Victorian Ghosts, 1852-1907: EN 4573 Collection

The Relatable Ghost: Redefining the Spectre and Perceptions of the Victorian Afterlife by Larissa Duggan

            Spirits are often utilized by authors with more in mind than their inherent horror, something made no clearer than in Victorian ghost stories. Though their presence is normally meant to frighten and excite readers, they can also be an effective vehicle to teach a lesson or comment on a facet of society or the world at large. Still, even with these secondary uses, an underlying message is almost always left in its wake: death, spirits, and the afterlife are something to be feared. The nefarious and insidious acts ghosts take part in against the living in many of these tales—such as poltergeist hauntings, physical and mental attacks, and exacting revenge—further perpetuates negative connotations towards an event (and purposed after effect) that is a natural occurrence, stoking more uncertainty and fear, especially during a time when the death rate was extremely high, especially when compared with today’s standards (Hunter). Therefore, Victorian ghost stories that try and subvert these expectations by using spectres to ultimately act as harbingers of good instead of evil, help give a much-needed alternate point-of-view, making one rethink their understanding of dying and what comes next. By having ghosts in relatable events, with human-like goals, and helping provide closure, a new understanding begins to form. It soon becomes clear that even though something may seem—or may even be—macabre or terrifying, that does not mean it is inherently nefarious. Hence, by showing the dichotomous, relatable nature of spirits, the Western reader is afforded a deeper, alternative understanding of the soul and the afterlife, therefore impacting the perception of the often unknowable, nebulous experience of death (either first- or second-hand) so it can become more acceptable and easier to embrace as a natural consequence to life.

            Death can be a life-altering event for those left behind. Since what occurs after passing was and still is an unknown, a lack of answers can make it harder to deal with what has happened. That is why writing and reading about death can be so impactful. Author Jolene Zigarovich speaks on this: “For the Victorians especially, narrating death was important for the social and cultural understanding of absence, separation, and displacement in an ever-increasing chaotic and dismembered world” (3). This, when coupled with the oftentimes visceral effects generated by the consumption of media, can create a lasting impression that is hard to discount towards real-world events. Scholar Julia Briggs expands on this in her article “The Ghost Story”:
The ghost story reverts to a world in which imagination can produce physical effects […] And of course […] lends some degree of credence to the powers of the imagination, since the mere words on the page can, in their limited way, reproduce the effects they describe: once we are in the grip of the narrative, the heartbeat speeds up, the skin sweats, or prickles, and any unexpected noise will cause the reader to jump. (178)

            Though these stories follow a “kind of imaginative logic in which the normal laws of cause and effect are suspended”, they are still able to create the sense of reality for the reader (178). This is important to note because it not only speaks to how the brain perceives some part of what it is interpreting as being legitimate but the power of suggestion these stories have as well. In other words, an imprint is left behind that affects one’s beliefs in the real world. That is why there needs to be paranormal stories that contradict the expected. Especially when “Human nature likes to be afraid in the dark, and to believe in […] spectres, spiritualism, and second sight” (The Belfast News-Letter).

            Therefore, stories like Charles Dickens’s 1866 tale, No. 1 Branch Line: The Signal-man (henceforth shortened to The Signal-man), No Living Voice (1872) by Thomas Street Millington, and Mary Austin’s The Readjustment (1907), show it is possible to have ghosts that do good, while still keeping the integrity of the genre, therefore aiding in de-stigmatizing death and the afterlife, something that would have been especially important during the height of Spiritualism. Though it was not uncommon for Victorian ghost stories to include entities with no clear intent to purposefully scare those within the narrative and subsequently the reader, these three aforementioned narratives clearly show a spirit trying to aid the living, in one way or another, while simultaneously offering a unique perspective on how to do so, therefore, challenging the readers previously held views on the dead.

            Something that helps with the de-stigmatizing is having a narrative that is able to relate to a reader’s life experience with familiar events and/or settings. The Signal-man does this well, with its setting taking place along a train track and signal booth. In the Victorian era, train travel was a popular mode of transport. Unfortunately, a side effect of this was that train accidents became more common, adding to the already high mortality rate in England at the time (Hunter). This is important to note because this meant that Dickens’s The Signal-man would have been especially relevant to readers of the time. The article “Dickens's ‘The Signalman’ and Information Problems in the Railway Age” by author Norris Pope speaks on this fear: “Whether outwardly expressed or experienced subconsciously, anxieties about the perils of high-speed railway travel […] were commonplace through the mid-Victorian era” (439). Essentially, despite the usefulness and novelty of the advancements being made, people were worried about what that meant for their safety, something Dickens understood well as a survivor of a horrific train accident himself (445). In fact, they occurred so frequently, that in a three-month period, almost 50 newspaper articles were written specifically about train accidents for one paper (438). Ironically, with this story, Dickens ends up becoming much like the paranormal force trying to alert the signalman, as he attempts to warn the reader of what could go wrong if they ignore the signs (or ghosts) around them and sit idly by while things get worse.

            Conversely, though it could be argued that the ghost in Dickens’s story was a bad omen—or ultimately had a hand in the signalman’s demise by making him paranoid and desensitizing him to the calls of others—it undeniably did try and impart a message of warning to him: “The voice seemed hoarse with shouting, and it cried, ‘Look out! Look out!’ And then again ‘Halloa! Below there! Look out!’” (22). In the end, though it was the signalman’s preconceived negative understanding of ghosts that led him to a state which resulted in his untimely end, not because of any action of the ghost. With Dickens writing a Cassandra-esque ghost, he offered a different view to the reader of their purpose in this genre of story. The horror that is created in this tale is from the signalman’s biases and anxieties, not by the entity acting against him. Perhaps then if he had tried to heed the ghost, his fate would have been different. A message which many Victorians would have surely taken to heart and could have helped them understand that not all ghosts appear with an evil purpose.

            Like their living counterparts, not all ghosts are the same. Not having ‘moved on’ does not mean they have stayed to wreak havoc upon unsuspecting victims. This is a notion well illustrated in No Living Voice. Millington’s captivating narrative utilizes a ghost that, even from the grave, wants to make up for past wrongdoings and protect those who may be in trouble, something the main character himself recognizes when thinking back on what happened: “That gasping attempt to speak, and that awful groaning […] I will only say it was the means of saving my life, and at the same time putting an end to the series of bloody deeds which had been committed in that house.” In his last moments before death, the soon-to-be ghost was desperate to repent for his life as a banditti, something he obviously carried over with him into the afterlife. An unsurprising conclusion when you take into account academic Nina Auerbach’s view on the era’s interpretation of apparitions and the genre: “most Victorian ghosts were aggressively lifelike; they had little interest in sequestering themselves behind the veil, but an omnivorous hunger for the familiarity they had supposedly left behind” (277). Essentially, spectres from Victorian ghost stories are very similar to living humans in their behaviours, desires, and often, appearances. Though the reader does not see the ghost in No Living Voice—only hears it—there is a clear want of something that should supposedly only affect the living: absolution. It seems then that death does not distract one from goals set during life but makes it a chance to merely continue working on them.

            To complicate matters, the spirit was not laid to rest with a proper burial as the family was poor “and could not pay for ceremonies,” the son’s body instead being left to rot with their past victims’. This is important to take into account because during the Victorian period, “to be consigned to the anonymity of a pauper's grave was regarded as the ultimate social disgrace,” according to scholar James Walvin (355). Though he was speaking in relation to English values at the time (this story being set in Italy) it is safe to assume that most, if not all Western, Christian-influenced countries would have held similar beliefs. Therefore, the son not being properly laid to rest would have not only been a worry that many of the readers held, especially those in a similar social class but would have been seen as the ultimate slight of the father against the son, garnering sympathy for the spirit. Therefore, having a ghost who has been wronged in such a socially unacceptable way, who has its own wants and desires—just like those of any living human—helps the reader relate. With this new sympathy, or maybe even empathy attached to the spectre, it suddenly loses much of the fear associated with it. Though the way the ghost communicated may have left much to be desired, it did what it could with the power it had, helping one understand that death does not take away the essence of a person. It too wants absolution for past wrongs and a proper burial. Therefore, by Millington utilizing a ghost that maintained human cognitive characteristics, the reader can confront the notion that death, the afterlife, and all that entails, is possibly not as horrifying as is often portrayed. Instead, it is a different state in which ones’ consciousness is brought into, meaning they have not truly died, but transformed.

            If a spectre keeps their goals in the afterlife, is it possible then that they will keep their personality as well? Even though ghosts’ methods of communication may be odd or even frightening to those they are trying to reach, that does not mean their intentions are impure. Still, as previously mentioned, Victorian ghost stories often used paranormal entities as a means to generate alarm in the reader (to say the least)—something that is exemplified by works like Green Tea by Sheridan Le Fanu, The Cold Embrace by M.E. Braddon, and The Haunted and the Haunters; Or, The House and the Brain by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The former two stories, a major character is driven to death by a paranormal entity, while in the latter’s, the protagonist only survives due to his strong sense of logic and ability to remain clam, perpetuating the negative aspects normally associated with ghosts. Austin’s The Readjustment challenges these notions—that spirits hold nefarious intent—despite the way the message may be delivered. In fact, it may just be a facet of the spectre’s personality pre-death that is shining through, as is the case with Emma Jossylin. Several times characters in the story point out signs that the ghost haunting the Jossylin abode truly is Emma, despite never laying eyes on her form. As is later noted by her widower Sim: “‘Emma wouldn't come back to this place,’ Jossylin protested, ‘without she wanted something’,” leading Sim and the neighbour to discover what Emma is looking for so she will leave him be, their success letting us know that they were right in their assumptions (695).

            Akin to the son in No Living Voice, Emma also had unfinished business. According to scholar Sigrid Payne Milner in her essay “The Grim Reaper: Attitudes Toward Death in Victorian England, 1837-1902”, “Ideally all non-spiritual concerns were put aside. The everyday personalities used in the petty details of living were put off and the inner personality was unashamedly caught up in the grandeur of death” (15). Essentially, even in their last moments alive on Earth, the dying masked their true feelings in order to put on a brave face, especially “knowing that the scene would be remembered and repeated by those [they were] leaving behind” (15). This means that Emma, despite her stoic nature, would still not have had the chance to air her grievances with her husband Sim before her passing. The difference between the son’s and Emma’s unfinished business though, is that Emma’s haunting had a dual purpose. Though she wanted to get back at her husband for never sharing his feelings with her—spurring him to do just that later on—she helps him find closure while also letting him heal. In the end, Emma acted benevolently by helping a loved one she left behind—someone now truly alone after having to give away their child—something most reading could relate to on some level. In conclusion, by Austin creating a spectre that, despite her leaving things unsaid, still found a way for not only her own happiness to be known, but to help the one she left behind, whether it was inadvertently so or not. By doing this, Emma becomes more life-like and relatable in a way that makes her less of a threat or something to encourage fear, but instead, something to sympathize with. 

            Victorian ghost stories regularly employ stereotypical tropes to easily incite some sort of emotional reaction in readers, furthering one’s fear of the paranormal, and consequently, death and the afterlife. Despite these preconceived notions, these spectres do not always have heinous intentions, as exemplified in stories like Dickens’s The Signal-man, Millington’s No Living Voice, and Austin’s The Readjustment. These tales show a different side to ghosts that lessens their ability make one dwell on death and “the morbid dread and panic” that accompanies doing so (Chappell 415). By making ghosts relatable, such as adding them to situations and locations that are familiar to the reader, giving them analogous goals, and allowing them to act as human as they did while they were alive while making them compassionate to others, one can see that spirits are just living humans in a different form. Though their presence may not always be involved in the best of circumstances, their intention to help does not lose value. This is something that aids in allowing the very human fear of death and what comes after to ebb into something more manageable and less of a frightening prospect to the reader. With this in mind, though the fear of the unknown will always remain in some way, death becomes an easier to accept, natural end of a cycle that all living things must go through.

The Relatable Ghost: Redefining the Spectre and Perceptions of the Victorian Afterlife by Larissa Duggan is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0CC iconby iconnc iconsa icon

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