For all my human companions who believe I carefully construct these essays from deep and penetrating thought in attempts to illuminate the genre of the Dark Fantastic with carefully reasoned arguments and deliberate incisiveness, I'm sorry to disappoint you. The truth is I make this up as I go along, as haphazardly as inhumanly possible.
Case in point: I had planned to write an essay about why people enjoy being frightened by books, television and filmed Horror, based upon a conversation I had some time ago. (Fear not; you'll be seeing this essay next month – unless something comes along to interrupt me, of course…)
However, a recent posting online by another human friend sparked some thoughts about ghosts and the December Season, and I want to reflect on this. I hope you won't find it too scattered and thoughtless; I dislike destroying this illusion of omniscience and omnipotence that some of you believe I possess…
Many of my human associates are fascinated by this “Internet” fad that has come along; they seem to spend a great deal of time thinking about and using it. Being somewhat of a Luddite spectre, I've learned to tolerate it, although I don't completely trust it – not yet, anyway. I am forced to use it, but in exchange I'm able to stay in touch with my myriad acquaintances, both human and otherwise, that exist a great distance from my crypt. I treasure all of you so very much, so I find this a fair trade.
This evening a man named Hugh was ruminating about that wonderful television series of several years ago, THE WEST WING, an extraordinary series; intelligent, thought-provoking, moving; written, directed and performed with the highest degrees of artistic endeavor. He was told not to watch an episode named “Two Cathedrals” by himself, as it was emotionally shattering. Others in the online conversation weighed in and agreed; it was a very powerful episode.
Being very bad with titles, I had to look up the synopsis for that segment to refresh my fading memory. (Another reason I'm grateful for this “Internet” phenomenon.) Yes, I remembered the episode well; it was one of my favorites, and one of its most compelling, an examination of guilt and loss that was emotionally wracking and heartbreaking.
It also happens to be a ghost story.
(For those who've not seen the episode and want to approach the drama fresh, the following paragraph contains some spoilers; you may want to skip down to the starred (**) paragraph following it.)
In this episode, President Bartlett is agonizing over his decision whether or not to run for re-election; in doing so he must decide whether to reveal to the nation that he is suffering from MS. There are several crises going on in the world at this time, but his attention is centered on the sudden, tragic death of his secretary and confident Mrs. Landingham, killed in an automobile accident (ironically the first car she's ever owned.) In an extraordinary scene taking place following her viewing, the President talks to God, alternating between chastising him and praying the Mass in Latin, all the while lighting cigarettes, taking one puff, then grinding them into the marble floor of the National Cathedral in contempt. (Never before have I seen such a raw display of grief, anger, and despair flowing so seamlessly together; Martin Sheen's performance was mesmerizing.) Returning to the Oval Office to make his decision, President Bartlett is confronted by the ghost of Mrs. Landingham, taking him to task for his self-pity and urging him to consider the greater good and the larger picture. (And the producers cannily refuse to state for certain whether her appearance there is genuinely spectral, a hallucination, or the physical manifestation of President Bartlett's thoughts.)
(**) Of course, THE WEST WING isn't the first so-called ‘mainstream' program to mine our field of the Dark Fantastic for dramatic purposes; as I've written elsewhere, the marvelous show COLD CASE always ended with the ghost of the murder victim returning to acknowledge justice being done. The past is also presented as a physical thing, omnipresent, haunting the individuals involved as surely as any phantom or spirit could do. (We discussed much of this in last month's essay, you'll recall.) There have been other series such as KUNG FU that have straddled the lines between genres.
What was unique about THE WEST WING was its matter-of-fact approach to the situation; it dealt with the fantastic in a low-key, naturalistic way, almost as Magic Realism. There was no crashing thunder or lightning to announce a supernatural presence, no gasps of surprise or terror. It simply was , and, not so incidentally, it amplified the drama, creating a mythic connection that the audience could easily identify with. Many have felt the presence of loved ones beside them in their grieving, and many have felt the influence of these presences in times of crisis.
I've no doubt that for many, this use of the Dark Fantastic hit home and made the drama far richer than it might have been had it not been introduced. I'm also quite convinced that many of those same devout fans of the program were not necessarily fans of the macabre, and might not consider a Horror film as their first choice for an evening's entertainment.
Yet they accepted this, just as many simply accept the ghost in “Hamlet” (also discussed last month) as he puts the tragic events of the Danish Kingdom into motion; one needn't believe or condone the existence of the supernatural world, but its intrusion into the natural and the everyday infuses the drama with additional textures that raise the stakes of the narrative into something magical, just as the opening scene of Stephen King's CARRIE presented the mundane as mythic, amping up an emotionally charged familiar situation to millions of women into megawattage by the use of a paranormal paradigm.
Perhaps the best-known modern practitioner of this was Rod Serling with his TWILIGHT ZONE. He (and fellow writer Richard Matheson, another great voice in the form) would have their stories take place in completely realistic, natural and identifiable settings. Even when those settings were not contemporary, taking place during the Civil War or in the Old West, or imaginary, such as taking place on a spaceship or another world, both of these gentlemen tried to keep the situations as realistic as possible, presenting flawed and fascinating individuals in realistic situations with usually one element of the impossible.
Almost none of their stories took place in Lovecraftian other dimensions or practiced hallucinatory, experimental style; they were most comfortable in what can be called ‘Urban Fantasy'; remove the one fantasy element, and both were writing contemporary drama. Which didn't make their efforts any less fantastic, but by keeping the situations grounded firmly in ‘reality', they could attract an audience that might not necessarily follow or be interested in the Dark Fantastic.
Among the topics touched upon in last month's essay about what makes a good ghostly tale was the distinction between a 'ghost story', such as (in my opinion) Shakespeare's “Hamlet”, and ‘a story with a ghost', such as “Julius Caesar”. The point was that simply putting a ghost into a tale doesn't always make it a ghost story; often the ghost can be symbolic, imaginary, or metaphoric. What I didn't mention was that both types of stories can be very effective in dealing with awe and wonder in the human condition.
One artist who dealt well with both types is the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Many of his films feature ghosts of one sort or another without being genuine ghost stories (FANNY & ALEXANDER comes to mind; while not a ghost story it does feature a ghost that makes its appearance, appropriately enough, on Christmas Eve), but he also excelled at films featuring the actual Uncanny (such as THE SEVENTH SEAL, where, while the setting is primarily realistic, Death is a major physical character).
Another author, this time an American, who works the same is Thornton Wilder. While his play “Our Town” is a naturalistic look a life in a small village during the early 1900s, the final act takes place in a graveyard, where the ghosts of the town's departed sit among the stones, reliving the past or watching loved ones continue on in life. Is this a ghost story, or a story that uses ghosts to make a point? (I have my opinion.) On the other hand, “The Skin Of Our Teeth” is fantastic and phantasmagorical throughout, dealing with Adam and Eve, Cain and Able, the Great Flood, and Armageddon in just those terms. It's played for farce , satire and social commentary; does that make it any less Dark Fantastic than PAN'S LABRYNTH?
(There's actually no right answer – except for mine, of course – and that indicates the richness of our particular genre; we can argue intent and appraisal for hours at a time, exploring the stories and films that make up our field in a myriad of ways. You can argue among yourselves whether a certain film, say THE VIRGIN SPRING or WILD STRAWBERRIES is supposed to be supernatural in theme or simply in mood, and test the boundaries of our landscape – if indeed the genre has any boundaries.)
In this context, perhaps I spoke too soon; perhaps the episode of THE WEST WING is more story with ghost than ghost story. (Although I believe that the overall ambiance and many moments, among them the scene in the cathedral, push it into our terrain.) That doesn't mean its any less effective for it, it simply means that the intentions of the authors and creators were not squarely in our area of interest.
There's another term I would like to offer, in addition to Urban Fantasy, that defines a type of storytelling that breaches the fantastic while remaining in the ‘real' world: The Mystery Play. Not mysteries such as Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle; rather ‘mysteries' as defined by religious principles. They were a fashion of play, parables in nature, which were popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. While taking place in the world of peasants, kings, knights and other contemporary figures, there was intercourse and interactions with angels, devils and other supernatural creatures and creations. They were presented matter-of-factly, not as intrusions into our world but as an extension of it.
Looking at them through a modern view, e can see elements of these tales in the works of C. S. Lewis (particularly “The Screwtape Letters”), Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison, Phillip K. Dick and other authors of mystic, mythic, surrealistic and experimental prose that deals in matters spiritual parable. Today we'd label these plays “Fantastique”, or Fantasy, but at the time they were simply ways to express religious and spiritual concepts to individuals who were illiterate, and couldn't read them for themselves. (The television series INSIGHT, which would often present eerie and otherworldly dramas with moral and spiritual overtones and could rival NIGHT GALLERY for unease, was a good modern presentation of the Mystery Play.)
The authors of the plays, lost now in antiquity, understood that using these archetypes allowed audiences to grasp concepts that defied definition in a concrete and easily identifiable manner, enabling them to make their points far more effectively. And because many of these concepts were concerning man's place in the universe, in the order of angels and heaven, and in moral society, the fantastic elements added an extra level of emotional power that drove the lessons home.
And this brings us around to the Season of Christmas.
I mentioned the term ‘catharsis' before. The strict definition is “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.” Many counselors and psychologists agree that one way to release repressive emotions is by a good laugh, a good cry…or a good scream. And as has often been discussed, the Christmas Season can be a time of tension and anxiety. Loved ones are far away from home, the economy makes gift giving an expensive proposition, family members who don't get along are thrust together, lonely individuals find their loneliness exacerbated by the festivities.
It's also a time of great spiritual discord; atheists decry the religious aspects of the holiday, while believers are disillusioned by the crass commercialism. The normal selfishness and casual cruelty of humanity is brought into sharper focus by the refrain of “peace on earth, good will to men,” and the troubles bedeviling the world, between nations, between ideologies, between the haves and the have-nots, bring to the surface doubts and frustration with the promises of the celebration.
Is there any wonder that some authors and filmmakers have decided to address these conflicting emotions with stories of a parabolic and mythic nature? The wonderful film version of THE POLAR EXPRESS used the story to address the myth of Santa versus the reality that some children never receive a visit from the seasonal saint, simply because their families are too poor to afford presents. What does this do to the individual, and what does it say about the larger community? And it's telling that in adapting the book into film an additional character was added, a ghost, who acts as a voiced of conscience and truth. (Does this make it a ghost story, or a story with a ghost? I have my own thoughts; you may delineate the boundary as you see fit.)
I've often defended the genre of Horror and the Dark Fantastic against the accusation that it promotes horror and misery. As I've said numerous times, by focusing on the terrifying and the ghastly, it actually brings hope and wonder into relief, and actually celebrates light. But it is also true that darkness is a large part of the Horror tale, and although I maintain we do not revel and wallow in it, darkness is a most important ingredient, for without it, it would not cut as deep into the myth pool as it does.
Many feel that darkness, and the emotions that accompany troubling thoughts, should be suppressed, pushed to the very bottom of our collective consciousness and left to fester unattended. The trouble with that, of course, is that when we least expect it, those feelings and emotions come bubbling to the surface. A sudden illness, a close brush with collision in an automobile, the news of a far-away natural disaster or a report of a child abducted, or the oppressive drumbeat and barely-contained chaos of a holiday, and our nightmares come clawing into the light, refusing to be mollified.
There are a multiple of facets to the human condition, and one of the oldest and most powerful is fear; it dates back to the earliest race memories of the most primitive of man's ancestors. Of all the emotions, only fear is universally shared. Many on this earth have never experienced love, or compassion, or hatred, or want, but everyone has been afraid. Yet the paradox is that often by confronting these fears, giving name to them, it diminishes them, however slightly. This is catharsis; clawing through the gloom to find the dawn.
Perhaps the most famous Christmas film, one rerun numerous times during this season, is IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. And not coincidentally, it's a ghost story, a morality tale, a parable, that uses the fantastic to comment on humanity and society.
What many remember about the film are the sentimental moments: Jimmy Stewart wooing Donna Reed outside her house, soaking wet from taking a dip in the high school swimming pool; coming home to a leaking, decrepit house for their honeymoon, or staring down the wicked financier Mr. Potter as he tries to buy George Bailey's father's business.
But…as sweet as those moments are, the film is also filled with a terrible darkness. Recall the druggist, half-crazed from the news of his son's death at war, almost poisoning a little girl with the wrong medicine, and brutally slapping young George when he points out the error. Listen to George, panicked and near hysteria, as he chastises Uncle Billy for losing the money. Watch the tight, manic expression on Jimmy Stewart's face as he runs from his mother's house, being told that she has no son named George and Billy is in an asylum; Mr. Stewart runs straight towards the camera into a huge close-up, and his eyes slowly take in a world gone mad around him, finally staring straight out into the audience. At that moment, we can safely say that, in addition to being haunted, George Bailey is a ghost of his former self.
It's these moments of darkness that make the film so compelling, for as bleak as they are, so much brighter will be the light of redemption when George Bailey has made it through that terrible night and returns to a world where he's made his mark.
Catharsis. We suffer with George Bailey, and breathe deeply his relief when the nightmare is over, and in return our nightmares are diminished, just a bit. We suffer with President Bartlett, and emerge with new direction. We suffer with the young boy in THE POLAR EXPRESS, and find our faith reborn. We suffer with Hamlet, and the path of redemption, revenge and tragedy are laid bare before us. We suffer with Ebenezer Scrooge, and emerge a new man.
Those who embrace the tales of the Dark Fantastic do not embrace the darkness; they face it and walk through it to embrace the light. The ghosts, like Hamlets father, offer direction, and those that take it emerge stronger, richer, with a burden, if not lifted, then shared and dispersed through the intervention of angels, spirits and spectres. The Play may be a Mystery; the results are not.
Christmas is a traditional time for ghosts; welcome them as good company in the journey through the bleak midwinter darkness. Come; sit and listen; huddle with them around the fire, and hear a tale told of parable and promise. That is the nature of the Holiday ; parable and promise.
A very hopeful and merry Christmas to one and all.