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Celebrating the Season with International Ghost Stories

Posted on October 25, 2016

Halloween, the Day of the Dead, All Souls Day—many cultures are approaching the time of the year to consider the spirits of the departed.

Words Without Borders is celebrating Halloween this year with a feature on ghost stories from Japan, Madagascar, and Morocco. Editor Susan Harris writes:

…we’re observing Halloween with the theme of this month’s feature; but while the supernatural and the otherworldly might be foregrounded in this season, ghosts and all they represent lurk perennially in the universal consciousness and in literature around the world.  

In Japan, people honor the spirits of their ancestors during the Bon Festival, which happens around August, but spirits, or yurei, appear in different forms in literature and culture throughout the year.

In "Wheels," a poem from Japan published this month in WWB, we see a ghost in snake form, frightening two young girls. You'll find other ghosts in WWB Campus’ collection of Japanese literature on the theme of “Ghosts, Dreams, and Visions.” “Compos Mentis” tells a version of the Noppera-bo—faceless ghost—story; in “The Kiso Wayfarer,” a young boy senses a ghost tagging alongside a mysterious traveler; and in “Spirit Summoning,” a young girl who is a “fake medium,” surprises herself when she seems to have actually called on a real spirit.

In China, QingMingjie (Tomb-Sweeping Day), in early April, is when people go to their ancestors’ graves to honor their spirits. In “Appointment in K City,” this holiday gives a woman the chance to remember her former lover.

In his journalistic essay on Violence and Drug-Trafficking in Mexico, Mexico’s Juan Villoro brings the cultural inspiration of Day of the Dead out of literature and into real, immediate life:

Today, death is not just the inspiration behind rituals, poetry and philosophy. At the corner of Avenida Patriotismo and Río Mixcoac, one of the busiest crossroads in Mexico City, there is a bridge where people often hang advertisements and protest banners. Last week, I saw a yellow sign advertising a newly fashionable profession: “thanatology," the study of corpses and the manner of their death having become an urgent need.

We hope you enjoy these stories, some wildly fantastical, others all too real.