[On Horror Pt. 3] Terminology: Demons and Ghosts

(The Sixth Sense)
(The Sixth Sense)

I’ll be up front about this. I’m loosely defining horror. Like, really loosely. Most of the horror I watch isn’t exclusively horror, but is more science fiction horror or dark fantasy. However, the line is a blurry one. So for the sake of covering bases I am applying the term “horror” more liberally than probably a lot of harder-core fans would agree with. For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer would technically fall under urban fantasy, but since it has vampires and “demons” (more on that in a minute) it finds itself swimming in the same pool of definition as Stephen King’s Misery, a film/book about a writer who is locked up by a psychotic fan forcing him to write a continuation of his completed series that is completely void of any supernatural elements.

Sometimes, labels hurt as much as they help. And I’m not just speaking sociologically.

While demons, ghosts, vampires, werewolves and zombies tend to make appearances in horror, that doesn’t make horror the only medium they are interpreted through.


The term “demon” has evolved so much in the last twenty years that I want to start with it. From a Christian theology definition, demons are the angels that became fallen with Satan when they rebelled against God. While this is what a real demon is, this isn’t always the definition attributed to them in fiction, specifically in the newer genre of urban fantasy.

(Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
(Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Brandon Sanderson summarized urban fantasy in his creative writing lectures as “chicks in leather battling demons.” While this isn’t exclusively the case, it does sum up the stereotype nicely and also gives a rough groundwork. Two examples of urban fantasy would be Buffy the Vampire Slayers from the 90s (even though Buffy was around before the term urban fantasy really became “a thing”), and the recently popular teen fiction series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Claire. In Buffy the term “demon” refers more to mythological creatures from other dimensions coming to terrorize the city than spiritual beings. Rarely, if ever is the term “demon” applied to something spiritually from hell. It’s more just an edgier catch-all term for bad beasties that Buffy has to kill.

In slight contrast, City of Bones also uses the term demons and does make it more spiritual, however still places demons in a physical form of monster that just happens to be from another fantasy world no one would want to go to. While City of Bones uses quite a bit of Christianese terminology, the entire feel of the story leans more toward a world where “demons” are the pestilence of the magical world. They’re bad, they’re evil, they can hurt people, but matters of the soul aren’t really addressed. In both cases, “demon” is a term that is used more just to describe a multitude of monsters that vary in their levels of big badness.

That’s not to say demon never means something spiritually evil. Exorcism and your standard demonic possession films are definitely still, again, “a thing.” These take the angle that the thing to fear comes from inside the character instead of outside. “Monster inside vs. monster outside” as a friend of mine so succinctly put it. I have gotten the impression that these films tend to portray a world where Satan is stronger than God, and that in the end it is left up to man to make things right again. (Disclaimer: I have never actually watched a “exorcism” film aside from Exorcism of Emily Rose, therefore this is speculation.)

(The Exorcism of Emily Rose)

As a side note, sometimes exorcism films will fall under the label of “Christian.” 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose caused somewhat of a stir when it was promoted at the BIOLA Media Conference. “Based on a true story,” Emily Rose is about the murder trial looking into whether or not the priest who performed (and failed) an exorcism on a possessed Christian girl was ultimately responsible for her death. Instead of focusing on the exorcism, the focus is on the religiously skeptical attorney representing the priest and how she reacts and copes with the strangeness that starts seeping into her life through (assumedly) demonic presences.

I watched this due to the label of it being “Christian.” I was curious how a film that was about an exorcism (a sub-genre generally disavowed by Christians I know) could be promoted by a Christian school. It was well-crafted, and strove to tell a compelling, powerful story of spiritual endurance…but despite a “Christian” label, there were so many theological issues and inconsistencies that begged to be addressed that never were.

Other things to keep in mind is cultural context. If you’re looking into Japanese animation (anime), to use a popular example, you need some level of knowledge to understand how their folklore and mythologies may color the word “demon” differently than something with a European backdrop.


Ghost stories vary in their execution depending on the film. Not all of them are horror, or suspense, or even dark! 1947’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is a warm, funny movie about a widow trying to make ends meet. When she moves to her seaside cottage she finds it’s haunted by an old sea captain who narrates his life story so she can publish it and live off the royalties.

(The Ghost and Mrs. Muir)

More seriously-toned ghost stories, however, tend to be focused on some sort of mystery and/or some sort of task, sometimes known, sometimes unknown. Sometimes, as in the case of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) the mystery is trying to figure out that there are tasks to be done, and then how to go about completing them. For 2007’s The Messengers the task is one of vengeance/justice, and seeking to discover the silenced story of the spirit haunting the house.

And sometimes, ghosts are framed in a more fantasy, Grimm fairy tales-esque manner versus a spiritual enemy.

Guillermo del Toro’s Mama involves a jealous ghost striving to keep the children she rescued. But in the end, the focus of the story is more on the female lead’s adaption to motherhood, and the atmosphere is that of a dark fairy tale set in an urban backdrop.

Ghosts also dip their toe in the more classically gothic, even though it’s not always clear whether the ghostly visions are true, or just the personification of a character’s guilt or [insert something here]. One example would be Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, and another example would be the more recent 2012 adaptation of The Woman in Black–even though this was originally published in the 1980s it is written in a form reminiscent of the Victorian gothic.

(The Woman in Black) (2012)
(The Woman in Black) (2012)

From my primitive knowledge of Victorian Gothic, I would define it as a fascination with the morbid, a curiosity into the unknown, and a slightly warped sensibility coming from a overly prudish society. — Karis

Terminology in fiction is a funny thing.

By this point I have come to believe that it is a storyteller’s prerogative, not to mention personal challenge, to take a term and redefine it in as unexpected a manner as possible.

As always, it comes down to a personal choice of where your convictions lie. Some people have problems watching anything with the word “demon” regardless of the context’s definition. And for them, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer might be a sin. Likewise, some people should avoid even the most seemingly harmless ghost stories, such as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, perhaps because terminology muddles their spiritual understanding.

Both these lists are far from a complete wiki of redefinitions. There are many sub-genres and terms that I personally choose are not worth the risk of what they infer. Generally if a netflix blurb infers a haunting, or demons outside the confines of a fantasy setting, I avoid it. Or, if it looks really interesting (read: I can get something out of it), I do research, or ask SilverEagle. Often, if I get a personal recommendation from a trusted source, or someone who knows my limitations, then I’m more willing to take a risk. But usually only then.

[Screencaps snagged from Shadow of Reflection.]

[Thanks to SilverEagle for basically co-writing this with me as I badgered her with questions…]


5 thoughts on “[On Horror Pt. 3] Terminology: Demons and Ghosts

  1. I think you have some of this right on the nose. One of the biggest issues we have as English-speakers is that we simply don’t have words to define some of these things. ‘Demon’ is the only word we have for supernatural creatures from other realms (and since we no longer believe that hell can be reached by diving into a volcano, we do think of hell as another realm). The word ‘Yokai’ does not mean demon as English speakers know it but that is exactly what it’s always translated as because we simply do not have an equivalent. What we need is to adopt words from other languages so that we can properly describe these creatures. But getting a word into common usage is hard, especially when we have one that’s been around and used for hundreds of years.

    One could argue that there is a unifying theme in ghost stories: that it is the spirit of someone who has passed on, that has something that needs to be done in this realm before they go anywhere else. I think most of the objections I hear to it is simply that souls don’t stay on Earth, they go immediately before God. That very loose interpretation of what keeps a soul on earth is something that does allow for any number of genres to be woven around it. As you pointed out, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is not horrifying or scary at all. It’s a beautiful love story, IMO. Heck, Casper is called the Friendly Ghost for a reason. Then you get ones that have the ghosts swearing vengeance against the people who killed them, or anyone that does something because they don’t like being dead, etc. and then you get truly terrifying tales. I think synopses are great for these, because it’s hard to be fooled or mislead by them.

    ((And regarding the exorcism thing there, I’ve watched a number. It’s not that God fails, it’s that God might succeed, but humans being humans and vulnerable and fallible, the evil still lurks out there in the dark corners, waiting to get someone else or return when their defenses are low))

    1. Thank you again for your contribution! I was trying to figure out how to define “yokai,” but never managed to really figure out a good way to go about it.

      Do you have any thoughts on when exorcism movies present some positive theme?

      1. Yokai is actually a catch-all term for monsters of a supernatural origin, partly why demons would actually fall into the category of Yokai (and be a semi-accurate technical way of translating the word). You can find that Oni, Mononoke, Tsukumogami, etc are all far more specific categories of creatures. It’s like the word ‘Christian’ and how that can be divided into Baptist, Lutheran, etc.

        As far as exorcism movies, I actually think you can’t really go wrong with The Exorcist, The last Rite, and The Conjuring. BUT, And this is my major disclaimer, horror movies like these are *meant* to both be frightening and to appeal to the average secular movie watcher, so the references to God prevailing are subtle and are meant to leave the watcher with the lingering knowing that the evil still lurks out there, ready to prey on the unwary. I think The Conjuring overall has the best message of God prevailing, though The Exorcist is also quite good depending on what version you watch.

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