5 Victorian ghost stories that still haunt us today

victorian ghost stories fi

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Victorian ghost stories stand the test of time

In the Victorian era, fascination with the supernatural reached new heights. This period of history is known for rapid technological advancements and significant social change, and many people found themselves exhilarated and unsettled by the pace of progress.

This was a time when the telegraph and steam engine were shrinking the world, yet people still clung to stories that spoke of a reality beyond the tangible and the scientific.

Ghost stories emerged as a popular form of entertainment, providing people with a space to wrestle with questions of existence and ethics — removed from the real-world implications of the era’s industrial and scientific leaps.

These stories offered a way to discuss the unspeakable. In a society bound by strict codes of conduct and decorum, Victorian ghost stories allowed for themes such as guilt, loss, and the desire for redemption to be explored.

Through these tales, the Victorians found a voice to express the anxieties and hopes of an era on the brink of the modern world.

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1. The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde (1887)

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The Canterville Ghost

In The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde, published in 1887, we find a mix of humor and ghostly happenings that turns the usual spooky narrative on its head.

This Victorian ghost story begins when an American family moves into Canterville Chase, an old English mansion with its very own ghost, Sir Simon. Unlike the typical ghost story where spirits instill fear in the hearts of new residents, here, the tables are turned.

Sir Simon, the ghost, has successfully scared off previous residents with his chains and appearance. However, the Otis family is not like the others.

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They meet Sir Simon’s attempts to frighten them with practical solutions and a lack of fear that bewilders the ghost. The twin boys even go so far as to play pranks on him, turning the ghost from a figure of fear into one of sympathy and humor.

Wilde uses this setup to poke fun at British and American cultural differences, highlighting the Americans’ pragmatic approach to the supernatural.

The story also explores themes of redemption and forgiveness, as the family helps Sir Simon confront his past, allowing him to find peace after centuries of haunting.

2. The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens (1866)

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The Signal-Man

The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens, written in 1866, tells the tale of a railway worker tormented by ghostly premonitions.

Set in a deep, narrow railway cutting, the story unfolds with a traveler encountering the signal-man, who is deeply disturbed by visions that foretell tragic events on the railway.

The signal-man confides in the traveler about these apparitions, each followed by a real-life disaster, such as an accident or a death on the line.

This story taps into the Victorian era’s anxieties about the rapid advancements in technology and the profound impact these changes had on individuals.

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Dickens uses the figure of the signal-man, isolated in his post and burdened by the responsibility of preventing train disasters, to explore the psychological effects of industrialization.

The cutting, with its steep walls and the tunnel that seems to lead into another dimension, symbolizes the dark side of the industrial age: the fear of losing control over the machines humans have created and the sense of foreboding that accompanies progress.

By focusing on the signal-man’s solitary existence and his encounters with the supernatural, Dickens touches on themes of isolation, the reliability of our perception, and the question of whether there are realities beyond what technology can grasp or control.

This Victorian ghost story raises questions about the human cost of technological advancement and the unseen forces that might lurk behind the facade of progress.

3. The Phantom ‘Rickshaw by Rudyard Kipling (1888)

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The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and Other Tales

The Phantom ‘Rickshaw by Rudyard Kipling, published in 1888, is a haunting story set in the colonial context of British India.

The story centers around Jack Pansay, a man who is haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Wessington, a woman he once had a relationship with and subsequently spurned.

After her death, Mrs. Wessington’s spirit refuses to leave Jack in peace, appearing to him in her phantom rickshaw.

This classic Victorian ghost story is rich with themes of guilt, obsession, and the consequences of one’s actions in life. Kipling uses the supernatural element of the ghostly apparition to explore the psychological torment of guilt and the inability to escape one’s past mistakes.

Jack’s haunting is not just a literal ghost following him but also serves as a metaphor for the inescapable nature of guilt and the haunting memories of wrongs done to others.

SEE MORE! The Phantom Rickshaw’: Is it giving 1800s-style karmic justice — or stalker vibes?

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4. The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell (1852)

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The Old Nurse’s Story: A Ghost Story for Christmas

The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell, published in 1852, combines elements of the gothic with the supernatural.

This Victorian ghost story unfolds through the eyes of a dedicated nursemaid, who, along with her young charge, Rosamond, moves to an isolated and ancient mansion belonging to the family’s old relatives.

As they settle into their new home, they soon encounter mysterious and ghostly apparitions that seem to be connected to the family’s dark past.

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The mansion, with its hidden rooms and secret histories, becomes a character in its own right, echoing with the whispers of long-kept secrets and unresolved tensions. The snowy landscapes and unsettling sounds that pervade the estate serve to heighten the story’s chilling effect.

At the heart of the narrative is the theme of family secrets and the quest for redemption. The ghosts that haunt the mansion are not just specters to be feared — they are manifestations of the family’s unresolved guilt and sorrow.

Through the course of the story, the nursemaid’s efforts to protect Rosamond and uncover the truth about the apparitions lead to revelations about love, loss, and the possibility of forgiveness.

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5. Lost Hearts by M.R. James (1895)

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Lost Hearts

Lost Hearts by M.R. James, written in 1895, combines elements of psychological horror with the supernatural, making it a memorable Victorian ghost story.

The narrative centers on Stephen, an orphan boy who is sent to live with Mr. Abney, a distant relative known for his scholarly interests but also for being somewhat reclusive and eccentric.

Soon after Stephen’s arrival, he encounters peculiar phenomena that suggest the mansion and its owner harbor dark secrets.

The atmosphere is filled with suspense and a growing sense of dread, as Stephen begins to uncover the truth behind Mr. Abney’s research into the occult and his past attempts to achieve immortality.

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What stands out in Lost Hearts is the psychological depth James gives to his characters, especially the innocent Stephen and the misguided, morally corrupt Mr. Abney.

The story explores themes of innocence versus corruption, the pursuit of knowledge at any cost, and the consequences of one’s actions on others.

James’s use of the supernatural serves as a vehicle to explore these themes, making this story a classic example of how Victorian ghost stories often reflected societal anxieties and moral questions of the time.

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What are your favorite Victorian ghost stories?

We’re curious to hear your thoughts about these classic ghost stories. Why do you think these stories still capture our imagination? Is there a particular Victorian ghost story that stands out to you?

Let us know in the comments! Whether you’re sharing your thoughts of the stories we’ve talked about, or you have other Victorian-era ghost stories that intrigue you, we’d love to hear about it. 👻

DON’T MISS! Why ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ still haunts us nearly 200 years after it was first published

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