Ghosts vs. Ghosts and the Shift from Traditional Hauntings

Written By M L Clark

M L Clark is a writer of speculative fiction (Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF) and humanist essays (for OnlySky). Canadian by birth and settler by heritage, Clark now calls Medellín, Colombia home, and publishes translations of classic Colombian literature alongside personal SFF out of Sí, Hay Futuros Ediciones. Follow Clark’s newsletter, Better Worlds Theory, for weekly international analyses, media literacy pieces, and/or thoughts on literature and publishing.

Apparitions from the afterlife have a tried-and-true role in Western fiction. Usually, when a ghost appears, it’s with a rigid purpose: sometimes malevolent, sometimes in need of aid to get “unstuck.” Either way, the drive to find ghostly peace, or otherwise expel an otherworldly spirit, is a narrative journey that invites living characters to overcome their own fears or mend important fences. A ghost in fiction represents unfinished business, generational guilt, and the urgency of reconciliation, atonement, or other forms of personal growth to move on.

Except when it doesn’t.

A different approach to a haunting trope

Two recent TV versions of the same ghostly concept offer a wealth of cultural differences, but also flip the formula with respect to the “work” that haunting usually does.

The BBC launched Ghosts in 2019 and closed off its series in 2023, after five seasons of six episodes apiece, with four Christmas specials. The show’s half-hour runtime, joined with its short seasons, create a more meditative mood with stories that have time to breathe.

Conversely, CBS launched its version in 2021, and goes into its February 2024 third season with 40 episodes of just over 20 minutes apiece already in the bag. The shorter episode runtime and longer overall season favors goofier, haphazard storytelling with a focus on rapidly escalating stakes.

Both shows have the same general premise and a few overlapping character designs. A young couple inherits a massive rundown estate, and gets more than they bargained for when the woman has a near-death experience that allows her to see the ghosts of people who died on the grounds. These are demanding spirits who often quarrel with one another, and wrestle with selfish desires from beyond the grave, while also sometimes helping out the “livings” they come to consider friends.

British vs. US storytelling priorities

Beyond that shared premise, though, the shows adopt markedly different approaches to tone, theme, and content, in keeping with their respective demographics. The BBC version focuses more on the material realities of trying to renovate an old estate. Even though Alison and Mike want to open a B&B, it’s an uphill battle for many pragmatic reasons related to the slings and arrows of property ownership—and only barely gets off the ground. Along the way,  Alison and Mike embrace history lessons along with general life lessons. When a Black Death plague pit is found on the grounds, it’s accepted without question that a local archaeologist will need to be involved. At the same time, the ghosts develop a wide range of hobbies with Alison’s help—from morning runs, to daily reading practice, to chess and dance and even writing poetry for a local contest.

Not so with the CBS version, which emphatically plays up its US context with plotlines that center on TV references and ghostly hook-ups. Far from dwelling on the material issues of starting a B&B, the US version leans into TV influences like Friends: another buddy comedy where characters vaguely lament money woes while still relatively easily pulling off life in large homes. When an historical discovery threatens Sam and Jay’s renovation timeline, they “simply” desecrate the site to avoid a lengthy archaeological dig. Likewise, whereas the BBC version has film and TV crews use the grounds to reenact literary and educational history, Sam and Jay welcome a TV show mocking “dumb deaths” on the property. There is also very little in the way of other ghostly hobbies; when the US ghosts aren’t jockeying for TV time, they mostly go for walks, watch ants, smell foods, or fight over sunlight. (D&D shows up, too, but at great protest from Sam, who can’t stand the game that one ghost wants to play with Jay.)

The ghosts also reflect different cultural anxieties, especially when it comes to exploring morally ambiguous character arcs. In the British version, a caveman, a Tudor nobleman, a host of plague victims, a Stuart-era witch trial victim, a Black 18th-century noblewoman, a Regency-era Romantic poet, a judgmental Edwardian lady of the manor, a World War II army officer, a 1980s scout leader, and a 1990s Tory MP share the estate with the living. They are a decidedly “older” group, both in death age and era, than the US ghostly cohort, which includes a lost Viking, a young Lenape Indigenous person, a closeted Continental Army officer and three British Revolutionary soldiers off the main estate, a host of cholera victims, an uptight New York Gilded Age lady of the manor, a Black Prohibition-era singer, a 1950s greaser, a forgetful 1960s hippie, a 1980s scout leader, a 1980s teen on her way to prom, and a 2000s Jewish finance bro.

The differences in approach to moral ambiguity are clearest in the “no pants” ghosts: BBC’s Julian, the disgraced Tory MP, was caught with his pants down for the usual debauched reasons, and he goes through most of the series as a selfish man who avoided family for vulgar pleasures. As such, he has a great deal to learn to be a better friend. CBS’s Trevor, however, is quickly redeemed from his finance bro backstory—turned into “one of the good ones,” who genuinely wants a nice traditional relationship, and who lost his pants before death because he actually has a heart of gold.

This US push for everyone to pair off romantically is also a far cry from the British version, where the caveman reminds the rest that there are many historical approaches to sex and relationships. The US version is anxious around complex moral dilemmas, like what to do about the sexuality of a 50-year-old teen ghost, and quickly rushes ghosts past their original character flaws—mainly so that they can be seen as “deserving” of a happily-ever-after when hooking up with one another.

Two differently indifferent approaches to the afterlife

But therein also lies a much deeper difference between these two shows, which simultaneously reveals how much these versions of Ghosts share with respect to a changed approach to the overall trope.

In the BBC version, there is no great hang-up over the great beyond—and even though the CBS version plays a lot more with the idea of ghosts waiting around to be “sucked off,” its use of these supernatural elements is so gimmicky, spurious, and lighthearted (clearly leaning on the success of The Good Place) as to render its fixation on further levels of the afterlife as meaningless.

For the BBC version, ghosts stuck on this realm know that every now and then one among them might get taken up to another plane of the afterlife. No one knows when or why, though, and no one has any idea what happens after they’re “sucked off.” The caveman names a star after each of the ghosts he’s seen move on over many millennia, but other than briefly dealing with grief at losing an old companion, the ghosts accept the mystery for what it is. There’s no push to “resolve” their business and move on themselves—in part because they have no idea what might yield such a change in existential circumstance.

Conversely, the ghosts in the CBS version more confidently assert that people move on when they’ve resolved some unfinished business—and it also happens more often, but in ways that plainly serve other aspects of the plot, rather than reflect a cosmology thought out with any care. In one episode, Sam meets her dead mom, but since it would be narratively odd for her not to check in more often after finally reuniting, mom has to be “sucked off” by the end of that episode to tie up the narrative loose end. Meanwhile, another character almost goes up after receiving a proper funeral…only to stay because a girl-ghost expresses feelings for him at the last moment, allowing for romantic hijinks in future plots.

Another character in the CBS version also goes down instead of up—which terrifies the ghosts in the moment, because they’ve never seen this happen before; and yet, even then, there’s little follow-up despite the huge cosmological questions that this Abrahamic notion of the afterlife should pose, especially for the Indigenous person among them. But that character is also conveniently sidelined to an offsite B-plot when a nasty ghost returns later on, in a storyline that makes Hell one big joke at Chumbawumba’s expense. Another character, who ascended decades ago, also gets pulled back to the earthly realm for some goofy Hallowe’en antics, before going up again at midnight.

For these reasons, even though Sam tells Jay at one point that she’s not bothered by her gift of seeing ghosts, because she thinks it might be part of her purpose to help them move on, the whole US version of this show takes its approach to afterlife cosmology so insincerely and haphazardly (there’s also inconsistency as to whether or not ghosts can climax) as to reach the same point as the BBC version—just, from the other side of the worldbuilding spectrum.

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    Who you gonna call about ghosts?

    In both versions, that is, the fact that there might be more to the world than meets the eye isn’t actually that important. Maybe there’s an afterlife. Maybe we’ll become ghosts. Maybe we’ll be stuck on this earthly realm until we finish some set of tasks. Maybe we’ll simply be stuck here until we aren’t.

    But whatever the case may be, these shows seem to ask, so what?

    There is no deeper spiritual awakening here, even if one of the British ghosts likes a good church tune for her group’s song club. Nor is there any attempt to deepen the bridge between worlds, beyond a couple of possessions in the US series. No one ruminates over the who behind the existence of trapped souls, and there’s even a judicious avoidance of that whole “soul” subject as well. Even more strikingly, despite being routinely strapped for cash, neither Alison nor Sam thinks for a second about using their gifts to help others connect with the dead in the world at large. Instead, their unusual gift is just part of their quirky characters and mundane lives—nothing worth any greater fuss or transformation in outlook.

    In other words: the BBC and the CBS offer as secular a set of supernatural spooks as they come.

    So what “lesson” do these series impart instead?

    Hell, Heaven, and Earth are other people—living or otherwise

    The CBS version of Ghosts does its best to live up to the Friends theme song, which tells us “So no one told you your [after]life was going to be this way: your [spirit]’s a joke, you’re [existentially] broke, your love life’s [six] feet away…” But even though the US version is far more interested in the possibilities of ghostly hookups and reality TV, both versions suggest a core principle for how to exist, in this life or whatever comes next: namely, with an acute awareness that it is ultimately up to us to make the best of our circumstances and the strange communities we inhabit.

    Purpose, rather than being bestowed upon us, is something we have to decide for ourselves. In the British version of Ghosts, this choice shows up even in the split series finale: a kind of “choose your own ending,” depending on whether you prefer the first series closer or the last Christmas special. In the US version, too, characters might still decide that they have “unfinished business”—but in practice, they’re not much more motivated to complete it than any of the ghosts in the British version.

    And why should they be?

    In a world filled with many unexpected and extraordinary events, perhaps the biggest lesson of being human lies not in trying to game the universe into producing a specific result, like ascension or inner peace. Maybe the point, instead, is simply to learn to find gratitude for the journey itself—and all the found family we build for our imperfect selves along the way.