Spectrality and the Haunting in Ghost’s Cultural Gaze

Spectrality and the Haunting in Ghost’s Cultural Gaze
© Photograph by Marcin Weron

Spectrality has always been one of the most interesting and controversial subjects in literature and in a high- and lowbrow culture of any age. From antiquity to contemporary time, ghosts have haunted Western spaces of representation, giving voice to the anxieties and fears of different historical moments; a study of their nature and their meanings can, therefore, throw light on our understanding of changing cultural and social attitudes as partly depending on, reacting to, and coming to terms with what was perceived as disquieting and menacing at different times.

The articles presented in this medium investigate spectrality in relation to literature and cinema from different perspectives, covering various periods in cultural history, following the development of ghost figures in literature and thus outlining a history of spectrality.

The flourishing of spectral characters can be traced back to the dawning of modernity. The most notable ghostly characters first appear in Elizabethan plays featuring the return from the beyond of a phantom in search of revenge. In this respect, Thomas Kyd’s ‘Spanish Tragedy’ (1580s) can be considered as a sort of archetypal model not only of the revenge tragedy genre but, in particular, of the presentation of the ghost figure coming on stage to ask for its revenge. Here and in other revenge tragedies, the ghost often assumes the role of the chorus, explaining the past events which are the cause of the dramatic conflict presented in the play and underlining the uncanny and repressed nature of feelings and actions; moreover, the ghost is a spectator, observing the development of the action in expectation of its final revenge, imposing on the living characters the memory of what would otherwise tend to be repressed and awakening their conscience.

Among the many examples of ghostly figures, King Hamlet’s ghost has been particularly influential, becoming the prototype of modern and postmodern spectres and the inspirer of significant critical theories. The majestic figure of Hamlet’s father, in fact, comes on stage in order to determine the revenge action of the play, while at the same time it also triggers off a chain of doubts about being and seeming, reality and falsity, truth and deception, troubling Hamlet’s conscience and, above all, allowing the creation of the first and greatest modern tragic hero. Indeed, after asking his son to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I.5.25), King Hamlet’s ghost takes his leave with the haunting words “Remember me” (I.5.91), to come back later to remind his son of his bloody task (“Do not forget. This visitation / Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.” III.4.110- 111): the uncanny and the repressed are thus drawn to the surface and Hamlet is forced to question his conscience and “take arms” against the sea which is troubling him.

From Hamlet (1601) on, the conflicts created by ghostly characters are often internalised, to be later brought to the surface as a problematic expression of religious and secular uncertainties. As Hamlet interprets the crisis of the late sixteenth-century and the Baroque period, torn between the irrefutable dogmas of the past and the changeable and questionable “new philosophy” which “calls all in doubt”, so later ghosts, such as the protagonists of the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth-century, come to question social and sexual aspects of English society, contributing at the same time to a re-evaluation of the irrational and imaginative energies that had been suffocated by the predominance of Reason in the Age of Enlightenment. Novels such as Horatio Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) or Matthew Gregory Lewis ‘The Monk: A Romance’ (1796) are widely pervaded by repressed desires, brought to the conscience of the protagonists by the action of supernatural, spectral forces. Ann Radcliffe goes a step further as her ghostly supernatural forces are revealed in the end as a creation of irrational terror, a projection of internal fears which, once they have been rationally explained, force readers and characters to face their own reality and to question their own conscience so as to find reasons and meanings which had been unconsciously hidden.

In her study of Shakespearean adaptations and re-writings, Romana Zacchi discusses how late seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-centuries witness the spreading of an interest in the editing of Shakespeare’s works and in the numerous adaptations and re-writings of his plays. Analysing Dryden’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’ (1679), Gildon’s ‘Measure for Measure’ (1700) and Granville’s ‘Jew of Venice’ (1701), she explains how a suitable background is created for the return of the ghost of Shakespeare himself, who becomes a haunting presence on the English stage and in English literature, posing questions about the contents and style of writing. Thus the eighteenth-century appears as a period haunted not only by the internal conflicts which in the second half will be conveyed by the Gothic genre, but also by the urge to confront, study and actualise the past, choosing as its best representative a playwright that proved (and still proves) as elusive and floating as a ghost.
Maurizio Calbi also discusses the Shakespearean inheritance in spectral terms, analysing a cinematic postmodern adaptation of ‘Macbeth’, Billy Morrisette’s ‘Scotland, PA’ (2001), in which the original text is present and yet absent, evoked and displaced at the same time.

In the first half of the nineteenth-century Romantic heroes express their difficulty to adjust their own individual passion and imagination to an increasingly alienated and mechanised society through a different kind of ghostly presence: Without an adequate social framework to sustain a sense of identity, the wanderer encounters the new form of the Gothic ghost, the double or shadow of himself. An uncanny figure of horror, the double presents a limit that cannot be overcome, the representation of an internal and irreparable division in the individual psyche.

Split identities, doubles, ghosts are indeed a major feature in the narrative and poetic production of the time, and writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Emily Jane Brontë are particularly effective in projecting through ghostly presences the internalisation of the desires and devastating sense of loss that haunt the conscience and the mind of their protagonists. Catherine Earnshaw in ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847) is an example of a fierce female character, whose proud and passionate personality renders her haunting both for the novel’s readers — since she stands for whatever tumultuous and irrational energy may dwell within the human soul — and for its characters, since her presence is felt even after her death.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s characters also present a ghostly quality in that they convey ambiguous aspects of the human mind, which allow both a psychoanalytic and a cultural reading. Both in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1798) and in ‘Christabel’ (1797), for instance, Samuel Taylor Coleridge plays between the said and the unsaid, a feature which increases the sense of mystery but also makes the meaning of these works unstable, simply spectral.

Laura Sarnelli devotes the first part of her essay to the scrutiny of ‘Christabel’ from a queer, feminist perspective. She analyses the relationship between the female protagonist and the obscure Geraldine, casting new light on the psychoanalytic implications of their encounter and later friendship, also thanks to a parallel analysis of other ambiguous female couples of modern literature and postmodern cinema, such as Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu’s Laura and Carmilla, protagonists of ‘Carmilla’ (1872) and David Keith Lynch’s Diane and Camilla, protagonists of ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001). In particular, the analysis of Carmilla also proves enlightening for an understanding of the cultural specificities of the Victorian time.

Towards the end of the nineteenth-century, the spreading interest in psychoanalysis becomes evident in the literary production of the time, which is largely concerned with the investigation of the most hidden sides of the human psyche. It is significant that one of the most impressive and memorable ghost stories, Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898), closes the nineteenth-century, partly anticipating the modernist narrative strategies of the following century with its ambiguous narrative style. Here spectrality is not presented simply through Henry James’ characters, but the narration itself is configured as a form of haunting and even the reliability of the narrator is ghostly. The end of the nineteenth-century is also the period in which Patrick Lafcadio Hearn writes on Japanese ghosts in ‘Kwaidan’ (1964). ‘Stories and Studies of Strange Things’, published in 1903, which Stefano Manferlotti analyses in detail, offering an overview that bridges Western and Eastern cultures.


Also published on Medium.

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