Ghost Stories Tell Us a Lot about Animals in Human Society

In a content analysis of over 600 ghost stories I published with the peer-reviewed journal Mortality, I discovered that Nonhuman Animals are a sizable feature in the supernatural imagination. About one in ten ghosts recorded in the 20 anthologies I examined were that of departed nonhumans. In this article, I argue that ghost stories, like any other cultural medium, can tell us a lot about the status and visibility of other animals.

For instance, although 10% of the stories featured a nonhuman spirit, most of those spirits were that of dogs, cats, horses, and other animals which are more familiar and proximal to humans. Ghosts frequently haunt as a result of some sort of grievance or wrongful death. Because dogs, cats, and horses are more likely to be ascribed some degree of personhood, they are also more likely to be described as mournful or vengeful spirits in cultural remembering.

Those species which are slated for exploitation and killing for food, however, do not warrant much remembering. They very rarely surfaced in ghost stories. What this suggests is that, culturally speaking, their deaths are not sensed or noted as remarkable. To be able to haunt, then, is a privilege reserved for humans and the other animals deemed important to them.

In general, however, it was clear that ghost stories worked to elevate humans as the more civilized, superior group. The majority of nonhuman ghosts were described as threatening, violent, and even lethal. One of the most common human responses to witnessing these ghosts was an attempt to harm or destroy them. Because ghost stories are meant to be shared, particularly with children, the oppressive cultural messages embrued within them should be cause for concern.

Vegan animal studies scholars have critiqued the media as a major force in the maintenance of speciesist ideologies. However, media can also be disruptive. Vegan activists might consider challenging speciesist culture by telling ghost stories which center the experiences of typically invisibilized species like cows, chickens, pigs, fishes and so on. Veganism is a form of necromancy, then, in its ability to conjure the spirits of the dead and force a cultural acknowledgment of speciesism.


Cover for "A Rational Approach to Animal Rights." Shows a smiling piglet being held up by human hands.

Readers can learn more about the sociological critique of speciesism in my 2016 publication, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights. Receive research updates straight to your inbox by subscribing to my newsletter.

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