Written by Lauren Lutz
Ghosts in recent movies and television shows are increasingly autonomous and empowered. In 2012’s The Woman in Black, the ghost of a woman made vengeful after the unjustified death of her child seeks to kill other children by influencing them to commit suicide. In 2013’s The Conjuring, Bathsheba, the ghost of a woman who sacrificially killed her child and cursed her land, possesses mothers who live on her old property and has them kill their own children. The ghosts in American Horror Story’s 2011 season “Murder House” continually manipulate the living in an attempt to better their lives as spirits in the human realm or exact revenge upon those who wronged them while they were alive. In each of these cases, the ghosts have quite a bit of power and influence over the living, creating a potent, fear-inducing presence. However, according to Jennifer Bann’s article “Ghostly Hands and Ghostly Agency: The Changing Figure of the Nineteenth-Century Specter,” ghosts have not always been portrayed as such formidable figures in popular culture.
Bann focuses on the Victorian era transition from literary ghosts being “catalysts to another’s action rather than the agents of their own,” to ghosts becoming “active figures empowered rather than constrained by their deaths” (663-4). She believes this literary shift can be attributed to the widespread spiritualist movement during the nineteenth century that influenced many to believe in communication with the dead as well as their physical manifestation in the human realm. Spiritualists thought there was a distinct division between the body, soul, and spirit. After death, instead of ascending to another stage of existence like heaven or hell, spiritualists presumed the spirit of the person could materialize in the realm of the living if it wanted to.
Bann explains how this belief gives ghosts an advantage over humans when she states that the “souls of both living and dead existed within the natural world, but the living were limited in perception and action to only a small part of it; with death, and with the loss of the mortal body, the soul experienced not further limitation but rather empowerment” (668). For spiritualists, death meant liberation, which can be seen in the more empowered literary ghosts of the Victorian era. Bann uses the example of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) to show that this “transformation” of literary ghosts “can be seen most clearly in supernatural literature by tracing the developments of the ghostly hand, from the powerless hand-wringing of Marley’s ghost to the controlling, guiding, or demonstrative hands of later ghosts” (664). From the influence of the spiritualist movement, literary ghosts began gaining authority as individuals through their hands, and were able to act as they would have liked to while living on earth through the physical manifestation of their spirits.
Take for example Mary Braddon’s short story “The Cold Embrace,” published in 1860. It tells the tale of a ghost who was able to have more power in death than in life, all through the use of her ghostly hands. The main character, Gertrude, was secretly engaged to her cousin. He gave her a serpent ring as a sign of his commitment before he travelled abroad. After a period of time, he forgot about Gertrude. Subsequently, her father arranged a marriage between her and an eligible bachelor. To combat her unhappiness on earth, she committed suicide. Instead of being a ghost who haunted by simply appearing to the man who wounded her, she haunted by embracing him around his neck. He recognized the repeated embraces as hers because of the serpent ring he felt on his skin. Gertrude’s ghost eventually killed the man with her embrace out of revenge for how badly he treated her. Here, the empowerment of Gertrude’s ghost is seen through the physical manifestation of her spirit’s hands. Before the spiritualist movement, a ghost such as Gertrude may have simply appeared to her thoughtless ex-lover, able to haunt him but not harm him. However, because of the then newly developed belief in a physically manifested spirit, Gertrude was able to exact revenge within the human realm that her spirit existed in after death.
The ghost of Gertrude has agency and exercises it through killing the person who spited her, resembling the ghosts mentioned earlier from current media. The “unique kind of power and psychological depth” Bann attributes to the changing Victorian ghost are still apparent in ghosts today (665). By studying the spiritualist movement, which resulted in ghosts first having more power through their hands, we can see how ghosts today play into that role and expand upon it. The Woman in Black, The Conjuring, and American Horror Story display ghosts as extremely capable and impressive beings, showing that society still enjoys watching ghosts who have more power in death than they often have in life. Whether spiritualism is still influencing the portrayal of ghosts or not, it definitely marks the beginning of the type of ghost that is seen in popular culture today.
Bann, Jennifer. “Ghostly Hands and Ghostly Agency: The Changing Figure of the Nineteenth-Century Specter.” Victorian Studies 51.4 (Summer 2009): 663-85. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.
Braddon, Mary E. “The Cold Embrace.” Ed. Richard Dalby. Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1989. 43‐50. Print.