Ghosts are everywhere. Ectoplasm seeps out of the invisible veins of this mortal realm, our lives haunted by the certain and unavoidable fact that we will all eventually become ghosts.
The phenomenon of ghosts is a heterogeneous one; to examine what a ghost is, on a theoretical level, to study the ontological residue or, simply, to define it, is to touch upon the very essence of the ghost: a shadow, an echo or a likeness of a reality passed through mortality. While a basic understanding of what a ghost is would lead us to a definition along the lines of: “the spirit of a dead person, existing in the mortal realm”, it is perhaps more appropriate to ask: “Why is a ghost?”. What cultural, philosophical or artistic ends does it serve? Why and how does it exist in the first instance?
The idea of the ghost enjoyed a “renaissance” of sorts in critical theory after the publication of Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx in 1993, in which the French-Algerian philosopher outlined a historical theory positing Marx’s increased influence as “specter” following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and, in turn, launching a branch of philosophical inquiry known as “hauntology”, in which history is subject to a helicoidal process of repetition and redefinition; in short, that the present is intrinsically bound up in definitions of itself based on its past, “haunted” by itself as story, and by other textual “realities”, so to speak.
Derrida’s pronouncements would become popular within music theory in the last decade, with hauntology being applied to the analysis of music (and being proposed as a genre) by Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds in 2005/6, Ariel Pink and Boards of Canada among the more noted exponents (after the fact). The act of sampling, as an example, thus becomes an assertion, a symptom, of the “haunted” present.
Far from being a consequence of superstition or a bastardisation of theology, we can see that ghosts are undoubtedly real. Late capitalism, as a lived experience, is beset by hauntings and trauma, subject to the excruciating and inescapable mourning (see September 11th) of the widowed and lost. That this might be reflected in our art (and thus criticism) is no surprise.
But how to identify ghosts as we know them? Simple. Ghosts emit ectoplasm, a sticky, white substance which is entirely harmless. In a haunted house, the room with the most ectoplasm in it is more than likely where the ghost (or ghosts!) sleeps. Direct visual contact with a ghost is certainly possible, though the ghost must wish to be observed or be unaware of being watched. Thus it is far more likely that you will see a ghost’s back than face. As far as killing ghosts is concerned, it is impossible unless you are a ghost. A human delivering a fatal blow to a ghost creates a double-ghost.
Derrida’s Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning & the New International, published in 1993, is the philosopher’s treatise: “Whither Marxism?” in the wake of the fall of Soviet Communism. With respect to hauntology, Derrida proposes that the present is “haunted” by the spectre of Marx and Marxism, that Utopia exists in spectral form in tandem with socio-political reality.
Look Around You, episode 5: “Ghosts”. Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz’ parody of educational programming turns its focus on ghosts, with illuminating and terrifying results. The accompanying quiz, available on the BBC website, is available to test the viewer’s knowledge of the spectral. Demonstrates the use of electrical current as a weapon against ghosts.
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. James formal mastery, when applied to the ghost story, makes for a uniquely pleasurable experience. Scary and beautiful in equal measure, The Turn of the Screw is rightly regarded as a masterpiece of the genre. It is also an interesting literary precursor to the “found footage” motif in popular horror cinema. As far as film adaptations of the text are concerned (there are many!), Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) is perhaps the most effective.