How much can we really know about the thoughts and motivations that go through another person’s head? Particularly if one of the individuals in question is already dead? These are the questions posed by two graphic novel ghost stories: Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks and Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol.
Maggie has always been haunted. But since her mother left, Maggie’s ghostly friend has been hanging around even more than usual. The Reaper’s Widow doesn’t talk, just stares at Maggie with big haunted eyes. Which leaves Maggie wondering—what does the ghost want? And what would it take to get her to finally be at peace and reunited with her family?
Meanwhile, helping a ghost is the last thing on Anya’s mind. She can barely survive high school as it is. So when a ghost named Emily starts following her, helping Emily sort out her past is decidedly not very high on Anya’s priority list. Which suits Emily just fine—she is more interested in Anya’s current life than revisiting her own history.
It is interesting that in both of these ghost stories, there is an undercurrent of projection: that what people see is based in some sense on what they want to see. While neither Maggie nor Anya particularly desires to be haunted, they are both slow to identify their ghosts’ individual personalities and histories, instead projecting their own needs into the likes, needs, and desires of their apparitions. And while the desires of the Reaper’s Widow remain a mystery, it is obvious that the ghost Emily strongly projects her own opinions and desires onto Anya in an attempt to convince Anya to live the life that Emily was never able to have.
In some ways, therefore, a ghost story can always be regarded as a tale of projection: the ghost, specter, is something visible, left behind after the body has faded and turned to dust. This too, is fiction itself: the story we read is the after-image of an author’s initial penning of it. We project our own histories onto the stories we read, as much or more (depending on your beliefs) as we project our own needs and desires into the minds and memories of others after we die. Whether it’s a literal haunting, as in these tales, or remembering your grandmother’s cookie baking instructions, ghosts from the past affect our current actions, and our current actions, environments, and history affect how we interpret those visitations.
A ghost is always, too, a creature of desire: a need to create a connection between the living and the dead. Whether it’s the dead reaching out to the living, or the attempts of the living to make contact with those who have passed, ghost stories persist because of our need for communication with those who have died. But as both Hicks and Brosgol point out, communication is often a difficult and flawed endeavor. Sometimes with deadly consequences.