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Christmas stories to tell in the dark:

Authors, scholars discuss a forgotten holiday tradition of telling scary stories at Christmastime

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Actors Lulu Picart and David Sitler portray The Spirit of Christmas Present and Ebenezer Scrooge for Triad Stage’s 2016 production of A Christmas Carol directed by Sarah Hankins

Correction: In the print version of this cutline, Sarah Hankins's name was misspelled. It has been updated to reflect the correct spelling.  

Featured photo by and courtesy of VanderVeen Photography: Actors David Sitler and Lee Spencer portray Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghost of Scrooge’s former business partner Jacob Marley in Triad Stage’s 2016 production of A Christmas Carol, directed by Sarah Hankins

For some Americans, the spirits most associated with December are the ones used to spike punch and eggnog. Others may think of Ebenezer Scrooge’s nocturnal visitors and wish that “one-percenters” really could be supernaturally terrorized into becoming decent human beings. Holiday shoppers, when subjected to Andy Williams’s 1963 hit “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” momentarily wonder what “scary ghost stories” have to do with “tales of the glories of Christmases long ago.”

In the land of Dickens, Shakespeare and the BBC, the answer is “a lot.”

The English custom of telling scary stories on the longest and darkest nights of the year was born at a time when people feared not only ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties (and real dangers like wolves and robbers), but endured the freezing nights that lasted more hours than a person could sleep. As anyone who’s sat around a campfire or bonfire knows, the human imagination delights in conjuring sinister forms out of the dancing shadows cast by crackling flames.

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” says the boy prince Mamillius in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, teasingly threatening to tell his mother Hermione “one of sprites and goblins.” But the tradition is older than Elizabethan drama, wrote Dr. Heather Hayton, Professor of English and director of the honors program at Guilford College, in a recent email about her favorite Christmas ghost story.

“I’m going to sound too much like a professor, but hear me out. Mine is actually Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This 14th -century Middle-English story begins and ends with Christmas feasts (one year apart). The story, however, includes a beheading, a knight lost in haunted woods, some sexual shenanigans involving a married woman, shapeshifting monsters, and plenty of guilt that haunts the survivor. There is a fantastic movie version coming out that stars Dev Patel, called The Green Knight.”

For Hayton, the seasonal setting is essential to the tale. “I think many Christmas stories are about loss, nostalgia, and letting go of the Old so we can look forward to the New.”

Several of the earliest known examples of published Christmas ghost stories are found in Round Our Coal Fire, or, Christmas Entertainments, printed in 1734 by the London publisher Fenwick. Attributed to “Dick Merryman,” the one-shilling pamphlet boasts a lengthy subtitle:

Wherein is described abundance of fiddle-faddle-stuff, raw-heads, bloody-bones, buggybows, and such like horrible bodies, eating, drinking, kissing & other diversions, witches, wizards, conjurers, and their merry pranks, fairies, spectres, ghosts & apparitions, a right merrie tale, the story of Jack Spriggins and the enchanted bean, curious memoirs of Old Father Christmas.

Chapter 5, “of spectres, ghosts and apparitions; the great Conveniences arising from them; and how to make them,” begins with the tale, “Of a Terrible Ghost.” In it, “Mr. Thomas Stringer, a Gentleman of Good Fortune,” falls in love with “the greatest Beauty in his Country.”

While she accepts his gifts of gold and jewels, and enters into “a sacred Pledge of their mutual Affections,” she cheats on him with other lovers. Heartbroken, Thomas Stringer “so poisoned himself.”

This traditional Christmas story concludes with dismemberment and a fart joke.

But a few Nights later, what a terrible Figure did he make her Bed-Chamber! His hair was nothing but Serpents, his Lilly-white hands and his pretty little Feet were become like Eagles Claws, he crawled like a Toad along the Floor, croaking as he went, and glaring Eyes with Horror in their Looks; he had a Light all about, as if he was red hot.

The Lady was all affrighted by his ghastly appearance, while the Toad-shaped Creature was crawling up the Bed, and then kissing her with his ugly Mouth, spit Venom in her Face, and then in a hideous Voice hollowed out, Now I have caught thee, and will be revenged; after which the Ghost with his Iron Claws tore her to Pieces, and sent her Scraps to the Devil, as just Reward for her Treachery. All the while this was doing, the Candle, which stood on the Table, burnt Blue, which gives me room to think that a bad Ghost and a bad Stink are the same thing; for a bad Stink will make the Candle burn Blue as a bad Ghost – and then I awaked in a fright.

One hundred and ten years later, the man who was then the most popular author in the English language wrote A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. This 110-page novella was released on Dec. 19, 1843. Despite its huge success, it initially earned Charles Dickens little money. He had paid for its being printed in a slim and elegantly designed book with color illustrations by John Leech, and priced at five shillings ($33.38 in 2020 dollars).

Although all 6,000 copies had sold out by Christmas Eve, the printing cost had been very high and Dickens’ profit very low. He netted about 600 pounds, 500 of which he spent suing other publishers for the pirated editions that sprang up after his had sold out.

Many film and T.V. adaptations soften and sentimentalize his story— although the 2019 FX mini-series with Guy Pearce and Andy Serkis goes ridiculously far in the other direction, with Scrooge demanding sex from Bob Cratchit’s sobbing wife in exchange for money to pay for Tiny Tim’s medicine, just to prove that everybody has a price and there’s no such thing as decency.

Re-reading it this season, I found myself vividly reminded of how genuinely scary it is at times, but also how funny (sometimes in a very dark way), and how concerned it is with social justice.

The writer Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods, Coraline and Sandman, and co-author of Good Omens (which he adapted and produced as a 2019 mini-series for Amazon Studios and the BBC), agrees. Gaiman, who has several connections to the Triad – he has increased international awareness of the Marcus Smith case, and his youngest daughter attended Wake Forrest — recently emailed YES! Weekly the following statement:

“I was fortunate in that I got to perform A Christmas Carol from Dickens’s prompt copy of the book at the New York Public Library. I read it dressed as Dickens. I don’t think I had understood A Christmas Carol before I did that. It’s a work of fury and of redemption. I don’t honestly know if there is a real tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas, or if it’s something that Dickens created, but I love that it now lurks in the back of our minds. The Solstice and time of year is terrifying. I was just on Skye [the largest and northmost island of the Inner Hebrides off the coast of Scotland], where the night ends at 10 in the morning and begins again at 3 in the afternoon, and if ever it was a time of the ghost stories, it is now.”

The comic book artist and writer Mike Mignola, who created Hellboy, also told YES! Weekly of his deep love for A Christmas Carol. As one might gather from his work, Mignola is drawn to the dark and horrific, and he loves the spectacularly grim ghost stories of M. R. James, which were written to be read aloud each Christmas Eve to the boys at Eton, where James was Provost.

There is no redemption in James’s work, nor, despite his Anglican faith, any moral lesson, and his “ghosts” are typically as monstrous as the crawling thing from Round Our Coal Fire (which was reprinted in the 19th century, and which James may have read as a boy, as his own ghosts and demons are often toadlike).

Despite Mignola’s attraction to monsters, his favorite ghost is Jacob Marley.

“Christmas in the one holiday I’m actually sentimental about, so Marley’s act of kindness from beyond the grave, trying to get Scrooge to change his ways and lamenting his own failure, for me, is just perfect. It is creepy (appearing on a door knocker and then wrapped in chains) but also sad. And when it comes to ghosts (especially at Christmastime) I love sad. All my favorite Christmas music is also dark and churchy and sad.”

But there’s some deeply frightening moments, too, including when Marley proves to Scrooge that he really is “dead as a doornail.”

At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror when the phantom, taking off the bandage round his head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!

Despite what you may have read online, the handkerchief tied around Jacob Marley’s head does not indicate he died of an infected tooth. It’s a makeshift chinstrap, securing the jaw in place. Corpses, which were often kept in Victorian parlors before burial, had heads bound this way, both in order to keep dead jaws from being fixed agape when rigor mortis set in, and from flapping open when muscles lost integrity. If this was not done, bodies would deteriorate with mouths wide open, resulting in the archaeological phenomena known as “screaming mummies.”

Of all the adaptations of the classic story, the shock of this moment is best depicted in the 1971 American T.V. adaptation by the great animator Richard Williams (Who Framed Robert Rabbit?), which despite being only 25 minutes long, manages to be amazingly faithful to its source.

(It can be viewed for free on YouTube.)

But “a Ghost story for Christmas” need not be set during that season. Many of the spooky tales that Dickens either wrote himself or purchased for the Christmas issue of his weekly magazine All the Year Round never mention the holiday. Henry James’s novel The Turn of the Screw, which was the basis for the Netflix mini-series The Haunting of Bly Manor, begins as a ghost story told on Christmas Eve, long after its events allegedly happened, but story does not take place in December. Susan Hill’s frightening 1983 novel The Woman in Black, which has been adapted as a terrifying play and 1989 British T.V. movie (and, less effectively as a 2012 film), is also framed a story told at Christmas, but does not take place then.

So, you can be perfectly traditional by merely reading or watching a ghost story this week— no matter when it takes place, and here are a few choices:

A story that absolutely terrified me as a kid is F. Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth,” first published in the 1886 edition of Unwin’s Christmas Annual, which takes place on a steamship and concerns a horribly solid ghost squeezing in through a porthole. It’s in many anthologies of classic ghost and horror stories, and available for free online as a Project Guttenberg E-Book. There’s Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat,” a subtly frightening and very modern haunted house story that Link first wrote while she was earning her MFA in Creative Writing at UNCG, and which can be read on her website.

For something very recent, and both creepy and warm-hearted (and partially set during the holidays), try Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s excellent 2019 story, “The Haunting of 13 Olúwo Street,” which can be read for free online, or listened to in a reading by the author, at the Fireside Magazine website.

Of course, there are also the Triad’s allegedly real hauntings. Dan Riedel, who owns Carolina History and Haunts with his wife Bridgette, told YES! Weekly that “We have been mentioning for years that the telling of ghost stories is actually a tradition in many cultures during this season.”

While it’s too late to book one of their tours for Christmas, they are conducted year-round (and currently, in proper social distancing small groups), and visit such sites as Hamburger Square and M’Coul’s in Greensboro, and Grace Court and Rosenbacher House in Winston-Salem. Tour gift certificates can be purchased online.

As to why ghosts are more associated with Christmas in the United Kingdom than in the United States of America, Triad resident Jessica Cale, an author and historian who conducts ghost tours and founded the addictive Dirty Sexy History website, has a theory:

“Ghosts are more accepted in places where Christian fundamentalism isn’t as prevalent. In the U.K., pretty much everyone believes in them, but it’s not a big deal because it’s a more secular country, so the literary tradition is more influential on the culture than any kind of spiritual beliefs about the afterlife.”

Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.

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