It’s a question as old as my interest in horror. As a child I kept ghosts distinct from monsters. Ghosts may be scary, yes, but they’re people who’ve died. Then zombies came along. I was too young to watch Night of the Living Dead when it came out (I was only six). Depending on how far you want to go with this, among the classic monsters they’re pretty much all human. Dracula is undead, but originally human. Frankenstein’s creature is dead folks stitched together. The mummy is a person reanimated. The invisible man is, well, a man. So is the wolf-man. The latest of the Universal line-up, the gill-man was more a human-like reptile with gills. To add a few other favorites, Mr. Hyde was Dr. Jekyll. Witches were magical women. For sure, there are plenty of non-human monsters (Godzilla, the blob, and those various giant spiders) but it seems much of what we fear is warmed over human.
So ghosts—are they monsters? I still have a difficult time sorting that out. They seem different from other revenants, don’t they? Uncle Joe or Aunt Sally don’t really pose an existential threat, do they? (Unless one of them was a psychotic killer or something.) Yet we still fear ghosts. Many horror movies and novels feature them. It seems more because they represent the unknown in a kind of ultimate way. We can’t die to find out and then come back. Although, it seems, that’s just what ghosts do. That liminal line, or terminal line in the sand is the point of no return for the human imagination. Yet on a dark night in a creaky old house it feels like more than just imagination. Of course, other monsters could be lurking in the dark.
The thing about horror is that it holds up a mirror. We see what really does scare us and what we see reflected back is human. We all die and most of us don’t like to think about that. Ghosts force us to. They make us confront perhaps the most primal of fears. There are, of course, bad ghost—dybbuks and hungry ghosts and whatnot. Of course they’re monsters. But considering the garden variety, or perhaps haunted-house variety ghost suggests maybe our fears are misplaced. Monsters can be scary. Ghosts don’t have to be. We classify them all together as horror, but that may be a hasty judgment. As least for someone who used to be, and maybe still is, simply human.