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A.J.: Why do you think she came back?

Nikki: Unfinished business. That's always why ghosts come back.

The primary reason for ghosts to be sticking around. They want revenge, their story to be told, or simply to be informed once and for all that they are, in fact, dead. To get rid of the ghosts, the hero or heroine will have to either do extensive research in old newspaper articles or communicate somehow with the ghosts. Ghosts with Unfinished Business almost always have Purpose Driven Immortality; once their business is finished, they vanish in a flash of light.

While the futility of revenge is often An Aesop for the living, it seems to be different for the dead.

Examples of Unfinished Business include:

Anime and Manga

  • In Ranma ½, the anime-only ghost Kogane, who is cryptic about what she needed Ranma and Akane to find because she didn't remember what it was herself; it eventually comes out that she forgot to collect the plush toy that came as a free gift with the purchase of her school day-planner.
  • In AIR, Shiraho the Miko possesses Kano so she can use her to tell her tragic story to someone that will listen. The unfortunate part is that only about part of her spirit is in Kano, and her attempts to share her tale come out as broken speech and Kano trying to re-enact Shiraho's suicide without realizing what she's doing. Yukito finally uses Kanna's feather to unite Shiraho's ghost, hear her out and dispel her from Kano.
    • And while we're on the subject of the Jidai Geki and modern age intersecting, Ryuuya and Uraha are continually reincarnated out of hope that one of their future lives will save Kanna from her own reincarnation curse.
  • Hayate the Combat Butler parodies this, having the Priest's ghost say that the last thing binding him to the world was his lingering desire to flirt with a Meido. After convincing him that he can't flirt with Maria, Isumi volunteers to masquerade as one, going on a short quest to find the essence of being a maid. In the end however, he reveals that he was joking and has no intention of moving on yet.
  • Mahou Sensei Negima parodied this along with other ghost-related tropes during Sayo's chapter. After learning that all Sayo wanted was to make friends, Negi and Asakura approach her and tell her that she can be friends with them, and she immediately fades from their sight. While Negi tearfully looks up in the sky assuming that she's finally left in peace, Mana, who has a stronger ghost sense than Negi, points out that she's still right there, on the same spot.
    • Of course, we don't know what will happen if she actually graduates.
  • In Shikabane Hime, this is what causes Shikabane to occur. Generally, instead of having their story told, they get their brains exploded.
  • Hell Teacher Nube - Nube's always assisting spirits to pass on to the next life (and tells a spiritual-power seeking student that being able to see ghosts is a terrible power to have since they'll never leave you alone if they think you can help them).
  • In Rin-Ne, this is what drives part of the series. The title character spends his time helping finish it.
  • In Ano Hana, Cute Ghost Girl Menma believes she's sticking around because she needs a wish granted before she can move on. Trouble is, she can't remember what her wish was.


  • In one Simpsons Treehouse of Horror comic, the Simpsons are killed and return as earthbound spirits. While Lisa guesses that their unfinished task involves forgiving a guilt-stricken Grampa for accidentally killing them (he was fiddling with the reception on the TV and accidentally fried them), they settle for scaring the townspeople out of the house (Homer having willed their home to all their friends).

Fairy Tales


  • Casper the movie. The idea was actually followed through upon to dispatch the Big Bad of the film; she came back as a ghost to steal Casper's father's "treasure", and succeeded - but doing so resolved her unfinished business, and she was hurled back to the afterlife seconds later.
  • Stir of Echoes
  • The Sixth Sense
  • Each incarnation of The Crow comes back from the dead to avenge some horrible wrong committed against them and their loved ones (usually their own murder is a part of said wrong).
  • Ghost, naturally.
  • Subverted in The Ring: Naomi Watts' character thinks that Sadako/Samara wants her story to be told before she can move on. Actually, she's just evil.
  • All the ghosts in Ghost Town.
  • Over Her Dead Body
  • In Prison, inmate who was executed for a crime he didn't commit returns to haunt the titular facility.
  • In Tower of Terror, the ghosts can't leave the Hollywood Tower Hotel until they reach the top floor of the hotel to get to the party they were headed to fifty years earlier.
  • Even though not technically dead, the Bride from Kill Bill was beaten to a pulp and then shot point blank in the head. Her story could be taken as a living version of this trope

 You and I...have unfinished business...



  • In the Discworld novel Wyrd Sisters, Verence's ghost cannot rest until his destiny has been resolved (Death tells him this, but can't offer any advice as to what it means). Judging from the number of dead kings hanging around the castle, this rarely happens.
    • On Discworld zombies are also obsessed with Unfinished Business: Baron Saturday wants to see his daughter claim her title, and Lady Lilith dealt with; Reg Shoe wants to see a new world order of justice for all; and Guild of Lawyers boss Mr Slant wants to get paid for conducting his own defence in the trial that led to his execution.
    • And in Men At Arms, Lance-Constable Cuddy proclaims that his tortured soul will walk the world in torment until he's properly buried. Lampshaded in that Death points out that this is unnecessary, yet the ghost insists his soul can do this if it wants to.
  • The reason for both ghosts existing in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency; the ghost of Gordon Way needs to complete his last answering machine message to his sister, and the alien ghost wants to undo the accident that killed his crew and started the formation of life on Earth.
    • In the radio adaptation, it's briefly three ghosts, as the mother of Michael Wenton-Weakes needs to let someone know that it was her son who murdered her.
  • In the Mediator series by Meg Cabot, this is the reason most if not all ghosts remain on earth for the heroine to deal with.

Live Action TV

  • Most ghosts on Are You Afraid of the Dark?, finally lampshaded in the very last episode.
    • One particularly odd example was the story in which a ghost wouldn't move on until someone brought her a cherished whistle. Well, if it floats your boat . . .
  • In Smallville, the spirit of the seventeenth century witch Isobel leaves Lana's body only after exacting revenge on the descendant of the woman who had her killed. This is an unusual example, however, as in previous episodes Isobel showed absolutely no desire to kill this woman.
    • And in Tomb, Chloe is possessed by the ghost a girl to find and take revenge on her murderer.
  • Medium's whole premise is that ghosts are getting in contract with the lead psychic character (or sometimes her developing psychic children and/or her psychic half-brother) to help catch their killer or something else, but it’s normally "Catch the killer please".
  • On the other hand, Ghost Whisperer isn't much about catching killers as conforting the relatives left behind so the ghosts can stop blaming themselves for... errr... being dead, and can move into the Light.
  • A variation occurs in a Tales from the Darkside episode called "A Case of the Stubborns". An elderly grandfather (the wonderful Eddie Bracken) passes away — but comes down to breakfast anyway, refusing to believe he's dead. Despite all the evidence his family shows him (he doesn't leave breath on a mirror, for instance), the old coot just won't accept it. He's more of a zombie than a ghost, and his condition is due to his cussedness rather than unfinished business, but he still won't "move on". As Grampa's body starts to decay and he begins to attract flies, someone puts a spoonful of black pepper into his handkerchief. The next time he wipes his face, the pepper makes him sneeze. He finally admits that he has died, and "lays down his burden". He was convinced because the sneeze blew his nose off.
  • In The Tudors Henry's first three wives visit him. Whether they are real or just Henry's hallucinations is up for debate, but all three claim they've come to see their children and to give Henry a piece of their mind regarding how poorly he treated them in life.
  • In Supernatural most ghosts tend to be fueled by rage over the manner of their death and burning their bones is the only way to stop them from hurting innocents. Ghosts with Unfinished Business tend to be after revenge but once they achieve it they will just find a new justification for sticking around. When Bobby becomes a ghost he is told that ghosts can only affect the material world if they become extremely serene or if they channel massive rage. Most ghosts just stick around and fade away without affecting the living.
    • Bobby himself originally decided to stick around as a ghost to help Sam and Dean fight the leviathans. However, the brothers soon become worried that he is being overtaken by his desire for revenge against the leviathan who killed him. They are afraid that if they actually manage to defeat the leviathans, he will be too far gone to move on willingly.

Tabletop Games

  • The ghost-based games of the New and Old World of Darkness systems take this trope and run with it:
    • The wraiths of Wraith: The Oblivion have a number of ties that keep them connected to their old life, such as Passions (emotions and drives that defined them in life) and Fetters (emotional connections and objects of importance). Most wraiths seek to keep their Fetters protected so they can maintain their power, but quite a few attempt to "resolve" their Passions and Fetters so that they can Transcend and move on.
    • Orpheus often has agents of the Orpheus Group attempt to resolve a ghost's Unfinished Business to get rid of them, unless they become too violent or dangerous to deal with. In addition, there are a number of powerful, strong-willed ghosts who act as agents for the company, usually because they too have something they need to accomplish before they can move on.
    • In the New World of Darkness these traits are split between ghosts and Revenants. Ghosts (which appear to, for the most part, merely be psychic echoes left behind by departing souls, with little to no sentience) possess fetters (renamed "anchors") which represent things of significance to the dead person which their ghost is metaphorically attached to (basically things which would have held part of their minds back while their souls were moving on). While resolving a ghosts issues can be used to set it free (allowing it to move on), it is just as easy to simply destroy the anchor (particularly since some ghosts might not actually have issues which can be resolved). Revenants are corpses reanimated by souls which refuse to move on because they possess a Passion, from which they derive will and power. They also can be gotten rid of by simply destroying their bodies (or helping them resolve their Passion).
    • Geist: The Sin Eaters has clarified the role of Anchors for ghosts: as long as a ghost is tethered to the world by Anchors, they're unable to change. They may stagnate and spiral downwards, but they can't grow. Once their Anchors are broken or resolved, they migrate to the Underworld, where they're able to develop once more. As such, Sin-Eaters know rituals that allow a ghost to pass on to the Underworld instantly once its business is resolved, and there's an entire Archetype defined by aiding restless spirits settle matters. Resolving the business of ghosts has a benefit to Sin-Eaters that goes beyond charity, however, as helping a ghost to pass on refills their pool of Plasm.
  • Van Richten's Guide to Ghosts recommends that Ravenloft monster hunters help non-malevolent ghosts to complete their Unfinished Business in order to end a haunting. For Evil ghosts, a standard ass-kicking is the preferred means of disposal, but discovering what Unfinished Business they'd left behind can provide clues to their vulnerabilities.

Video Games

  • This is half the plot of Trace Memory, as you have to help D regain his memories to get the best ending. In the sequel, this will also show up near the end of Matt's sub-plot as well.
  • The Exorcism quest in Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines.
  • The RPG Jade Empire's entire plot was concerned with this trope.
  • In Final Fantasy X, Auron only hung around after his death because he'd promised Jecht to take care of Tidus.
    • And to make sure Yuna grew up somewhere peaceful and free of corruption.
    • Final Fantasy X tends to really go nuts on this trope. Yuna's task is not only to defeat Sin, but to send those who died violently into a peaceful afterlife instead of going crazy and becoming fiends. After Sin is defeated, she still ends up as midwife to the dead for Shuyin and Lenne. Spira itself is crawling with plenty of "Unsent" who get caught up in Unfinished Business and forget they're dead!
      • Even without being officially a Summoner anymore, Yuna still ends up having to essentially send more then half a dozen named unsent to the after life. Whoever operates as the Grim Reaper in that world must be super lazy...
    • This trope isn't exactly uncommon in fantasy settings, but its presence in this particular game is somewhat jarring considering we are told near the beginning that the spirits of the dead are supposed to turn into monsters.
  • The point of Amber: Journeys Beyond was to help three ghosts finish their Unfinished Business, realize that they're dead, and send them across. The World War 2 widow is implied to have reunited with her husband, and the drowned child seems happy to no longer be lost and confused. The crazy gardener thinks he's boarding the UFO he's waiting for, and it turns out he's going anywhere but.
  • At least half the side quests in Jade Empire. Justified in that the Player Character is the last member of the order of monks who can.
  • In Ace Attorney, Mia hangs around because she wants to council Wright and take care of her little sister Maya. Dahlia Hawthorne goes along with Morgan Fey's plot to kill Maya because she wants to hurt Mia, even though Mia herself has been dead for years.
  • The white chamber has an interesting case of this. Arthur, who was murdered by Sarah, somehow managed to activate the artifact and live on through it, using its power to force Sarah through a loop that would only be broken by Sarah atoning for her sins. When she does, Arthur blows the station up after letting her escape.
  • The Celestrians of Dragon Quest IX can see ghosts and help them to move on by taking care of their unfinished business.
  • One of RuneScape's low level quests has you use an amulet of ghostspeak to help a ghost pass on. The amulet is later used to grant an entire town of ghosts the freedom to pass on.
  • A side quest in Dungeon Siege II teaches you a chant that lets you talk to spirits so that you can solve their problems in further side quests.
  • The manor house missions in King's Quest IV: the Perils of Rosella and the Land of the Dead mission in King's Quest VI: Heir Today Gone Tomorrow.
  • A ghost Toad in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door wants you to get his diary from his old cabin on the Excess Express before he departs (and warns you to avoid reading it, or else). Once the deed is done, he departs to the heavens above...only to drop back down at the last second, having grown comfortable with the train he passed away on.
  • In the PC game The Stroke of Midnight, an American author staying in an abandoned Romanian castle finds herself watching the unfolding Love Triangle of the castle's last heir and the two sisters who were vying for him. He and the one who genuinely loved him are trapped in the castle until the Player Character's actions enable them to reunite and move on. The other sister was directly responsible for both of their deaths.
  • The second Dark Parables game has two ghosts. One, Princess Ivy, is benign. She's the Frog Prince's first wife, who is watching over her immortal husband and trying to help the player character end his curse. The other is Snow White - yes, that Snow White - whose business is still unfinished and will form a large portion of the plot of the not-yet-released third game.
  • In The Blackwell Series, the reason why some people stick around after their death varies. But in most cases it is because they have Unfinished Business, combined with the fact that their death is usually such a traumatic experience, that they are suppressing the memory of it, often leaving them with a fractured mind and doing the same actions over and over again. More often than not, helping the ghosts to reach a conclusion to their repeated action is the key to make them realize that they are dead, and helping their soul to move on. This is what the Blackwell family does.
  • The Dark Pieces in the Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha As Portable games are Dream People created from memories of the past, with their hopes, wishes, and dreams being their anchor to existence. The sequel even revealed that dead people could temporarily live again through this. There are two ways of eliminating them, by defeating them in battle, or more rarely, by allowing their final wish to be fulfilled. Dark Piece Rynith is the latter. Having been dead for three years, her wish was to make sure that her two charges, Fate and Arf, were still fine after she died. After seeing that they're both stronger in mind and body, are now surrounded by many friends, and are even saving the lives of other people, she bids a final farewell and Disappears Into Light despite the tearful protests of both Fate and Arf.

  Rynith: Thank you, Fate, Arf. Meeting you and spending time with you have made me very happy. Using the magic I thought you... Thank you. I wish for your happiness from beyond the sky. My precious Fate and Arf... Goodbye... Thank you.

  • Tales of Monkey Island: In the first half of Chapter 5, Mighty Ghost Pirate Guybrush needs to find a way to return to the living world from the Crossroads (he even lampshades this when he talks to Morgan, also a ghost); once he finds a way, he realizes that he can't destroy LeChuck or save Elaine this way in the living world, so he needs to repossess his corpse to finish what he started.
  • In Echo Night, the various shades Richard encounters have something like this tying them to the Orpheus. He just has to figure out what and complete various tasks for them so that they can move on.

Web Comics

Western Animation

  • Occasionally, the Ghostbusters didn't actually have to zap the ghosts to bust them. By helping them accomplish their Unfinished Business, the Ghostbusters made the ghosts rest in peace, which worked just as well as blasting them with the proton beams.
  • Subverted in Justice League Unlimited:

 Batman: Why are you still around? I thought once your murder was solved, your exile was ended.

Deadman: You and me both. You know how they say No Good Deed Goes Unpunished? I guess I shot my mouth off to the wrong deity.