The return of the dead – modern legend


While I’m on the topic, another article that had me thinking about Stacia Kane’s Downside Ghosts was ‘The return of the Dead’ by Katrien Van Effelterre. It also provoked a number of questions worth putting to Kane’s series/other modern fiction treating with ghosts for analysis… What about Ministry of Pandemonium by Chris Westwood, for example…

In this article, Van Effelterre describes her findings from the analysis of a number of modern flemish legends. Modern legends, she finds, exhibit quite a different relationship with the dead. (Note: Van Effelterre is discussing legends, not urban fantasy… I am interested in how her ideas connect is all…)

She writes: “In traditional revenant legends the narrator often mentions that the returned dead person is said to have come from purgatory, heaven, or hell. … In the corpus of Flemish contemporary legends under discussion here, however, I have found no reference to the eschatological place of origin of the dead person. It is not suprising, then, that there is very little mention in these legends (only two per cent of the corpus) of clergymen – ministers or priests – being called upon to offer advice about dealing with the dead, whereas this percentage was much higher (12%) in traditional legends. In Catholoic tradition the returning dead are often portrayed as poor souls dependent on the help of the living in order to achieve salvation….” (66-67)

Modern Flemish legends, however, typically present revenants who are perceived as being more powerful than the living, in that they make predictions about the person’s future, help or warn the living, or present themselves as hostile beings that threaten them. The focal point of this kind of modern revenant legend, therefore, is not the achievement of salvation by the dead person, but the moment of recognition of the being as a revenant by the living person, and the fear this engenders.” (67)

“Due of the disappearance of traditional ideas about the afterlife in our modern world, the dead are deprived of a specfic dwelling place, and contemporary legends about spiritism are full of revenants who are wandering about without a clear purpose. Although rationalists claim that every form of life ends with death, a subconscious fascination and a fear related to the possiblity of the existence of a ‘Jenseits’ (the ‘Beyond’) cannot be wiped away by science. This is illustrated, for example, by the popularity of fortune-tellers, mediums, horror films about exorcism, exponenets of modern magic like the fiction character Harry Potter, and so on. …In a certain sense, the disappearance of belief in a Christian hereafter seems to have re-invigorated the ghosts from a pre-christian belief system; some of these are depicted as ghosts who protect the living – as in certain variants of the vanishing hitch-hiker legend – while others are hostile wanderers whose rest has been disturbed.” (68)

Quoting Gillian Bennett, she notes that “In western tradition, especially in religiously-motivated ghostlore, haunting was a form of punishment for souls who had transgressed in life…” (Bennett 1998, 9).” (69)

“The religious frame of reference that characterises the revenants of traditional legends is no longer clearly present in modern ones, however. The dead, for example, return because they died in an accident or because they were murdered. But the outcome of the narrative is often very negative, as there is no longer recourse to a priest for help to deal with the manifestiation of the revenant.” (70) This recourse, which she at one point terms “the possibility of controlling the dead by enabling them to achieve salvation … or by banishment” is really quite interesting! She writes: “The small number of contemporary legends in which clerical intervention is mentioned is, of course, linked to the rapid decline of a religious frame of reference in modern society. In such a context, the ultimate meaninglessness of the supernatural leads to fear and horror, feelings that are expressed in contemporary legends. The purposeless revenant… in these narratives is an exponent of the secularised world. The revenant appears as an elusive creature from a supernatural world that is beyond human control.” (71)

“Modern media offer many possibilities for legend circulation on a large scale, and this enables them to react promptly to changing situations. For contemporary society, contemporary legends are extremely sensitive antennae, which register modern fears, frustrations, and other hidden emotions.” (75)

“In the traditional legend, the earthly existence is strongly related to the soul’s welfare in the hereafter. In the world of the contemporary legend, on the other hand, things are different; death is an alarming phenomenon that leads to the ultimate end, or to a world that cannot be identified as either threatening or protective. This explains the occurrence of both helpful and murderous ghosts in Flemish contemporary legends. The content and interpretation of ideas about death and the hereafer are no longer borrowed from a relitious frame of reference and are clearly characterised by inner human hope, fear, and undertainty about the end of earthly existence.” (75)

She also, though I won’t repeat it here, presents an interesting discussion about the connections between photography/ghosts, and  cars and ghosts…

Do the ghosts of modern fiction ‘haunt’? Why? What/whom/where do they haunt? Why are they still so strongly attached to ‘the world of’ the living? Where do they preferably manifest (their former home environment, where they died…)?

How are families connected to these ghosts/dead? What role does ‘the family’ play in their story?

Are they ‘restless’? Why? What do they want? How is this achieved? Through some action of the living protagonist?

What, if any, taboos asuround death in these stories? What rituals?

What part does the non-ghostly figure play in this story?

How do modern ghost traditions connect with religious/secular beliefs about death/life/afterlife?

Is the ghost a victim (representative of victimhood)?

How do conceptions of ‘innocence’ connect with these ghosts?

Is there a concept of punishment attached to these characters?

What kind of death leads one to become a ‘ghost’? (or does everyone become one?) Do the ghosts have a purpose (a higher purpose or a personal purpose)?

What kind of person can see/feel/make contact with/communicate with ghosts? Are they different from the majority of the living? Why/How? 

What is ‘strange’? What is the framework of normality?

Ref: Katrien Van Effelterre (2007) ‘The return of the Dead: Revenants in Flemish traditional and Contemporary Legends’ Folklore 118(1)Apr: 65-77

Referring to: Bennett, G (1998) ‘The Vanishing Hitchhiker at Fifty-Five’ Western Folklore 57: 1-17


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