On Halloween, it’s interesting to wonder what exactly it is that makes things scary. The Slaves of Golconda have read The Woman in Black this month and it is a classic ghost story that combines all the usual elements – a lonely, isolated house linked to the mainland by a causeway over marshes that flood, local villagers who refuse to speak of the place, tragedies of the past recounted in a bundle of letters, and a ghostly figure in black with a ravaged, wasted face who is out to seek evil revenge. It’s well known territory but sometimes even the most reliable of literary codes and conventions can fail. My son saw the West End production of The Woman in Black on a school trip and I asked him how it was. ‘It was good, and quite scary in parts,’ he said. ‘But there was one moment when the characters were supposed to be saving a dog from quicksand, and there were only these two actors on stage, and no real dog, so watching them trying to pull an invisible dog to safety was quite funny really.’ It’s a terrible bit in the book, one that has real dramatic tension, but I could quite see how it would take some acting skills to express the peril of a drowning dog on a London stage with no dog in sight. Fear, like pain, relies enormously on the power of the imagination to anticipate consequences. But unlike pain, which is best evoked by the instrument that will inflict it, fear needs a dose of the unknown to be effective. We have to not know what will happen next, to be radically uncertain, before fear can really take hold.
Having read so many other wonderful reviews of the book (and just click over to the site if you want to see them), I felt I should do something different and think about what it is that lies beneath the figure of the ghost in literature. The word ‘ghost’ itself originates in the German Geist, which is defined as a spirit, an inspiring principle. To be human is to have a spirit or a soul, and the difficulty of confronting our mortality often leads to the belief that what must remain after death is this very spirit. But ghosts in stories show themselves to be more than just any old human spirit, hanging around still once the party is over. Ghosts are always in limbo, and they induce anxiety or they set tasks for those still living. Literary criticism borrows the mathematical term ‘the indivisible remainder’ to talk about them – it means the bit that gets left over, the small, niggling element that remains when every other part of the equation is finished, after all the other numbers have neatly folded in on themselves and disappeared. Ghosts represent the indivisible remainder of life; problems unresolved, and emotions of fear, rage, horror, distress, that are too big for the grave to swallow them up. The neat and tidy borderline between life and death becomes blurred by the appearance of the ghost, as does the boundary between what is real and what is fantastic. They are there to trouble what ought to be most certain to human life by suggesting that something will always elude co-option into the clear-cut or the fenced-in. It’s one reason why ghost stories so often begin with a scene of exquisite comfort – roaring fires, a happy, assembled company, houses locked up tight against the winter chill. Even, maybe especially, in the most secure environment, fear and horror and grief can find its way in, seeping through the cracks and chinks in the best domestic armour.
But the appearance of the ghost is not always understood as an intrusive threat to mental and emotional serenity. The experience of being haunted is usually described as being indistinguishable from the experience of mental anguish, and associated with melancholia, alienation and anxiety. (Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black has to be on his own, in the dark and cold, cut off from the possibility of rescue and invaded by a sense of despair for the black fear to really take a hold on him). But this is often only as an imperative to action. Many ghosts come to awaken an ethical imperative in the haunted, to ensure justice for the future as well as appeasement for the past. Whatever has been left undone, whatever cannot be subsumed into family or social history, becomes the burden of the next generation. The Gothic genre is particularly keen on this ambivalence between horror and justice. The vindictive, chain-rattling ghosts of its tales haunt family homes in order to indicate the presence of a terrible secret, usually one that threatens the legitimate transfer of an inheritance. If there’s one thing the Victorians were really afraid of, it’s that the family bloodline would be corrupted, the money diverted and the house passed on to the undeserving.
So most ghost stories, of whatever kind, press for resolution and closure. For uncovering secrets, healing old wounds and tidying up the essential human boundaries. And they derive their fear factor from the great nebulous unknown that surrounds human anguish and the unexplained pull of the past. What we don’t know DOES hurt us, often in surprising ways.