"When twilight everywhere released the shadows, prisoned up all day,
that now closed in and gathered like mustering swarms of ghosts."
– Charles Dickens, from The Haunted Man (1847)
Since ancient times, ghost stories have fascinated mankind. In giving shape to their anxieties and superstitions, ghost stories have provided the world's diverse cultures a measure of control over the unknown forces that surround them. From the campfires and dusty scrolls of distant history to modern-day television and movies, ghost stories have permeated every form of human storytelling...including comic books!
While the traditional venue for comic-book ghost stories has been the horror comics genre, a fair number of ghost stories and ghostly characters have haunted the superhero genre as well, primarily those published by DC Comics (Marvel, for whatever reason, seems largely ghost-free).
Some of these supernatural tales involved heroes who actually were ghosts who spent their afterlife fighting for justice, vengeance...or both!
(clockwise: The Spectre, Ghost Rider, Captain Triumph, the Gay Ghost and Deadman)
Another approach was for living superheroes to encounter ghosts, whether the roaming spirits of strangers or familiar faces.
Another ghost helps solve his own murder in FLASH #224 (1973), this time the ghost of assassinated political candidate Charlie Conwell, the best friend of Barry (Flash) Allen.
LOIS LANE #108 (1971) finds the ghost of none other than Jack the Ripper crashing (yet another) Superman-Lois "wedding."
Jack's ghost certainly didn't corner the market on the bodiless top hat and tails get-up, as the Gentleman Ghost sports a similar look on the cover of the awkwardly named ATOM & HAWKMAN #44 (1969).
Superboy was haunted not once but twice by the ghost of his Kryptonian father Jor-El. The first time on the cover of SUPERBOY #20 (1952), where ghostly Jor-El blows Superboy's secret identity...
...and the second time to protect his son Kal-El from The Curse of the Kents in SUPERBOY #78 (1960).
The adult Kal-El is haunted by the ghost of Lois Lane on the cover of SUPERMAN #129 (1959), who blames the Man of Steel for her untimely death....or maybe she's just mad about Lori Lemaris, Superman's mermaid "college sweetheart" who made her debut elsewhere in this very issue.
A few of these eerie encounters weren't even with human ghosts, as everyone's favorite Amazon faced a Ghost Train on the cover of WONDER WOMAN #55 (1952)....
...while the ghost of a Kryptonian Thought-Beast makes "dinner plans" with Supergirl in ADVENTURE COMICS #395 (1970).
The final and most chilling category of superhero ghost stories is when the hero becomes a ghost.
Founding member Red Ryan is killed by a volcanic eruption in CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN #55 (1967), though his spirit implores his fellow "Challs" to carry on. Later on, the editors of the title explained that the death would be permanent, because "Red wasn't pulling his weight" (you see, it was completely out of their hands).
As victim of yet another haunting, Superman appears genuinely freaked-out by "The Ghost of Batman" on the cover of WORLD'S FINEST #139 (1964), anxiety undoubtedly made worse by Robin's hysterical finger-pointing.
A "Headless Superman" appears on the cover of ACTION COMICS #406 (1971), though Clark Kent's got a good reason to believe it's a fake. It turned out the ghost was actually a 17th-century royal physician who drank an elixir to escape the Black Plague, but gained a ghostly kind of immortality instead.
In SUPERMAN #186 (1966), Superman and Clark Kent are both ghosts.
Actually, it was part of Superman's ridiculously complicated scheme to nab Sir Seer, a crooked spiritual medium. So complicated, in fact, that an entirely new superpower ("magnification vision") had to be pulled out of thin air to explain the Clark and Superman "ghosts."
Though seldom as genuinely spooky as classic ghost stories, the ghostly encounters of superheroes definitely had their own unique brand of spooky thrills. Whether it was the spectacle of seeing spirits of their friends or family members, or the hero somehow transformed to a ghostly state, these tales were often interesting "detours" from familiar sci-fi surroundings into the darker realm of the supernatural. In an age now dominated by flesh-eating zombies and dreary gross-out horror, it might be a good idea to bring back a few honest-to-goodness ghost stories to haunt modern superhero comics.