"The Canterville Ghost" is a short story by the Irish author Oscar Wilde which contains elements of both horror and comedy. It was first published in the magazine The Court and Society Review in 1887 and was republished in an anthology of Wilde's works, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories in 1891.
The plot is set in motion when the American Otis family moves into the old English country house Canterville Chase. They are warned that the house is haunted before they move in but are unconcerned at first. They soon accept that the ghost is real but are not frightened by it. The ghost, who had been frightening all those who stayed at Canterville Chase for three hundred years, takes the Americans' unwillingness to be scared by him as a great insult. He grows to despise them all, except for the teenage daughter Virginia, who he feels is different from the rest of her family. At the end of the story, the ghost asks for Virginia's help to lift the curse which is on him and allow him to rest in peace.
Much of the humor in the story is derived from the clash of cultures which occurs when members of the modern and largely materialistic American Otis family find themselves facing old English traditions and a centuries old ghost. The story contains the famous line, "We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except of course, language."
"The Canterville Ghost" has been adapted numerous times for other media, serving as the basis for stage plays, musicals, operas, animated and live-action films and television programs, radio plays and comic books.
Three hundred years before the story begins, Sir Simon de Canterville murders his wife Lady Eleanor at their home Canterville Chase. As punishment for his crime, Lady Eleanor's brothers chain Sir Simon to a wall with some food and water placed just out of his reach. The door of the room is then sealed. Sir Simon is left to slowly starve to death and his disappearance remains a mystery for most people. After his death, Sir Simon is doomed to haunt Canterville Chase. However, Sir Simon makes the best of the situation and relishes his role as the ghost. He is able to take on different forms, including a black dog, a skeleton and a vampire monk. He enjoys frightening generations of the de Canterville family, their relatives and visitors to Canterville Chase, often to the point that those he frightens go mad and sometimes commit suicide.
Mr. Hiram B. Otis, the American ambassador to Britain, buys Canterville Chase from Lord Canterville. Mr. Otis is warned that there is a ghost in the house but he jokingly agrees to take the building with furniture, ghost and all. Mr. Otis moves into the house with his wife Lucretia, oldest son Washington, teenaged daughter Virginia and two unnamed young twin sons. On arrival at the house, Mrs. Otis notices a red stain on the floor. The housekeeper, Mrs. Umney, explains that it is a sign of the ghost's presence in the house, it is a bloodstain which marks the spot where Lady Eleanor was killed and it cannot be removed. Washington Otis scoffs at that notion and immediately wipes away the stain with some Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent. Although Washington removes the stain, it reappears each day. The fact that the stain reappears even when the room is locked convinces the family that the ghost exists. The family notice that the stain appears in different shades of red and even in green.
One evening, the ghost appears in front of Mr. Otis, rattling some chains. Mr. Otis is not at all frightened by the ghost but calmly tells him that the sound of his rusty chains is making too much noise and that he should use some Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator on them. Sir Simon also fails to frighten all of the other members of the family, no matter how hard he tries. He receives particularly rough treatment from the twins, who trip him up and fire pea-shooters at him. Sir Simon is even frightened when he sees what he thinks is another ghost, which is really a dummy that the twins have made from a jack o'lantern and a sheet.
Sir Simon eventually gives up trying to frighten the Otis family. The family wrongly believe that the ghost has left but, in fact, he is still quietly haunting the building. Hearing that the young Duke of Cheshire, who has fallen in love with Virginia, is to visit Canterville Chase, the ghost is pleased because he had terrified the Duke's ancestors.
During the Duke's visit, Virginia confronts the ghost. She scolds him both for taking her paints, which he used for the bloodstain, and for murdering his wife. The ghost admits to killing his wife but complains that he was cruelly punished afterwards by being starved to death. Sir Simon continues to say that he has neither eaten nor rested in the three centuries since that time and that he longs to truly die. Virginia feels sorry for the ghost and wants to help him. Sir Simon points out that there is a prophecy that he can rest if a girl cries for him and prays for him. Virginia agrees to do it, although the ghost warns her that it will be a frightening experience.
Virginia goes missing for some time while she is praying for the ghost. Her family, the Duke of Cheshire and the police search for her. When she reappears, she explains that Sir Simon de Canterville has finally truly died and leads her family to his skeleton. The body is buried soon afterwards.
Virginia later marries the Duke of Cheshire. Although she has no other secrets from her husband, she never tells him exactly what happened during the time that she went missing with the ghost
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- "The Sphinx Without a Secret"
- Text of Oscar Wilde's "The Canterville Ghost" on Wikisource.
- Free public domain audiobook of "The Canterville Ghost" from LibriVox.
- Trailer for the 1944 film The Canterville Ghost. Fully licensed video from Fandom Video.
- Trailer for the 1996 TV movie The Canterville Ghost. Fully licensed video from Fandom Video.
- There is an article on "The Canterville Ghost" on the Halloween Wiki.