Friday, October 20, 2006

Child’s Play

(Day 2 of Countdown)

“We will each write a ghost story!”
--Lord Byron, June 1816

That challenge made by the great Romantic poet spawned three tales of the supernatural, yes, but not one story about ghosts in particular. Byron himself wrote an odd prose fragment about a mysterious companion who seemed to know the time and place of his death. His friend, Dr. John Polidori later turned it more explicitly into a vampire tale (in fact, a likely inspiration for Dracula), and the most notable of the stories, Frankenstein, written by his friend Mary Godwin helped create both the horror and science fiction genres, without hide nor hair of the traditional ghost in it.

But then we all recognize that what Byron called for didn’t need to have a ghost in it, but it did need some distinctive characteristics. When our childhood sleepover friends asked for a ghost story, that simply meant a scary story that toys with supernatural fears. Such ghost stories no doubt date to the first stories told around a campfire, and most of us grew up hearing them and telling them one way or another. Though the ghost story, taken literally, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with monsters, the impulse does. And that’s the same impulse, or one closely related to, the one that gives us horror’s unique central character, the monster.

So where does this horror impulse come from? The history of horror, or the gothic, in literature, tells us a lot. Along with romance novels, the gothic novel formed one of the first genres of popular fiction writing, and the influential late 18th/early 19th century gothic novels by Horatio Walpole, Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen--concerned with mysterious old castles, clanking chains and things that go bump in the night--allowed for a sort of reader-based rebellion against the era’s worship of reason. In this way, gothic tales served a distinct function as an inspiration to the Romantic writers, who would—as a group—ponder the limits of reason. The Romantics were known for their concern with the subjective, those aspects of human experience that could not be easily quantified, and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, in particular, dwell on the mistake of assuming reason can easily overcome these other aspects of what it means to be human. The gothic or the archetypal ghost story illustrates the danger.

Ghost stories almost always start the same way—with a new beginning. In movies, it’s that sequence of images of a family driving down a tree-lined lane, eyes searching beyond the trees up around the next curve for that house they’ve always dreamed of. Henry James’ A Turn of the Screw begins with a young governess eager to impress her new employer. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House begins with an exciting opportunity for a spinster who’s tired of being excess baggage in her sister’s family. Stephen King’s The Shining begins with an author taking the perfect winter job to overcome his writer’s block and heal his family. Whether it’s in the house on the moors with a new husband or simply a new subdivision, the characters in ghost stories have set their eyes on the future at the beginning of the story.

But the audience knows from the opening lilt of the storyteller’s voice that this dream of the future is doomed. Something is waiting for these characters, something supposedly dead, something out of the past. It may be an ex-wife who won’t stay in the ground, or the last governess, the last caretaker, or the Indian burial ground that lies under the new subdivision. Whatever it is, it’s a piece of the past that is unsettled, and it will bully our characters relentlessly until some kind of reckoning brings it satisfaction, even if the most likely results are only madness and death.

At the beginning of one of the more influential popular ghost stories of the past few years, The Sixth Sense, Psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe finally receives the recognition he deserves at an awards ceremony. The suggestion is that he and his wife are turning over a new leaf, and the future looks bright for once; maybe it’s time for them to bring a child into their world.

But a piece of the past is waiting for them in the upstairs bathroom. In there, an old patient has stripped off his clothes and holds a gun to his head. And before he shoots himself, he tries to take the psychiatrist with him.

In that dynamic, we see the central fear of the gothic tale. When we finally have something to lose, when we want nothing more than to escape the bounds of the past, our ghosts rise up, and their demands can be merciless. As in the case of The Sixth Sense, or any of the tales I’ve listed before, our ghosts have the power to erase our future, and very often, they do; almost always, they forever alter it.

Ghosts alter the future because they offer a counterargument to the protagonists’ right to that future. They force the characters to confront whatever it is they are trying to deny, to gloss over, to ignore.

That sort of contradiction is always a part of the act of reaching for the gothic in life. Those of us who enjoy the mysterious and grotesque, those things that shake our sense of reality, do so in part because we are afraid of the unknown, but there is something necessary and thrilling in confronting that fear. It makes us feel more fully alive. When we sit around the proverbial campfire and place a flashlight under our features and drop our voice to a menacing tone, we are sharing an enhanced sense of being human with others. Those who mock or condemn such behavior always ignore the healthy zeal of it.

And for our purposes here, we should never overlook the irony that motivates each of our various horrors. If the past is what scares us in a ghost story, it is essential to notice that the telling of the tale hands us ages old methods to reconnect with and stare down such fears.

One of the early definitions of the word “horror” describes it as a physical reaction to a fear, a shuddering. This concept can help us contrast the ghost story with the many tales of horror that share its genre. Put simply, we tend to shiver at ghosts, and we shudder at monsters. Much of what I want to define are the various things that make us shudder and want to turn away. One of the gothic’s basic functions is to insist that the only way to deal with our fears is to move through the gut reaction to find a more constructive response.

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