Ghost stories, it would seem, retain a timeless appeal. In this first of another two-part article, I will be looking at the history of the ghost story.
In the second, I will be exploring why ghost stories are still capable of captivating us today, how the Victorian model of the ghost has shifted from dehumanised to humanised spectre and why. I will be examining the treatment of the subject in modern films and television, arguing that contemporary writers and film-makers treat the world of the afterlife and the idea of the ghost quite differently from our Victorian predecessors.
This cultural shift, I will argue, is one that reflects our greater tolerance for those once confined to the margins of society.
People throughout the ages have enjoyed stories about ‘spooks’ and spirits. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth are gripping ghost stories that still appeal to the contemporary imagination.
Hamlet is plagued by the ghost of his father, urging him to avenge his death by murdering his uncle, Claudius; while Macbeth is troubled by disturbing visions of Banquo’s ghost after sending two assassins to murder him whilst he is out hunting.
However, the era most notable for its ghost stories was the Victorian period, when the gothic novel was at the height of popularity.
The Victorians loved a good ghost story and literature of the time abounds with tales of hauntings and ghostly happenings. Writers in the Victorian gothic genre included Henry James, Sheridan Le Fanu, M.R. James, Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens, to name but a few.
Perhaps the most famous ghost story of all is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, which tells the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by the spirit of his business partner, Jacob Marley, described by Dickens as having, ‘a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.’ Scrooge is subsequently visited by Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
In traditional ghost stories the apparition, the visiting spirit wants something, often, but not always, revenge. An apparition is usually a portend of doom, a sign that bad things are going to happen to the person to whom they pay their ‘visit,’ and the experience of an other-worldly visitation is, more often than not, an unpleasant one.
The etymological root of ghost is, ironically, quite hard to pin down but its most common derivation is the German word ‘geist,’ from geis, meaning to be excited, amazed or frightened and this is invariably the effect upon the character in the story who sees a ghost.
Scrooge is all of these in turn, since the three ghosts of Christmas appear as catalysts for his emotional and psychological transformation, and ultimately produce a positive effect upon him but they are also sinister because what Scrooge sees frightens him, and they frighten us too, because, as the reader, we do not initially know what their purpose is.
It is this sense of the unknown which is a key factor in creating the dramatic tension in any ghost story. Yet this unknown is a paradox because it is also the known; the familiar fear, the primal terror of something beyond our understanding which has its origins from somewhere deep within the human psyche.
Sigmund Freud describes this in his essay The Uncanny (1919) – as Das Unheimlich, ‘the opposite of the familiar,’ but is actually foreign and familiar at the same time – ‘heimlich’ and ‘unheimlich,’ sometimes translated as homely and unhomely.
The Uncanny presents a highly persuasive explanation of the cultural role of ghosts, in our folklore and in our literature and one which serves us well in understanding how the role of the ghost has shifted in modern times, moving from dehumanised to humanised as our cultural values have simultaneously shifted from prohibitive to permissive.
Culturally, Freud argues, taboo subjects and ideas with which we are uncomfortable – often of a sexual origin – become repressed and then projected onto objects or figures that are then imbued with the very fears and anxieties we carry within us and as a result, deemed frightening or, in Freud’s word, unheimlich: uncanny, unfamiliar.
Traditionally, ghosts represent our repressed fears and anxieties; cases where the familiar has become strange, sinister, threatening – beyond the realms of the human, no longer living and yet not dead. They invoke feelings of distaste and fear because we cannot identify them.
We are unable to pinpoint their origins or work out where they belong within the polarity that is life/death. They belong in the shadows, on the margins, outside the boundaries of society. Of course, the Victorians had far more clearly defined boundaries than we do, coupled with a greater sense of censoriousness defining their notions of the acceptable and the unacceptable.
For example, to name a couple of Victorian taboos, homosexuality was still punishable by law and having a child out of wedlock would condemn the mother to the life of a pariah.
Thus, if as Freud argues, ghosts are an expression of repressed fears and anxieties; the familiar turned frightening, then it is no surprise that the traditional Victorian ghost – perhaps with the exception of the affable Simon de Canterville in Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost – should be unidentifiable and sinister.
The Victorians had stricter moral and social codes than we do; stronger boundaries for what was within and what was outside, the realms of society and the norm; stronger prejudices and beliefs, both secular and religious.
It is no wonder then, that the classic Victorian literary ghost should be a sinister figure hovering on the margins of life and death, a figure mostly devoid of humanity who cannot be brought into the realms of the human but remains mysterious, elusive and unsettling.
In Part Two, I will be discussing the post-modern ghost, a new, humanised figure, who is a reflection our culture’s absorption of previously marginalised identities and value systems as well as our need to overturn the polarities that many minorities have found oppressive.
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