Andrew Dawson

October 7, 2017

No doubt it was a product of its time; the Victorians were known to be absolutely preoccupied with death. This obsession is often put down the the early widowhood of their own dear Queen, whose inability to properly grieve her husband’s loss, and the unwillingness of her family to confront her, lead to almost half a century of mourning. But it’s perhaps more important to remember not her role, but the fact that death was part of daily life for the Victorians. Like those who came before them, they had to deal with high infant mortality and low life expectancy. However, they also had to deal with rapid urbanisation, removing the structures and rituals of support and belief from many formerly rural subjects of the monarch. During this time huge new cemeteries were commissioned for the outskirts of London, replacing the small urban churchyards where the bodies were buried so deep on each other that they spilled out of the ground, over the walls, into the street. The city even boasted its own “railway of the dead”, a new line running from Waterloo to the Brockwood Cemetery in Surrey. The 'London Necropolis Railway' carried corpses and mourners far from the crowded urban environment, where rotting bodies poisoned the water supply. Victorian London was itself a Necropolis, trying to find a visual language, an urban geography, and a social framework to understand the loss of the loved.

New technology gave new ways of thinking about, and understanding, death. There’s something inherently ghostly about the photographic capture of a person’s image; they are made of light, recognisable as human form, but trapped in another dimension, incapable of communication. Both spiritualist photographers and fraudulent hucksters attempted to capture an image of a ghostly apparition. Early magic lantern shows were produced, using lighting, smoke, screens and scrims to produce horror theatre; they were known as ‘phantasmagoria’, the new and ‘sufficiently advanced’ technology being indistinguishable from the supernatural. It fed a Victorian compulsion to understand what happened after death, and provided rich new literary metaphors. When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were searching around for a metaphor to describe the powerful yet shapeless political movement they sought to name, they reached for the fashionable imagery of the time, and it was a spectre that came to haunt Europe.

This deathly habit was contemporary to the development and popularisation of the bourgeois novel as the apogee of Western literature; it’s in this section of the marathon that Warner and Thirlwell discuss at length depictions of spirits and ghosts within that tradition. They draw from 'One Thousand and One Nights', the collection of Arabic folk tales that was consumed as part of a voracious appetite for orientalisation by English writers ever since its first translation in the first years of the 18th Century. For many theorists, it was 'One Thousand and One Nights' (often known in Britain as 'Arabian Nights') that opened up new strategies of storytelling for the West, emphasising the rich internal life against the mundanity of the everyday, imagination, and, of course, the role of the spiritual and supernatural as a handy ‘deus ex machina’ in the emergent novel.

The novel’s obsession with the interior world, with the haunted imagination, with neuroses and nostalgia, created a fertile ground in which the form married with the dark underbelly of Romanticism, the gothic. Of course, Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' captured most powerfully the terror of the subconscious in relation to the emergent world that enlightenment science was building. But the metaphors of the ghost spread much more widely; from the natural terrors of isolation and colonial hauntings present in the work of the Bronte’s, or the ghostly moral superego of Dicken’s Christmas Carol, to name some obvious examples.

Another powerful example of the Victorian supernatural, now so ubiquitous it has broken free of the original literary character to become a taxonomical category of monster in its own right, is the vampire. Like most of what the Victorians did, it’s a combination of cultural theft mixed with their own industrialised and urbanised horrors and fears. The beast, emerging from Eastern Europe, brings plague and death to the port town, mirroring still present racist tropes concerning migration. But it is a revisitation of the mediaeval past upon the present, taking advantage of the bourgeois systems of commerce and production to spread its own pathogen. First finding spectral form in the UK in the writings of Bram Stoker, Dracula is neither ghost nor monster but shares many attributes of both: the practice of haunting, of immortality, of physiological grotesqueness and a bringer of death. Dracula, especially as depicted in the early expressionist film of F.W. Murnau ‘Nosferatu’, is never terrifying; he is spooky, unsettling, haunting, touching deeply our own subconscious. Perhaps one of the best depictions of the vampire is in Werner Herzog’s moving 1979 film ‘Nosferatu the Vampyre’, where the Count’s decidedly human characteristics come to the fore. Klaus Kinski portrays the vampire not as beastly or demonic, but as a figure trapped and traumatised by passionate desires so dangerous they destroy the subjects of their lust, including the vampire himself. The Count is cursed by attaining man’s historic holy grail, eternal life, whilst sexual desire renders him unable to control himself. Having brought the curse from the old feudal world the aristocrats dies, handing over his task to the quintessential figure of bourgeois blood-sucking, the estate agent. The estate agent is as violent and evil as the tyrannical aristocrat, but with none of the charm.

Warner suggests that, today, the figure of the zombie, another corruption of a stolen, powerful and nuanced folk myth, has replaced the vampire in our collective social imagination. There is, no doubt, something more modern about the figure of the zombie, although Warner points out that it is (ironically) parasitic on many of the myths of the vampire: the early zombie in South American folk culture carries none of the cannibalistic tendencies of the filmic zombie, for example. Perhaps the mechanical reanimation of the dead is more pertinent to the modern imagination than the bloody curse.

So today the supernatural obsession with the dead living amongst us continues in our modern era. As, in the past, horror and gothic were indispensable social tools to understand the conditions of the time — industrialisation, colonialism, mechanisation — we also use similar tools, horror and sci-fi, to understand our own issues — globalisation, automation, cloning etc. Time, technology and fear of the future still shape and drive our subconscious urges. Warner and Thirlwell raise another surprising example of the haunting ghost in bourgeois literature, and that’s in the work of Proust, for whom time and memory were powerful, if not overpowering, forms of haunting. But even today, we’re not above soothsayers, Warner suggests: “A good half of the news is asking people what they think will happen”. Just as the Victorians built machines to capture ghosts, so today we conjure ghosts to understand machines.