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From Oral Culture to Television: The Christmas Ghost Story
There is a long-standing tradition in England of telling ghost stories or similar horrific tales at Christmas, commemorated in 15th/16th century mentions of ‘winter tales’ and hinted at existing even earlier. The tradition was sustained through the 19th century by being transformed into a literary form in the work of people such as Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. This continued into the twentieth century with writers such as M.R.James, but the form also changed medium again as it was introduced first into radio and then to television.
This paper will outline the shifts that take place in this narrative tradition as it moves from oral to literary, then to broadcast forms. This encompasses its movement between audiences and contexts. What was once a way of bringing community together with local tales becomes something that is national but still personal, as readers enjoy the latest Victorian Christmas annual and read the ghost stories to their family. The broadcast version of the tales professionalises this telling still more, by removing the interpretation of the reading by whichever member of the family is reading aloud to the rest. The domination of British broadcasting by England and English traditions also means that this Christmas ghost story tradition is maintained and spread at the expense of local traditions, such as those of Scotland and Ireland which would place the telling of scary stories at Halloween.