elvira is smart and sexy and rude and modern (1940s modern); madly in love and seethingly jealous. Kay Hammond plays her, beautifully, after Louis B Meyer, refused to loan Myrna Loy for the role (much to Loy’s disappointment). Cary Grant turned down the role of the dry, handsome husband Elvira torments and seduces and tries to murder so they can be together for ever, and though Rex Harrison (him again!) is superb, it does seem a shame.  Ghost the movie (1990) makes it even more meta: never mind the potter’s wheel scene, Patrick Swayze has to come back from the dead to heroically stop his murderer from killing Demi Moore too. So kind of the opposite to Elvira’s response. It sounds as if it would be an absolute pudding of a flick, but I saw it again recently and it was all worthwhile for the peculiar, magnificent Vincent Schiavelli (whose tall, narrow, Marfan-syndrome physique he uses to great effect) as the shouty, touchy, needy ghost who haunts the subway. My personal Oscar for Ghost in a Love Story, though, will always go to Alan Rickman, playing his cello for Juliet Stevenson in Truly Madly Deeply (also 1990). The score’s composer, Barrington Pheloung, played one of the annoying movie-buff ghosts that Rickman’s character brings back with him to watch videos at Juliet’s place.

Rosie Cavaliero, Simon Farnaby, Katy Wix, and Laurence Rickard in “Ghosts”, 2019 – BBC

There’s a rich seam of non-romantic ghosts with real character too: the animation Coco (2017), in which a little Mexican lad’s love of music takes him to the afterlife in a glorious mash-up of Day of the Dead tropes and fully-formed characters – who are dead.  And our gorgeous home-grown TV series Ghosts (2019), is a classic old-school sitcom in which a nice young couple inherit a big old house and with it multiple generations of adorably complex ghosts from different historical periods: a chess-obsessed caveman, a hyper-romantic romantic poet, a witchy mediaeval chambermaid, a saucy Georgian miss; a repressed WW1 officer, a trouser-less Tory MP who died in a sex romp scandal, and a poor Elizabethan who keeps losing his head – literally. They’re a smorgasbord of excellent performances and ridiculous British humour. Real people. Human. Funny. Touching. And dead. But not letting that stop them.

Looking back on these favourites I see precisely the origins of my own ghostly romantic novel Twelve Months and a Day. A widow myself, with a widowed boyfriend, I started thinking – how would the dead feel about this? If they were around to feel things, which emotions would win out? Loss and possessiveness? Eternal sadness and anger? Or the desire for those we love to be happy? They loved us in life;

why would they stop now? We don’t stop loving them. I felt this might be a key to my own living future, as well as my book.

And I knew that fictional or not, they’d be happy for us.

But not immediately.

Twelve Months and a Day by Louisa Young is out now (Borough Press; £14.99)

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