We all know the story of the friendly ghost who just wants to make friends – and if you’re anywhere close to my age, you have a strangely romantic relationship with Casper, since we all immediately fell in love with Devon Sawa when this happened:
But where did the story come from in the first place? How did Casper die? Why is he a friendly ghost and not a scary one?
There are a lot of questions if you think about it, and if you want answers, we might have a few.
Since his debut in 1945, Casper the Friendly Ghost has appeared in dozens of animated shorts and specials, hundreds of comic books, as well as the feature film referenced above. The affable ghost always searches among the living for friends instead of people to frighten and encounters problems due to his non-corporeal status.
The character was created by writer Seymour Reit and artist Joe Oriolo back in 1940. But before the duo could pen their children’s book based on the concept, the two were drafted, and while they were gone, the animation studio they worked for was sold to Paramount – a sale that included the intellectual property of all employees (what a racket).
They were given $200 for their then-untested character.
In 1945 he appeared in a short called The Friendly Ghost, but the film made no mention of how Casper came to be a spirit in the first place. It did reference siblings who enjoyed scaring people, but no other personal details.
He appeared in another short in 1948, There’s Good Boos To-Night. In that one, he is shown leaning on a tombstone (presumably his own), while his “neighbors” – the ghosts from the nearby headstones – go on their nightly haunts.
Casper began starring in comic books in 1952, and it was due to Harvey Comics that Casper finally got a ghost family: a mom and three uncles, who were later named Fatso, Fusso, and Lazo. Originally, none of the group had backstories, talked about what their lives were like when they were alive, or made reference to a beginning of their relationship to each other.
Basically, it seems that Casper’s early mythology sort of implied that he and the others like him were “born” ghosts and had never been alive at all.
The 1995 feature film, starring Christina Ricci, Bill Pullman, and Devon Sawa, gave Casper a full living backstory. He told Christina Ricci’s character that he had been a boy named Casper McFadden who had died from the flu – perhaps the Spanish flu, based on his dress and the time period – at the age of 12.
In it, we also see Ricci’s mother portrayed as an “angel,” suggesting there’s a more complicated hierarchy and mythology for the dead than the comics had previously envisioned – perhaps something more along the lines of what’s established in It’s a Wonderful Life? But that’s just speculation.
The original creators had to let go of Casper before they could fully flesh out their idea of who he was and how he became a ghost – friendly or otherwise – so perhaps it’s fitting that the truth of his origins seem to be left up to whoever is continuing his story at the moment.
Though, to me, the fact that he seems to get so much comfort from hanging around a particular headstone seems the point to the fact that it is his headstone. That means he was once alive, and he perished before his time.
I know he’s a child’s character, but hey. Life isn’t fair, and sometimes a bittersweet touch is just what a story needs to make it come alive (see: The Fox and the Hound).
Or in this case, dead.