Scott A. Johnson is a scary dude. He’s written 10 novels, three true ghost story guides, a chapbook, and a collection of short stories. Originating in the Lone Star State near Austin, Johnson recently earned his MFA in publishing and writing popular fiction from Emerson College, and he teaches at Seton Hill University’s MFA program for writing popular fiction. (Johnson was my teacher there, as well as, my mentor.)You might find him riding his Harley around the Austin area with his pug along for the ride. Just to make him a little more badass, he teaches Kajukenbo and has a stare that can unnerve a veteran psychotherapist.
Is there a better monster to talk about with an author of such pedigree than ghosts? I don’t think so.
Johnson says that ghosts represent one of the “purest forms of horror.” He explains that ghosts are one of the most relevant monsters because they are universal. Every culture has ghost stories and oftentimes they are “metaphors showing us the darkest sides of humanity.” Ghost stories usually revolve around secrets, tragedy, and revenge. Those three things can bring out the nastiest parts of human emotions and actions.
The universality of ghosts is one of the things that Johnson feels keeps this monster a perennial favorite in fiction and movies. Ghost stories have existed since humans began telling stories and along with the vampire “are the only two entities that are found in every culture.” Ghosts, as opposed to vampires, are often still considered people by those who experience them. Of this idea that ghosts remain somehow human, Johnson says, “I think it’s somewhat wish-fulfillment, in that we want to believe that we continue after death. It’s arrogance on our part, as we can’t conceive of a reality without us somehow in it.”
Unlike other monsters, ghosts might be real. Johnson has written guide books dealing with real ghost stories. He says that in the research for those books he’s encountered stories of hauntings that were “a curiosity” and not much more. He says that the ghost stories that people really grab onto are those in which the living have lost control. People aren’t afraid of the friendly hauntings; they are afraid of those hauntings where there is “an adversary they can’t beat because it’s already dead.” Those kind of hauntings and stories are the ones that grab the public’s attention because “the adversary hasn’t got the consequence of ‘death’ hanging over them because they’re already dead.”
All this has been fodder for centuries of folklore and more recently urban legends. In the age of social media, ghosts have become part of the Creepy Pasta phenomenon. Johnson sees Creepy Pastas as the next evolution in the campfire tale. Ghosts have always been a large part of these kinds of stories and will continue into the future. He says that ghost stories were told around the campfire because “who knows what’s out there in the darkness?” The same can be said for the edges of the digital world. We don’t know what’s out there, so ghosts and their stories can fill the need for tales around the digital campfire.
Ghosts are almost the perfect monster. They never get old because they are an ever-evolving creature that feeds on our darkest fears and shows the worst that we can be. The fears change with time. Johnson says, “[Ghosts] stay relevant because people always fear what they don’t understand.” As long as there are things we as humans don’t understand, ghosts will be there waiting just outside the comforting glow of the campfire.