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Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

The Fear of the Inescapable: The Haunting of Capitalism Beyond the Grave by Cassidy White

            In Victorian ghost stories a reader can expect an array of different people, and any array of different ghosts. Maybe a man gets an intimate visit from an old lover, or maybe a ghost enthusiast finds his way to a haunted house with a grim past. What matters is not who these ghosts are, but what messages they bring in their spiritual form.  What the modern film allows is to observe these stories in a new perspective, and often on that is both that of the human and the ghost.  If one can sympathize with both the ghost and the human, then this platform allows for explanation for the cognitive dissonance that would occurring in knowing that either side has valid points, and yet still allowing for a bias to form. As the movie creates a diversity in perspective and by telling a ghost story in a way that allows for the conversation to move past fear and the unknown, Beetlejuice explores the possibilities beyond the ghost cannon. In doing this, it combines what Victorian short stories attempted to do, which is create a logical understanding as to why ghosts happen in cohesion with the greatly flawed vessel that is the human form and create a conversation past the known human experience. In that line of thinking, this essay will explore how Beetlejuice is a contemporary reflection of the Victorian ghost story by expanding perspective. This essay will then reflect on the perspectives ability to respond to and the influence of the restrictive grasps of capitalism, with the Victorian short story examples of “Since I Died” and “Botathen Ghost”, by comparing their use of “rules” to dictate the afterlife.

​​​​​​​           The difference in the short story, “Since I Died,” from the typical ghost story is that the story is from the position of the ghost. The perspective is important in this story because as a first-person narration, the reader is no more informed about the strange experience than protagonist themself. The narration’s affiliation is more related to a stream of consciousness instead of being anchored to the surroundings. The reader only has a dying woman’s perspective to situate themself and, due to the form, this is necessary to understand the intimacy of the moment instead of being checked out into distant observation. Not only does this perspective feel strange to the reader, but the ghost herself then expresses new insights due to her ghostly form when describing her partner “the deepening hollow in your cheek has no warmer tint” (Phelps, 61) and later on when she is getting visions, she describes her face as “awful” and “haggard” (Phelps, 64). The contrast that one can perceive from the comparison from “The Botathen Ghost” then brings out the dichotomy in perspectives that “Since I Died” initiated, of one a sternly told narration form, from the perspective of the human.  The narration is clear and systematic, as he describes his actions with concrete catalogues of information when he says, “the pathway leads along a moorland waste, where large masses of rock stand up here and there from the grassy turf, and clumps of heath and gorse weave their tapestry of golden and purple garniture on every side” (Hawker, 4). This description of the pathway is like a list, simply outlining what is there, and how it appears without any indication at bias. Unlike “Since I Died’s” heavy emotion, it is told as a sort reference in scientific research, using quotes to reference that someone else is putting together this story. Unlike other ghost stories of this time, this is not to create a cushion of defense in the story telling, but to make it seem peer reviewed and therefore worthwhile. This pair is (though starkly different) mimicking the representation of two ends of Victorian ghost stories, the emotional and the mechanical. The difference in the modern media of the film is the perspective ambiguity that allows the watcher to have multiple answers filled. This ghostly perspective is then mirrored in the 1988 movie “Beetlejuice,” which changes a ghost story into a story about ghosts. This eliminates the horror aspect that might be seen in a more gothic tale and allows other aspects of the ghost story to shine through. In addition, while ghosts are mostly in opposition with the humans in this story, it cannot be said that the roles are reversed because while they are being haunted by the humans, they are also doing some haunting.

​​​​​​​           To start this comparison, and at risk of being colloquial, I begin this discussion at the Victorian ghost story cannon and the ways in which Beetlejuice plays with or conforms to them in way of proving their connection. The movie itself is a gothic surrealist film, meaning it is meant to cause the impression of drastic weirdness while also being tied into traditional themes to allow the movie to make sense. This can be seen visually in the contrast of the interior decoration of the Maitland’s versus the Deetzes. While the Maitland’s keep their Victorian home traditional, it is overrun by the post-modern art of stepmother Vivian. As the new family is introduced to the house, the contrast in the manner between them is drastic. These references are not always so abstract, for when the Maitland’s decided to haunt the Deetz’s, they use a pre-Victorian trope of putting bedsheets over their head. The reaction to this played out idea was that Lydia must be trying to play a joke with her stepmother’s three-hundred-dollar sheets. In addition to this reference, Lydia then takes a photograph of them in this condition. Only once there is a verification of floating sheets in a polaroid (since legs did not appear on camera), is it understood by the first human interaction that these people are ghosts. Instead of the picture being an explanation for the trickery of new technologies though, Lydia, being the primary source of the ghostly interaction, knows that this is not a trick. Once the relationship between each character is established in this story, the film starts to take on a more colourful post-modern take on how characters interact with the ghost.

​​​​​​​           It is important that Lydia, a somewhat “unusual” young woman finds the ghosts first, as defined by “Botathen Ghost” where the ghost herself explicitly says, “It is the law: we must seek a youth or a maiden of clean life, and underage, to receive messages and admonitions.” (Hawker 6). Lydia then is dismissed because her family assumes that she is the type to talk about ghosts and haunting anyway. It is only when the businessmen at the dinner table experience a haunting and confirm that a ghost is the source of the hauntings that the adults all come to a consensus that it is indeed the ghosts of the Maitland’s. This interaction shows a common theme that is still being used; that a woman is mad for experiencing the supernatural, whereas the experience of the man proves the ghosts not only to be true, but important and marketable. In contrast to this, in the “Botathen Ghost,” a young boy is affected by the ghost, but since he was able to regurgitate scripture, and the word that he was from a respected family, it was taken as proof of his intellectual stability that he saw a woman who he had known and “that she had now been dead three years, and he himself had been with the neighbours at her burial” (Hawker, 3). The young rich man ends up free from madness’s grasp, due to the savior of being on the right side of the patriarchy and capitalism.

​​​​​​​           In the “Botathen Ghost,” “Since I Died,” and most of the Victorian stories, their understanding of the dead is usually based on religious scripture or the church, meaning that the ghosts in these stories are explained through explicit rules. In “The Botathen Ghost,” the clergyman, even though all he is going on is scripture, faces the ghost. He trusts that the rules outlined in the bible will be true, such as the passage where he trusts the ghost will not talk to him unless he first establishes communication – this is seen when he says: “then I called to mind the rule laid down of old, that no angel or fend, no spirit, good or evil, will ever speak until they have been first spoken to. N.B. – this is the great law of prayer. God Himself will not yield reply until man hath made vocal entreaty, once and again” (Hawker 6). Most readers of the time would know about these verses and this would bring comfort or structure to them reading this story. As such, the following line might be the greatest depiction of this faith, so much so it could be argued as a satirical statement, as “the bishop gave him a mantle of scarlet silk to wear upon his shoulders in church, and his lordship had put such power into it that, when the parson had it rightly on, he could "govern any ghost or evil spirit," and even "stop an earthquake."” (Hawker 4). Although I am not going to try to attempt to argue that this story is a satirical piece on religion, but with this segment, we can make the assumption that this is a representation of the great power the church had, and the faith and obedience many people had and have towards it. It does function however, as a starting point in which we can think about the ways that religion was so intrenched in everyday life that it would be able to make up rules as to how to deal with the dead, and people would just accept that. “Beetlejuice” is inspired by some religious aspects as well, though I would argue that some of that is carry-over from the ghost story cannon. One of the rules in “Beetlejuice,” and why the Maitland’s end up coming back as ghosts, is because they need to spend 120 years on Earth. This was probably inspired by Gen. 6:3 “Then the lord said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless, his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” Religion in this case was not important to the humans, but to the people who were dead– that is until they needed an exorcism. The religious aspect of these stories is important as the effects of spiritualism “the gothic pulled the ghost narrative behind it, dragging a primarily religious rhetoric into the commodified, commercialized arena of the supernatural, the distance narrowed between fiction and nonfiction narratives” (Jennifer Bann). If we are also to look at the way in which religion also functions in the same nature that capitalism does in Beetlejuice, we can be validated in that assumption as “The Church of England had no intention of breaking traditional doctrine. In rooted suspicions of economic motives which caused them to damn each fresh manifestation of the spirit of economic enterprise as a new form of the sin of covetousness, as in their insistence that the criteria of economic relations and of the social order were to be sought, not in practical expediency, but the truths of which the church was the guardian and the exponent” (R.H Tawney, 155)

​​​​​​​           The exorcism in the stories of Beetlejuice and the “Botathen Ghost” differ from the exorcism from one’s body that is the death in “Since I Died”. In the “Botathen Ghost,” this is a very mechanical sequence, as the narration would expect, the Clergy man describes the procedure as: “First, I paced and measured out my circle on the grass. Then did I mark my pentacle in the very midst, and at the intersection of the five angles I did set up and fix my crutch of raun [rowan]. Lastly, I took my station south, at the true line of the meridian, and stood facing due north. I waited and watched for a long time” (Hawker, 6). This process provides almost a comfort in readers who might expect themselves to need an exorcism or two in their lifetimes because, instead of this great haunting, this story implies that it is a small medical procedure like getting a tooth pulled, and then it will all be over. In addition to the actual procedure for the exorcism, the experience in general was very scientific. The clergy man had to go the bishop and ask for a “license for [his] exorcism, that so [he] might, ministerially, allay this spiritual visitant, and thus render to the living and the dead release from this surprise” (Hawker 5). This vocabulary indicates a person who wants to prove to their audience that the science that is starting to emerge is indeed in line with the church, or vice versa. In contrast, “Since I Died” shows death as something else; it is “the fear which no heart has fathomed, the fate which no fancy has faced, the riddle which no soul has read, steps between your substance and my soul”. (Phelps 61). The death in Beetlejuice is not the same sort of tragedy, and that’s why I compare the death with the Maitland’s exorcism, which is “death for the dead.” This is a sort of reminder that, compared to what humans do with the dead, we actually have no idea if it would be harming the soul. In Otho’s case, he thought that he would just be summoning a ghost and made a mistake. This kind of tampering might show results, but never then has any explanation come about what happens afterwards besides blind faith. We have seen this fright of technological advancements and what it means in reference to God and morality in other well-known stories as well, such as Frankenstein.

​​​​​​​           So as all of this comes to a head, it becomes apparent to ask the question as to why the use of capitalism facilitation after death matters? This answer is twofold the first being that as humans, we need to be in control. This is the argument for ghosts in general as a person cannot control when death happens, who it happens to, and we do not have to control of knowing what will happen afterwards. With religious and capitalist value in the life-time world, it is easier for us to interpret what we already know into the afterlife. The Botathen Ghost interaction where the clergy man must ask the ghost if he knows what he is thinking, solidifies the idea that, while the human may think he knows about the afterlife, he really has no idea. In “Glimpses of the Supernatural” Frederick George Lee pushes this critical thinking even father by pointing out that the ghost “appeared” in female attire (3).  Which forces us to question, if the ghost is really human at all? Phelps certainly makes this assumption, that ghosts are the souls who have passed, but Beetlejuice allows for both the “dead-person ghost” and the “poltergeist ghost” to exist. With all the similarities that these stories share, there is no final agreement as to what the end truly is, and with that, these ghosts only become an interpretation. Not even spiritualist themselves agreed on much about how the after life worked, “over the nature of the afterlife, the existence of a deity, the value of Christianity or other religions, the appropriate role of professionalization in mediumship, the extent to which spirits at seances could be trusted to provide truthful information, and the matter of which, if any, of the numerous causes attributed to the movement (socialism, free love, and vegetarianism, among others) were advocated by the spirits or should be supported by spiritualists” (Jennifer Bann).

​​​​​​​           The reason that capitalism is so important in these stories applies to this argument is that “Beetlejuice” is a sort of commentary on how cold and unspiritual the afterlife would be if it took after our world. If religion is a form of capitalism, then these stories prove that most of what our understanding of death and the afterlife is, is told by the controlling forces in society. The rule book in Beetlejuice is not as explicit as a bible though, opting for a more neutral position in that sense. The rule book reads as “like a radio manual”, implying that death is just another comity for someone to profit off of. This is not a conspiracy theory, but just a critical analysis on why, to make understanding out of a spiritual event, do humans need to filter it into something easily digestible intellectually. The horror aspect in these stories may not be the ghosts, but the capitalist society that rules them. In Thomas Kilauer, “Education: A Ghost story, Captialism: a ghost story”, he uses the comparison to how the Indian government makes the poor people disappear like ghosts, including the 250,000 farmers who have killed themselves due to debt. This metaphor can then be applied to the office waiting room that the Maitland’s must sit in while waiting for council. The situation is impersonal and leaves innocent people at risk due to the overworked people there. The only text that escapes this is the perspective of the dying woman in “Since I Died”. This woman is dealing with a spiritual journey, and her last thoughts are those of her loved ones and discovery. Maybe the reason that this text stands out so much in comparison to other at the time is its refusal overridden with societal expecatations.

​​​​​​​           As much as we look at the perspectives of ghosts and humans, it does feel jarring to remember that each of these stories are only told by the living. The ability itself to consider how others must be feeling when they die shows the compassion and liminality in these stories. While writers attempt at commentary or an understanding of this life or the next one, it remains that the writing is meant for those who are living. What we can get from the Victorian short story and silly cartoonish movies like Beetlejuice is that there is no way of knowing what happens next, and what we do with our lives, and who or what we let determine our existence always needs to be questioned or critically analyzed. If a short story about a lesbian relationship can speak to us long past the grave of the author to tell us not to let God determine who we love, then that is a ghostly enough message.  As such in an essay on the satirical commentary on capitalism, I think it’s important to note that any published Victorian ghost story and the movie are forms of capitalism and they while they may critic the ways in which industrialized society may work, they cannot be completely free of it either.

Bann, Jennifer. “Ghostly Hands and Ghostly Agency: The Changing Figure of the Nineteenth-
Century Specter.” Victorian Studies, vol. 51, no. 4, Indiana University Press, July 2009,
pp. 663–85, doi:10.2979/VIC.2009.51.4.663.
Burton, Tim, director. Beetlejuice. Warner Brothers, 1988. 
  Klikauer, Thomas. Education: A Ghost Story: Capitalism: A Ghost Story. no. 1, National Tertiary Education Union, 1 Feb. 2015, p. 93–.
Hawker, Robert Steven. “The Botathen Ghost.” 2012,
Lee, Frederick George, ed. Glimpses of the Supernatural. Carleton, 1875.
Phelps, Elizabeth Stuart. “Since I Died.” Jstor,, 2014. 
Tawney, R. H. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study. Publisher Not Identified, 2010. 

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