Women in the Ghost Story Tradition

Women have used ghost stories to support themselves and to comment on patriarchal systems for hundreds of years. These stories are part of a centuries-long literary tradition involving ghosts and the supernatural. I recently spoke with Dr. Melissa Makala about her work identifying 19th-century women in supernatural writing.

Makala has been at Clemson for five years and is currently teaching ENGL1030 as well as ENGL 2120: Global Gothic, and she regularly teaches ENGL 3800: British and American Women Writers. Her main research areas are 19th- and 20th-century British women writers, gender and empire, women’s supernatural fiction and ghost stories. She has published two monographs on women’s supernatural literature and has edited numerous scholarly editions dedicated to recovering “forgotten” women writers. Recently, Makala has been  incorporating more diverse female voices in her ENGL 2120 course on Global Gothic, including Helen Oyeyemi’s “The Icarus Girl,” Ambelin Kwaymullina’s “The Things She’s Seen” and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “Mexican Gothic.” 

Makala has a passion for women in literature because, historically, they have been taken less seriously than their male counterparts despite discussing important social issues. Makala said Victorian women, “talk about domestic abuse, child abuse, financial inequalities, and colonialism. All of that is in the women’s ghost story tradition.” Writing ghost stories was a way for women to indirectly address these uncomfortable topics. 

If a woman had directly written an essay about domestic abuse, it would not have been well received, but sneaking important topics into “light entertainment” like ghost stories allowed their voices to be heard. 

Late 19th- and early 20th-century literature was tunnel visioned toward male authors. When asked how women combated male domination in literature, Makala said “Many women wrote under pseudonyms at the time.” Women used pseudonyms to earn respect based on the quality of their writing and not their gender. 

Makala has a list of over 300 women she has identified as writing ghost stories in the 19th century, and the list keeps growing. She sadly points out, “We may never know how many women wrote ghost stories during the 19th century or even earlier because there were so many pseudonyms used, and there were [works] published anonymously.”

Besides allowing women to comment on social issues, ghost stories gave women one of the few opportunities to earn a living and support their families. In addition to writing ghost stories, these women were expected to run a household and raise their children.  

Charlotte Riddell is one of Makala’s favorite writers in the supernatural genre and is a prime example of female struggle and resilience in the 19th century. She used her profits to support her family and pay her husband’s debt, and thanks to her writing, Riddell brought in her family’s only income. Ghost stories were Riddell’s avenue to taking power over her life. 

For people who say Gothic isn’t for them, Makala points out that there’s something for everyone in women’s ghost stories. Makala encourages everyone to seek out women writers in all genres because women are doing amazing things in literature. 

By: Rachel Harley

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