Horror-Tober VI: Ghosts as Symbols

Written by Alexander Greco

October 21, 2020

So, this article and probably the next as well will be relatively short, I’m trying to get caught up after stumbling a bit the last week and try to get back on course.

Today, I will be discussing ghosts (oooh, spooooky…).

There are a number of things that can haunt you, ghosts being one of them. To harken back to a short story I wrote a long time ago, (literally A Ghost’s Story) I personally have a theory that a house represents the psyche, or the brain and all the space in it for all its various contents. The house can be filled will all kinds of normal or positive things, as well as all kinds of negative things—ghosts, ghouls, goblins, demons—and these things that fill your house all represent something about your psyche.

Demons for example might represent our “sinful” or destructive and self-destructive tendencies.

Monsters, doppelgangers and lightless rooms or hallways might be the things inside of us we are afraid of confronting, seeing or entering.

Ghosts, for me, have a relatively common motif: something haunting you from the past.

It could be a memory, it could be a person, it could be a trauma. It could be all three, or more. Whatever the case, the ghost represents something from the past which haunts your current life.

So, to explore this topic, I want to analyze several ghost-centric stories, or even non-horror stories/films that employ ghosts, and see how ghosts represent the people, places and things of the past which haunt us in the present.

Boring Classical Literature

So, I’ll begin with some of the OG ghosts of Christmas past.

First, Hamlet.

Of course, the primary ghost of Hamlet is Hamlet’s father, the deceased king of Denmark.

Now, Hamlet might not be a great story to start off with, since any of Shakespeare’s more well-known plays are like a Normandy Beach of literary analysis. We’ll disregard that though.

As a ghost, Hamlet’s father is like a messenger from Hamlet’s unconscious. Actually, possibly a messenger from the unconscious of all those who care about Hamlet, Hamlet’s father and the Danish kingdom in general.

Out of the guardsmen, Horatio and Halmet (those who saw the ghost), none of them could have known the truth of what happened to Hamlet’s father. However, all of them do know that Hamlet’s father died, and Hamlet’s mother immediately married Hamlet’s uncle. So, one might be able to make a few connections here.

Hamlet’s father may be an emergent perception or feeling coming from the unconscious of those loyal to Hamlet’s father. Their minds may be correlating events of the past, and they know that something is amiss. For Halmet himself, this feeling and epiphany emerges even stronger, and Hamlet’s father outright tells Hamlet what happened and that Hamlet should avenge him.

Of course, Hamlet must confirm this, just as anyone ought to confirm their suspicions and theories. Nonetheless, Hamlet’s vision of his dead father represents Hamlet’s loyalty, responsibility and vengeance at the memory of his father and suspicions of his father’s death, which emerge from the unconsciousness.

Next, Wuthering Heights, another literary can of worms.

Wuthering Heights is a complex story and a difficult story to parse through (the older era of language not helping this). The primary ghost here is Catherine.

Catherine as a ghost “appears” in two ways. One, she appears before Lockwood in the beginning of the story. Two, she appears before Heathcliff at the end of the story, and then Catherine and Heathcliff both are seen wandering the countryside by local inhabitants (however, these two “appearances” are not directly observed in the book).

Now, Catherine could be a number of things, but, in the context of ghosts, she obviously represents the past which haunts Heathcliff. First, her appearance in the beginning of the book is followed almost immediately by Nelly retelling the history of Wuthering Heights. This, by way of approximate comparison, indicates Catherine as being symbolic of the past (Catherine’s existence at least warrants an explanation of the past).

Later on in the book, Heathcliff is haunted by the ghost of Catherine, and he cannot look at the younger generations because they have the same eyes as Catherine. This is the present (and the future) being haunted by the past. The younger generation is a product of the past, and so even the existence of the younger generation haunts Heathcliff.

Semi-Classic Films

Next, here are three films which utilize the ghost motif rather well, though in unique ways.

First, there’s The Sixth Sense, which is almost entirely focused on ghosts. The primary theme of the movie is reconciling with the past. Every ghost inevitably wants help reconciling themselves with prior events (particularly the events that led to their death). Almost all of these events were the result of some sort of traumatic or violent event, with the mother poisoning the daughter being one of the darkest events that took place.

It is up to the child to uncover these traumatic events and put the ghosts to rest.

Another interesting point of the movie is that the protagonist themselves is a ghost, and in the end must reconcile with their past. This is something I’ll discuss a bit more with another movie, but The Sixth Sense does a good job of de-horrifying the ghosts in this movie, and ultimately allows us to empathize with one of the ghosts. This twist off events may also imply that the “ghosts” may not even be the psychological traumas that haunt us, but that the ghosts are the people who are haunted by the psychological trauma (someone “being a ghost of who they once were”).

The Shining

This one might be the most difficult piece of media on here to parse apart, and it involves a few theories about the film that aren’t explicitly confirmed by the film.

First, I’d like to mention The Shining’s reflection of what I said earlier about a “haunted house”. The empty hotel eventually becomes filled with ghosts and other malicious entities, and this may be symbolic of Jack Torrence’s mind itself.

Jack goes out to the middle of nowhere to watch over an isolated, empty hotel for the winter. Why? So he can have some peace and quiet and spend time working on his book. He tries to empty his world and empty his mind of distractions and other negative thoughts. However, this emptiness allows the ghosts and other monsters who reside in his unconscious to emerge. What ghosts would these be?

Well, there’s one very obvious and rather explicit one. Jack doesn’t feel like he’s adequate. Jack wants to prove he’s the man, prove he’s in charge, prove he’s capable and so forth. The ghosts even encourage this and treat him like he’s the man in charge of everything, the man on top of the world. Of course, they use this to manipulate him into committing violent acts. Jack’s narcissism urges him toward destructive behavior.

And then, a much less obvious and much less explicit ghost. It is almost explicitly revealed that Jack was physically abusive to his family in the past, especially when he was an alcoholic. However, it has been theorized that Jack sexually abused his own son. There’s too much to get into with this, but there’s quite a lot of small, circumstantial clues that point to this, and if you read the subtext of several scenes in the movie, Jack might have even started doing this again in the present time.

At the very least, Jack’s ghosts involving alcoholism and physical abuse certainly return to haunt him, and eventually possess him.

The Others

The Others is a rather unique film which explores ghosts in an incredibly interesting way. If you haven’t watched the film, I’m about to spoil it. If you don’t want it spoiled, skip to the next section.

It is revealed at the end of The Others that every character is actually a ghost. Everyone in the film is already dead and haunt either the mansion they live in, or, in the case of the protagonists’ father/husband, they haunt the country or land they live in.

This sort of extends the idea from The Sixth Sense, of both empathizing with the ghosts and with people becoming ghosts rather than being haunted by them. They become a ghost of their prior selves.

I won’t delve too deeply into this film, but there’s something interesting to note here. This film takes place in the 1940’s, and we discover that the protagonists’ father/husband died in WWII, the deadliest war in human history. Because of the fact that all of the characters in the film are dead (except for the living people, who were thought to be ghosts the entire time), maybe it is being implied that everyone involved in that war “died”, that perhaps humanity itself “died” after that war and that era of history. The rest of history, and the rest of humanity, will forever be haunted by the events of that war.

Cool Stuff

Now, to wrap this up, I want to examine three stories that employ ghosts and other supernatural events, but they do so in highly unique ways (and they’re very popular).

Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series (both the books and the movies, but probably more so the books) make semi-frequent use of ghosts and ghost-like creatures.

Now, there’s two semi-obvious things here that aren’t explicitly ghosts, and I won’t discuss too much, but I’ll give a brief overview of them: the Dementors and the Patronus projections.

The Dementors are mysterious entities which siphon happiness and other positive emotions from their victims. They can drive their victims to the state of insanity, or they can even siphon the souls from their victims, leaving them in a vegetative state.

The counterpart of the Dementors—which are used to fend off the Dementors—are the animal projections made by the Patronus charm, which is in many ways like a projection of the individual’s soul itself.

So, Dementors may be like depression or some other mental illness, while the Patronus projections may be like a cure to those mental illnesses—the “true, inner self” or the spirit or soul of an individual emerging to confront the negative mental effects of an illness.

Beyond these, there are plenty of actual ghosts in Harry Potter.

There’s ghosts all throughout Hogwarts, there are many individuals who die in the series and return as ghosts (or as paintings) and even Harry Potter’s parents are ghosts.

In fact, the theme of life and death is quite prevalent throughout the film.

There are the Death Eaters. There is the phoenix, Fawkes. There is the Order of the Phoenix, led by Harry himself.

Voldemort has various horcruxes which essentially prevent him from dying. However, in the event before the beginning of the books, when Voldemort tried to kill Harry, Voldemort did “die” in a sort of Saurony way. His spirit or soul or psychic force remained alive, though his physical body had been destroyed or killed.

In addition, Harry himself even dies and returns to the end in the climax of the series.

The Deathly Hallows, which are prevalent to some degree throughout the series, but really only emerge as important factors of the series in the last book, are rooted in a legend involving the grim reaper, or Death.

With just a cursory look through the Harry Potter books/movies, ghosts and other things related to death, souls, spirits, etc. seem to be highly prevalent in the series. So how do they relate to the themes of the series?

Well, there seem to be two primary and opposing forces throughout the story: Voldemort & Co vs Potter Inc.

Both possess the death and rebirth motif, with Voldemort “coming back to life” in the fourth book, and Harry Potter dying and coming back to life in the seventh book. However, their methods of death and rebirth seem to be as opposed as their goals and methods of attaining those goals. Voldemort maintains life after death through the horcruxes (dark magic). Harry maintains life after death in a much more ambiguous and far less clear way, but Potter Inc. seems to be attached to the idea of a Phoenix (Fawkes, Order of the Phoenix, etc.), and Phoenixes of course are creatures that burn to death and then are reborn in the ashes.

This death and rebirth is typically symbolic of a spiritual death and rebirth, or of the death and rebirth of ideas, stories and culture across the succession of generations.

Now, to get more into the specific ghosts, many of them seem to serve specific symbolic purposes.

Moaning Mrytle of the second book seemed to be symbolic of a past horror that was re-emerging in the story. She herself was killed by the basilisk and helped Potter Inc discover where the basilisk was hiding.

Dumbledore as a ghost in the final story may have been a part of Harry’s spiritual catharsis: Harry, having sacrificed himself help stop Voldemort, is now dead, but Dumbledore’s ghost comes to help return Harry to the world of the living, to revive his soul. Dumbledore here may have been a more positive apparition; a reminder of the plan Harry must still follow and the goal of defeating Voldemort he had to achieve.

Harry’s parents are symbolic of the great trauma that inevitably led to all the events of the Harry Potter series. The scar on his forehead is a constant reminder of the day they died, a constant reminder of the sacrifice they made to defend Harry from evil, and the sacrifice Harry himself would one day need to make to defend the world from evil. (But… why do Harry’s parents only show up as ghosts a few times? Can’t they, like, chill with him all the time?)

Other ghosts may show up in certain times as reminders of the evil done unto others, or possibly as reasons why Harry should continue fighting (Cedric, for example).

Silent Hill

The Silent Hill video game (and I suppose the movies as well) might be another topic that could be too complicated to get into, so I’ll be brief. However, I think Silent Hill solidifies a bit of our analytic theory here.

The town of Silent Hill is an “empty” town that had been wracked with great trauma in the past. It now possesses two “modes” or dimensions beyond normal, material reality. First, there is the fog dimension, where the entire town of Silent Hill becomes shrouded in a deep fog. Second, there is the “Otherworld”, which is a much darker, bloodier and violent dimension.

So, in this way, Silent Hill mirrors consciousness or the psyche. There is the conscious mind, the preconscious mind and the unconscious mind.

The town of Silent Hill, as I previously said, has experienced great traumas in the past. Those traumas are invisible on the surface (the town appears empty), but as one explores the traumas more deeply (delving into the unconscious mind), one discovers the existence and the effects of those traumas

Babadook

My last mini-analysis about ghosts, and one of my favorite horror movies ever (from a somehow simpler time in my life), The Babadook.

The Babadook is about an Australian woman who is left to take care of her child alone after her husband dies. The relationship between the woman and her child becomes increasingly toxic, especially as both of them seem to increasingly suffer from different forms and degrees of mental illness.

At the same time, a horrific, man/cockroach-like entity known as the Babadook invades their home and terrorizes the two of them.

In the end, it is implied that the Babadook is a ghost or imposter-ghost/shade/revenant/whatever of the woman’s husband. The mother and son learn to live with the Babadook in their home, and the relationship between the three of them seems to become more positive.

The Babadook in this movie seems to be a manifestation of the grief and pain that the death of the father/husband has brought onto the family, as well as a manifestation of the ensuing mental health decline and resulting toxicity. The Babadook is the dark, sinister, bitter grief that morphs into violence towards others—especially with the mother possibly seeing the son as the source of her grief, or blaming him for the death of her husband and the hardships of having to raise him alone.

This movie is a fantastic take on grief, pain, mental illness and the toxicity of unchecked bitterness and suppressed frustration.

La Fin

I think this one is a pretty obvious analysis, and I don’t think I’m illuminating too much here, but it is nonetheless a fun analysis, and it’s insightful even if it’s tried and true.

There are many variations of this theme or of this symbol, of course, as well as many tangential symbols (such as the phoenix, such as zombies, such as other paranormal spirits/eentities/whatevers), and so this line of thinking can take you far analytically.

Feel free to let me know if you have any thoughts on these analyses. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for more Horror-Tober.

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