I’m a person who enjoys the concept of being scared and hates the reality of being scared, which means that I get really excited at the prospect of a horror novel, but I have to read it in ten-minute increments. In the light of day. Surrounded by people whom I love. Before and after praying. And before I go to sleep, I put it in the freezer. Or in the glove compartment of my car parked at the end of the driveway.
Some of these scary ghost stories had me so shook I swear I heard an automated voice say ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED as I exorcised them the hell out of my house. I might be exaggerating. I might be.
Although scary ghost stories in particular are not in my trifecta of evil shit I can’t handle, they still freak me out. Here are some that I think about on a regular basis when my apartment is too quiet.
1. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by edgar allan poe
This ghost short story is kid-friendly, but I think it’s only child-approved because the language is simple enough for a developing mind. Surely the topics of homicidal obsession is one that would haunt any reader. (For example, when my friend’s refrigerator made a noise that only she could hear, I suggested, “Well, did you consider that sound might be the heart of the man you killed?” She did not think my joke was funny.)
2. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by alvin schwartz and stephen gammell
If these urban legends and scary ghost stories (meant for the ears of babes!) don’t scare you, the illustrations of the ghosts they entail will! I STILL have nightmares of the ghost’s feet hanging from the fireplace, not to mention that skull in the graveyard smoking a cigarette. I didn’t realize this until revisiting Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as an adult, but y’all: there is a BIBLIOGRAPHY. Pages of sources attesting to the stories’ credibility! (If you want to hear the stories read aloud to you, and then overreacted to, try this podcast. Full disclosure: I’m one of the people overreacting.)
3. Beloved by toni morrison
If there’s one book of horror (which is ALSO a scary ghost story) that I recommend to anyone who will listen, it’s Beloved by Toni Morrison. Our protagonist, Sethe, and her house, 124, are haunted by the infant ghost of Sethe’s murdered daughter. The novel begins, “124 was spiteful.” The murder of the child is far from the most horrific part of the narrative. What’s the scariest part? Here’s a hint: SLAVERY.
4. The Bell Witch
In the early 19th century, the Bell family in Tennessee witnessed hauntings and murders by the invisible witch, Old Kate Batts. An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch by Martin Van Buren Ingram details all the poltergeist activity, but the video below is enough of an overview to give you chills.
5. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
One of the most iconic, gothic scary ghost stories is The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, in which a supernatural investigator comes to research the house itself, and its inhabitants all experience bizarre phenomena. The plot revolves around Hill House itself, its mysterious nature, and what exactly possesses it to make it so terrifying. (And terror is definitely what we experience in this novel: it’s more of the dread of what will happen that scares the reader than the horror of it actually happening, which is perfect for someone like me, who prefers the anticipation.) Bonus: Netflix released its trailer for its adaptation of the novel, out now!
6. Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo
The novella Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo is one of the most iconic ghost stories—and many scholars give this text credit for inspiring some awesome works of magical realism. When Juan Preciado returns to his mother’s hometown of Camalo to find his father, he finds, instead, a literal ghost town. This novel also deals with death unlike many of the books on this list because the Mexican culture conceptualizes it so differently from the American culture.
7. The Ghost Belonged to Me by richard peck
This book is one of a few scary ghost stories for kids, and the film Child of Glass is based on it. In The Ghost Belonged to Me by Richard Peck, Alexander goes into the barn one night and the ghost of a little girl warns him of an impending disaster, which makes him a hero. When he explains that a ghost helped him, though, things get complicated. He learns why her bones are so far from her home in New Orleans, and he makes it his job to return them to their rightful place.
8. Stories about Djinn from See Something Say Something:
This post is by the co-founders of the Buzzfeed podcast See Something Say Something, about being Muslim in America, and this particular post has listeners write in with stories of djinn from their lives. Djinn aren’t exactly ghosts. According to this article, “For the uninitiated, jinn are creatures made of ‘smokeless fire’ that are mentioned in the Qur’an and throughout Islamic mythology. (They) are portrayed as invisible tricksters who whisper, confuse, and change shape.” To me, it seems close enough to a ghost short story list that it’s definitely worth investigating. I don’t want to oversell this post, but I couldn’t finish it in one sitting.
9. The Turn of the Screw by henry james
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of the most classic scary ghost stories. It’s even book-ended by the storytelling at a party on a stormy night! What’s scary about this story is that it is the children who are haunted—and although ghosts are not in my trifecta of evil shit I can’t handle, evil children are TWO of the three. The story is super spooky, partly because the source of the evil is never really defined.
10. “NO NAME WOMAN” BY MAXINE HONG KINGSTON
I’ve taught this story so many times, and every time I teach it, the ending chills me. I can literally read it aloud to a room full of apathetic 18-year-olds four times in a day (I have done this), and still get goosebumps every time. The story is a coming-of-age fairy tale, but more accurately, it’s a scare tactic against premarital sex. The ghost short story starts: “You must never tell anyone…what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born.” You can find the rest of the story in Maxine Hong Kingston’s book of essays (THAT MEANS NONFICTION, Y’ALL), The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts.
Want more? We got you. What are your favorite scary ghost stories? Let us know which ones we missed in the comments!