In Part One, I looked at the history of the ghost story, utilising Freud’s essay The Uncanny to argue that ghosts are representations of collective fears and prejudices. I argued that, in the Victorian era – when there were stronger boundaries and taboos – ghosts were represented in fiction as threatening, mysterious and sinister, consistent with the prejudices and fears of which they were an expression.
The Victorian ghost is, on the whole, a portend of doom and calamity whose true essence can never truly be known since the ghost is not of this world, but a figure less than human; a dehumanised entity whose purpose is often, but not always a subversive one.
In Part Two, I will be exploring the modern ghost story and looking at how the representation of ghosts has changed.
Like most other things in contemporary culture, the ghost has in fact, been claimed by post-modernism, given a reworking on the post modern principles of collapsing polarity and the unsettling of pairs of opposites. In the case of the ghost story this polarity is the life/death polarity.
To clarify this, two examples of ghost stories that have adopted these principles are The Others, starring Nicole Kidman, and Sixth Sense, starring Bruce Willis.
In both of these films, the viewer is unaware at the start of the story, that the main protagonists are themselves ghosts, viewing life from an outsider’s perspective. Thus, the ghost – instead of being cast as the outsider looking in; the figure on the margins – is centralised as the main point of view character. The viewer – unless he or she notices the signs at the beginning of the story – is unaware that they are seeing the world through the eyes of the ghost.
In The Others, Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace, lives in a large deserted house in Jersey after the Second World War, with her photosensitive children. She is waiting for her husband to come home from the war, though unbeknown to her, he is dead. Everything changes for her when some servants turn up at the house asking for work, even though the advert Grace had placed had not yet been published in the newspaper.
There is something disturbing about the servants, a woman and a deaf mute girl – and it transpires that they are ghosts. Gradually it becomes apparent that Grace had a breakdown and killed herself and her children and they have yet to accept that they are dead too.
In this moment the revelation for the viewer is that they too have to accept that they have been seeing the world through the eyes of a ghost. Such a revelation has the very post modern effect of unsettling the neat, established polarity between the living and the dead; of challenging and over-throwing the distinction between self and other.
In Sixth Sense, something similar happens with Bruce Willis’s character, the child psychologist Malcolm Crowe. Crowe becomes involved with a boy who ‘sees’ dead people, not realising that the boy only sees him because Crowe himself is dead.
Throughout the film there are tiny clues to this effect, such as when Crowe is dining with his wife and she does not actually acknowledge his presence, though he interprets her gestures and reactions as a response to him.
Once again the ghost is cast as a central, point-of-view character and the viewer is tricked into seeing the world through the eyes of the ghost until the revelation comes, and the line between life and death is challenged and, temporarily, overthrown.
Such examples, I would argue, illustrate a culture tolerant of difference; a society that seeks to embrace and celebrate the marginalised point of view; collapsing or overturning the often oppressive polarities that have governed the way we think, especially where those polarities have been transcribed into a governing ideology in which the first of a pair of opposites is the dominant one, e.g. male/female, white/black, straight/gay.
Thus, the post-modern ghost reflects the cultural need to dismantle the oppressive polarisation of opposites being challenged elsewhere in our language.
Contemporary representations of the ghost symbolise this trend towards inclusion and the embracing of difference; reflecting society’s move away from the marginalisation of minorities and the suppression of alternative voices and points of view. In short, in societies where there are less taboos, the figure of the ghost is friendlier and less threatening.
Of course not all modern ghost stories conform to this pattern. The recent adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black starring Daniel Radcliffe reverts back to a more traditional ghost story. Indeed, Hill’s tale could easily have been written in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, drawing as it does, upon the classic ghost story tradition of the malevolent figure with malign intentions, the sighting of which is a portend of doom and disaster.
Thus, it is safe to say that, in this era of technological excess and the relentless march of scientific progress – the ghost story is experiencing something of a revival. This perhaps should not come as a surprise, since a fascination with spiritual matters abounded in the late nineteenth century, when society was teetering on the brink of a new world and experiencing the often negative effects of the Industrial Revolution – effects which for many, included the dehumanisation and mechanisation of life through mass production and factories in which the need for the re-spiritualization of life, whereby we are reminded of our humanity, was ever-present.
In our time, the increasing pace of technological progress, the advances made by science, as well as the gradual decline of orthodox religion have each helped create a spiritual void.
Human beings have a fascination for mystery, for things that defy logic and explanation; for things which, as it were, go bump in the night. The popularity of programmes such as Most Haunted testifies to this.
In spite of how far science has come, or maybe because of it, we still like to think that the world has retained an element of mystery; that there is something out there which is beyond the scope of the relentless rationality and analytic scrutiny that has become the governing sensibility of our time.
Perhaps too much knowledge is a burden and we feel safer with the idea that some things can never be known. Or perhaps we hanker after the lost innocence of a less rational age, where myth could fill in the gaps left by science and our imaginations could flourish without censure or fear of ridicule.
Whatever the reason, ghost stories still grip the imagination with as much fervour as ever, reminding us of that primal fear of the dark; even in our over-lit, clinical age.
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