Fearful Beginnings: The Evolution of the American Ghost Story for Children

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D)


Literature and Languages

Date of Award

Fall 2013


While the ghost story has existed in oral and literary traditions for millennia, the ghost story specifically published for children has roughly a two-century run. Children's authors and publishers were reluctant to publish supernatural ghost stories for children in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because they believed such fantastic tales would corrupt the child. Rather than telling genuine ghost stories, most children's periodicals offered sham ghosts, which were always revealed as frauds and supported a rationalist thread. For nineteenth-century America, the sham ghost attempted to disembody the child's sense of the supernatural by simultaneously and literally embodying the specter, but contrary to its intention, the sham ghost in children's literature actually empowered the supernatural ghost and assured its survival. With the turn of the century came a new beginning for the ghost story for children: the fear of young minds being corrupted by superstition started to reverse. Children's literature began to gravitate more toward entertaining rather than instructing the child. As such, the ghost story for children evolved to align itself with the more progressive trends of the twentieth century. The fear that once caused so many authors and publishers of children's writing to reject the ghost story faded and was quickly replaced with the widespread embrace of the terrifying, the horrific, and the ghostly.


Susan Stewart

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature