Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

A Psychological View of Victorian Ghost Stories: Who Cares if Ghosts are Real? by Alessia Termini

           Ghost stories are not just a thing of the past. Arguably, ghost stories took off as an exhilarating source of oral and written entertainment for its realistic and theatrical properties since the Victorian era. Even today, ghost stories cause terror and excitement, not for their validity, but rather, the sensations it causes its readers and listeners to feel. Usually marked for the ghosts within the stories or the supernatural events that unfold, readers rarely pay attention to who is telling them the story. That is to say, little time is spent on the moral or mental states of their narrators and characters, and their reasons for experiencing such supernatural occurrences. The field of psychology was still at its prepubescent stages during the Victorian era; disorders like schizophrenia were not even close to being discovered and instead placed under the ableist and umbrella term of insanity or hysteria. Schizophrenia today is still underdeveloped and unknown entirely but is confirmed to be caused by either three things, genetics, trauma, or stress. Marked by its extremely degenerative qualities, it contains such symptoms as; lack of eye contact, speech, and/or motivation, poor hygiene, social and geographical isolation, and most famously, hallucinations and delusions . Ghost stories like "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe, and "What Was It" By Fitz-James O'Brien, all narrate stories of the course of schizophrenia. The stories do not note sensationalism due to the questioning of their ghostly appearances but rather the turning of their characters consumed by schizophrenia, to possibly allow readers to make sense of the psychological world growing around them. 

​​​​​​​           Most interpret "The Yellow Wallpaper" as strictly a feminist piece. This interpretation disregards the wallpaper's paranormal occurrences and instead, focusing on the oppression the nameless narrator faces from her husband and brother. While the story takes a feminist undertone, the short story is more remarkable to the psychological discipline by showing the progression of one's schizophrenia worsening. Others have taken a combined view of both discourses and instead view it as the patriarchy's way of artistically saying, if a woman cannot fulfil her domestic abilities, she will slowly slip away into madness. Regardless, the story opens up with our nameless narrator writing diary entries, which she hides from her physician husband; since he feels her writing is making her worse. Exhaustion is a crucial symptom of early schizophrenia, paired with finding once enjoyable tasks as tedious. She says herself, "We have been here two weeks, and I haven't felt like writing before, since that first day;” elaborating how tired she always feels doing the smallest and most mundane tasks. It is clear that upon her family's arrival at her new house, her schizophrenia is at its beginning stages of development and, by the end of the story, at risk to become increasingly worse. 

​​​​​​​           Later within the text, she elaborates that the part of the house that fuels her compulsions is the yellow wallpaper. After her first admission with her obsession and despise of the wallpaper, she continually flips back and forth between recounting her day, to going right back on elaborating her disgust with the wallpaper. Upon first noticing the wallpaper in the nursery, she describes the sickening yellow colour, "The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering yellow…" Every time the narrator describes her day, she continuously finds a way to go back to the wallpaper and her hatred for it. Her obsession starts slowly to comments about its colour, noticing mould, to being irritated by patterns of decay, until arguably her breaking point, in which she thinks there is a shadow woman inside the wall trying to get out. The ghost the narrator thinks is behind the paper is described as such, "The front pattern does move…The woman behind shakes it! And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so…" Because readers are reading the narrator's account of the story, some rarely question the validity of these supernatural claims and mistakenly take it as pure fact. Considering the information readers are provided at the beginning of the story of the fact the narrator has a nervous condition, and her physician husband making note of the disorder's debilitating qualities. Twenty-first-century readers would note her behaviours as symptoms of schizophrenia. Because of this, it is hard to ignore the psychological facts being pushed forth to prove her supernatural claims as wrong. What puts all ghostly encounters in "The Yellow Wallpaper" to rest is when we see the narrator snap from her semi-sanity into a full-fledged schizophrenic episode. When she locks herself in the room, John, her husband, breaks down the door and sees her crawling hysterically on her hands and knees around the room, "I kept creeping just the same, but I looked at him over my shoulder. 'I've got out at last…And I've pulled off the paper, so you can't put me back!'" Due to her schizophrenic condition being undertreated, arguably because of the lack of understanding of psychology, the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper and hallucinates all the events around her, and thinks she is trapped within the wall. Morris King beautifully elaborates on this point in his essay, “Rereading The Yellow Wallpaper" by stating, "This is not a story of a woman haunted by alien powers, but of a woman haunted by her own repressed self." "The Yellow Wallpaper" gains its notoriety as such a captivating story for allowing readers to get a glimpse into the mystery that is schizophrenia. Similarly, in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," the characters in his short story comparatively undergo the course of their schizophrenia developing beyond their capacities in believing the supernatural is there. 

​​​​​​​           The narrator tells readers nothing about himself except he is visiting his old friend, Roderick Usher, to help him in his time of need, "The writer spoke of acute bodily illness—of a mental disorder which oppressed him—and of an earnest desire to see me…." Right off the bat, readers are introduced to the malady that affects Usher and the pressure he feels for being one of the last heirs to the Usher name. Later on, the severity of Roderick's psychosis is described as explicitly replicating symptoms of schizophrenia. Specifically, Roderick lets the nameless narrator know of the history of schizophrenia throughout his family lineage, "It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy—a mere nervous affection…." Roderick also presents symptoms of schizophrenia when the narrator describes him as such, "He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses.... and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror." Although the narrator never diagnoses Roderick with schizophrenia, we see from these two quotes that Roderick possesses many symptoms an individual with schizophrenia would portray. His disorder, stemming from his family's genetics, highlighted to have been passed down from generation to generation; and his sensitivity to certain sounds paired with his hatred of music, an activity he once enjoyed. Scholar Tracey Hayes also notes that Roderick's diagnosis of schizophrenia can also be attributed to the stress found in the nineteenth century of being the last heir to the Usher name. As described in historical reports of the disorder, in 1809, the diagnosis of schizophrenia was known. However, it was controversial in medical history for lacking the empirical evidence the twenty-first century has for the disorder today, clearly demonstrated by Usher's feeling of hopelessness for lacking a cure. Roderick seems to be the main focus of a psychotic breakdown within the text, but the narrator is arguably inflicted with the same diagnosis of schizophrenia. 

​​​​​​​           Because readers know nothing about the narrator, it is completely sound to make an argument choosing to believe everything he dictates as recollections of his fragmented reality. While he attempts to retain being the voice of reason in the text, it is clear that the more time he spends with Roderick at the Usher estate, the more he becomes susceptible to his own psychotic breakdown. This fact becomes evident when the narrator chooses to neglect his rationality and bury Roderick's sister alive, "the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip…We replaced and screwed down the lid." The narrator notices signs of life on Lady Madeline's face but still chooses to ignore said facts and seal her fate to be buried alive. The supernatural occurrences that occur after her "death," are seen as manic episodes of the narrator's and Roderick's respective mental disorders; Roderick suffering from hallucinations caused by his schizophrenia, and the narrator's repressed guilt and acute schizophrenia causing him to see Madeline as a ghost. Regardless of the nameless and comparatively disturbed narrator, Roderick represents a man who has gone mad. It is clear that Roderick's progression of his schizophrenia is similar to the narrator in "The Yellow Wallpaper." Both characters are illustrated as having a small nervous disorder. They eventually develop into full-fledged forms of schizophrenia through lack of inadequate treatment, causing the sensational supernatural occurrences in each respective narrative, showing readers the seriousness and course of said under-studied disorder. While "What Was It" by O'Brien does not necessarily develop the course of schizophrenia through its plot, it makes a more extensive social commentary on the Opium trade and the effects of drug-induced psychosis. 

​​​​​​​           Opium was not seen as a problem at first in the 1800s. It was commonly used as Advil or Tylenol today and could be purchased from any general store as a "do-all" remedy. Nevertheless, the demand for opium was not just high in Britain; India and China were trading expensive goods with Britain, like textiles and herbal teas, to supply their opium cravings. Because of this, there was much controversy and debate around opium trading. Specifically, in Britain, practically half of the country was outraged. They saw opium's dangerous qualities of addiction and, in severe cases, psychosis; later, feeling horrible, Britain made other countries addicts to opium to fuel their economy. While the rest of the country, mainly government officials, were ecstatic about the trade's success for the income it brought to Britain . Articles from the late 1800s, most notably an article posted in The Examiner in January of 1859—the same year O'Brien's "What Was It?" was published—commenting on the controversy the opium trade had on the English population. 

​​​​​​​           The article is a call and response piece between the editor of The Examiner and Britain's government officials. The editor is scrutinizing British officials for the immoral decision to trade with China and India for Opium. He notices the problem it causes for the Chinese population due to their increase of opium addiction and states, "As to the cultivation of opium in China, it is no justification of our conduct…It is sad to consider that we have taught the Chinese this pernicious habit, and still persist on encouraging them to injure themselves for the sake of a revenue…" It is clear from the article that the Opium Trade was a huge moral issue for countries involved. Britain placed more importance on fueling their economy rather than its people and China's entire country. Consequently, "What Was It?" was published months after this article. The story starts with two opium smokers who encounter an invisible supernatural presence. 

​​​​​​​           In this tale, O'Brien is not claiming to dispute the debate between the supernatural and psychosis, but rather, is making a social commentary on the Opium Trade and the impact it has producing addiction, and more importantly, drug-induced psychosis. Recent research has shown that opioids have been shown to increase symptoms of schizophrenia and reduce one's quality of life. A fifteen-year study in Scotland showed patients who had opium addictions compared to those who did not were admitted to a hospital for psychosis. Those who had opium addictions were 18.4% more likely of having their psychosis develop into schizophrenia than those who did not. The two main characters within the text, Hammond and Harry, demonstrate the effects smoking opium has on producing schizophrenic symptoms or the full disorder. 

​​​​​​​           After dinner one night in their haunted estate, Harry and Hammond went outside to smoke opium, commenting on its hallucinogenic properties, "We enjoyed it together that wonderful expansion of thought…that unimaginable spiritual bliss, which I would not surrender for a throne, and which I hope you, reader, will never—never taste." Harry loves the feeling of openness opium gives him but warns his readers about its addictive qualities. He metaphorically states he loves opium so much that he would never surrender it for the throne or all the riches in the world. He realizes his addiction is wrong by telling readers that he hopes they will never get a chance to have it and end up addicted as he, potentially reflecting the same statement of The Examiner periodical. As they continue to smoke opium in their pipe night after night, their conversation change from talking about the depths of the universe to Hammond asking Harry, "What do you consider to be the greatest element of terror?" After asking this question, the two men slip into what seems to be the beginning stages of induced psychosis when Hammond states again, "I don't know what's the matter with me to-night… but my brain is running upon all sorts of weird and awful thoughts." After this conversation, is when the supernatural occurrences begin in the narrative. Arguably, smoking opium has caused them to become extremely paranoid, a contributing symptom of schizophrenia. While the ghost in the story is there, due to the ghost's physical evidence leaving an imprint on the bed and other people's accounts within the story witnessing the spectre, it does not take away from O'Brien's message that is spreading about the dangers of opium. Inspired by the craze of the Opium Trade, publishing "What Was It?" months after The Examiner's article, it is sound to say, the symptoms they exhibit are those of schizophrenia caused by their opium use. The narrator, Harry, comments on his addiction to opium, warning his readers never to dare taste its addictive taste. Hammonds' extreme obsession with fear represents the progression of drug addictions, causing schizophrenia. While acting as an entertaining tale of a ghost encounter, the story acts as a larger didactic piece of the dangers and criticisms of opium use and as evidence of drug-induced psychosis.

​​​​​​​           ​​​​​​​While all said stories revolve around ghostly or supernatural occurrences, it is not these elements that make them sensational. What makes them stand apart from other Victorian ghost stories is their perspective on the psychiatric discipline and, more importantly, schizophrenia. Thus, it does not matter the sensation of terror readers get from reading the story nor the debate between supernatural or natural but is instead the glimpse readers get into each author's perception of schizophrenia. In "The Yellow Wallpaper," readers see the tale of a woman falling into a manic episode caused by her paranoia with her wallpaper. Represented are the landmark symptoms of schizophrenia, that being hallucinations, lack of enjoyment in a once enjoyable activity—for the narrator's case, the death of her love for writing—and her constant exhaustion. Roderick Usher exhibits similar symptoms in "The Fall of the House of Usher." The narrator describes Usher as a victim of this "nervous" disorder passed down from generation to generation—thus making comments on the disorder's genetic qualities—his same lack for music, which he once enjoyed, and his obsession with his demise. The narrator is suspect of struggling with the said disorder and loses his sense of reality when he neglects his judgement and buries Lady Madeline alive. While the two above stories show the degenerative qualities and symptoms of schizophrenia, "What Was It," instead takes a contrasting approach. Driven by the controversy and danger surrounding the Opium Trade, O'Brien uses the political climate around him, the popularity of ghost stories paired with the opium crisis, to show his readers the dangers of opium use. Demonstrating the effects of opium on Harry and Hammond for the drug's addictive qualities, and the potential for falling into drug-induced psychosis. Thus, whether ghosts are real within each respective narrative is not an important question to ask. Instead, the question to ask is, what does this tell us about the conception of schizophrenia in the nineteenth century? It is clear how underdeveloped schizophrenia is, stated to be just a case of nerves or acute sensibilities through all three stories. Each character within the respective story shows society's early take on schizophrenia, the evidence of its symptoms, and how it creates supernatural illusions. By doing this, readers of the nineteenth century are introduced to a revolutionary mental disorder that we still question today. Readers of the modern-day comparatively see society and the literary world's view of those with schizophrenic behaviour. Riding the coattails of the sensationalism of ghost stories involved in the Victorian era allows these writers to make commentary and demonstrate the psychological discipline we know today and the infamous disease that is schizophrenia.

"A Psychological View of Victorian Ghost Stories: Who Cares if Ghosts are Real?" by  Alessia Termini is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 CC iconby iconnc icon


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