What are ghosts? There's a lot of debate about this – inside and outside fiction.

Are ghosts the unquiet spirits of the restless dead? Or three-dimensional recordings of past tragedies? Non-human entities without bodies who can nevertheless interact with us? There are legends (and stories) about ghostly animals – or trees, or even houses – so does a ghost even have to be a person? Does everyone who dies become a ghost, or do most people pass on to a higher or lower plane of existence – with only a select few being trapped or opting to stick around in some form. If so, why? To finish things left undone in life? Or get revenge for the circumstances of death? Is becoming a ghost a punishment, a reward or just a neutral state?

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There are people who would quite like to be vampires (or even werewolves), just so long as they could tweak the rules of these monsters' existence to suit their needs – but does anyone really want to become a ghost? I can't find any societies for folk who like dressing up in sheets with eyeholes cut out and wandering about rattling chains or going 'woo-hoo'. But ghosts are something else, even though there are a wide variety of types of ghost. For the purposes of this essay, I'm sub-dividing the ghost story into four categories – just plain ghost stories, funny ghost stories, sentimental ghost stories and scary ghost stories. There is some overlap, especially between types two and three, but these forms mostly abide by different sets of rules.

1) Just regular ghost stories

Just plain ghost stories – once upon a time, these were the most commonplace type of ghost story, but now they've grown a bit scarce. If they survive, it's in the form of what we now call urban legends – though have you noticed how many popular urban legends have rural settings? How often have you heard the one about the traveller who spends a night at an inn, pays for lodgings and departs, but returns for some reason to find the inn burned down long ago and his money pinned to a rock by a stone? This is that ghost building I mentioned earlier, though usually there's a ghostly innkeeper and his staff, who wear the clothes and talk in the manner of bygone years. The traveller probably thinks he's chanced on a gastro-pub doing a theme night and goes along with it. If you look through older anthologies of ghost stories you'll find a lot of tales on this pattern, some dealing with ghosts and others with fairies (recent variants might toss in aliens and UFOs). The point of these stories is usually the penny-drop moment when the protagonist realises he's met a ghost – if he wasn't scared at the time, he might be chilled now he understands. Or not. Funny things happen, but they aren't necessarily scary.

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Here, just encountering a ghost is supposed to be disturbing enough to turn hair white or bring on neuroses. Which, actually, is reasonably credible – if you were to run into something that couldn't be contained in your belief system, you might well snap rather than adapt. Something being inexplicable is terrifying enough – David Lynch is very good at representing this idea, like the dark corner in an ordinary home in Lost Highway or the somehow-scary vagrant behind a normal restaurant in Mulholland Dr, both of which are somehow so frightening that people shrink away from them even as they are drawn into the shadows. However, unless you're Lynch, it's a harder sell these days. A ghost that serves you ale and pies, gives you a bed for a night and basically gives you your money back the next day doesn't seem frightening to modern sensibilities. In some versions, including several found in samurai movies, the innkeeper's daughter has sex with the traveller, which at least leaves him feeling a bit icky at the necrophile angle when he realises what's happened … but even that isn't really too horrific. Just plain ghost stories have not had their day, but fewer and fewer of them crop up in literature or the media because they seem too simple, pat, predictable and unthreatening.

2) Funny ghost stories

Oscar Wilde's 'The Canterville Ghost', an antiquated spook who fails to frighten a modern miss, set the tone for a mode of farcical comedy the novelist Thorne Smith perfected in the novel which became the popular filmTopper, which itself had sequels, TV spin-offs and remakes and is almost certainly going to show up again eventually as a vehicle for a current comedy star (the Ricky Gervais movieGhost Townis quite close to the premise). Casper the Friendly Ghost,Blithe Spirit,Rentaghost,High Spirits, the 'golfing' anecdote ofDead of Nightand a bunch of other stories have fun with such ghostly tricks as disappearing, appearing, being see-through or moving things around (comedy poltergeistery) to startle the unwary living. These ghosts seem to be having a high old time of it, and their antics feature in sophisticated drawing room comedies and knockabout gross-out comedy movies. A very few stories segue from funny to scary –Ghostbustersis one. On the whole, there are fewer rules in these things: these ghosts do whatever they need to do to be funny.

3) Sentimental ghost stories

These are usually about lovers who stick together, even if separated by death, vide:The Ghost and Mrs Muir(one of those films that will reduce even the most cynical to floods of tears if caught on the right afternoon) and the Patrick Swayze-Demi MooreGhost(which does feature some scary spectres). Robert Hichens' wonderful story 'How Love Came to Professor Guildea' is an interesting subversion of this trope, in which a stuffy academic is horrified when a mindless, shapeless (yet female) ghost falls in love with him and won't leave him alone. Maybe the ghosts ofA Christmas Carol, who are essentially educators, fall into this category – Scrooge is afraid of them, but more afraid of what they show him about himself. The reader tends not to be, though the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come casts a literal chill over the Dickensian warmth of the story so far. A few recent film ghost stories,The Sixth SenseandThe Orphanage, deliver scary ghosts for most of the running time, but finally reveal sentimental ghosts. Spiritualism, a fad after the mass losses of the First World War, was a comfort to the bereaved. These stories, whether romantic or philosophical, are ultimately reassuring. When makingThe Shining, Stanley Kubrick said that all ghost stories were inherently optimistic because they proposed that life after death was a fact.

4) Scary ghost stories

These are by far the most common these days. 19thand early 20thcentury practitioners like Sheridan LeFanu, M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood set about making the ghost story more than just anecdotal. LeFanu was interested in psychology (his ghosts might be manifestations of the madness of his protagonists), James in scholarship (his ghosts are an excuse to explore musty old libraries and documents) and Blackwood in the spiritual (his ghosts suggest vast cosmic forces beyond mortal ken), but they all decided that ghosts should instil terror in viewpoint characters and therefore the reader. This approach has been taken up by everything from the creators of ghost train rides to the makers of horror movies with ghost villains. Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Streetmovies and Sadako/Samara of theRingfranchise are killer ghosts, out for revenge on their tormentors but also willing to spread the malice to anyone who gets in the way. Recently, in the Paranormal Activity and Insidious franchises, ghosts have been redefined a bit – the menaces of these films are, strictly, more like demons than ghosts (the same could be said for many of M.R. James' ghosts), and are focused on possessing or hurting people. It used to be that getting out of the house was an escape from the haunting, but – taking a cue fromThe Woman in Black– now the scare seems to be that the spook can latch onto a victim (usually a family) and move to a new house with them. Again, these ghosts are in the service of the writer – they do what they need to do to be scary, and the only limitations placed on them are the requirement of the story.

Environment is key – the traditional old dark house or lonely stretch of countryside or (playing against type) a modern home or grim council estate. In stories that dwell on this, the ghosts are an extension of the setting – which is usually related to a tragedy. The Indian burial grounds under the Overlook Hotel, the Amity House or the suburban development inPoltergeistare such a cliché that I once wrote a story in which an Indian tribe are haunted when they put their burial ground on the site of a suburb. Ramsey Campbell, the greatest living exponent of the ghost story, specialises in hauntings attached to mundane Liverpudlian urban sites – underpasses, bus shelters, shopping malls. The point is that the world became ghostly while you weren't paying attention. The theory advanced in Nigel Kneale's TV playThe Stone Tapeis that ghosts are recordings. InThe Shining, Hallorann tells Danny that ghosts can't hurt him because that's all they are – moving pictures. But, Kneale and Stephen King let the needs of story count for more than a neat parapsychology theory: in both cases, there's something dark and primal and dangerous under the replays of past horrors, and it can hurt you. M.R. James said that this effective malevolence was an essential – in his stories, ghosts can kill you, and usually do.

But ghosts have to have form – even invisible ones, like the creature discernible under the bed-clothes in James' 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad'. Those sheets used by kids to pose as ghosts were originally shrouds, and ghosts (like the ones in Elizabethan theatre) tended to show up in their grave-clothes. Often, they show the signs of their mortal wounds – the shrunken-headed explorer and slit-wrist beauty queen inBeetle Juice– or are physically distorted in ways designed to upset those to whom they appear. James was strong on giving his ghosts smells or atmospheric effects (dampness, sudden chills) that are hard to reproduce in the movies – the current stage show Ghost Stories throws in some seeping smells, to similar effect. Haunted objects are a useful get-out, and all manner of things have been bedevilled – dolls and antique playthings have become a roaring cliché, but still usually get a frisson. InAltergeist, recently shown at FrightFest, a paranormal investigator comes across a roomful of broken dolls in a haunted house and pertinently asks 'who makes these things?' Haunted vehicles began with phantom coaches and ghost ships, but escalated to ghost trains, haunted cars and planes. Haunted telephones cropped up almost the minute Alexander Bell invented the thing, and now editors are inundated with samey tales of haunted mobile phones, internet sites and social media – look atRingagain, and marvel that Sadako was able to terrorise anyone withvideotape. Whatever you have in your home, chances are someone has written a ghost story about it. Which is all to the good: often, the purpose of a ghost story is to make you look again at the familiar, and be terrified by it.

5) The Scooby-Doo Scenario

There is a fifth category – the fake ghost.

You know the drill: the smugglers, counterfeiters or spies have made an old dark house their secret headquarters and – in order to keep the superstitious locals away – dress up in glowing skull-masks and tattered robes and make sure they are seen a few times by the odd drunk or vagrant. Maybe that worked in the days when Dr Syn was parson of Dymchurch and the revenue men were looking for untaxed cargoes of brandy, lace and tobacco, but have you paid attention to the real world? It only takes some noisy old plumbing in any creepy locale to attract legions of amateur and professional ghost-hunters hoping for footage they can stick up on youtube or land themselves a cable TV show. The last thing you'd do if you wanted to keep folk away from the old manor house would be to put about a rumour that the place was haunted.

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Kim Newman is the author of An English Ghost Story, a new standalone novel. He's also the author of the Anno Dracula books, and numerous books of film criticism.