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On Metaphorical Ghosts, and Where To Find Them

“Do I believe in ghosts? To which I answer that I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me,” wrote M.R. James – the writer of the most spine-tingling ghost stories of the nineteenth century. Terse, evasive and intriguing as a ghost, this phrase codifies the never-ending interest in apparitions, richly spiced up by endeavors and speculations, and policed by hardheaded empirical evidence. What is a ghost? A haunting? A soul of the deceased? A hallucination? A friendly bedsheet spook? Or a metaphor? Contained in spaces and objects, hiding behind the doors or standing at the bedside, ghosts permeate stories and legends, entertain theories, and provoke novel inquiries.

My project explores sound in fictional Gothic settings that can range from dungeons and castles to mysterious houses and the sites of premature burial. Inevitably, some places are haunted by ghosts that infuse Gothic soundscapes with their chilling silence or uncanny vocality. Ghosts can speak for themselves, but who can speak for ghosts?

“Ghosts were created when the first man awoke in the night,” asserted James M. Barrie in The Little Minister, which is hard to disagree with. Yet, this brief exploration of the ghostly starts with more recent practices of the Catholic Church and the changing cultural landscapes of eighteenth-century England. In Visions of the Unseen World (2007), Sasha Handley notes that originally the Catholic Church trusted in the inseparable coexistence of the living and the dead, whose souls returned to confess of their sins so as to ease the passage through purgatory. In the decades that follow, the meaning of the ghostly apparitions was scrutinized by the Enlightenment gaze, that as asserts Terry Castle, “made spirits obsolete” (168). Gradually, those who believed in ghosts were termed either liars or insane. However, this is not the end of the story.

Eventually, ghosts translocated from the depth of dungeons to the labyrinths of the human mind. The anti-apparition explorations that emerged in the late eighteenth – early nineteenth century, scrutinized the witnessed spirit-sightings to classify them as the acts of deception, optical illusion or such physiological causes as fevers, intoxicating subjects or head injuries (Castle 172-174, 179). The idea of a spectre-producing imagination successfully challenged that of a superstition, but reintroduced the human psyche as a phantom-scene, by which one could be tormented by mental images – the phantoms of their thought. Ergo, ghosts became more of a metaphor, phantomizing the discourse of psychology and inspiring a famous nineteenth-century theory of thought regulation: Freudian psychoanalysis. Thus, reading ghosts has become the reading of metaphorized human subjectivity and the uncanny experience imprinted on the traumatized “self”.

“Ghosts are a metaphor that can be interpreted so many different ways”, noted Guillermo del Toro. Apart from human dwelling or human psyche, there is another domain that presents a broad field for interpretation as it hosts, hides and contains ghosts in their various forms, featuring identities, voicing concerns, and celebrating metaphorical creativity. This domain is the house of fiction. In The Ghost Story, 1840-1920, Andrew Smith addresses the ghost in fiction as a critical tool that engages with such questions as psyche and the “self”, economy and feminine concerns. In Henry James’ most celebrated The Turn of the Screw (1898), ghosts trouble the borderline between the fantasy and the projection of the disturbed mind of the governess, whereas Vernon Lee’s ghosts pertain to the non-normative identities and desires. In the Victorian ghost stories of Wilkie Collins, Charlotte Riddell or Charles Dickens ghostliness exposes the alteration of identity in dehumanizing and depersonalizing money-based economy. The stories of the marginalized encapsulate the idea of “ghostliness” as an “absent presence”, by which lonely and vulnerable characters become excluded from meaningful decisions.

“Women are nowhere, touching everything, but never in touch with each other, lost in the air, like ghosts”, wrote Luce Irigaray. It is the gendered “subject” position, indeed, that establishes a prominent metaphorical connection between a woman and the supernatural. In fiction, metaphors of spectrality point at women’s frustration with the limits of domestic and cultural ideology, their silent and marginalized presence in patriarchal society, their “phantom” roles of faithful wives, silent mothers and obedient daughters. As Vanessa Dickerson observes, “... women were at some profound level the real ghosts in the Victorian noontide” (30). A short story by Phoebe Pember “The Ghost of the Nineteenth Century” (1880) exemplifies the erasure of a female subjectivity and reduction of a woman to the subordinate “other” at the outskirts of a male-dominated world. Oppressed by the gendered epistemic inequality and confined in the patriarchal household, the protagonist Esther becomes “ghostly”, silenced, “deadly pale” and submissive in face of her fiancée’s subordinating claims.

Thus, metaphorical ghosts make the focal point of the narrative and become a cultural and symbolic force that both terrifies and attracts with its communicative potential.

As a postscript, ghosts are haunting in times of crisis, and ghosts are meant to help. In this frightening time, people resort to metaphorical ghosts to provide the living with meaningful instructions. In one Indonesian village, volunteers are dressing up as “ghosts” to scare the villagers indoors and away from the Corona virus. A man in a Malaysian village dressed up as a “specter” to implement social distancing and stay-at-home instructions. These are the Corona ghosts of today that give a metaphorical representation to anachronistic beliefs and appeal to conscience, that, as suggests an American author Jim Carroll, is “no more than the dead speaking to us”.

Stay safe, and I pass the blog baton over to another member of MetNet Scandinavia – Pernille Bogø Jørgensen from Lancaster University who is going to write about metaphors and the corona-virus in Danish.

Special thanks to Sanrankune for permission to use his illustration.


Castle, Terry. The Female Thermometer : Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny. New York : Oxford University Press, 1995.

Dickerson, Vanessa D. Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural. University of Missouri Press, 1996.

Wallace, Diana, and Andrew Smith. The Female Gothic : New Directions. Edited by Diana Wallace and Andrew Smith, Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

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