Haunted by Pain: On Ghosts and Trauma

by Laura Diaz de Arce

Part 1: Dead Men DO Tell Tales

Crimson Peak (2015) ends in a bittersweet goodbye between Thomas (Tom Hiddleston) and Edith (Mia Wasikowska). Thomas, already dead and a ghost, seems to acquiesce to Edith’s plea and distracts his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) long enough for Edith to kill her. It’s interesting that the film portrays Thomas as someone sympathetic to the audience, considering he aided and acted in all of Lucille’s crimes. Lucille then becomes a ghost to haunt Crimson Peak as well. All of those who passed away in Crimson Peak become ghosts, because pain can easily mark a landscape. 

As a child, I loved ghost stories. The ones I found the most frustrating were those that removed ghosts from whatever history they had. Stories that gave no reason for why the ghost was the way they were. Rather, these stories, or books, or movies, focused on the living protagonists dealing with identity-less spirits. This always struck me as shallow. I wanted reason—perhaps I knew even then that people, dead or alive, rarely acted without some sort of prompting. What drove them to haunt? Who were these ghosts as people? In many ways, I wanted to know what hurt them, and what caused them to hurt in return. 

That may have been why Crimson Peak was as satisfying a film as it was to me. Each ghost has a reason for being, each a reason for their continued pain. Even the villains get some background as to why they act as they do. Lucille and Thomas raised in isolation by a neglectful and abusive mother gives their pain some context, even if it doesn’t excuse their behavior. 

Before we continue in this discussion, I’m going to ask for a few favors. First, I’m going to ask that you have a little sympathy for the devil, and that you reserve forming strict good/bad dualities on some characters that will be discussed, as the nature of these stories naturally involve some type of violence. Secondly, I’m going to ask that you think about pain, about the nature of pain and how it manifests, it festers, and is transferred. 

Ghosts, whether fictional or folkloric, are trauma expressed in physical or metaphysical form. We can use ghosts as a way to discuss, explore, and confront different types of trauma. For this piece, we’ll mostly focus on films and tv, but this can be appropriated to any ghost media and representation. 

Haunted houses are particularly popular displays in how trauma can root people into place. Crimson Peak has Edith experiencing the trauma of resident ghosts (Thomas’ murdered wives). There have also been a number of analysis written on trauma in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, including Jade Eby’s “Unpacking the Trauma in ‘The Haunting of Hill House’” on Medium. These discussions often focus on the living protagonists confronting either their own trauma, or transcending the resident ghosts trauma. I’m less concerned with the living in this case, than with the dead.    

When you work in mental health or are involved with the mental health community, trauma becomes secondhand conversation. In Peer Work, we often try to adhere to trauma-informed care—in other words, we try to work from the assumption that whomever we are working with has experienced some sort of trauma. This assumption turns out to be largely correct a majority of the time, as the more we study about trauma, the more we discover that it is a large cause of mental health issues.

For those that have experienced trauma, it is a living thing. It can evolve, and change and comes in many different shades. In mental health, for instance, we may talk about ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) that range from physical abuse, to living in poverty, neglect, etc. Having one or more ACE can create poor outcomes for the person who experienced them, leading to things like mental illness, substance misuse, chronic disease and early death. That is not to say that everyone with a high amount of ACEs will have poor outcomes, or will be unable to work through those outcomes. But we know that trauma is hard on the body. People with an ACEs score of six or more, even when adjusted for health and soci-economic factors, can have a mortality rate reduced by up to twenty year

Bringing this back to ghosts, it becomes obvious how ghosts are representative of trauma. They are often made by traumatic events (murders, death by exposure, etc). There’s also the ironic deniability of trauma. We can’t always see the effects of trauma in things outside of physical scars, we can’t always read it on an EKG or an MRI, but it most certainly has a physical presence for the person with it. 

Ghosts aren’t only trauma, they are also representative of the ways that trauma is self-replicating. 

In the 2007 film El Orfanato, both Laura (Belén Rueda) and son Simon (Roger Príncep) end up dying to make up for the sins of the past, a sin that Laura is only tangentially related to, having resided in the same orphanage where all the children were murdered. First, the ghosts lure Simon to cause his death, which leads to Laura’s suicide. El Orfanato is a film with a happy ending. Laura ends up running an orphanage for dead children, and these ghosts now have someone to take care of them. This does not negate the very real violence inherent in those acts to begin with. But what is unique about this ghost movie is how it frames this violence, as done by child ghosts desperate for affection. 

Rather than simply condemn the act of luring a child to his death and haunting a woman to suicide, it also understands that these acts were made in a history of cruelty. That those children were reenacting their own histories, in an effort to find safety and security.

In mental health, we often work with people who are largely abuse and trauma victims; those who have complex adverse experiences. Though it bears repeating that people with mental illness are no more violent than the general population, are more likely to experience violence, and the “victim-to-victimizer” cycle is largely overblown (1), every once in a while, you may work with someone who has perpetrated violence. They may have assaulted and abused someone. When you look into their past, often you will find some set of trauma. 

It strikes me as cruel to expect people raised in violence to be totally devoid of that violence. In that same vein, it is cruel to be upset at “ghosts” when they haunt, when they enact such violence. Like those ghostly orphans, we sometimes re-enact our traumas because it can become our best language. Sometimes we don’t realize that we cannot get rid of our pain by giving pain to someone else. 

Part 2: Our Unfinished Business

While I loved ghost stories, I was never much for scary movies. Things got especially more difficult after I left a two-year abusive relationship. Every time I watched a film where someone was trapped or being followed, it took me back to that time. I would feel pulled under, back to when a life where I felt like I had to watch everything I said or did to avoid a blowup. It was a time when I felt as helpless as a victim in a ghost story, waiting for something to pop out and drag me down. 

The fact that ghosts often have haunts—either an object, place, or a person—is fitting in discussions of trauma. Traumatic events and experiences can root someone in time, or have them repeating it over and over again.    

Returning to The Haunting of Hill House, we can see Nell’s (Victoria Pedretti) trauma is one that time travels. She is haunted by the “Bent-Neck Lady” as a child which turns out to be her future after she completes suicide. For people who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (1), certain triggers can cause the past to become present, forcing us to relive our traumas in vivid detail. It is only when we confront these ghosts or excise them, that we remove this repetitive pain.

 The premise in many ghost stories is that ghosts are here due to unfinished business. Ghosts can therefore be excised when this business is completed. This commonly necessitates three steps.

    1. The ghost or haunting is acknowledged

    2. The ghost’s history is uncovered as well as whatever tasks need completion

    3. The task is completed, and the ghost(s) move on

One of the most popular movies that really displayed this to any effect was M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999). Despite the fact that Shyamalan’s portrayal of disabled people is often extremely stigmatizing, here we have an example where ghosts are given back their humanity. Cole’s (Haley Joel Osment) gift of seeing the dead is at first dismissed, but when he and Malcolm (Bruce Willis) acknowledge it’s a possibility, that opens the door for Cole to confront the issue. This allows him to respond to the ghost Kyra (Mischa Barton) without fear, and investigate her death. They reveal her poisoning by her mother, and create the possibility of justice. Kyra can move on, and eventually, so can Malcolm. 

This same set of steps can also be used in dealing with trauma. First, we have to acknowledge that the trauma took place, and that it has resonance. Next, we may want to trace the effects of that trauma, and what may be needed to cope. Finally, we have to accept that trauma is a part of our lives, but it does not have to rule it. All of this is largely more difficult that excising a poltergeist or a spirit, but at least, it lets us understand the ways in which we might be able to confront our own hauntings. 

The 2001 horror film The Others is unique in that it is from the point of view of ghosts, haunted not just by the living intruders, but by other spirits and their past. Grace (Nicole Kidman) spends the majority of the film in denial of what she sees and observes as well as the truth of what she has to confront. She does not want to admit to killing her children in panic, nor her suicide. The residual peace comes from the acknowledgment that the violence took place, and the acceptance of her new (after) living situation. She must accept the violence that happened, what it has done to her and her children, but at the same time, it is foreshadowed she can now carve out an existence with the children she wronged.    

There is no real, “moving on” in The Others, only the moving forward. The same can be said for trauma. Grace becomes a fascinating study, in that she is a combination of a perpetrator of such violence, a victim of it, and one that transcends the torture of both. She may have made these ghosts, but that does not end her agency. 

When I am not well, I am reminded about how I was before I got treatment for my mental illness. There were times when I experienced a mixed episode or came down from mania, where I sometimes said hurtful things to people I cared about. I think about the pain I caused when I was in pain. These memories are the ghosts that haunt me, joined by other traumas, but I worry about the ghosts I have given others in my own anger. I used to obsess about the ghosts I gave others with flippant carelessness. Accepting these ghosts has been part of my recovery process—I cannot banish them to the ether no more than I could seance a spirit. At least, to paraphrase The Others, “The living and the dead can learn to live together.”

As for the haunted presence of my ex? It’s still there, and the panic still comes and goes when I’ve run into someone that looks like him or when I watch someone stroll through a haunted house. I don’t forgive him, but I hope that he’s learned not to leave a poltergeist behind. No one is immune to causing pain, but maybe, maybe with a little less skepticism, we can begin to heal and let something else grow out of our pain, like flowers at a gravestone.


Laura Diaz de Arce is a Floridian author with a lack of tact and an unwillingness to conform to polite society. She has a deep affection for anything kitsch and weird, and that goes quadruple for any sort of media. In her spare time, she overthinks identity, ethics, epistemology, and cartoons. Laura is the author of Monstrosity: Tales of Transformation. You can find her poorly spelled musings on Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon @QuetaAuthor.
(1) Glasser, M & Kolvin, I & Campbell, D & Glasser, A & Leitch, I & Farrelly, S. (2002). Cycle of child sexual abuse: Links between being a victim and becoming a perpetrator. The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science. 179. 482-94; discussion 495. 10.1192/bjp.179.6.482.