August 16th, 2007

The Return Of The Ghost Story

The ghost story is in its second golden age. The first stretches from Dickens to M.R. James (roughly 1830-1920) and the second begins with The Sixth Sense and is gathering steam.

When I say ghost story I mean specifically the story with ghosts in it. I don't mean horror. 

The ghosts of the first golden age appeared in magazines. The ghosts of the second golden age appear on TV and in the movies. I'm aware of five or six current TV shows in which our hero or heroine (usually heroine) is a medium. Mediums have succeeded PIs as the rogue operators of small screen crime detection.

Of course these fiction shows aren't alone. They're surfing a huge wave of interest in the parnormal.  They're the upmarket and more expensive cousins of all those reality shows featuring celebrity mediums like John Edwards, James Van Praagh and Derek Acorah and  the ghost-hunting shows like Most Haunted, Girly Ghost Hunters and Sensing Murder.

The best of these fiction shows is Medium- with Patricia Arquette.  Medium keeps it real. Arquette's character Alison Dubois  (based  on a real person) is a suburban mum with a touseled mathematician husband, two bratty kids and a part-time job as psychic consultant to the DA. There are scenes involving cornflakes and yoghurt and the school run; step ouside the front door and it's Arizona and the sun is beating down.  Hubby is often uncomprehending, the kids are a nuisance and poor Arquette is run-ragged. The spooks too are "realistic" and keep pretty much within the parameters of what parapsychologists would recognise as normal spook behaviour. 

This respect for parapsychology is new. In Victorian and 20th century ghost stories there was little attention paid to the observed realities of ghost behaviour. Ghosts were gifted with powers that real ghosts don't have. They were vengeful and dangerous and routinely killed and maimed the living. In these latest stories- from the Sixth Sense on- ghosts are immaterial. They don't posses fingers to throttle- they don't beat people up the way the deceased Patrick Swayze does in Ghost. They are limited by their incorporality- which means the scariness is often inadvertent.  Mainly they're lost souls, hanging about forlornly, trying to get a message to the living, only waiting to be pointed towards the light.

This realistic view of ghost-nature is respected in Ghost Whisperer- the latest of these shows to come my way- even though it's otherwise complete hokum- close in tone to Charmed- with Jennifer Love Hewiitt as a beautiful psychic  with the perfect lifestyle and a hunky boyfriend who doesn't seem to own any shirts.   Medium James Van Praagh is on the team as executive co-producer to  lend things an air of professional respectability and the ghosts mope about and refrain from smacking people around (or at least they did in the one episode I've seen.) Clearly the programme makers know  they're catering to an informed public. 

So why this is happening?  In the Victorian age the ghost story addressed current anxieties- not only anxieties about mortality and the afterlife, but also anxieties about sex which couldn't be addressed directly in popular fiction. Ghosts were a way round the censor. They could stalk young women, drive scholarly bachelors mad,  pop up in people's bedrooms- and Mrs Grundy ( a simple and literal-minded soul) wouldn't turn a hair.  Dracula is the quintessential Victorian ghost story. Henry James's Turn of the Screw is a more sophisticated example of the same thing. On one level it's a yarn about a haunted house and on another its all about sexual repression and paedophilia.

These days if we want to talk about our sexual anxieties we don't need to cloak them- which is why Dracula has become a figure of high camp. So what are our modern ghost stories really about? Actually, I think they're really about ghosts. That's why they keep so close to the perceived reality of mediumship and hauntings. Death has replaced sex as the thing we're most afraid of. The Victorians still- mainly- believed in an afterlife, but we've been told it's a scientific impossibility. This distresses us and we'll readily lend an ear to anyone who'll tell us different.

The old-time ghost stories were about creating a frisson- supernatural, sexual, whatever. The new ones are still about that but they're also about giving us hope. Sure we want our ghosts to scare us but also- more crucially- we simply want them to exist.