Ghosts & American Religion

16 Oct

This post continues yesterday’s thematic concern for a course proposal on the supernatural. Unlike mystical pregnancies, ghosts have a less discrete origin in religious materials. Whether you call them phantoms, spooks, hauntings, or specters, this genre of apparitions are the spirits of the dead. Let’s take a look at where we could start:

Deuteronomy 18:9-12’s prohibition on spiritism and sorcery:

(9) When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. (10) There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer (11) or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, (12) for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD.

English: Henry Fuseli - Hamlet and his father'...

English: Henry Fuseli – Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (1780-1785, ink and pencil on cardboard, 38 × 49,5 cm) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It stands to reason that Spirits should have been taboo in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And yet by the Renaissance, the infusion of hermetic and other metaphysical practices revived the interest in necromancy and spiritism. Sure, I’m skipping a vast swathe of history here, but I’m not a medievalist and this course is designed to highlight contemporary American popular cultural expressions of the supernatural. Anyway, after the Renaissance, the willingness to re-consider spirits may have indirectly helped produce what is perhaps the most famous ghost in all of fiction: Hamlet’s Father.

Here’s what Hamlet says when he encounters the Ghost in Act 1, Scene 4:

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee “Hamlet,”
“King,” “Father,” “royal Dane.” O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulcher,
Wherein we saw thee quietly interred,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous and we fools of nature,
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?

It’s great stuff. Hamlet’s speech raises more than a few issues, too. Are apparitions from heaven or hell? How do ghosts circumvent death? Are all things that run contrary to nature hideous? Is our unfinished business in life our duty to resolve in death? [Ghost (1990) famously takes this final question as its raison d’être.] Of course, Hamlet is not centrally about the ghost of Hamlet’s father. It does create an interesting trope–the living as surrogates for the dead. This trope is replayed almost yearly through Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Why does Marley’s ghost haunt Scrooge? Because Scrooge can avoid the regrets Marley’s miserliness created. Scrooge is both literally and figuratively haunted by Marley’s Ghost.

A Christmas Carol remains a profoundly British work, even if contemporary re-tellings like A Christmas Carol (2009) starring Jim Carrey were produced for American audiences. Dickens’ original 1843 capitalized on the growing interest in Spiritualism before the famous Fox sisters appeared in 1848. Before that moment, mesmerism was the rage. This is the era not only of Joseph Smith and the birth of Mormonism, but also Andrew Jackson Davis who relied on the work of Anton Mesmer and Emmanuel Swedenborg to popularize his ideas on animal magnetism and a host of other metaphysical principles. [Catherine Albanese is currently working on editing AJD’s journals–get excited!]

So here’s the rub. If I’ve got a course on supernatural themes in modern America, so far I’ve got an ancient Jewish prohibition on spiritism and two very famous English fictional ghost stories. I haven’t even mentioned high literature’s favorite ghost story, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw! It’s not even clear James gets to count as American since he spent over half his life in England and became a British subject shortly before his death in 1915. Better choices? Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar puts his finger right on the button of the perceived dangers of spiritism and mesmerism (possession). Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of best known American supernatural fictions. (And the current remake on FOX isn’t awful). Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables was inspired and infused with the literal ghosts of the Salem Witchcraft trials.

So these are the type of primary source materials we can begin with. They are fiction, sure, but they are also projections of American attitudes about Ghosts in the 19th century. That all of these authors worked during the rise of Spiritualism is no coincidence.

The real question, the one I’d hope to get students to explore in this course unit, is what is the context for contemporary ghost stories? Think of it like this: Poe wouldn’t have written about mesmerism if it hadn’t been consuming American culture in the 1840s. If we pick a selection of modern ghost films, say Poltergeist (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), Ghost (1990), and The Sixth Sense (1999), what do they say about America today? Do we think of ghosts in the same way? Why not? How do we explain the difference? [With a slightly different selection of films it would be easy to go the “ghost in the machine” route to ask how technology has become a conduit for supernatural entities.]

One thing I want to solve is the problem letting the genre of demonic spirits spill over too much into the discussion of ghosts. The Exorcist, The Conjuring, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose also deal with spirits. Yet these films rely on expressly Christian theological frameworks to explain the operation of demonic spirits. It is the lack of clear religious boundaries that makes so many Ghost films feel simultaneously spiritual but not religious. Ghosts operating independently appear culturally and religiously diffuse. They are empty signifiers waiting for interpretation. This is a clue on the context for many modern Ghost stories–the broad influence of New Age and Metaphysical beliefs–but it also suggests something about Ghosts as a trope. They function as lenses for particular kinds of questions about the relationship between life and death. This is not the same as the struggle between God and Satan (in which demons are employed to show the fragility and power of humanity). It’s a fine line, but one that I hope to find better ways to articulate in the future.

Come back soon for more thematic elements. Angels and Demons should be next!

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2 Responses to “Ghosts & American Religion”

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  1. Is Horror Religious? | A Lively Experiment - November 1, 2013

    […] to horror now. As a genre, horror begins in the Gothic era. Yet, as I noted in a previous post about ghosts, there is a much older tradition of paranormal experience–folklore. Folklore is a cultural […]

  2. Disgust — Provocations from Trier’s Antichrist | A Lively Experiment - November 6, 2013

    […] Ghosts & American Religion (this site) […]

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