Ghosts and time in the Gothic


According to Arno Meteling:

Gothic literature, film, or television series with ghosts as popular stock characters usually ponder the rules of communication between the living and the dead. In most cases there is an asymmetry between them, for although the ghosts admittedly inhabit the world of the living, they have no natural place in it. Moreover, ghosts, like images or characters on a photograph or in a film, are usually not able to change or develop. Like the psyche’s reaction to trauma, ghosts are often forced to repeat the same thing over and over again or at least to stay in the same place forever. As a consequence, ghosts tend to establish a timeless zone of inertia in the flow of the narrative, creating a cyclical ahistoric or posthistoric state, or, as Jacques Derrida puts it, the “end of history.” Despite Derrida’s reference to Hamlet as a central context for his hauntology, ghosts in literature, film, or television series are usually not responsible for time being completely out of joint. Instead, ghosts seem to be specific figures of anachronism, or more precisely, of asynchronicity, representing a static moment of the past haunting the present. As literary or filmic devices, ghosts therefore often operate as erratic monuments or hieroglyphs that signify a disturbing incident that happened in the past, a secret that has to be deciphered in order to understand the repercussions for the present.” (p.187)

Meteling continues: “One of the chief literary precursors of the modern ghost novel is the Gothic fiction of the eighteenth century, a literary genre that, besides dealing with ghosts, family curses, damsels in distress, and evil villains, evokes fear not only by describing horrific events, but by creating a certain mood of terror or horror derived from its setting. The Gothic novel is always about spatial arrangements, most obviously about architectural spaces like haunted houses, castles, dungeons, cemeteries, attics, [-p.188] or crypts. Significantly, Horace Walpole not only names the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), after its setting but emphasizes its realism in the preface of the first edition[ in which the setting is described in detail].” (pp.187-188)

“Considering that the novel is a fantastic one,” Meteling notes, “with supernatural effects that border on the comical and the grotesque (including a giant helmet that falls from the sky and kills the villain’s son), the emphasis on the spatial authenticity of the castle is conspicuous and proves the importance of setting for the Gothic novel. Since its reformulation in the nineteenth century, the dark and brooding atmosphere of haunted houses and castles also increasingly reflects the inner conflicts of the characters. …Most modern ghost novels adopt this Gothic correspondence between characters and building, sometimes transforming the house itself into a storehouse of repressed memories and thereby anthropomorphizing it….” (p.188)

Ref: Arno Meteling Genius Loci: Memory, Media, and the Neo-Gothic in Georg Klein and Elfriede Jelinek, pp.187-199 in Esther Peeren, and María del Pilar Blanco (Eds.). Popular Ghosts : The Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture. London, GBR: Continuum International Publishing, 2010.


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