Why ghost stories can’t die
“You don’t seem too haunted, but you haunted,” poet Terrance Hayes writes in the ninth sonnet of his collection “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.” In the context of the collection, this haunted thing is a black body in modern America (“You will not assassinate my ghosts,” he writes at the end of the 13th sonnet). But literature of the present moment, too, is a haunted thing that does not, perhaps, immediately present itself as such.
There has been a resurrection in American fiction of a fascination with the dead, undead, half-dead and dying. And even when these texts aren’t filled with literal ghosts, there’s a hauntedness — an uneasy feeling that things are not quite as they should be — that seeps out of everything I read.
It’s like walking down a dark hallway late at night in your own home, which is safe because it’s your home and monsters aren’t real. And yet, you feel for a moment as if something could slip out from the shadows are grab you. Even though you are an adult, you feel it. That’s what reading in 2019 feels like.
Ghosts are not new, of course. But this ghost, the modern, literary ghost is something unlike those that trolled the halls Edith Wharton or Shirley Jackson’s haunted mansions and wreaked havoc on barefoot children in nightshirts. It’s not like Stephen Dedalus seeing his mother’s grey, melting face, but it’s also not not like that.
A ghost is an odd supernatural being because it doesn’t come with guidelines. Vampires drink blood, avoid the sun and (as popular teen media constantly reminds us) have sex. Zombies do not have sex, but they lumber and represent consumption and capitalism in their purest, most disturbing forms. Witches are persecuted because — for better or worse — they are women with unchecked power. But ghosts are a harder thing to define. Perhaps because they are (often) noncorporeal, voiceless and vague: existing literally without the definition of body or self. Or perhaps because the thing they represent—something that was, but isn’t any long — is more malleable than fears of sexual “perversion,” consumerism or power.
A ghost is a reminder that the past lives, even when we don’t want it to. In that way, it can mean trauma, memory, loss. It’s no wonder ghosts crop up in narratives of immigration (like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Refugees”), sexual trauma (Karen Russell’s “Swamplandia!”) and racist violence (Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing”). When people want to forget, ghosts resolve to stay. They remind and in that, they find their fearful power.
There’s the ghost towns (and supermarkets) of Alexandra Kleeman’s “You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine,” the campfire-story-esque spin of the stories in Carmen Maria Machado’s “Her Body And Other Parts,” and the nosy, curious spectors of George Saunder “Lincoln In The Bardo,” all of which, in their own distinct ways, have fun with these dark, indefinite beings.
Even on the more benign, domestic level ghosts represent the things we don’t want to look right in the eyes. Michael Furey in James Joyce’s “The Dead” is a ghost only in that his presence is felt supernaturally: He represents the impossible and horrible truth that the people we love, loved other people before us. Snow comes down on the windows like tiny, tapping hands at the story’s close, and Joyce maintains narrative reality and casts a ghostly emotional aura.
Following in those footsteps, much of contemporary ghost literature straddles the line of belief, never letting on wholly what it thinks is real and not real. In “Swamplandia!” a teenage girl runs away with her ghost boyfriend on a ghost ship. The terms are explicit and because a child’s point of view is privileged, belief is everywhere. But what the characters believe and what the text believes are maintained as two seperate things. Maybe those things meet and maybe they don’t.
Ghosts need this ambiguity. Unlike their cousins in the supernatural world, ghosts rely on belief. You don’t believe in zombies: They exist or they don’t. But you believe in ghosts, even if you can never know for sure.
Surprisingly enough, Ghost shows — yes, like the “Ghost Adventures” kind of ghost shows — operate in the same way. They present themselves as scientific investigations with video and audio and radio equipment. And regardless of whether they fake the results these machines produce, they’re very careful about what they don’t fake. There’s a reason we never see a ghost as anything more that a streak of light. It could be dust or a lens flare or a glitch, but we don’t know. If you know. If you see the transparent child in a nightgown in the upstairs hallway, it isn’t fun anymore. Because you don’t have to believe, you just know.
In literature, the relationship between knowing and believing opens up even further the narrative possibilities. Do we believe in ghosts? And if we do, do we believe the character who sees the ghost? And if we do believe the character who sees the ghosts, does the novel? The very convention of ghost stories denies closure and answers. Because we can never know.
And, when this endeavor into belief is done well, it doesn’t feel anything like “Contact,” that horrible movie with Matthew Mcconaughey and Jodie Foster that equates belief in aliens and belief in God. In the world of narrative fiction God is much more like vampires and ghosts are much more like aliens. God has canonical rules and institutions and customs. Aliens and ghosts are more indefinite things.
Every new ghost requires new belief, and every new ghost story must establish the terms of that belief.
Casey Affleck being a terrible person aside, I think “A Ghost Story” (David Lowrey’s 2017 white-sheet-ghost film) handles this question of belief in a particularly interesting way. The film spends a long time (perhaps too much time) on one insufferable man’s nihilist monologue without ever hitting at whether it agrees with him or not. The ghost, when he rattles the light bulbs at the end, give an indication of an opinion, but the film does not.
This ambiguity is particularly powerful in the modern era of ghost stories because the physical things many of them represent are real. Real in a way that negates belief. But these stories don’t often deal with the real explicitly, but rather the less physical, less tangible effects of the real. You cannot feel the shape of generational trauma in the same way you feel the shape of a bed or a chair, but the characters of these stories live in it as if it were a house, carrying with them the ghosts of their histories and parents and home countries.
What stays behind is not something — sorry “Ghost Adventures” — that can be measured by any device or apparatus, no matter how strong or advanced. And that is precisely what makes America in 2019 the haunted place that it is. We can’t see or feel or know everything that is here. But that doesn’t make it all less here.
Ghost stories remain strongholds of the literary canon because, to be sentimental and a little reductive, history is itself a kind of ghost story. To live in the world is to walk through a minefield of ghosts that both belong to and because of you and your people and where you come from.