Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Martha May

Second Advisor

Michael Nolan

Third Advisor

Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox


This thesis analyzes ghosts and hauntings in horror cinema from the earliest inceptions through the early twenty-first century through the lens of cultural history. Through a synthetic treatment of literary and filmic scholarship, historical consideration, and textual analysis, this examination reveals how ghosts and hauntings within American horror cinema reflect the cultural preoccupations of contemporary society — especially, but not limited to, their fears and anxieties. A survey of pre-cinematic ghost depictions contextualizes the reception and creation of the earliest cinematic offerings. For the first half of the twentieth century American filmic ghosts reflected the prevailing incredulous attitudes towards Spiritualism. Though the ghost was traditionally an entity to incite fear, Americans were slow to accept the real ghost as a viable cinematic monster. In the 1960s horrific film ghosts were finally taken seriously, serving as manifestations of mental fragility, and in the 1970s resonated with a struggling American working-class. Haunted structures served as reminders of contemporary economic fears and the financial burdens placed on families. By the 1980s ghosts became more destructive though soon lost their ability to frighten. At the millennium’s turn, ghosts acted as totems of reconciliation but after tragedies of September 11, 2001, were connected to anxieties surrounding technological dependence. Finally, by the early 2010s ghosts were largely demonic entities bent on destroying middle-class notions of economic security and traditional familial roles, resultant of the recent economic recession.