DHow long have ghost stories haunted us? Always, no doubt. In The Odyssey ofHomerin the VIIIe century before Jesus Christ, Ulysses already rubbed shoulders with the souls of the deceased during his stay in the Underworld. In the sinister resting place of souls, he manages to converse with the dead, who reveal to him the fate of his loved ones. Still among the Greeks, we find ghosts in great tragedies (The Eumenides and The Persians of Aeschylus, Hecuba of Euripides…).
Among the Romans, they invite themselves to the Ier century in the tragedies of Senecawhere they are very present, whether they appear, disappear, ask to be summoned… They are also used to to make laughas in Plautus (IIIe century BC. J.-C.), which stages in Mostellaria a son inventing an absurd ghost story when his father, who had lent him his house, returns prematurely, interrupting an orgy.
Good and bad ghosts
In the Middle Ages, we find ghosts in texts as old and diverse as The thousand and One Nights (tales whose appearance is dated, gradually, between the IIIe and XIIIe centuries) or The Tale of Genji, traditional Japanese tale written in the XIe century… In the West, the fashion for ghosts is also in full swing. The Church seizes it to show the right path to its faithful. The subject is not fiction: members of all social classes believe in the existence of ghosts. These abound from VIe century in the Dialogs of Pope Gregory the Great, one of the founding fathers of the Church. The specter is, under his pen as in the spirit of the times, the metaphor of remission, or the absence of remission of sins.
READ ALSOThe witch, from horror to girl powerFrom the XIIe century the belief in the existence of a purgatory became popular, a place of transition where the souls of believers were purified while awaiting their entry into paradise. In the XIIIe century is published From the spirit of Guy (De spiritu Guidonis)written by the preacher brother Jean Gobi, an archetypal example of these edifying texts featuring “good” and “bad” ghosts, the former being responsible for showing the living the right path to follow to gain easier access to the Kingdom of Heaven.
But the advent of the figure of the ghost in all its complexity takes place under the pen of william shakespearewho left his mark on the Western imagination with the ghosts appearing on the characters of his famous plays, Hamlet (1603) and macbeth (1623). The deceased who speaks in the ear of the Shakespearean hero symbolizes the complexity and the troubles of his soul, opening a breach in the black and white universe painted by the Church and igniting the imagination of a multitude of readers, but also future authors.
After the Renaissance, two centuries of relative ghostly “vacuum” stretch. Emergence of Lightstriumph of rationality, rise of Protestantism which banishes all esoteric thought to return to the fundamentals of the Bible: the XVIIe and XVIIIe centuries are not conducive to ghosts, who remain rather wisely in limbo.
The shock of spiritualism
Their big comeback was in the 19the century, under the pen of a large number of authors, captivated, in particular, by the ghost of Hamlet’s father, essential in the construction of the Gothic and romantic imagination. A current is particularly essential from the end of the XVIIIe century: Dark Romanticism, marked by the emergence of the supernatural or the fantastic (with figures such as the specter, the ghoul, the vampire or the demon) and a marked attraction for the morbid and the melancholy.
The current brings together authors belonging to the Gothic current (Mary ShelleyAnn Radcliffe…) then, later, in the Anglo-Saxon world, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville… In France, the ghost invites itself under the pen of a constellation of writers, Chateaubriand to Prosper Merimee Passing by Baudelaire, Victor-Hugo, Maupassant…
The ghost also fascinates the authors of decadentism, such as Huysmans or Barbey d’Aurevilly. It interests painters: it is the advent of the disturbing and haunted canvases of William Blake, Fussli Where Goya…
Thunderbolt in the sky of spectra: in the 19th centurye always a century of industrial development and interest in the mysteries of electricity, technology and energy, a century also of the first advances in the field of consciousness and the unconscious, of psychosis and spiritual sciences, ghosts materialize through the spiritualism.
The current was born in the United States in 1848, in a small town in New York State, at the Fox sisters. Convinced that they hear the manifestations of a spirit in their homes, they develop a system to enter into contact with the beyond, which will give rise to the turntables and will inspire the famous Ouija board.
The fashion for spiritualism spread like wildfire in the United States, then in Europe. In France, we read The Spiritualist Review (founded in 1858 by the Lyon teacher Allan Kardec), we are interested in hypnosis, mediumship… The tables turn in all the salons in sight: sessions captivate Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, Theophile Gautier… The most famous of them are organized by Victor Hugo during his exile in Jersey, then Guernsey.
When the image imprisons the wandering soul
What better time than this age of ghosts to invent the perfect vessel for them to incarnate: the moving image, in other words, cinema? “The very word “image” was used by the Romans [imago] and the Greeks [eidolon] to designate ghostly apparitions, specters. In ancient Rome, then early Christian, the imago is also a funerary mask made by casting wax on the face of the deceased. […] Applied to the cinema, the idea is all the more striking: what is printed on the film is the trace of moving reality, preserved and transfigured”, writes Timothée Gérardin in Cinemamiracles. On-screen religious wonder (Playlist Society, 2020).
The first films made by Georges Méliès at the very end of the 19th centurye century stage, pell-mell, strangenesses of all kinds, stars, miracles, tales and fantasies: “For him, the miracle is on the borderline between the divine and the diabolical, sacred art and myth or magic”, writes Timothée Gérardin again. After the rudimentary (but captivating) Haunted Castle by Méliès (1897), cult films followed in the 1920s, such as Belphegor (directed by Henri Desfontaines in 1921) or The Fall of House Usher (adapted from a short story by Edgar Allan Poe by Jean Epstein in 1928)…
Silent cinema loves ghosts, short stories and ghost novels written in the 19th century.e will inspire a large number of black and white films throughout the first half of the XXe century. A current emerges, beyond the image of strangeness, melancholy and romanticism linked to the ghost: that of pure terror.
“Films that play with evil figures borrow as much from sacred texts as from popular superstitions where demons coexist with ghosts, sorcerers with the living dead. These recourses to magic have in common to revolve around the feeling of dread, bringing the works back to their most spectacular tendency”, analyzes Timothée Gérardin.
Who hasn’t jumped, or even spent a few sleepless nights, after watching The Devil’s House (Robert Wise, 1963), Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper1982) or, more recently, Ring by Hideo Nakata (1998) and The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro2001)?
“In some horror movies, like Paranormal Activity by Oren Peli (2007) and its sequels, supernatural phenomena are researched for themselves and for the jump that they will be able to cause,” says Timothée Gérardin, confirming that the “jump scare” effect, or “startle of terror” provoked by horror films outweighs the mechanisms that are at their origin – the ghost doesn’t matter, as long as there is anguish.
A Thousand Faces of Ghosts
But the ghost film, which has become an immense classic of world cinema (not a month goes by without lovers of the genre being able to see new spectral releases on the big screen or in television series), has also been divided into several subcategories.
If we can tremble in front of ghosts in the cinema, we can also laugh, as has been proven ghostbusters (realized by Ivan Reitman in 1984), so famous that it has become the emblem of a generation, or casper (Adaptation by Brad Silberling, in 1995, of the adventures of the little character imagined in 1945 by Izzy Sparber), intended for children (and their parents…).
The ghost is also conducive to romantic twists: millions of spectators have had the beating heart looking at Ghost (Jerry Zucker, 1990), hoped for a happy ending (announced) before And if it was true (adapted by Mark Waters in 2005 from the best-selling book by Marc Levy) or laughed while savoring this little guilty pleasure that is Haunted by his exestransposition into a romantic comedy of Christmas tale by Dickens, still signed Mark Waters, in 2009…
If he knows how to make us howl with fear, laugh, dream and even occupy our children, the ghost has another great asset: he develops, in contemporary fiction, a psychoanalytical dimension anchored in the feeling of the unknown, and “of disturbing strangeness” that it provokes. No one has really recovered from the shock of Sixth Sensewho approached, through the extraordinary figure of a cop embodied by Bruce Willis faced with a little boy endowed with the gift of seeing the dead, the question of denial.
READ ALSOThe zombie, mirror of the WestWhether it arises among the ancient Greeks, in the Middle Ages, in the 19e century or at the heart of our time, the specter has the characteristic of being there because it is badly dead, dissatisfied, in pain, attached to a place by a personal or collective trauma. Beyond the art of “jump scare”, there is in a large number of ghost stories a reflection, often poignant, around human suffering. You have to see, or see again, Othersthe masterpiece ofAlejandro Amenabar, anchored in a deep family drama whose sentimental and psychological intensity we keep in our hearts, beyond fear.
The inner upheavals embodied by haunting also cross television series, which are not stingy with ghosts. Ghostsa remarkable French series directed by Fabrice Gobert, whose two seasons were broadcast on Canal+ between 2012 and 2015, depicts a small town confronted with the collective trauma of a bus accident that caused the death of many children, and the strangeness of their return among the living, as if nothing had happened – more psychoanalytical… you die!
But the most beautiful of all remains The Haunting of Hill Housea sumptuous series by Mike Flanagan and broadcast on Netflix in 2018. Freely adapted from The haunted house by Shirley Jackson (1959), it follows a family moving into an American mansion that will turn out to be haunted to the core. In addition to a remarkable amount of “jump scares”, the series explores in depth the haunting of an entire family, undermined by its traumas and the complexity of its unconscious. It is visually, emotionally and psychologically stunning in its accuracy and beauty. What better than the icy drafts of haunted houses to warm your soul in the heart of winter?