The Victorians established lots of traditions around Christmas from the sending of Christmas cards to playing party games but one of my personal favourites has to be the sharing of scary stories.
Many publications of the day serialised ghost stories in the run up to Christmas and it was common for adults to gather around the fire late into Christmas Eve telling chilling tales of terror and suspense.
But how did it all begin? Why did the Victorians favour Christmas Eve for their fearful festivities rather than the more obvious Halloween? The answer can in part be traced back to Pagan times when spirits were believed to be able to move more easily between the realms of the living and the dead during the Winter Solstice period of Yule which would later be adopted as the date for Christmas by the Christian Church. Shakespeare even references a story of spirits and goblins in his play “A Winter’s Tale”.
It’s not hard to imagine the Victorian house being a pretty spooky place through the long dark nights of winter when creaking floorboards and lurking shadows cast by candlelight must have leant a sinister edge to otherwise innocuous nooks and crannies, new innovations designed to lighten the home also had their drawbacks, gas lamps were gaining popularity and the carbon monoxide they generated could cause hallucinations which were often mistaken for hauntings.
The Victorians were a pretty morbid lot who enjoyed anything macabre and many including famous writers like Arthur Conan Doyle had a deep fascination with spiritualism which was hugely popular in an age when mortality rates were still extremely high.
However it’s other factors that make the telling and reading of ghost story a particularly Victorian tradition. Perhaps the biggest influence on the success of the ghost story during this era is simply commercial. The rise of relatively cheap and easily available publications such as newspapers and magazines also saw a surge in demand for new content and ghost stories were an easy win both perennially popular and formulaic making them quick and easy for writers to churn out in this new age of disposable entertainment and the ghost story was never more popular than in the Christmas Annuals of the day.
By far the most famous festive ghost story is “A Christmas Carol” known on publication as “A Ghost Story of Christmas.” It was a runaway bestseller, however Dickens was not the only Victorian author writing chilling tales at that time. Famous writers from Jerome K Jerome to Rudyard Kipling also turned their hands to the task of terrifying readers. Jerome himself was a fan of sharing scary stories at Christmas time saying “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres,” his own anthology “After Supper Ghost Stories” is a spookily satirical take on the tradition which remains in print to this day.
This genre is also notable for the number of female authors who found publishing success by turning their gaze to the shadows at a time when women struggled to be taken seriously in the literary world. Sadly many of these stories and their authors have been lost but the works of better known writers such as “The Old Nursery Story” by Mary Gaskell which was originally written in 1852 for publication in Dickens’s magazine “Household Words” still have the power to thrill today.
Two bestselling Yorkshire authors carried the mantel for women’s voices in gothic fiction into the 20TH Century and beyond. Barnsley born Joanne Harris’s second novel “Sleep Pale Sister” is set in the Victorian era and evokes Wilkie Collins famous tale “The Woman in White”, Harris has also written numerous haunting short stories. Even closer to home Scarborough’s own Susan Hill is arguably the most well know purveyor of gothic dread in the modern era, her hit novel “The Woman in Black” having also become a long running theatrical favourite scare fest (I nearly lost a knee cap to a petrified relative whilst watching it in the West End) and a hit movie starring Daniel Radcliffe.
The tradition of telling terrible tales on Christmas Eve didn’t end with the Victorians, perpetual favourite for radio and television adaptions M.R James began penning his dark tales in this era but his work and its popularity carried on well beyond the Edwardian period. The author himself liked to gather close friends and favoured students to his hearth at Kings College, Cambridge, where he was a scholar for many years, for an evening of spine-chilling readings.
One of the most famous adaptions of James work also started a trend for television adaptions of ghost stories at Christmas time, “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” is a tale of menace rather fittingly set against the backdrop of a seaside town in winter. I don’t want to spoil the plot but the acclaimed 1968 adaption is available on YouTube so why not turn down the lights one of these bleak Advent evenings and settle in to be thoroughly unsettled.
Christmas ghost stories became a mainstay of the festive schedule in the 1970’s with the BBC commissioning eight years of “Ghost Stories at Christmas” which where a mixture of classic adaptions and newly commissioned stories. They fell from popularity for a couple of decades until a revival of the genre in 2020 when Christopher Lee took on the mantel of M.R James himself for a series of film adaptions of his works which ran for several years. In 2013 acclaimed writer, actor and self-proclaimed horror enthusiast Mark Gatiss took up the mantel of adapting James for the Christmas audience and in 2018 wrote his own spooky festive fable “The Dead Room”.
Even one of our most well-known festive songs references the place that scary stories have long held at the heart of our seasonal revelries, have you ever noticed this line from Andy Williams “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”?
“There’ll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories
Of Christmases long, long ago.”
I confess that prior to researching for this blog I never had but I will be listening out for it from now on!
Community Engagement Officer