Dragons, the walking undead, Frankenstein’s- err, Qyburn’s monster, actual giants, mind-controlling tree wizards, bloodthirsty trees with faces, face-changing assassins: Westeros has seemingly every horror trope you’d want. The smallfolk can be the terrified teenagers running from these fantasy butchers. But there’s at least one horror villain the average people don’t have to deal with: ghosts, those spooky, disembodied souls wandering the earth giving people the willies.
Well, I’m sorry to say there is no escape from ghosts even in George R.R. Martin’s world. However, they are probably not what you would imagine.
There may very well be disembodied spirits running around Westeros. There is this spooky line of thought from the disgraced Maester Qyburn:
“Do you believe in ghosts, Maester?” [Jaime] asked Qyburn.
The man’s face grew strange. “Once, at the Citadel, I came into an empty room and saw an empty chair. Yet I knew a woman had been there, only a moment before. The cushion was dented where she’d sat, the cloth was still warm, and her scent lingered in the air. If we leave our smells behind us when we leave a room, surely something of our souls must remain when we leave this life?” – A Storm of Swords, Jaime VI
Bran, his young mind running wild with Old Nan’s stories, imagines all sorts of spooky scary ghosts around him. This is especially prevalent while in the dark and foreboding Nightfort.
“There are ghosts here,” Bran said. Hodor had heard all the stories before, but Jojen might not have. “Old ghosts, from before the Old King, even before Aegon the Dragon, seventy-nine deserters who went south to be outlaws. One was Lord Ryswell’s youngest son, so when they reached the barrowlands they sought shelter at his castle, but Lord Ryswell took them captive and returned them to the Nightfort. The Lord Commander had holes hewn in the top of the Wall and he put the deserters in them and sealed them up alive in the ice. They have spears and horns and they all face north. The seventy-nine sentinels, they’re called. They left their posts in life, so in death their watch goes on forever. Years later, when Lord Ryswell was old and dying, he had himself carried to the Nightfort so he could take the black and stand beside his son. He’d sent him back to the Wall for honor’s sake, but he loved him still, so he came to share his watch.” – A Storm of Swords, Bran IV
These are all just stories though, right? We’ve never actually seen a ghost on the pages of the books or on the screen in Game of Thrones. However, we have seen the dead rise, the mysterious magics of skinchanging or warging, and the power of greensight. In these cases, the soul is a real, physical thing with an existence separate from the body. With the undead, the soul of a person is (probably) shoved back into a corpse. With wargs, their soul leaves their own body to inhabit another being.
This is explained nicely by Mance to Jon with the warg Orell. (Note: wargs means a skinchanger that specializes in wolves; the show changed the definition for simplicity. In the show, the terms skinchanger and warg are the same.)
From the book example of a wildling character known as Varamyr Sixskins, a warg can leave their own body as a disembodied consciousness for some time.
The white world turned and fell away. For a moment it was as if he were inside the weirwood, gazing out through carved red eyes as a dying man twitched feebly on the ground and a madwoman danced blind and bloody underneath the moon, weeping red tears and ripping at her clothes. Then both were gone and he was rising, melting, his spirit borne on some cold wind. He was in the snow and in the clouds, he was a sparrow, a squirrel, an oak. A horned owl flew silently between his trees, hunting a hare; Varamyr was inside the owl, inside the hare, inside the trees. Deep below the frozen ground, earthworms burrowed blindly in the dark, and he was them as well. I am the wood, and everything that’s in it, he thought, exulting. A hundred ravens took to the air, cawing as they felt him pass. A great elk trumpeted, unsettling the children clinging to his back. A sleeping direwolf raised his head to snarl at empty air. Before their hearts could beat again he had passed on, searching for his own, for One Eye, Sly, and Stalker, for his pack. His wolves would save him, he told himself.
– A Dance with Dragons, Prologue
From this example, there could be literal “ghosts” as we know them. Varamyr’s body was dead and yet he persisted as something else, being borne on by the wind and flying through the earth. However, this would be a very brief ghost.
That was his last thought as a man.
True death came suddenly; he felt a shock of cold, as if he had been plunged into the icy waters of a frozen lake. Then he found himself rushing over moonlit snows with his packmates close behind him. Half the world was dark. One Eye, he knew. He bayed, and Sly and Stalker gave echo. – ADWD, Prologue
If you found a warg before they entered their second life (after death they live on permanently sharing the body with an animal), it would be ghost-like. A being separated from its body that somehow can still see and hear without its sensory organs. Yet extremely short lived, as from Varamyr’s example he had a short time before his soul began eroding into the true death. In a panic he warged permanently into one of his wolves for his second life- like a candle glowing brighter right before it goes out.
There’s another source for the ghost stories that are told to the children of Westeros, and that is the power of greensight. The show more or less depicts that power accurately. A greenseer is a type of warg that can see far beyond mere animals.
Jojen Reed explains the basics: a greenseer like Bran can throw his consciousness far and wide. Through the eyes of the weirwoods, places he’s never been, even backwards in time. However, when a greenseer goes somewhere, they can sometimes be heard or seen. A whisper on the wind, a movement in the corner of the room, a pair of eyes you can feel but can’t see.
And Bran has been noticed three times.
The first is when he sees his father Ned Stark at the Tower of Joy.
Contrary to the protests of the Three-Eyed Raven, Ned did hear Bran. He turned, confused, and looked for the shout he heard behind him.
Another time: when Bran accidentally brain-damages the boy Wylis into becoming the man we know as Hodor.
As with Ned Stark, Wylis is aware Bran is there. He sees the boy suddenly appear in the middle of the Winterfell training yard. Imagine these encounters from the perspective of Ned and Wylis. Ned hears something behind him, a person speaking, but cannot see anyone. Wylis sees an unknown teenage boy materialize from nowhere: exactly the same sort of experiences people who see ghosts claim.
The third time is when the Night King sees and actually touches Bran, leaving a mark on the boy’s skin.
As the viewer and reader, we know there’s an explanation for what they heard or saw. The characters themselves do not. One person sees a greenseer and makes their grandkids eyes roll as they spin their yarn about that ghost they saw once. It’s like in real life when cityfolk move into the country and freak out hearing the wild animals around them. All it takes is one person who misunderstands what they heard or saw, to have that story passed on and you have “ghosts” in place of the reality. The same could be happening throughout the history of this world, as there may be nearly no limit on how far back a greenseer can see through the weirwoods and beyond the trees.
As of yet, book Bran hasn’t demonstrated that he can see beyond the trees like show Bran. However, in this line from Bloodraven it is heavily foreshadowed that book Bran will have similar if not identical abilities to his show counterpart.
A weirwood will live forever if left undisturbed. To them seasons pass in the flutter of a moth’s wing, and past, present, and future are one. Nor will your sight be limited to your godswood. The singers carved eyes into their heart trees to awaken them, and those are the first eyes a new greenseer learns to use … but in time you will see well beyond the trees themselves.” – ADWD, Bran III
The scene with Ned happens in the books as well, although in a different location.
“Winterfell,” Bran whispered.
His father looked up. “Who’s there?” he asked, turning …
… and Bran, frightened, pulled away. His father and the black pool and the godswood faded and were gone and he was back in the cavern, the pale thick roots of his weirwood throne cradling his limbs as a mother does a child. A torch flared to life before him. – ADWD, Bran II
This demonstrates it’s not an invention of the show, rather a key possibility of greensight that exists in both mediums. So far in the show, we know Bran visited the Tower of Joy, the marriage of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, Winterfell when Wylis became Hodor, and the King’s Landing throne room when Littlefinger said “Chaos is a ladder”, among others. In the books, he sees deep into the past, hundreds, maybe thousands of years.
After that the glimpses came faster and faster, till Bran was feeling lost and dizzy. He saw no more of his father, nor the girl who looked like Arya, but a woman heavy with child emerged naked and dripping from the black pool, knelt before the tree, and begged the old gods for a son who would avenge her. Then there came a brown-haired girl slender as a spear who stood on the tips of her toes to kiss the lips of a young knight as tall as Hodor. A dark-eyed youth, pale and fierce, sliced three branches off the weirwood and shaped them into arrows. The tree itself was shrinking, growing smaller with each vision, whilst the lesser trees dwindled into saplings and vanished, only to be replaced by other trees that would dwindle and vanish in their turn. And now the lords Bran glimpsed were tall and hard, stern men in fur and chain mail. Some wore faces he remembered from the statues in the crypts, but they were gone before he could put a name to them.
Then, as he watched, a bearded man forced a captive down onto his knees before the heart tree. A white-haired woman stepped toward them through a drift of dark red leaves, a bronze sickle in her hand.
“No,” said Bran, “no, don’t,” but they could not hear him, no more than his father had. The woman grabbed the captive by the hair, hooked the sickle round his throat, and slashed. And through the mist of centuries the broken boy could only watch as the man’s feet drummed against the earth … but as his life flowed out of him in a red tide, Brandon Stark could taste the blood. – ADWD, Bran III
The greenseers are always watching, a step behind anyone and everyone they want. Sometimes they can seen or heard. Theon Greyjoy in the books becomes convinced he’s being haunted by Bran’s ghost.
A leaf drifted down from above, brushed his brow, and landed in the pool. It floated on the water, red, five-fingered, like a bloody hand. “… Bran,” the tree murmured.
They know. The gods know. They saw what I did. And for one strange moment it seemed as if it were Bran’s face carved into the pale trunk of the weirwood, staring down at him with eyes red and wise and sad. Bran’s ghost, he thought, but that was madness. Why should Bran want to haunt him? – ADWD, A Ghost in Winterfell.
Bran is actually watching Theon live through the weirwood using greensight. Imagine the terror of realizing it’s true! There’s no privacy in Westeros, no secrets, no such thing as being alone. Anywhere, at any time, a greenseer like Bran, Jojen, the Three-Eyed Raven, humans that came before them, the Children of the Forest themselves- any may be watching. As Theon says:
There are ghosts in Winterfell. And I am one of them.
– ADWD, The Turncloak
They are always there, and they are always watching. It’s likely that every major character in the story has been tailed at some time by one of these formless phantasms. Imagine Bran sitting in the black cells with his father Ned keeping him company. The invisible eyes watching as Jon dies in the snow of Castle Black. Jojen watching his father Howland Reed kill Arthur Dayne only for Ned to receive the praise. The Three-Eyed Raven seeing his lost love and reliving his own errors in ruling Westeros over and over and over again. Bran watching his sister being married off to a monster in human skin and every cruelty Ramsay inflicted on her. In King’s Landing, they watch the silent throne room of the Mad King Aerys as he burns Rickard Stark alive and Brandon Stark strangles himself trying to reach a sword to save his father. Every dark, private, horrifying moments of peoples’ lives of it going back and back and back.
This is the other major point, a greenseer can visit another time and place but they sometimes cannot see each other. Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven seemingly can interact because they are traveling the sands of time together. Bran visits the Tower of Joy at least twice, and the second time does not hear his own voice or see himself and the Three-Eyed Raven standing there. There could be hundreds of future Brans standing there, thousands even, as many times as he visits this time and place. Beside them an army of Three-Eyed Ravens watching in somber silence. Hordes of Greenseers from throughout history all watching this pivotal moment.
There are ghosts in Westeros; they are everywhere and more real than nearly any character in-universe knows. Every creak in the floor, whisper on the wind, the something just out of sight- it’s not the dead people fear but those deep in the haunted forests of their nightmares. The greenseers watch lives play out before them like a fantasy Truman Show. Personally, I’d find that far more terrifying a reality than any spooky ghost making a ruckus in the basement. A studio audience to every moment of your life. Happy Halloween!