11.28.2013

On Ghosts

I have a soft spot for ghosts, I always have - even the books about other supernatural creatures I've enjoyed in the past, at their base, are ghosts: Carmilla comes to mind, so do, in a different way, the elves in JRR Tolkien (part of why I didn't enjoy the movie version of Fellowship - the only movie I saw - was that the nature of elves as a tragic, only half-present race felt untapped, but that's a story for another day). When I was young, I remember, in fact, imagining up ghosts, playing with the idea of them (another post for another day).

At the same time, I've seldom enjoyed ghost stories - once in a while (and I would LOVE some good recommendations), but often not, enough that I DON'T say I enjoy ghost stories. This month, ghosts have been on my mind a lot, and so the reason for this has been gnawing at my subconscious.

At heart, the problem with the 'typical' ghost story - and by this, I mean, the kind you hear around campfires, let's say - is that there is so little focus on the ghost. Ghosts are made into a sort of depersonalized spirit of horror, in this type of ghost story - something like another genre of fireside story I dislike, the classic "...and the radio said that a madman had escaped from the local prison..." story. This is fine, I'm not saying I'm morally OPPOSED to this sort of ghost story. Just ghosts feel like a rotten way to tell it, because the spirit of terror is usually terrifying because of its 'otherness' - the best example of this sort of ghost story, then, in my mind, wouldn't be a ghost story at all, but rather something more primordially alien. Say, a Cthulhu story, or maybe something like the film 'Alien'. Science Fiction stories are actually often at their BEST when they force us to confront the idea of a thinking entirely alien to our own, telling us metaphorical stories about the unbridgeable, terrifying gaps between different people's psyches (at least to me). But as ghost stories these fall short for me: because the essential tale of the ghost is of something human. Something human distilled down to its essence, and perhaps therefore losing its humanity - but still. Something human. A vampire story is (at some level, in my mind) about the animal in us and all the damage that can do. Ghosts are about the human in us.

When you hear about people's stories of 'real hauntings' (the validity of said haunting I will not take a position on), there is something to this sense of humanity. La Llorona, a popular story here by the Mexico/US border, is a good example of this - a woman who has murdered her own children and then died in the throes of regret over the act is cursed to walk by the river every night, keening for her lost babies, trying to find them again. There is two elements to this that make it powerful in my mind (and my has no one written a La Llorona novel?):

1) The utter impossibility of death. If vampires are about immortality, in a sense, ghosts are about the impossibility of avoiding death - they are not undead. They're just plain old dead. Echoes of life. Ghosts, in many if not most incarnations, are set on impossible tasks. La Llorona CANNOT find her children. Ever. They are gone. They are dead. She can save them no longer. The Bean-Sidhe of Irish myth will never wash the blood from the clothes she is scrubbing against the rocks - there is no substance left for living water to interact with. The ghost ends up telling us something truly horrible and humbling: that a day will come, when we will die, and when we die, there will be things we will never, ever, ever be able to repair. All souls carry sin, or guilt, or fear, or hate, or love, or any of a thousand other, in the end, unshakable fires, and when you die, these desires, unfulfilled, will end, and never, ever be fulfilled. There is no 'eventually' in death, there is no more hope that you'll hit your break.

2) The reduction of the soul to an organism of regret. As I grow older, this becomes more and more powerful to me, because as I age, my regrets become more hopelessly entangled with my life, and my desires become more desperate. At twenty, the desire to write a book, let us say, feels like something that will occur, but will simply take time and circumstance. At thirty, it feels like a desperate foreboding thing, something that is slowly dissolving. Every year it becomes more and more regret and less and less desire. And the trouble with regret is that the impetus behind them does not change, even as time and capacity disappear. At thirty, I can already see how much of my mind is consumed by moments that I would change, or that I would, just, understand. I can imagine, by sixty or seventy, my consciousness being gorged with this feeling. It reminds me of the poem by Emily Dickinson:

WHILE I was fearing it, it came,
  But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
  Had almost made it dear.
There is a fitting a dismay,
  A fitting a despair.
’T is harder knowing it is due,
  Than knowing it is here.
In a sense, no matter how optimistic we are, if we have things we want to do, marks we want to make, virtues we want to espouse, life becomes a race where we try to run backwards, but can only move forwards. In the end? I can imagine it almost sliding out without noticing, the mind so fixated on the impossible - that was, after all, no more possible, before the moment of the candle-snuffing - forever repeating itself. The events of some great regret replaying endlessly, when the body is no longer present to camouflage the psyche. This is what a ghost is, to me - the whole concept of unfinished business speaks to an essential sickness in the human psyche, a sickness we might call Narrative, or Hope (it perches in the soul, and it perches with, sometimes, very, very sharp claws), a divine, beautiful sickness that leaves those who become ghosts with the worst sort of infection - eternity. 

Ghosts are strange in this way. A story about a ghost, unless it be a story of a human intervening on the ghost's behalf, is a tragic, hopeless story. 

Unless. 

A human DOES intervene. But what does this mean after all, to intervene? This isn't like, say, falling in love with a vampire (common as that trope is). A vampire lives (or unlives?) and has directions, hopes, desires. Living emotions. These can be fulfilled of themselves, because the vampire is NOT dead - they have died but are not dead. A ghost is different - ghost doesn't have desires, they have regrets. Regrets can be transformed into desires only by being taken up by the living. And so a ghost story is, in a sense, the story of a human taking on the identity of the dead - of, at least in a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) sense, being possessed by the dead. 

The Sixth Sense is a perfect example - the child in it has NO desire to slip into the house of someone else and watch video tapes of them being poisoned by their mother with lysol. None whatsoever. That is, in a sense, of his own psyche, frankly the OPPOSITE of his desire. HE wants out, he wants peace, a normal childhood, an end to trauma. Instead, he has to go and take onto himself, the pain of someone ELSE's trauma - someone who has haunted their trauma into him. Resolution doesn't fix him, it only fixes the ghost - the ghost can pass on, presumably, but he is left to live, an eight year old who know has to grapple, alone and in secret, with the fact that mothers poison their own children, and that he may, at any time, be forced to bear witness to the fact. Or other facts, facts he can't even imagine. So, no, he is not literally taken over by the spirit of the dead, the way that, say, Whoopi Goldberg is in 'Ghost'. But, he is fully, entirely possessed by that spirit, forever, he bears its pain on his psyche long after ghost's psyche has been relieved of it.

Now, think that one step further - what happens when he dies? What if he becomes a ghost? How is he going to relieve that ache? The trauma does not disappear, even though the means of resolution have been fulfilled. Or, what if he meets a ghost whose trauma CAN'T be relieved? What if the poisoned girl did NOT have a videotape under her bed? Or her father refused to believe it? The spirit has nothing left but regret, regret that can never, ever be alleviated now. She doesn't really even have the choice to be compassionate anymore, because all she has left is the desire to have someone fix this for her. So what will she do? Sit there and haunt the boy. Forever. Willis, in the end, does not give the boy a solution at all, and the ending has more or less no hope in it at all. Its like finding a child in a war zone, and giving them a gun - they'll likely be shot anyway, and even if they don't, they'll have the weight of that gun, and any shots it fired, on their conscience if they do, miraculously escape.

I don't know. In a way that other stories can't be,  ghost stories have this startling, terrifying power to talk not about death, per se - I don't, after all, know that there is any sort of persistence after death, and if that persistence is anything like a ghost I hope there is NOT persistence after death - but rather to talk about what death means. The dead should not be alien fears, because in a sense, they are our most intimate, secret fear, the fear of impending mortality, of the inescapability of time. The relative impotence of free will.