We know it’s not October yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t indulge in a few extra scary stories as the nights get longer and the leaves start to change. This week saw the release of The Big Book of Ghost Stories, an anthology of spooky tales starring ghouls of all descriptions, edited by Otto Penzler. Though we haven’t worked our way through it yet, we were inspired to think about the fictional ghosts who have creeped us out the most thoroughly over the years — from those inhabiting classic horror stories to those sneaking into more literary fiction. Click through to read about our picks for the creepiest ghosts in literature — and since everyone has their own specific demons to face, let us know which you’d have chosen in the comments.
King Hamlet, Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Shakespeare wasn’t exactly a horror writer, but he was rather fond of using ghosts, and to our minds, King Hamlet is by far the creepiest, sneaking up on Hamlet with blood trickling from his ear, demanding revenge. Is he a “spirit of health or goblin damned”? Is he a figment of Hamlet’s twisted imagination? We’ll never truly know, but he always makes us shudder.
The Babysitter, et al, “The Specialist’s Hat,” Kelly Link
“When you’re Dead,” Samantha says, “you don’t have to brush your teeth.” “When you’re Dead,” Claire says, “you live in a box, and it’s always dark, but you’re not ever afraid.” In this perfectly disturbing, World Fantasy Award-winning, two identical twins counting the days since their mother’s death play in the attic with their new babysitter who, she tells them, used to live there. Needless to say, ghosts of many kinds abound — none of them popping out from behind corners or rattling chains, but all weaseling into your cold bones. Read it here.
The heart in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allan Poe
But of course. Poe was a master of the horror tale, and although this most famous of his stories includes no wispy women or vengeful corporeal ghouls, that ghostly thump thump thump is so vivid in our brains that we just couldn’t leave it out.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
Nothing is creepier than a ghost who shows you visions of how terrible the future will be if you don’t get your act together. That’s why no one likes Al Gore.
The house in The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
Definitely the most terrifying haunted house story ever written, Jackson’s classic horror story never fails to leave us looking suspiciously at our walls, listening for whispers.
Miss Jessel and Peter Quint in “The Turn of the Screw,” Henry James
It doesn’t get any more chilling than this classic ghost story. Two ghosts with a history of sexual misconduct hovering around a gothic country estate, maintaining a strange and unknowable connection to its children — or is it all in the governess’s mind? Solitude can do strange things to people, dead or alive.
Beloved in Beloved, Toni Morrison
Beloved is not a horror story, but the ghost within is probably more terrifying than any other on this list. The novel’s first two lines tell you all you need to know: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
The Overlook, et al, in The Shining, Stephen King
If you’ve only seen the movie, you’re missing out.
“The Upper Berth,” F. Marion Crawford
Sea voyages have their own kind of creepiness, but a mysterious dead thing inhabiting the bunk above you doesn’t really improve matters. A classic ghost story from another master. Read it here.
The Woman in Black in The Woman in Black, Susan Hill
A woman scorned is one thing, but a woman separated from her child is another, more deadly thing altogether. After all, where the woman in black goes, death follows, an angry ghost taking her revenge on an entire town, her wan face never satisfied.