No Victorian Christmas is Complete Without Ghost Stories (Part Two)
One of the most famous ghost-story writers of the Victorian Age was M. R. James. As provost at King’s College Cambridge, on Christmas Eve James would invite small groups of graduates to his college dorm where he would read them a ghost story he had just written. Still widely read or adapted for TV, some of James’s stories are genuinely terrifying, not least the 1904 short story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You My Lad.” There were actually several socio-economic reasons behind the importance given to ghosts in the Victorian mind. For a start, this was a new age of urbanisation, in which people from the country were moving into packed townhouses already crowded by servants.
In such buildings it was not uncommon to hear creaks in the night, or to see shadows of unknown and unexpected guests. Then there was the fact that everything was illuminated by gaslights, which could induce hallucinations through the carbon monoxide they emitted. Also running parallel to all of this was the rise of Spiritualism. The prevalence of ghost stories at Christmas died off remarkably slowly. Rather than the Disney films and comedy reruns that plague our screens today, throughout the 1970s, the BBC would broadcast chilling tales on Christmas Eve and the early hours of Christmas Day, and right up to the early 2000s they would wheel out Christopher Lee to read out one of M. R. James’s horror classics in the foreground of a crackling, roaring fire.