If it’s true that every generation gets the monster it deserves, then I’m calling ghosts as the next big thing. Don’t get me wrong—I’m still a huge fan of vampires, with all that psychosexual yearning. And the crushing, inexorable huddled-masses-at-the-gates threat of zombies, either slow or fast, remains my favorite flavor of undead to get beaned with a shovel (or picked off with a sniper’s rifle, because bullet plus decomposing meat equals deep onomatopoetic satisfaction). But I believe that ghosts are rising.
Think about it: Ghosts are just extra-emo versions of us. They are forlorn and lousy with issues—attention whores, the lot of them, caught up in personal dramas and pining for an audience. That was the whole point of Beetlejuice, you might remember. Ghosting was pedestrian. There was a bureaucracy and a handbook to explain how to, you know, just be.
Ghosts are the millennials of the monster pantheon. They need to get it together, be more self-sufficient, stop seeming desperate for so much workshopping. They’re constantly trying to outsource their dirty work—make the living talk to their loved ones, avenge their untimely deaths, move out of their house (no matter how underwater the mortgage). Rattle your chains off my lawn, Patrick Swayze!
For all their pestering, though, ghosts can be engaging. Cute, even. Phantoms don’t gnaw on our entrails or help themselves to our hemoglobin (mostly). They want to get to know us, maybe hang out. Casper was a friendly ghost, after all. Captain Gregg’s tales landed Mrs. Muir a sweet book deal. Emily, the ghost in Vera Brosgol’s new graphic novel, Anya’s Ghost, helps young Anya ace her exams—for a price. It’s an important lesson for entitled teens, here or in the hereafter.
We’re ripe for a host of spirited hauntings. This October, Ryan Murphy (creator of Glee) will debut his new show, American Horror Story, on FX. The series is classic, campy, creepy Murphy, if you remember his days running Nip/Tuck: A family decamps for California to dodge some personal problems and encounters a lavish ghost casserole. There are bloated babies, ultraviolent twins, a latex-clad incubus, an albino (gotta have an albino), and a hot housekeeper in a French-maid uniform, all stuffed into a creaking Victorian mansion. It’s The Real World gone underworld.
And there’s more to come. BBC America has Bedlam, about a haunted apartment building. CBS has A Gifted Man, in which an arrogant neurosurgeon copes with the ghost of his do-gooder ex-wife. For his upcoming Twixt, Francis Ford Coppola relies on all sorts of proprietary technology to film and then remix the edit (at live shows!). But his ghost, V, is just a milk-skinned Elle Fanning in white pancake makeup and a diaphanous smock. You get the idea that it doesn’t take much to pierce the semipermeable veil that separates us from the Other Side. And really, that’s what’s awesome about ghostliness. Chiaroscuro visuals, askew close-ups, jagged editing—they’re all it takes to create a nuanced creepiness. A good, scary ghost story just needs one thing that’s unmistakably off—a kid singing ethereal nursery rhymes, a room that’s too cold. It is absence—desolate streets, vacant towns—that chills the blood. Because what is more frightening than loneliness?
If you’re looking for a metaphor to define a cultural moment, it’s hard to do better than that. Forget about sexy predatory monsters whose bite lures us into a life of reckless abandon. Those ever-growing hordes of the mindless poor? They don’t actually want to surround our mall and steal our stuff any more than the illegal aliens from space do. What’s coming for us all, in the end, is just death—and the wan hope of bullying the feckless mortals left behind into sorting out our unfinished business. Whooooo. Spooky.