Three Types of Ghost Story

Hill Woman in BlackI’ve been reading a few ghost stories lately. Most recently Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (having already seen Nigel Kneale’s 1989 TV film, and the recent Hammer version), though I found it wanting in a way I didn’t with, say, Dark Matter, or my recent re-read of The Turn of the Screw. Thinking about why this was has led to a little bit of theorising about three types of ghost stories and how they work. So here goes.

The first, and purest, type of ghost story revels entirely in the protagonist’s horror of the supernatural. To make it work, the ordinariness of both the protagonist and their everyday world has to be clearly established, so when the supernatural makes its appearance, it feels truly weird and frightening. In this type of ghost story, the ‘ghost’ doesn’t even have to be a ghost, in the sense of a undead human spirit. M R James’s stories are probably the best example of this type, and his ‘ghosts’ are more often demons or elementals — embodied curses or prohibitions — and when they are human, as in, for instance, ‘Number 13’ or ‘Count Magnus’, they’re often supernaturally-tinged sorcerers or necromancers. This type of ghost story is all about technique — the way the supernatural is hinted at, built up, and finally revealed. The only emotion required of the protagonist is terror; details of his or her inner life just get in the way. You don’t get a lot of human insight from M R James’s stories, but you do get a good ghost story.

The Woman from The Woman in Black

from Nigel Kneale’s 1989 adaptation of The Woman in Black

The second type is as much about the protagonist’s horror at the display of human qualities, such as despair or sorrow, driven to such an extreme they’ve become supernatural. The Woman in Black is of this type. (The book is, anyway. I’d say the 2012 Hammer version, upping the cinematic shock value, turned the Woman into a far more demonic creature than she is in the book.) The bulk of conventional Victorian ghost stories are of this type, too. There, a ghost lingers beyond death because either it has been wronged, or has done wrong, and needs to set things right before it can move on. With The Woman in Black, there’s no longer that Victorian feeling of a moral order keeping certain dead souls from moving on till they’ve done what they’re supposed to; rather, it’s the Woman herself, so consumed by sorrow, anger and the need for revenge that she can’t pass on. The thing about this type of ghost story is that the protagonist is still looking on the ghost as something separate — as purely a horror. Things change slightly in the last chapter of The Woman in Black (the narrator comes to experience something of what made the Woman what she is) but not enough to take this story to the next type; the Woman is still seen as something exceptional and horrific, a twisted and rare form of human being, something to be pitied and feared, not empathised with.

The Haunting of Hill House coverThe third type is about how the protagonist’s own despair or sadness is brought to the fore by encounters with a ghost, until they experience it as a manifestation of their own inner world. The ghost still exists to embody (in a ghostly, disembodied way) supernaturally-distorted human qualities, but as much as the protagonist is haunted by the ghost, they’re haunted by something inside themselves too. The ghost and the protagonist’s inner life become entangled to the point where they’re indistinguishable. This is the type of story where the ghost needn’t exist at all — or it can exist in that Tzvetan Todorov hinterland where the story never makes it clear whether the ghost is a ‘real’ ghost or is just an externalisation of the protagonist’s own mental state. Listing examples, I find all my favourites: The Haunting of Hill House, The Influence, The Turn of the Screw.

It has to be said these three types have permeable walls. (Ghosts being ghosts, they’re not going to be stopped from wandering through walls anyway.) Jonathan Miller, after all, turned M R James’s ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ from a ghost story of the first type to the third, by emphasising how the basic character-type of so many of M R James’s protagonists (academic, reserved, distant and somewhat disapproving of lesser human beings) is exactly what makes them so vulnerable to the terror of an isolating ghostly visitation.

Woman in Black 2012Overall, I tend to like examples from the first and third types. The first work best as short stories — shocks work best when kept short. (Cinematic ghost stories, more and more, tend to be overlong examples of the first type, with nothing but shock after shock after shock. I ended up fast-forwarding much of the second half of the 2012 Woman in Black, searching for morsels of story, because I got bored of being supposedly shocked.) The third type mixes the supernatural with the psychological, which is how I prefer it, and this tends to be best when done at length, with plenty of build-up to establish both the protagonist’s psychology and the ‘normality’ of their world.

The trouble, for me, with the second type, is it’s basically disapproving. It’s about marking certain humans (undead ones, admittedly) as separate from ‘us’ (as represented by the protagonist and the rest of a quietly-ordered, functioning society). It seems to be saying that most of us don’t experience extremes of emotion, particularly negative emotion, so we can safely regard those who do as alien, other, horrific. But saying this is also saying that as soon as we experience such extremes, we have to regard ourselves as now separate, alienated, and horrific, too. This is perhaps a very English thing, where reserve and social propriety can make for a ridigly-defined norm, where extreme emotion is met with an embarrassment and disapproval close to horror — meaning you have to repress such emotions, to the point of being haunted by them. Perhaps that’s why the English write so many ghost stories.

Jonathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland

This adaptation of Alice in Wonderland was filmed for TV broadcast in December 1966. Director/adapter Jonathan Miller aimed to be faithful to the book, with all the dialogue (except where improvised by the actors) lifted directly from Lewis Carroll’s text. But this, I think, is the adaptation’s main fault. Alice in Wonderland is a curious mix of episodes and skits, not really a story at all, and I think what you need to do with Alice is either find a way of making a story out of it, or to adopt some angle or interpretation to provide a constantly-running theme, something to give it a sort of narrative or spine. The original book wins through on sheer prissy impudence; adaptations need to offer something more.

Miller has two angles on Alice, neither of which really works for me. The first is to connect the book with dreams, and various of his directorial decisions (such as sometimes having Alice’s dialogue overdubbed while she doesn’t move her lips) come from his wanting to make the narrative more dreamlike. But I think Alice isn’t about the dream-world as much as it’s about the world of language, which has its own peculiar logic. Wordplay and double-meanings approached with a literal mind, and the ability of words to be strung together correctly but nonsensically, are what Alice, and other nonsense literature, is about. For me, this puts Alice at the head of a continuing tradition of wordplay fantasy, which includes the Oz books, and Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. It’s that tight-but-illogical logic that makes Alice what it is, not its dreaminess, which is more the province of surrealism. (In my mind, nonsense and surrealism are two quite different things. Nonsense applies logic to things that aren’t logical; surrealism revels in the irrational, with no need of logic.)

Miller’s other approach is to connect the book with “the longueurs of childhood”, a nostalgia for endless summers of blissful boredom, and in his initial edit, he had some long periods in which the actors just sat around doing nothing, in an attempt to conjure this feeling. These were edited out after a viewing by BBC executives, with only a few hints of them left in, leaving some curious points at which conversation lapses, everyone sits around staring into space, then conversation resumes. But I think the book is too energetic, too little-girl curious, for this to feel right. Kids are only bored until they have something to do; Alice, exploring Wonderland, very much has something to do. (It’s teenagers who get bored even when they have something to do; but then again, Miller’s Alice is a teenager.) Lewis Carroll, an Oxford don who could afford to spend entire days picnicking with the Liddells so he could come up with the Alice story in the first place, probably had no need to feel nostalgic for such long-lost periods free of responsibility, so they weren’t part of his book.

For me, Alice is in Wonderland because she’s a child — childhood, and the way a child views the illogical adult world, is Wonderland. All the various creatures Alice meets on her journey are comic versions of adults stuck in their own peculiarly nonsensical worldviews. Alice is the child regarding these adults with a cutting innocence. The book is all about her, in her self-contained bubble of childhood, coming into contact with the dreadfully meaningless self-importance of the adult world, and seeing it for the farce it really is: tea parties and courtrooms at which one must know the nonsensical rules of how to behave, a Queen with the power to cut off your head on a whim, and so on.

Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter

The result of Miller wanting to be faithful to the book is that the TV film feels just like a series of sketches. It relies entirely on the performers’ abilities to enchant with their personalities, rather than a story’s, or thematic argument’s, ability to keep you interested. Thus there are a few highlights that linger in the mind (Peter Cook is excellent as the Mad Hatter, John Bird is funny but too brief, Peter Sellers as the Red King, etc.), but elsewhere a good deal of puzzlement as the film moves from scene to scene without making it clear how or why. Thus, Alice stands outside a door trying to get in, then has a conversation with John Bird, then just opens the door and goes through. Why didn’t she do that first of all? You certainly have to know the book to be able to tell what’s going on, which has the unfortunate effect of making an adaptation nothing but a companion piece to the book, rather than an interesting work in its own right.

It’s easy to be too reverential to the book that’s the source of an adaptation. I enjoy watching film adaptations of books I’ve read, not to quibble with how they’ve departed from the text, but rather to see what they’ve made of it, what their interpretation is. An adaptation is a thing that exists alongside a book, and only subtracts from the original when, by being too literal, it reveals how shallow that original was in the first place.

For a more positive view of Miller’s Alice, see Jonathan Coulthart’s blog post on it. (I really like Miller’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You adaptation.)