Out of the world of utter desolation and a wild nightmare that constitutes Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1834) comes this simile, which is almost a ghost story in miniature: the lonesome road is more familiar than the Mariner’s experiences at sea, as is the fear of being followed. However, for most of us, the horror that follows us lies in our imagination, whereas here the traveller “knows” what walks behind him. The ambivalence or tension is between certainty and doubt, between the familiar and the feared, between rational occurrence and the inexplicable — and perhaps is the ghost story’s chief source of power.
Ghost stories have multiple meanings, but one constant element is the challenge they offer to the rational order and the observed laws of nature, though they may do so in a variety of ways, reintroducing what is perceived as fearful, alien, excluded, or dangerously marginal. The source of terror may intrude into the familiar in the form of the past, and the dead or the untamed world of nature, or from the human mind, as dreams do (Banquo’s “cursed thoughts which nature gives way to in repose”), or it may come from the rational world itself in the form of a scientific aberration; it may even come from such characteristically human ambitions and activities as war, oppression, and persecution, which the twentieth-century made peculiarly its own. Themes such as these are common both to the generically narrower form of the ghost story, and to the wider concept of the Gothic. Regarding subject matter, there is an extensive overlap between the two; indeed it could be argued that the most characteristic form taken by the Gothic from, perhaps, 1830 to 1930 is the ghost story. By then, the transformations of the Gothic into new media such as film and radio were well established. The ghost story’s commercial aspect provides a further link with the Gothic, which has always been characterised by its wide popular appeal. Adeline Virginia Woolf, in an essay of 1918, posed the question, “how are we to account for the strange human craving for the pleasure of feeling afraid which is so much involved in our love of ghost stories?” and supplied the answer, that we enjoy being frightened, so long as it is under circumstances that we can control.
The narrowest definition of the ghost story would describe it as a story about the spirits of the returning dead, but many of the best-known examples of the genre do not strictly conform to this description: Montague Rhodes James’ “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” involves a horror that is ghost-like in appearance, even clothing itself in a sheet, but what comes in response to the whistle is an evil spirit, an elemental, a demon who rules the winds. Ghost stories are more usefully defined in terms of length, genre, or context than according to the particular types of supernatural visitation that they represent: stories of the spirits of the dead are different in subject, but not in kind, from stories of ghouls, vampires, zombies, and doubles (doppelgänger), automata, and the golem, or from tales of witches, wizards, werewolves, and spells (as in Montague Rhodes James’ ‘Casting the Runes’). All these various phenomena derive from folklore and oral tales that have been told in the dark since people began to tell each other stories.
Ghost stories constitute a special category of the Gothic and are partly characterised by the fact that their supernatural events remain unexplained. While Gothic novels sought to create a sense of the sublime by exciting “the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible,” their supernatural events might be allowed to proliferate without explanation, or, in the alternative model favored by Ann Radcliffe and others, they might be rationally explained away. Ghost stories commonly provide an alternative structure of cause and effect, in which the supernatural is not explained away but offers its own pseudo-explanation according to some kind of spiritual law of action and reaction: an unburied corpse, a murder victim or some other secret apparently buried safely in the past returns to haunt the perpetrator, as in Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘The Familiar’ or Montague Rhodes James’ ‘A School Story,’ in which a Latin master is upset by the response he receives to an exercise using the conditional: “Si tu non veneris, ego veniam ad te” (“If you don’t come to me, I’ll come to you”). Eventually, something does come: “he was beastly thin: and he looked as if he was wet all over: and, […] I’m not at all sure that he was alive.” The sequel, or pseudo-explanation, is two clasped bodies, discovered when an old well is cleaned out in Ireland. One of these is identified by the initials on his watch as the hapless schoolmaster. The story implies that the thing that comes back was originally murdered by the schoolmaster, but the further explanation of their relationship, or the motives, other than the dead man’s revenge, are left unexplained.
The ghost story’s “explanations” do not operate to rationalize or demystify the supernatural events, but rather to set them inside a kind of imaginative logic in which the normal laws of cause and effect are suspended in favor of what Freud termed “animistic” ways of thinking, in which thought itself is a mode of power, in which wishes or fears can actually benefit or do harm — ways of thinking that are characteristic of very small children who have not yet defined their own limits, but which Western educational traditions have taught us to reject or leave behind. The ghost story reverts to a world in which imagination can produce physical effects, a world that is potentially within our power to change by the energy of our thoughts, yet practically alarming. Moreover, of course, the ghost story itself lends some degree of credence to the powers of the imagination, since the mere words on the page can, in their limited way, reproduce the effects they describe: once we are in the grip of the narrative, the heartbeat speeds up, the skin sweats, or prickles, and any unexpected noise will cause the reader to jump.
For Sigmund Freud, the explanation for such feelings was rightly set out by the German philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, for whom “everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light.” Ghost stories represent the return of the repressed in its most literal and paradigmatic form, so it should come as no surprise that Sigmund Freud’s 1919 essay “Das ‘unheimlich’” (“The ‘uncanny’”) offers the fullest and most systematic theorisation of the form to date. The essay takes the form of an analysis of a story called ‘The Sandman,’ by the German fantasy writer Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776–1822). This is a complex tale with at least three different strands: one of these, the story of the sinister doll-maker Dr Coppola and the doll that he brings to life, was to become the source of the ballet Coppelia as well as of the first act of Jacques Offenbach’s opera ‘Tales of Hoffmann.’ Sigmund Freud’s account shows how the various apparently unrelated elements of the story are in fact all closely linked by a series of thought or verbal associations that conceal an undercurrent of fear, a threat of damage to the eyes, which for Sigmund Freud conceals a further threat of damage to the penis (this is a male critic writing for male readers). The elaborate layers of meaning and symbolism that Freud unearths were to have a powerful influence on the practice of literary analysis, and their complex interaction within the story must, in turn, have contributed to his own theories about the operation of the unconscious.
One key element in the story, in Sigmund Freud’s view, is the use of various doubles: “the conclusion of the story makes it quite clear that Coppola the optician is the lawyer Coppelius and thus also the Sand-Man.” In fact, the whole narrative is shot through with uncanny repetition of all kinds, such as the automata that, like the doll Olympia, mimic the living. When the hero Nathaniel thinks he understands the strange connections between the various threatening figures in the narrative, he is also clearly undergoing some nervous illness, and the story ends with his suicide. The reader cannot tell whether everything happened as he experienced it, or whether he was suffering from paranoid delusions — indeed, both could be true at the same time. Jacques Derrida has encouraged us to analyse the processes of production and reproduction, rehearsal, and performance that lie at the heart of literature. Focusing on these, it soon becomes apparent that many of the most characteristic motifs of the ghost story, even the very ghosts themselves, are reproductions or simulacra of human beings, and many of the other figures that appear in ghost stories — doubles (or doppelgänger), automata, manufactured monsters like Frankenstein’s, reanimated corpses (or zombies), the golem made from the clay of the dead — are all different forms of reproduction, and that the concept of uncanniness itself is closely connected to disturbing interpretations and the discovery of resisted meanings. Literature, with its fundamental process of mirroring lived life, is by nature uncanny.