The Night the Ghost Got In by James Thurber Short Summary

Chapter in a Nutshell

‘The Night the Ghost Got In’ is a humorous narrative by the American author and wit, James Thurber in which he narrates an imaginary account of an incident that took place one night during his childhood. This short story, inspired by events that happened on the night of November 17, 1915, is Thurber’s recollection of the amusing situation that they found themselves in, caused due to the misconceptions of the author and his unusual family.

Appearing at first as a horror story, the story soon takes on a humorous style as the events evolving one after the other lead to a complete disaster with shoes being thrown, windows being smashed and policemen being attacked. Adding to the comedy are the peculiar characters such as the narrator’s emotional mother, his bizarre grandfather, the useless cops, his overly terrified brother, and the strange neighbors.


  1. The narrator: James Thurber, the main protagonist as well as the one who narrates the incident.
  2. Herman Thurber: Narrator’s brother who generally sleeps uneasily, always afraid that something would “get him” in the night.
  3. Mother Thurber: The narrator’s mother is a sensitive woman, disorganized in some regards yet practical when she needs to be.
  4. Grandfather Thurber: The narrator’s grandfather whose bedroom is in the attic and is going through a phase where he imagines being in a war.
  5. Mr. & Mrs. Bodwell: The neighbors next door. Mr. Bodwell is subject to mild attacks, like most people whom the family knows.
  6. Joe: The only policeman referred to by name, He examines an old zither with another policeman

The narrator hears the sound of mysterious footsteps in the middle of the night

The story revolves around a situation where the narrator (standing in for Thurber as a young man) hears the sound of footsteps, downstairs around quarter past one in the night when everyone except the narrator is deeply asleep. Having just come out of his bath, he hears the sound of rushed footsteps coming from someplace near the dining room table.

Believing that those sounds might belong to his father and brother who were assumed to return home sometime soon from their visit to Indianapolis, the narrator steps out of his room with just a towel wrapped around his waist and examines the dining room area to make sure that it isn’t a burglar.

The narrator and his brother couldn’t figure out who was walking downstairs

Unable to see anything in the darkness of the night, he decides to wake up his brother Herman. As they both head towards the stairs leading to the dining area, the sound of the steps seemed to have faded. But then again, they hear the sound of someone running downstairs, and when they check they see nothing coming and assume it to be a ghost. Herman being horrified runs away and locks himself inside his room, slamming the door loudly, while the narrator shuts the door at the staircase, opening it a minute later to find no further sign of anyone he now surely suspects it to be a ghost.

Mother wakes up and calls for cops

All this commotion wakes up the mother. Turns out, she too heard the footsteps and assumed it to be the burglars. She decided to call the police. As their phone is downstairs, she throws a shoe at their neighbor’s bedroom window which awakens them and Mr. Bodwell, finally calls the cops. While the narrator and Herman were certain that the sound of the footsteps belonged to a ghost and not burglars, they hid the fact from their mother as she might get more agitated.

The police couldn’t find any suspects either

The police arrived straight away along with some journalists, and after surrounding the entire house, break through the front doors, searching for any sign of the reported burglar.  The search did not help in finding any evidence of burglars. Determined to find something at least, the police continued the investigation, desperate for anything that they could have missed.

One of the officers managed to find an old instrument called a zither which Roy had won in a pool tournament and suspecting it to be something dodgy, questions the narrator regarding the same. However, it turns out to be quite pointless as the narrator reveals that it was just the place where their old guinea pig used to sleep!

Grandpa attacks a policeman

The policemen then hear the narrator’s grandfather turning in his bed and not knowing who it was set out to the attic looking for him before the narrator could explain. The narrator informed his readers that grandfather was going through a phase, he believed that he was at war in which General Meade’s army after being defeated by Stonewall Jackson, had begun to withdraw and leave.

As he was resting in the attic, the police barge in on him, thinking that they were the deserters of Meade’s army, he tried to attack and yell at them. Though the policemen immediately recognize him to be a family member, it was too late. The grandfather, in his alarming state, slapped one cop on the head and grabbing the gun of the one who found the zither, shoots at him as the others begin to pull back.

The police and reporters leave as they didn’t find anything

The policemen somehow managed to lock grandfather in his attic again and return to the dining area safely. Therefore, the entire night proved to be a terrible failure for them and though reluctant, the police finally decided to end their investigation. Feeling that something was still not quite right, they examine around a little more but then, after the narrator reveals to a reporter that the cause of all the commotion was ghosts and not burglars, after knowing this the reporters as well as the police, decided to finally call it a night and leave.

The actual reason for the commotion caused last night

The next morning, everything seemed to be normal. Grandfather, completely fresh and without any trace of the events of the previous night, questions the narrator about the presence of cops, scolds all the family members for not leaving a water bottle near his bed due to which he had to roam around in the night in search of water.

What they all thought to be the footsteps of ghosts and burglars, was the grandfather trying to look for water in the house. The main cause of the fiasco was nothing but the result of their misunderstanding and panic.


The Night the Ghost Got In is an excellent example of how a little thing can turn into a very big problem. This storyline teaches us that too much imagination will mislead the situation. Though the theme is trivial, the story provokes all elements of a horror drama that turns out to be a comedy instead.